Tasting Greek cuisine in the shadows of the ruins of ancient civilizations was a perfect metaphor for all that we have learned about the influence of the Ancient Greek Civilization (2500-200 B.C.) on modern Greek food culture. Throughout this trip, I have been observing, cooking, tasting, and living components of the Mediterranean Lifestyle while visiting the remains of the civilization that developed it. Here’s a little bit about what I’ve learned:
What is the Mediterranean Lifestyle?
The Mediterranean Lifestyle is a holistic set of eating patterns and health-promoting behaviors that have been shown to improve physical, mental, and social health, since the population in this region has been statistically proven to be healthier and live longer. By abiding by the principle of “everything in moderation”, those who adapt this way of life adapt positive behaviors and avoid negative behaviors.
Principles of the Mediterranean Lifestyle include:
- Increased consumption of olive oil, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds.
- Moderate consumption of poultry, fish, seafood, and dairy (esp. cheese and yogurt).
- Decreased consumption of red meat.
- Low to moderate consumption of wine accompanying convivial meals.
- Serving sizes based on frugality, moderation, and local practices.
- Physical activity (about 30 minutes/day) with others that is part of your daily routine, such as taking the stairs, cleaning the house, walking as transportation.
- Conviviality and socialization.
- Adequate rest (7-8 hours/night) and effective stress relief.
- Selecting foods based on seasonality, locality, and sustainability.
What did the ancient Greeks eat?
In the words of Hippocrates, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Because of their emerging fields of medicine and philosophy, ancient Greeks valued good nutrition because they believed it was essential for physical and mental health.
The ancient Greeks had three meals per day: breakfast (akratismos), lunch (ariston), and dinner (deipnon) with two courses, a starchy appetizer (sitos) and the main course (opson). At times, an additional late afternoon meal was eaten (hesperisma).
The three fundamental components of the Greek diet were bread, wine, and olive oil. The principles of convivial eating and exercising were also considered very important in ancient times. Locality and sustainability of food choices was out of geographic and economic necessity, as well as pride in the community.
Bread: Because the ancient Greeks’ desired to portray themselves as a civilized people, they recognized the power in determining their own eating habits and valued the ability to transform the earth through agriculture. Instead of relying on the variable barbaric cultivation techniques of hunting and gathering, the Greeks farmed the land and utilized some of the first food processing techniques in order to appear civilized through a more complex food system. Food that was not naturally available but required some type of man-made process became a mark of a civilized culture.
Wine: According to archaeologists, containers for drinking wine (called kraters) were shaped to facilitate easy mixing of wine and water. The ancient Greeks never drank undiluted wine, as they believe drinking wine straight and acting drunk was barbaric, uncivilized behavior. Plutarch manuscripts mention that the perfect ratio for diluting wine was one part wine to three parts water! Wine was not drunk with meals, but at all-male symposiums.
Olive Oil: Olive oil was the main contributor of fat in Greek cookery, as it is used for the preparation of almost all food on the table of the ancient Greeks. Because olive oil is a lipid and is, therefore, high in calories, this dietary component provided energy to support labor. Energy provided by olive oil initiated the construction of the Parthenon, fueled athletes in the first Olympic games, helped develop the concept of democracy, and nourished other remarkable achievements during this period.
Low Consumption of Meat: In order to uphold a civilized image and out of practicality, meat consumption was low in ancient Greece. Rare occurrences of meat consumption occurred during religious rituals, where animals were slaughtered at the Parthenon. The sacrificial animal meat was barbecued and shared among the devout worshipers, then the inedible remains were left on the altar as an offering. Because of this ritual, barbecuing became such an important cultural aspect that the long rods used for roasting the meat (spits) were soon used as currency. When it became too inconvenient for citizens to trade long rods, the metal was cut into smaller, more convenient slices- a precursor to modern coins. When meat was consumed, pork was the most popular type, followed by lamb and beef.
Dairy: Dairy consumption was relatively low. Milk was only prescribed as a medicine and it was usually derived from goats and sometimes bovine. Dairy was mainly consumed as cheese and was usually derived from sheep. Butter was not eaten often, as it was considered to be barbaric.
Fish: Although fish and shellfish were not the products of human processing, fishing was considered sophisticated enough to justify the integration of the abundant food into the ancient Greek diet.
Fruit & Vegetables and Legumes, Nuts, & Seeds: Because most people in ancient Greece were vegetarian by choice, they obtained many nutrients, particularly protein, from these sources. Fruits were primarily eaten, fresh or dried, as a dessert. #FoodSciOrDie Fun Fact: Pythagoras taught his followers to avoid beans- perhaps he didn’t like the smell of farts!
Sweets: Honey was used as the main sweetener, typically in its natural form of honeycomb. Magical properties had been attributed to honey and it was also used in medicines, for wound dressing, and to stem bleeding.
Cooking Methods: The most common cooking methods during this period were boiling, frying (in olive oil), simmering, stewing over wood-burning fires,grilling, and baking in wood burning ovens. Food was preserved via smoking, drying, salting, and in syrups and fat. When archaeologists discover artifacts from an ancient kitchen, they often scrape samples from the cooking surfaces in order to deduce the types of cooking methods used and food prepared.
How did ancient dietary habits shape the modern Mediterranean Lifestyle?
The modern Mediterranean diet is considered to be extremely similar to the ancient Greek diet. Dietary patterns are characterized by minimal consumption of meat, the use of olive oil as the main lipid source, high intake of produce and grains, and moderate intake of fish and alcohol.
The few changes in Greek food culture have occurred over time due to cultural interactions with other nations and advancements in agriculture and food processing technology. Increased accessibility to imports resulted in the increased importance of coffee, sugar, and spices after Alexander the Great’s expedition. Improved agricultural technologies resulted in the introduction of tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, and spinach into Greek cuisine. Improved food processing technologies resulted in increased production of olive oil. Dairy is consumed mainly in the forms of cheese and yogurt.
By learning about the Mediterranean Lifestyle in the Mediterranean, surrounded by its historical origins, I believe the principles of this lifestyle will resonate with me more and I believe they will be easier to adapt upon my return home- wish me luck!