Lead poisoning in the ancient world

Lead is one of the seven metals known in ancient times. It has been mined and used by man since at least the 4th millennium BC. But, it is very toxic. When the body is exposed to lead, it can act as a poison. However, Greeks and Romans found that when they coated the interior of the copper or bronze cooking pots with lead,  most of the food they prepared tasted better. This is evident in the preparation of wines. Grape must was boiled in lead -lined vessels in order to prepare a thick liquid that would enhance the color and  taste of wine and preserve it from spoiling. 

Below are a few links to pieces which I think are well worth reading. 
I hope you find them as interesting  as I did.

Lead and wine. Eberhard Gockel and the colica Pictonum


Ancient bread- baking method

My new baby, patiently waiting for me.

2013-06-07 12.56.00 (Small)

My baby is a replica of a5th century pnigeus, a portable earthenware oven. Its name comes from the verb πνίγω, to choke, strangle.

 Hippo, a presocratic Greek philosopher,  said that the heavens were like the dome of an oven ( πνιγεύς) covering the Earth. In Clouds, Aristophanes illustrated the cosmos of the school of Socrates as a domed pnigeus: “There is a Thinkery of wise minds. There dwell men who argue and persuade that the 
sky is an oven-lid which is above us and that we are the coals.”
The pnigeus is heated by hot coals put on the floor; when it is hot enough, the coals are moved and the dough loaves are placed on the warm floor. After they have been covered with the dome-shaped lid, the coals are gathered on its side.

Oh yes, I can’t wait to try it. 


A forgotten flavour

“Cabbage should be cut up with a very sharp iron knife, then washed and drained. A sufficient quantity of coriander and rue should be cut up together with cabbage; then sprinkle with oxymeli and grate on top just a little bit of asafoetida.” 
Mnesitheus’ “Cabbage in the style of Athens”(4th c. BCE) is quoted by Oribasius, physician to the emperor Julian in the fourth century AD (Medical Collections, Book IV, Chapter 4, part 1)

This is a wonderful salad that I have made many times. Oxymeli is a mixture of  honey and vinegar made by simmering  honey until it foams, adding enough vinegar to make it neither too sharp nor too sweet and boiling again.
The interesting taste comes from the blue- green leaves of rue (ruta graveolens), a bitter herb with strong smell which is not exactly pleasant but its leaves go wonderful with meat, cheese and acidic flavours. Certain herbs with bitter taste such as rue were used in ancient Greek cooking, most of them are rejected in our days though. 

Τhe wild form has even more disagreeable smell than the garden rue

A month ago I bought a rue plant and grow it in my garden

Among the ancient Greeks the plant was highly esteemed also as a medicine, an antidote to poisons and a herb to protect one from witchcraft. Ancient Greeks mentioned it as peganon [πήγανον], a name still used in modern Greek as apiganos [απήγανος]. Its Latin name, ruta, comes from the Greek rheô, which means “to flow, to run as water , an appropriate name for a plant that was not only an emmenagogue but could rid the body from a number of diseases too.

However,  rue is toxic in large doses so should only be used in small quantities and should not ever be taken by pregnant women since it can induce  abortions.


Mixing the kykeon*

One of the intriguing mysteries of ancient Greece is what is the nature of the nourishing, medicinal, magical and potentially dangerous drink that is known as kykeon.

Kykeon made for “A gastronomic journey back in time” 
(On Saturday, 6th of October I created a dinner for the Friends of Museum and Archaeological site of Delphi. The menu was inspired by tastes from homeric to modern times)
photo by Stella Drimiskianaki

In the eleventh rhapsody of Iliad the “fair-curled Hecamede prepared a mixture, she whom the old man had brought from Tenedos, when Achilles laid it waste, the daughter of magnanimous Arsinoüs, whom the Greeks selected for him, because he surpassed all in counsel. First she set forward for them a handsome, cyanus-footed, well-polished table; then upon it a brazen tray, and on it an onion, a relish  for the draught, as well as new honey, and beside it the fruit of sacred corn. Likewise a splendid cup near them, which the old man had brought from home, studded with golden nails. Its handles were four, and around each were two golden pigeons feeding, and under it were two bottoms. Another indeed would have removed it with difficulty from the table, being full; but aged Nestor raised it without difficulty. In it the woman, like unto the goddesses, had mixed for them Pramnian wine, and grated over it a goat’s-milk cheese with a brazen rasp, and sprinkled white flour upon it: then bade them drink, as soon as she had prepared the potion.”
Kykeon in this case was used to nourish Nestor’s tired friends  and the wounded Machaon, the son of Asclepius~ the god of healing.  (Iliad 11 ver. 635 – 641).
However, in the tenth book of the Odyssey, Circe the witch makes a kykeon spiced up with dangerous herbs and honey for Odysseus’ companions. The influence of the drink transformed them into swines (Odyssey, 10 ver. 230-240).

