EDIBLE HISTORY #2~ GOING BYZANTINE: THE DINNER

THE KOMNENIAN PERIOD

In 1081 the Komnenian dynasty was established on the Byzantine throne. Five emperors from this family ruled for 128 years, trying to restore the military, economic and political power of the Byzantine Empire, trying to reassess the Byzantine position in the eastern Mediterranean after the 1st Crusade and playing a balance -of- power game between east and west. Μoreover, the cultural impact of Βyzantium on the west and the lands around the E. Mediterranean Sea  was enormous. This period is usually called Κomnenian renaissance and was the last period of prosperity in Byzantium.

THE SOCIETY & THE FOOD

However, the majority of Byzantine population, the peasants, became poorer because the ambitious foreign policy was not only based on large cash reserves but also on intolerable fiscal pressure on Byzantine taxpayers.

11th-century-peasants-in-byzantine_vineyard

11th century peasants in vineyard.

On the other hand, the empire  became a family institution and the only access to the emperor was mediated by his family. The Komnenoi rulers benefited the monasteries and the military aristocratic elite that was intermarried with them with fiscal privileges and extensive lands.

By the 11th and 12th century the properties of large landowners consisted of large estates and entire villages.  The continuing population increase- with human numbers rising in cities – increased the demand for food. This means that the landowners increased the areas under cultivation and since the development of cities and big part of the trade depended on rural population’s production, they pressed the peasants in order to produce more and more.

anna radine, aristocrat of the 12th-century

Anna Radine, aristocrat of 12th century

As the capital of a powerful and rich empire, Constantinople was a bustling city of  a population from 100.000 to 500.000 people, centre of the domestic and foreign trade of the Byzantine state.* Grain, wine, salt, meat, cheese, vegetables and fruits flowed from the provinces  into its markets. From the 9th until the late 12th century the capital was also a most important entrepôt of the eastern and northern luxury trade. Spices and high -luxury foods (like black caviar) were imported.

merchants, Cynegetica

Merchants on a boat. Early 11th century, Cynegetica.

Of course, luxury foods were cherished so dearly by both poor and rich, though only the wealthy landowners, the officials of the state and church and the rich members of the new urban middle class, the “mesoi”, could afford them. The “mesoi” were for the most part traders, craftsmen and businessmen and bankers but some of them made a considerable fortune and enjoyed their purchasing power demanding fine quality foods.**For a wealthy merchant the entry into elite was the ideal. Where this was impossible  he emulated the tastes of the aristocrats,  food included.

IN A FEW WORDS

If the hagiographers of 11th and 12th century maintained the traditional ideal of fasting, less conservative sources give a wealth of information about both the increased interest on eating and the greater availability of foodstuffs. The variety of vegetables, fruits and condiments- black pepper, caraway, honey, olive oil, vinegar, salt, mushrooms, celery, leeks, lettuce,  chicory, spinach, turnips, eggplant, cabbage, white beets, almonds, pomegranates, nuts, apples, lentils, raisins, etc. -listed as food of the poor of Constantinople by  Prodromοs (d. c. 1166, Poèmes prodr. nο.2.38-45) mirrors both the interest on good eating and the availability of dishes. Of course above all,  the food in Constantinople of Komnenoi existed as a synthesis of what had gone before, but a synthesis enriched by new ingredients and many innovations.

THE “BYZANTINE DINNER” MENU (Edible history project)


MENU
of the rich

sfungaton (spongy omelette)

apaki

wine flavoured pork liver

rabbit cooked with red wine and spikenard

roast pork basted with a mixture of vinegar and honey

silignites, a very white wheat bread

rice and honey pudding

quince spoon sweet

konditon

thassorofon

MENU
of the poor

capers  in honey – vinegar sauce

black olives with mustard seeds

braised endives with garos and olive oil

cabbage with garos, olive oil and vinegar

fava made with black-eyed beans served with vinegar and honey

different kinds of bread made with inferior grains or legumes

THE DETAILS

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Clockwise from top left: silignites, the whitest wheat bread (The most expensive form of white bread was katharos artos and was divided into two categories, silignites and semidalites. The former was made with a very finely ground wheat flour.); semidalites; ryparos artos is whole meal bread; whole meal breads made from a mix of barley and durum wheat; rye bread.

Bread held a very important part in the Byzantine diet. Its role was so important that the guilt of  bakers of Constantinople and their animals were never used by the state  in order to prevent any interruption of the baking of the bread (Book of Eparch, 9th century).

The wealthy ate very good quality wheat bread which was contrasted sharply with the low quality bread that was consumed by the poor and peasants.

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Whole meal bread that was made with barley and wheat flour and was baked directly on  hot stone.

 

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Mashed black -eyed beans ( fava) with vinegar and honey; black olives with mustard seeds

(Ethnos newspaper, 29/01/2011 p.24.  Article on the Edible History project)

Legumes were a common source of protein for the peasants, the poor and monks. In most cases they were boiled twice with a change of  liquid. Olives, vegetables, cheese and eggs played a major part in the diet of lower classes. Vegetables were eaten both raw and cooked. Byzantines did not differentiate between them and herbs. Though vegetable gardens existed almost in all cities in great numbers,  much of what we know of Byzantine condiments and “luxury” flavorings (e.g.,  crocus etc.)  remained products of the country dwellers.

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Roast pork basted with a mixture of vinegar and honey

Given the location of Constantinople, its habitants  were  piscivores. However, in the 11th and 12 century  meat consumption increased. Pork and sheep or goats were the most widely consumed meats. Young and tender animals were often broiled or roasted. Feet and offal, such as tripe, were cooked by the poor.  Hares,  gazelles of Anatolia and wild asses were among the favourite game.

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Apaki

Apokti ( salted and dried meat, a forerunner of pasturma) and apaki (a vinegar- cured and smoked pork meat) are two Byzantine innovations.

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Rice cooked in goat milk and thyme honey

Spoon sweets and  various prepared Greek “puddings” trace their roots to Byzantine years. The increasing availability of rice and sugar (sakhar), thanks to Arabs, enriched Byzantine cooking and confectionary.

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Konditon was a wine flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and spikenard.   It known by its Latin name (conditum).

In 11th century, a remarkable range of aromatics known as perfumes and medicines begun to belong to the spice panoply of Byzantium: spikenard, gum, benzoine, chamomile etc.

A daily glass of konditon strong in spikenard was recommended in March.

Apart the church calendar with its numerous  fast days, dietitians too had a considerable  influence on the Byzantine diet. They wrote about the correct choice of dish and ingredients on particular season, weather and time of day. While no recipes are given, dietary texts are excellent sources of Byzantine gastronomy. However they don’t allow us to reconstruct Byzantine dishes.

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Thassorofon,

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a sweet drink made by grounding  peeled Thassian almonds with water in a mortar….

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and strained the resultant liquid.

*However, from the 13th century control of the Byzantine capital’s commercial activity progressively passed into the hands of Western merchants, particularly Italians.

** A common place of  12th century literature is the resentment of struggling of schoolteachers and scholars against wealthy but uneducated merchants.

ΓΙΑ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΑ ΕΔΩ

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3 thoughts on “EDIBLE HISTORY #2~ GOING BYZANTINE: THE DINNER

  1. I wish I was there to enjoy all these beautiful treats Marianna. I am sure you had a great time. I also enjoyed the historical background you gave in your post. We live to learn all the time.

  2. We live to learn, indeed… αλλά ίσως να μπορέσω να κάνω κάτι παρόμοιο για μερικούς φίλους στο σπίτι μου, Κατερίνα μου. Αν γίνει θα επικοινωνήσω μαζί σου.

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