What happens when 1 Archaeovotanologist, 1 Archaeosteopathologist, 1 Prehistoric Archaeologist and me, decided to prepare a dinner in the spirit of creative anachronism on the 18th of July full moon? Well, we used our knowledge of historical and traditional Greek food, dug out Athenaeus and Roman cook books, started looking through them and… voila! A wonderful dinner with recipes coming from different periods… made by us, with a little help from husbands wives and kids.
We had pork ribs in ancient Greek way, Byzantine sausages, pea pure and ‘cheesecake’ from ancient Samos island. Oh, and a Greek salad made by the kids. Kids put their personal touch to the ‘cheesecake’ too.
Instead of a roast suckling pig, that was the first thought, we had pork ribs. They were simply rubbed with Nam Pla sauce and grilled on the barbecue. The Vietnamese Nuoc Mam or the Thai Nam Pla fish sauce can be used as an alternative to the ancient Greek garos. This sauce was one of the dominant flavours of ancient Greek and Roman cuisine and a common trade item in the Eastern Mediterranean region. It was made by mixing small fishes or the discarded parts of fish with salt and allowing them to ferment under sun. The salty, fishy liquid that was drawn off after weeks was the garos. The solid product was called alix. Garos and alix were a way to add salt in cooking and were widely used until 16th century.
We made the sausages with the help of a sausage grinder and then grilled them on the barbecue. Even if we did not cut the pork into minced meat with a knife as should have done (the grinder was introduced in 19th century), the sausages were fabulous. The recipe will be presented step by step in a next post.
The fresh peas or broad beans puree is a traditional dish from Rethymno (Crete). It is served garnished with chopped onions and sprinkled with lemon juice, virgin olive oil and freshly ground black pepper. We used a recipe given by the grandmother of one of our companions at dinner. She had grown up in Santorini but got married in Rethymno. The recipe asks for tsagala, as the unripe almonds are called, but we used blanched ones. This mashed pea dish is probably the grandmother’s personal combination of three culinary traditions. Mashed fresh peas or broad beans indicate Rethymno, capers indicate Santorini and raw almonds indicate the Minor Asian culinary heritage.
The kids made a Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, wild arugula and olives preserved in bitter orange juice. It was topped with fresh goat cheese (myzithra) and sprinkled with virgin olive oil, sea salt and homemade verjuice.
The bread was a luxury and a staple in ancient and Byzantine Greek food. We made plain unleavened bread with wheat flour, water and a pinch of salt. (We kneaded the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth, elastic and no sticky and divided it into balls. We flattened them into discs with a rolling pin.) We have an oven next to the house, however we baked the pites on a heated stone.
And last, but not least, the ‘cheesecake’. The dessert course was known to ancient Greeks as ‘second plates’. A wealthy Greek host should demonstrate his generosity and wealth with a variety of ‘second plates’ such as cakes, sweetmeats, cheese, nuts etc. Cheese was eaten by its own or served with honey or baked into all manner of cakes and pies. In ‘The Deiphosophists’, a 15-volume anthology by the Greek scholar Athenaeus (c.200 AD) from Naucratis (Egypt), there is a large collection of sweet creations and cheesecakes. The recipe of our cheesecake is found in that anthology. The making of cheese cakes and pies is characteristic of ancient Greek and Roman pastoral societies. Of course, each society developed its own recipes, according to cultural taste and period technology. Romans spread them across Europe, so the origin of modern cheesecake is grounded in these cakes. The American cheesecakes derive from the recipes that were brought to New World by the first groups of European settlers.
1/2 kilo frozen peas of fresh peas
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tb capers
1/2 cup blanched almonds, finely chopped
1/2 tsp fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 cup cucumber, finely chopped
1 ½ tb tahini
lemon juice, as much as you like
freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup virgin olive oil, or as much as you like
Fill a pan with plenty of water, add the peas together with little salt and cook them until very soft. Pour off the water and drain them well. Press them with a fork until becoming mushy and leave them aside to cool. Transfer the puree to a bowl. Add the onion, cucumber, capers, almonds, mint, tahini, olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Stir well and keep in refrigerator for at least 1 hour before serving. This puree will become a wonderful dip if you’ll try running all the ingredients through a food processor with the knife blade.
“Take some cheese and squeeze excess moisture from it, grate it, put in a bronze sieve, strain it, add honey and flour made from spring wheat and heat them together into one mass.” (Athenaeus)
1 k. soft fresh cheese well strained. We used fresh myzithra but ricotta is a good alternative to it.
½ cup of thyme honey
¾ cup of wheat flour
Put cheese, honey and flour in a bowl and stir until well mixed. Heat the mixture together into one mass. Transfer it to a plate, cool completely and serve.
The kids escaped our attention and garnished the cake with some homemade strawberry marmalade. It was not bad, however we all agree that the ancient recipe tastes better.