They were well into flavours these ancient Greeks. Even a basic food-cum-energy drink for peasants and workers called kykeon, which sounds like a thin porridge made from barley, was flavoured with herbs, mint being a favourite, cheese and sweetened with honey. Those who delve into such things think this is a close equivalent:
¾ cup (120 gr.) semolina
375 gr. grated goat’s cheese
2 spoons honey
1 small beaten egg
Herbs of preference to individual taste
Cover semolina with cold water and soak for 10-15 minutes. When soft, remove or add water to a drinkable consistency, add ricotta cheese, honey and beaten egg and stir to blend. Heat to drinking temperature. Do not boil.
Or you could experiment with watery oatmeal porridge and different herbs and sweeteners to find one you like.
But it wasn’t only for workers. There were many variants including one reputed to have psychoactive properties that lifted celebrants of the Eleusinian Mysteries onto that mystic plane.
It’s said that the cuisine in Ancient Athens was pretty basic and, to be sure, the poorer classes probably continued to survive on bread and porridge – and stews when they were lucky. But with the coming of wealth from military conquests and tribute from the empire, and maybe the arrival of skilled chefs from the cities of Asia Minor liberated from the Persians, cookery became more sophisticated at least for the wealthy classes even before the time of Alexander. They had homegrown herbs and trade with the whole known world brought in most of the spices we know, so they used basil, parsley, thyme, mint coriander, cumin, dill and many more.
Cooking was done in the home, even for a dinner party (men only), when a skilled chef would be hired in. Using clay ovens and charcoal and wood fires, pottery and iron pots and pans, they would prepare a range of dishes for up to 14 guests. It was these chefs who developed the fancy recipes to the level where cooking was prized as an artform and the chef held the patent to each new recipe for a year before it could be copied. They created the techniques of our own cuisine and delighted in combining flavours. The dishes prepared, at other times, for the family by the wife or a slave would be less sophisticated.
Ancient Greek Mullet
3 large or 6 small red mullets
2 handfuls of fresh herbs finely chopped such as thyme, mint, coriander, marjoram, parsley, rosemary
3 soupspoons olive oil
juice of one lemon
Clean and prepare fish. Mix oil, half of lemon juice and herbs. Spread mixture in belly cavity and over outside of fish. Grill fish for 4-10 minutes each side, depending on size, sprinkling with lemon juice, until flesh comes away from bone easily. Serve hot with salad.
Meat was relatively rare, except at times when a goat or a sheep had been sacrificed to the gods (weddings, funerals and religious festivals). The main protein was fish – a bell was rung in the market when the day’s catch arrived from the harbour, with a rush to buy while still fresh, and the fishmongers were forbidden to sprinkle water on to make the fish look fresher than they were). A common cooking ingredient was a stock made from fish heads called garos.
Their taste buds seem to have enjoyed a wider range than ours and they would combine – sweet and sour or savoury – and were fond of a herb called rue which is very bitter. And they certainly had a sweet tooth, enjoying honey cakes and biscuits. Here for instance, is a recipe for honeyed shrimps
Ancient Greek Honeyed Shrimps
225 gr. cooked, cleaned shrimps
1 spoon olive oil
2 spoons garos (fish stock)
1 spoon honey
2 spoons fresh oregano
Place oil, garos and honey in pan. Add shrimps and saute for 2-3 minutes till soft. Remove shrimps and keep warm. Reduce sauce to half. Add oregano and pour over shrimps. Serve.
To make fish stock, just simmer fish heads (preferably white or beige flesh fish) for 40 minutes.
I’m a crime writer so all these flavours offer great potential for a murderer to disguise any nasty taste of his or her poisons. But did they? With groups eating communally like this, it could have been difficult to pinpoint one’s chosen target. Of the few cases we know about, apart from Alexander, who should have had tasters enough to avoid the danger, a potion seems to have been the chosen method. In a love potion, say, where the would-be murderess persuades a slave-concubine to give it to her owner and the villain’s husband – I described this case as Poisonous Women in my own blog Ancient Villainies a few months ago. Or a potion given to a prize-winning choirboy to stall the onset of puberty and the breaking of his voice, maybe poisoned by a rival choir.
Hemlock was the official poison, used for state executions, as in the case of Socrates. Not ideal for committing a murder you want to get away with. It’s symptoms were too identifiable and it left a strong smell all its own – a victim would hardly consume it by accident plus it was risky to handle. But there would have been plenty of other poisons among readily available wild plants and fungi that we know today from belladonna (deadly nightshade) to monkshood, which was sometimes used to poison an enemy’s water supplies. But the symptoms could be a dead giveaway. So how about daffodil bulbs (genus narcissus)? Cook them with onions and the nausea and diarrhoia could easily pass for food poisoning. Or apple seeds pounded and mixed into a cake? The difficulty was getting the dose right, enough to ensure death, especially if one only had control of the victim’s food intake for one meal and had no opportunity for trial and error.
But please don’t let this talk of poisons put you off trying the recipes for you will control the ingredients and I assure you these ones are quite safe – or so I’m told.
Roger Hudson is the author of Death Comes by Amphora, set in Ancient Athens, and its sequel-in-progress Fraud Under the Akropolis. His career has encompassed most forms of writing and editing from journalism to technical editing, from publicity to careers books, from filmscripts to poetry. The wide knowledge gained of how our society works has fed into his historical mystery novel He sees its creation as a detective work in itself – piecing together clues from scraps of historical information to deduce a plausible living society and chain of events.