At the end of the 7th century a recipe for kykeon without wine  appeared in the Homeric hymn to Demeter, where it provides the myth for the consumption of kykeon at the Eleusinian mysteries.
“She (Demeter) asked instead for barley and water to drink mixed with tender leaves of glechon. Metaneira made the potion and gave it to the goddess as she had asked; and great Deo received the potion as the precedent for the Mystery. (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, line 207 ff; in Wasson et al. 1998, 74) Glechon or blechon is the ancient Greek name for the pennyroyal (Mentha palegium).

A recipe for glechon kykeon is also found in the Diseases of Women II, in the chapter on the red flux:

“If (the flux) is pungent, give a kykeon: let there be a portion of the previous remedy, one of cheese, one of barley meal. Towards the evening, add some honey and give to drink.” The previous remedy was made with moss from the olive tree, oak gall, rue, oregano, glechon, barley meal, ground mixture of pulses and goat’s cheese.
Both recipes includ barley meal and glechon and both have to be taken while fasting
Barley groats (alfita), water and glechon were also the elements for the Eleusinian kykeon:
“On the fifth day of the festival (19 Boedromion) the celebrants would proceed in formal procession from Athens back to Eleusis, bearing the sacred hiera as well as a statue of the boy-god Iacchos. The latter deity, who personified the shouts of exultation that the participants would periodically emit, was identified at least as far back as the days of Sophokles with Dionysos (cf. Antigone, vv. 1115 ff.). This identificiation constitutes prima facie evidence of a very significant connection between the Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries…..
The initiates would then rest, purify themselves, and maintain either a partial or complete fast. It is believed that they would break their fast as evening approached by drinking a special beverage known as the “kykeon,” consisting of meal and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves (the same brew that Demeter drank, as recounted in the Hymn, lines 210-11). Obviously, the grain in the drink was a symbol of Persephone, the eternal goddess who dies, goes under the ground, and then comes back to life again.

Scholars disagree widely over the significance of the kykeon. Some have maintained that it must have had a sacramental character involving a communion with, or assimilation of, the spirit of the deity (Loisy 69; Jevons 365ff.). On the other hand, Mylonas doubts that it had any such “mystic” significance, although he acknowledges that the drinking of the kykeon was an “act of religious remembrance” involving “an observance of an act of the Goddess” (259f.). Even on this muted interpretation, the similarity to the Christian Eucharist is striking.” The Eleusinian Mysteries

Some scholars have proposed that the power of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from the use of a psychoactive drug in kykeon; because alfita, water and glechon were the elements publicly announced and not part of the secret. In the Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hoffman, and Carl A. P. Ruck suggested that the ergot species Claviceps purpurea- which contains LSA, a precursor to LSD-  was the probable psychoactive ingredient of the kykeon. Their theory remains controversial although the Mixing the Kykeon, from the pages of ELEUSIS: Journal of Psychoactive Plants and Compounds, New Series 4, 2000, describes in much detail the chemical process of mixing an alkali with ergot alkaloids to produce a much less toxic product: “Hypotheses advanced in The Road to Eleusis  concerning the possible composition and method of preparation of the kykeon are evaluated in light of published criticism. Objections to the Eleusis theory are countered, and based on a largely overlooked aspect of the chemical hydrolysis of ergot alkaloids, a new hypothesis is suggested that reinvigorates the  Eleusis debate. In part 2 of this essay, organic chemist Daniel M. Perrine provides further considerations that build upon the new idea, and a technical discussion of the practicality and realisability of the “Ergine Hypothesis” paves the way for new chemical and psychopharmacological research. In part 3, co-author of The Road to Eleusis Carl A. P. Ruck re-examines the Eleusis mythologies and ritual practises from which appear a much expanded understanding of the entheo-pharmacology of the ancient world”.

Of course
you can always attempt to make a glass of homeric kykeon.  

The name itself is a clue; kykeon comes from the verb kykao, which means “stirring”, “churning”.
Another clue comes from Homer, who characterised the mixture as sitos, ‘cereal food’, always it is drunk though. The twelfth century archbishop of ThessalonikiEustathius  says that kykeon was something between food and drink; “perhaps, it was a sort of soup that you could sup”  (Eusth. 870. 65 ει και μεταξύ βρωτού και ποτού ο κυκεών είναι δοκεί, αλλά μάλλον οία ζωμός τις ροφητός ην”)
These suggest that the resulting mixture was something  like a thick soup. 
Besides, the  late fourth or early fifth century grammarian and lexicographer Hesychius of Alexandria equates ptisane with kykeon. (Hesychius, Lexicon. Kykeon) This is not a surprise since  ptisane was made from hulled and roasted barley groats and kykeon was made from roasted and ground barley.
However, in spite of the fact that Homer suggests that the consistency of kykeon depends upon the continuation of stirring, if you’ll add some roasted and ground barley meal to wine, grate goat’s milk cheese over it and stir constantly you will definitely not have a thick drink.  Moreover, the resulting mixture is not very pleasant to modern palate.

