The latest trend of living of grid, in self-sustainable houses, might not be so new after all. Going back to the Byzantine Era we see that self-sufficiency was key to households of that period in time. Families cultivated basic vegetables, and were breading their own animals (mainly poultry) to ensure their survival. The diet in those days consisted of a breakfast or prophage, the main meal; lunch or optimum, and dinner. All of this eaten with hands, or perhaps a scoop or spoon, as forks were only invented in the 10th century, and even then rarely used until later on. You can imagine that in larger cities, such as Istanbul, a sustainable lifestyle created some challenges. In the Byzantine Era, Istanbul was populated by over 500,000 inhabitants. So what were the main elements of a Byzantine meal?
Bread has such an important role in the Byzantine diet that the guild of bakers of Constantinople was exempt from attending any public functions to avoid possible interruption of the production process. There were two categories of bread, the silignítēs and semidalitis. The first, silignítēs, was produced with extremely meticulously milled and sieved sitino flour. Silignítēs was the whitest bread and the most expensive type of bread of these years. Semidalitis on the other hand, was made by durum wheat. The types of bread were different. For example, there was the wholemeal bread, named grimy, the buns made with oat flour and wheat whole meal rye bread. Rich people usually ate silignítēs.
LEGUMES (PULSES) – VEGETABLES
The cheapest and most common foods for the majority of the population were vegetables and legumes. Given the long fasting periods laid down by the Church, with which they complied, these foods were eaten for a long time by the whole population. Large consumption of sprouts, leeks, onions, beets, lettuce, radish, carrots, peas, and rockets. Potatoes and tomatoes were not yet known, they arrived in Europe many years later. The fact that the pulses could be maintained for a long time allowed the arriving in big cities but also in remote regions of the empire. The most common pulses were the beans named “fasoulin”, the broad beans named “koukkia”, the lentils named “faki”, the “loupinaria” and chickpeas named “revithia”. Large consumption seems to have the wild grasses and bulbs.
After the conquest of Byzantium by the Crusaders (1204), eating habits seem to vary, both from Western influences and the economic crisis that followed. Soups and broths with a variety of vegetables, legumes, fish or corned meat seems to be formed a common choice for the Byzantine households of the 13th century.
The chicken eggs were a common food in Byzantium Era. The eggs were eaten boiled, baked, and fried of raw. People prefer the eggs of pheasants than the eggs of goose, dusk and partridge.
FRUIT and NUTS
Fruits and nuts were the dessert of the Byzantines. The common fruits of this period were figs and grapes. As for nuts they usually preferred the chestnuts, the almonds, the peanuts and the pinecones (pine nuts).
MILK AND CHEESE
Milk products also present at the Byzantine table. They made milk by sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, cow’s milk, and buffalo’s. They also used milk in order to made yoghurt, cheese and butter. The written sources mention several varieties of cheese, such as cottage cheese, , the Cretan and the famous “Vlach cheese” and the low quality “asvestotyron”.
OLIVE AND OIL
During the Byzantine period, olives were a very popular, junk and Lenten food. The olives were preserved in brine (Almades), in vinegar or honey. Known also were the “receding” (crushed) and the “droupates” (Throumpes). Widespread was the use of oil in cooking.
In the Byzantine Era, they used to eat boiled fish, grilled fish and fried fish. They usually made a kind of seafood appetizer, called “pure” with squids, octopus, shrimps, scallops, barnacles, mussels, oysters, sea urchins etc., which were cooked with different ways or eaten raw.
MEAT AND POULTRY
Meat was not a common food for the Byzantines. Not only because it was rather rare and expensive, but also because the fasting dictated the Christian religion, for half day time. As it comes to meat, the most popular was pork, which was usually cooked in various ways. They also ate lamps, cattle, deer and hares. The variety of the poultry was great. It was meat that they ate more than any other. They prefer to eat ducks and geese. There were especially breeding peacocks, because the fact that this bird was the pinnacle of the ruling class preferences.
Every meal was frequently accompanied by sauces. Most of the luxurious sauces were oil-based or butter- based. The most popular was a Byzantine sauce called “garos” which was produced from fish offal, gills, fish blood, salt, pepper and old wine.
SEASONINGS and SPICES
There were some dominant flavours in the Byzantine kitchen, amongst those were oil, fat, garlic, milk, vinegar and the various sauces. As it comes to spices the most commonly used ones were oregano, mint, pepper, celery, leek, dill, rosemary and cumin.
In addition to that some more exotic spices, such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Byzantines were specialized in a type of mustard that they would eat with fish and meat. A final addition to their pallet of spices was a saffron named crocus.
Let’s have a….desert
The basic element in a desert was fruit (apples, pears, dried and fresh figs, cherries, grapes, melons etc.) and nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts). Cakes also took a prominent position on the Byzantine desert table. As a sweetener, honey was often used. The byzantine era was known for a number of pastries, for example the sesame, the moustopita (jelly), the quartered (quince paste) various jams and a kind of pancake names Laganas, or Lallangi. Laganas is known for its layers, combined with almonds, walnuts and honey. Sounds familiar? That’s possible, because it’s known to be the ancestor of baklava.
Let’s Drink…. Wine and other drinks
Byzantines used to drink wine and they had a great variety. Names of wine were linked to the region they originated from. A famous drink was a mixture of old wine, honey and pepper. Other traditional alcoholic drinks were cider, myritis, perry and foinkitis.
Starting to build up an appetite after reading about all these delicious ingredients? Cook one of these two recipes based on the Byzantine cuisine, or, if you find this too challenging, pick up some Baklava, it has Byzantine origins!
Rabbit cooked in wine or vinegar:
The Byzantines loved to cook rabbit in red wine or vinegar with the addition of pepper, cloves and valerian. To enhance the flavour, they added a little pork fat in the process. They used to serve it with the “myttoton”, a kind of dressing which consisted of chopped garlic cloves, mixed with oil and paste of black olives.
Ornish (Hen) monthylefti:
They left a chicken for a few hours in wine or vinegar with spices (pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg). After they choked with bread crumbs, almonds and other condiments. Often, they added raisins, pine nuts and chopped mushrooms. Simmer chicken in wine or baked in the oven inside a tightly sealed clay pot, after the well rubbed with butter. A common dressing for this food was a sauce made of mushrooms. They cut the mushrooms into slices, and then they put salt and pepper. They fried it with pear slices.
I was born in Thessaloniki. I studied History at the Democritus University of Thrace. In 2014 I moved in Istanbul, as an exchange student at Yeditepe University. In 2015 I took part in the first Greek-Turkish Symposium on Security. I completed my MA studies in Rome which was about “Education and Disabilities”. Nowadays I study Political History and Diplomacy in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki as a Master Student and I work as a teacher in a public primary school.
I would love to know more about the images accompanying the article (artist, name, date, museum) wherever possible.