At a corner with the spectacular street names Theatrou and Sokratous, the aroma of fried fish rises up a set of dim stairs. There’s no signboard as this basement eatery appears to have no name, though when I ask around I hear it is the oldest extant tavern in Athens, dating back to the 1880s.
I climb down to discover a lunch canteen with a grandpa frying sardines at a counter, while the wall opposite is covered by 14 gigantic wooden half-tonne-barrels of wine, and in-between are some eight tiny tables occupied by Greeks.
There’s no menu and instead grandpa removes the lids from his pots: one contains a puree of peas or beans — vegetables that were commonly eaten in ancient times — while another is full of pasta mixed with lamb meat. Then there is that wonderful-smelling fish. Apart from the macaroni, a foodstuff presumably invented in Italy though scholars think it came there along with Greek migrants (since both the words makaria and pasta originate from the Greek), I imagine that the fare is not unlike that on offer in antique wine shops when, in the infancy of gastronomy, they branched out into catering. I point at every dish on offer and ask politely if they have beer. Grandpa says in exactly one gruff word:
“ Vino .”
Being a professional travel writer I know exactly what that means: I’m either going to drink what he offers or leave. Well what did I expect? His restaurant is after all a wine cellar.
As I eat, I find the pasta is quite unlike Italian pasta: it is almost like an Indian mutton biryani with succulent meat falling off the bone, apparently cooked along with the macaroni to which the lamb has imparted its richness. The fried fish is heavily salted and doused with generous lashings of herbed olive oil from a garden watering can. Grandpa pours the same mixture on everything.
I discreetly study the other customers and find they are a democratic mix. At one table a yuppie couple, he in Armani and she in net stockings, miniskirt, tank top and a Blackberry; at the next two hobo-types swigging away. At some point, the extremely unlikely couples start chatting with each other in Greek, and the bearded hobo, who looks like Allen Ginsberg, shares an anecdote at which the yuppies laugh until they almost fall off their chairs.
I pay €18 for my lunch which included lots of wine and then clamber somewhat unsteadily up those suddenly very steep steps.
In the amazing museums of Athens, I see evidence testifying to Greece’s once vibrant gastronomic scene: millennia-old pots and pans, including huge wine kraters decorated with pictures of the symposion , the postprandial socialising that Greeks made into part of their culture. It is basically the same word — symposium — we today use for conferences. In Athens, these symposia were occasions to showcase new poems and texts, including philosophical treatises by great thinkers, to audiences suitably mellowed by wine.
It is worth noting though that wine was imbibed in moderation, as getting plastered and aggressive was considered uncivilised. Though, of course, it did happen that things got out of hand and ancient comedies like Wasps by Aristophanes narrate scenes of drunken chaos. Hence the practise of mixing water and wine. As guests got tipsier, the host added more and more water to the krater until only 25 percent was pure wine.
One day, I stray some six blocks further towards where I estimate the ancient garden of Epicurus to have been located, and spot an interesting dining place in a short street called Kodratou — a classic-themed restaurant called something unpronounceable, APXAIΩN ΓΕΥΣΕΙΣΣ which in Greek seems to mean “archaic taste buds”. I enter a hall of medieval appearance decorated with antiques and run into a waitress with classical features, dressed in a chiton , a kind of toga. She could have played an empress in some Hollywood drama.
She gives me an appetizer on the house — oenomel which is wine diluted with honey-water — and speaks good English which reveals to me that this place has been set up to cater to tourists, though tonight it is almost empty. She explains that although the restaurant was only started in 1998, they cook as per instructions found in ancient texts, the way it was done in the period 500BCE to 100BCE, before Greece was conquered by the Romans.
Their menu carries a pertinent quote from Epicurus (“the source of all pleasure is the satisfaction of the stomach”) and reflects what was available in the ancient agora (market), which is now a ruin visited by tourists. So no tomatoes or potatoes. Instead of potatoes, meat and fish is served with mashed chickpeas.
There’s a lot of weird stuff I’d like to try such as fried liver wrapped in the stomach lining of a lamb, but I must limit myself to sampling a few well-chosen main courses. As I understand pork to have been the staple food in those days, I order baked pork slices stuffed with plums for starters and for mains the weirdly named creokakkabos , which is pork belly in a honey-vinegar sauce (sweet and sour sauces were popular in ancient days). To get seafood on the table, I ask for a third dish that sounds interesting — whole octopus stuffed with fermented cabbage, goat cheese and herbs.
The meal is served on clay platters and the wine in clay cups, and there are no forks since — as we all know — that sort of cutlery wasn’t in common use until the 14th century in Italy; ancient Greeks used a spoon to eat liquid foods or knives to carve meat. The waitress, seeing me stabbing the food with my blunt knife, comes up and says, helpfully, that in those days people ate with their hands. So I might as well do it too, to experience how Epicurus, Archestrates and other ancient brains ate. My dinner is luxurious even by their standards and costs a bomb — €45.
According to my findings, a typical modern Greek diet is not extremely different from what was eaten in ancient days: pork, lamb and seafood. Cheese was loved by the early Greeks. Homer in his epics, written 700BCE, refers to goat cheese, perhaps somewhat similar to what today is known as feta . In the ninth scroll of Odyssey , he even tells us how cottage cheese is made. Bread was considered one of those things that distinguish humans from animals — since animals couldn’t bake — and even the snooty Archestratus approved of flat bread cakes as side dish. If bread wasn’t available, Athenians ate a paste of barley or coarsely ground sprouted grains, a precursor to what was to become pasta.
Vegetables were an expensive luxury since they had to be brought from outside town: the commonly available varieties were peas and lentils, onions and garlic. Perhaps due to this, then, meat gained popularity in the urban food culture, since it was easier to transport than large quantities of veggies — after all, most animals can do the walking themselves all the way to the agora . With the increased consumption of animals, the need for imported spices grew since they could be used to preserve the meat or conceal the foul smell of spoilt meat.
After the eastward expeditions of Alexander the Great, there was an increase in Asian influences on the dining tables — after all, Alexander’s campaigns created a Hellenistic culture that encompassed Greece, Persia and the westernmost parts of India. Pepper and cinnamon were shipped from India; so a certain Indian influence came to bear on Greek cuisine — classical writers mention how lamb chops got spicier during the Hellenistic period. (However, sugar only reached Greece in 600CE, but it also originated in India.) During the postprandial drinking, the feasters feasted on snacks suitable to further line the tummy and prepare it for liberal libations, such as pork belly and sow’s womb flavoured with asafoetida ( hing ) and cumin ( jeera ).
The concept of meze , piquant nibbles to be had with drinks, became popular in the third century BCE and featured smoked fishes and salted pork with cheese, olives, figs and mushrooms, as well as grilled beans or chickpeas. Perhaps due to the spicing, Greeks started calling starters by the Persian word maze (“tasty snack”). That word is obviously related to our very common Indian word masala and these Mediterranean appetizers, getting increasingly popular at restaurants around the world, were thus already eaten in ancient times.
And with that, a wholesome and flavourful Mediterranean diet was pretty much in place!