Everytime I make kykeon for a historical dinner I mix a portion of wine with roasted barley meal, grated firm goat cheese and honey and simmer for a few minutes stirring constantly. Then I remove from heat, let cool, add some more wine to thin and stir again. The taste is pleasant and here is a third clue; Homer said that Hecamede used Pramnian wine.  Eparchides (3rd century b.C. apud Athenaios Deipnosophists, 1.30 b-e) says that Pramnian wine was produced in the island of Icaria, on the mount Pramnos. This wine was so dry and of such exceeding strenght that, according to Aristophanes,  Athenians didn’t enjoy it.   Galen describes it as “black and austere wine” (οἶνός τις οὕτως ὀνομαζόμενος μέλας καὶ αὐστηρός) and this quality may have suggested the etymology proposed by  Eustathius and others, from παραμένειν, because of its ability to mature.
Therefore, choose  a dry, austere and crisp red wine. Barley meal,  goat cheese and thyme honey not only act as a stimulant to drinking but also sweeten and balance the taste of wine. 

*The title is borrowed from “Mixing the Kykeon“,  ELEUSIS: Journal of Psychoactive Plants and Compounds, New Series 4, 2000.

Traditional foods of Greece: hyacinth bulbs.

Yes, I am a bulb eater.
And yes, wild blue hyacinth is my favorite bulb.
Not feeling the enthousiasm?

File:Wild Hyacinth (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus) - geograph.org.uk - 801268.jpg

The bitter taste of  bulbs (muscari comosum, Gr. volvoi) is much appreciated in Greece ever since classical times. They also had a good reputation as an aphrodisiac amongst ancient Greeks and Byzantines.

If you come across them in the farmer’s market, please buy them! It is really worth it to try them out. Clean them and if they are big cut a cross in the root base of each of them. Leave them for 2 seconds- 2 minutes in boiling water (the boiling time depends on their size). Then put them in a large bowl of water. Change the water every 3 hours for one day and one night.   Drain the bulbs in a colander,  put them in a jar, add some peppercorns and cover with good quality wine vinegar.
Serve them with virgin olive oil and garnish with chopped spring onions and dill or with chopped fresh garlic and mint. Their mildly bitter taste makes a truly wonderful combination with those flavorings.

In Crete, where you find a plethora of dishes based on foraged wild plants and roots, volvoi are cooked together with lamb, pork, snails octopus or cuttlefish.

But of all bulb recipes I have ever made, there is one really favourite that was worth my effort to set up its proportions. Philemon, the comic poet, suggests this preparation of bulbs in Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus: “Look, if you please, at the bulb, and see what lavish expense it requires to have its reputation — cheese, honey, sesame-seed, oil, onion, vinegar, silphium. Taken by itself alone it is poor and bitter.” Homemade goat cheese, thyme honey and a pinch of asafoetida powder, virgin olive oil, homemade wine vinegar, onion, sesame seeds and slightly bitter bulbs make something truly memorable.



Meal inspired by ancient Greek recipes at Thetis Authentics. It was perfectly matched the specific technologically authentic reproductions of ancient ceramic artefacts made by Thetis.

Black glazed ceramic pyxis (=box) with lid. Leaves and a sprig of myrtle decorate the lid. (Attic Workshop, 4th c.BC.) Ancient Greek pyxis may have served as a container for small objects, such as jewelry and toiletrie.

Black glazed plates, red glazed plate and a black glazed skyphos (drinking cup). 

It was not proper serving etiquette at an ancient lunch to serve food in drinking cups and jewelry boxes but  is permissible at a modern one. Besides, the foods looked so pretty in them.


On the 15th of December, I explored at Avocado Vegan Restaurant some appetizing vegetarian dishes relying primarily on the writings of Athenaeus. Though established centuries before the introduction of the tomato, pepper, potato and eggplant, ancient Greek everyday food depended on some elements familiar to modern Greek cuisine: cereals, legumes, wild greens, vegetables, herbs, olives, cheese, nuts, seeds, olive oil and honey.
The recipes I made were adapted for use in today’s kitchen environment.

Peas cooked with leeks and dill. Celery leaves in boiling water. Both, water and leaves, were poured over bulgur.

Many thanks to Avocado’s chef. His help was invaluable.

Serving myttotos, the ancient Greek sauce, made from leeks, garlic (of course), cheese and olive oil. On the left side you see sowthistles and beetroot leaves sprinkled with olive oil and verjuice. In the white bowl: pickled radishes and bulbs sprinkled with honey, vinegar, sesame, cheese and asafoetida.

Starting clockwise from the top center. Fava (Lathyrus clymenum) with pomegranate seeds, onion and olive oil. Peas with leeks. Mushrooms in honey and vinegar. Chickpeas with fresh coriander and cumin. In the center, bulgur.

Gastris, made from sesame seeds, toasted ground almonds and hazelnuts, poppy seeds, honey and black pepper.

The Avocado’s lovely helpers