Cured lean pork – a Byzantine tradition.

In his lettter to Alexios Pantechnes, Ioannis Tzetzes,  a 12th century Byzantine scholar, thanks him for his gifts which were spices and a living partridge, adding that he preferred slaughtered animals to alive ones, because he could not suffer seeing blood from slaughterd animals. But, if Alexios would like to send him meat he should send meat prepared by cooks or preserved or fresh meat drained out of blood.

Generally the consumption of fresh meat on a large scale was a priviledge enjoyed by the wealthy Byzantines. For poor people like Tzetzes fresh meat was a luxury. Thus, he relied mainly on eggs, dairy products, legumes, cheap part of meat and taricha (processed fish and meat) for protein.

Pork appears to have been the most popular source for preserved meat.

Since pork produces meat and more pork, and in an extremely crowded city like Constantinople pigs were raised even in houses, preservation was the only effective solution to protect meat for an extended period and store food to one side….

….if people didn’t want to sell the living piglets.

In another letter, Ioannis Tzetzes describes his housing conditions. He lived on the second floor of an apartment in Constantinople while on the third a priest lived together with his children and piglets.  Tzetzes couldn’t do anything against the endless suffering of the flood of urinating children and piglets. Obviously, the priest not only raised and sold pigs but he cured their meat too.

How was meat preserved in Byzantine times? Salting was the most common technique. Salt was also used in conjunction with sun–drying and, less frequently, with smoking.


Et voila!

This is apaki, salted and -optionally- smoked  lean pork, which is  very popular in Crete until nowadays. The 12th century Ptochoprodromos’s satire provides a testimony on it. The poet had found his father cooking a piece of slightly salted apaki which was well covered with fat.

I  salted my apaki and 30 days later  I  smoked it at 100 C for 10 hours,  using olive wood together with oregano, marjoram, thyme and sage for smoke. The meat shrinked.  Excellent stuff though.



This piece has been cured in salt and vinegar mixture for 48 hours (a popular technique in Crete). Sage and thyme added their flavor to the meat. Then I patted dry the meat and I smoked it  with apricot wood.  Marvelous taste!!



This one has been left in wine vinegar for 3 days.
I am going to cover it with a thick layer of salt and black pepper. No smoke. And yes, I am curious about its taste.

You can add apaki to omelets, legumes, pulses, vegetables, salads, or  just cook it for 6-7 minutes in orange juice and you’ll have a delicous meze for raki and  a great companion to pasta and rice.






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.


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 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.


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)

of the rich

sfungaton (spongy omelette)


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



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



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.



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


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.


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.



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


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.


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.




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


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.




On Saturday, January 15, I will give you a glimpse into the diet of the rich and poor of Constantinople in Komninoi times (11th – 12th century AD).

The menu includes, among others:

~ Condyto: a spiced wine

~ Rabbit in wine and spikenard sauce

~ Pork in vinegar and honey sauce

~ Fava made with black eyed beans

~Capers in honey-vinegar sauce

~Olives served with sinapis

~ Braised endives served with olive oil and garos (fish sauce)

~ Silignites, the whitest wheat bread

~Pita-bread baked on hot stone

~ Rice and honey pudding

~Quince sweet spoon

~Almond sherbet

Please make the reservations until 13th of January. tel: 210 6207824.
Evmaros Cultural Associaton~ 26, Fokidos st., 11526 Athens




Geoponica” lists various methods for curing olives…  My second olive -experiment was olives preserved in honey… in two types of honey, actually. 1 kilo of almost ripe olives was cured in thyme honey and 400 grams were stored  in  “bitter” monofloral honey of strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo).

No aromatic seeds and leaves were added… but yes, I cut the olives around with a razor blade, sprinkled the same fine salt over them and  4 days later I poured them into the honey…  Yes, storage temperature was the same for all  olive fruits,  however, these ones were totally different from the olives cured in petimezi , which were a complete disaster.  Three months later, the honey treated olives  had a firm crunchy flesh and their nutty, salty taste was a nice complement to the strong taste of  honey.

In my opinion, the honey of strawberry tree works best on olives, though  both ancient Greeks and Byzantines preferred thyme honey …  I was amazed by the  outstanding flavor and the nice hit of bitterness.  Stunning result!

Olives cured in honey go perfect with cheese…. I could not resist the temptation to cook with them, though. Things that we think of as sweet go so well with cephalopods , so I used the olives to make  a filling and sauce for stuffed calamari (squid).




For the filling and sauce I used 30 medium sized  olives cured in honey, pitted and roughly chopped (or 1/2 cup raisins), mixed with 1 large onion (finely chopped), 2 cups of spinach (roughly chopped), 2/3 cup of wild fennel (chopped), salt and pepper.

I  stuffed 1 kg  small fresh, cleaned calamari  with the  filling, leaving a little room for it to expand.   I combined the remaining mixture with 300 gr chopped tomatoes and  1 tbs tomato paste and sautéed it with 4 tbs olive oil. I placed the squids in a casserole  and I  added the sauce, 1/2 – 3/4 cup of virgin olive oil, 4 tbs mavrodapne and water to cover. I covered the casserole and let simmer over low heat for about 45- 60 minutes,  until squid was tender.


How to clean the squid, here



Olives on Foodista




Geoponica* make it clear that this should be the best compound of olives.
So, I followed the instructions and I used 2 kilos of large ripe olives gathered with the hand.
I cut them around with a razor blade (no, i didn’t use a sharp reed), threw them into a clay pot and sprinkled very fine salt over them.
When salt was dissolved ( it took 4 days) I had some sapa** in readiness in another clay jar.
I added citron leaves, seeds of wild fennel, carnabadium (ethiopic cumin), parsley seeds and seeds of dill and I poured the olives into the flavored, “syruped” grape must. The sapa covered them.
I put a plate on top of the olives to be sure they stay submerged and I sealed the jar. I stored it in the depths of a cool pantry, among several jars with olives preserved with ancient and old fashioned methods.
But things stored at the back can get forgotten….
Yes, I forgot that jar.
5 months later, I found it in the darkness of the almost empty pantry.
The aroma of cumin and fennel hit my nose as soon as I opened it, dill and parsley were barely noticable.
But the taste of the olives was unpleasantly salty- sweet and the texture was mushy and very, very soft … bliah.
Where did recipe go wrong?
Any suggestions are more than welcome.

*Cassianus Bassus is a late 6th – early 7th century author, whose “Eclogae de re rustica” is a compilation of agricultural literature drawing heavily on the work of another Greek compiler, Vindonius Anatolius (4th century). Bassus’ collection was revised by a 10th century unknown Byzantine author under the title Geoponica, in honor of the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus. (XXVIII, Geoponika: Agricultural Pursuits by Thomas Owen 1805-06).

**Sapa: grape must, boiled over a slow fire until it had been reduced to 1/3; petimezi.

Olives on Foodista