Unlike the Romans and earlier Greeks, Byzantine cookbooks seem to be rare indeed. In fact, only very tempting references to Byzantine cooking are found tucked into diplomatic reports and biographies of the Imperial family. We know that the empress Lupincina of the Danube Valley was a cook and that Theodora, wife of Justinian, imported cooks from Persia, India, Syria and the Greek mainland to serve at her court.
In the 10th century Liutprand of Cremona, an ambassador to the Imperial court, made disparaging remarks about refined wine and dishes cooked in oil, although he enjoyed some of the sauces and was impressed by the food at the Imperial table. He especially liked the roast kid stuffed with garlic, leeks and onions and dressed with garon sauce (probably a variety of the Roman garum, that notorious fermented fish sauce).
What did their food taste like? We have a number of earlier Greek cookbooks, such as Gastronomia by Archestratus (5th century B.C.), and we know what Greek cooking is like now. To tie them together we have the work of such scholars as Nicholas Tselementes, who traced back to earlier times such dishes as keftedes (meatballs made with grain), dolmades (grain and/or meat stuffed into vegetables or plant leaves and cooked), moussaka (a layered dish of meat, cheese and pasta or grain), yuvarelakia (meat and/or grain dumplings cooked in broth), and katavia, the Greek version of bouillabaisse. He also traced back to the ancient Greeks the making of white sauce --using flour and fat to thicken a broth or milk mixture. Although some of these dashes are now known to the world by Turkish or European name (even the Greeks call white sauce "béchamel"), their origins are Greek. We know they ate three meals a day --breakfast, midday and supper. They had many fast days. While the lower classes made due with what they could get, the upper classes were served three courses at their midday and supper meals consisting of hors d'oeuvres, a main course of fish or meat and a sweet course. They ate all kinds of meats including pork and numerous types of fowl. They ate large amounts of fish and other seafood. There were many types of soups and stews and salads were popular. They liked a variety of cheeses, and fruits were eaten both fresh or cooked. Fruits included apples, melons, dates, figs, grapes and pomegranates. Almonds, walnuts and pistachios were used in many dishes as well as being eaten by themselves.
The recipes given here were created by taking modern Greek ones, removing or replacing non-period ingredients and attempting to reconstruct cooking methods. They are the types of dishes that would have been served by the common people or middle classes rather than to the Imperial household.
1 lb. lean beef or veal, ground
In the original recipe, the meat would probably be pounded or minced rather than ground. You can run the meat through your food processor for a more period texture. Mix all ingredients except barley and olive oil, season and refrigerate for an hour. Pinch off small pieces the size of walnuts, form into a ball and dredge in the barley flour. Heat the oil to a smoking point and fry the meatballs until crisp, turning constantly. Remove and drain on absorbent paper.
1 medium onion, grated
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 egg, beaten lightly
2 slices of bread, crusts removed, soaked in water and squeezed dry
3 tbsp minced fresh parsley
2 sprigs fresh mint
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp red wine
1-3 tbsp water if necessary
1 cup of barley, powdered in the blender
olive oil, enough for a frying depth of ½"
¾ cup of olive oil
Heat ½ cup of oil in a skillet and add the onion and scallion and cook until soft. Add the garlic and cook a few more minutes. Add barley and brown slightly, stirring frequently, then add dill, parsley, lemon juice, salt and remaining olive oil. Stir well and add hot water. Cover and let simmer for five minutes.
Remove the grape leaves from the jar and rinse. Line an enamel pan with a layer of leaves and set aside. To stuff the leaves, put a leaf on the work surface with the rough side up and stem end toward you. Place a teaspoonful of barley mixture near the stem end. Using both hands, fold the part of the leaf near you up end over the filing. Then fold the right side of the leaf over the filling and then the left side and roll tightly and away from you, toward the pointed end. Place in the prepared pan with the seam side down. Continue until you have used all the ingredients.
Place an inverted plate on top of the dolmades and add enough water to come up to the edge of the plate. Rub the chicken with additional lemon juice and simmer for 1¼ hours. Check to see that the barley is tender and the chicken cooked. Remove, cool and chill. Serve with sour cream or avgolemono sauce.
½ onion chopped
8 scallions, chopped fine
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cup natural barley chopped
fresh dill to taste
½ cup parsley, chopped
Juice of 1-2 lemons
Salt to taste
1 cup hot water
1 one-pound jar grapevine leaves
3-4 pound chicken, cut in quarters
Beat 2 large egg yolks for 2 minutes. Continue to beat and gradually add the juice of 1 to 2 lemons, strained. Then add 1 to 2 cups of hot broth or bullion and continue until all has been added. The amount of liquid depends on how thick you want the sauce.
1½ cups natural barley
Cook the barley in salted water until done. Drain and set aside.
Brown the ground beef and onions together. Sprinkle the zucchini
with salt and let stand 10 minutes. Squeeze out the excess
moisture. Add the zucchini to the beef and onions and sauté a few moments longer. Mix ½ the cheese and the beef mixture with the barley. Oil a 9x12x3" baking pan with olive oil and spread the
barley mixture over it. Make the white sauce by heating 2 tbsp olive oil in a heavy skillet. Stir in 2 tbsp flour and add 1 cup warm milk, stirring steadily to make a smooth sauce. Add a pinch or salt. Add the rest of the feta to the sauce and stir. Pour the sauce over the barley, top with bread crumbs and bake at 350° for 30 to 40 minutes.
Remove and let stand 10 minutes before cutting.
3 cups medium white sauce
1 lb. ground beef
1 onion, finely chopped
4 zucchini, sliced
¾ cup feta cheese, crumbled
Combine 1 pound ground lamb (may be pounded if you like), 1 grated onion, 2 cloves of chopped garlic, 6 Tbsp natural barley (crush it coarsely in the blender or food processor), 3 tbsp chopped parsley, 2 tbsp mint or basil (fresh), 1 tbsp dried oregano or thyme, salt, and 1 egg slightly beaten. Mix well and knead for a few minutes. Shape into walnut-sized barrel or egg shapes an set aside.
Bring 5 cups of stock to a boil with a chopped onion, a chopped stalk of celery and a chopped carrot. Add salt to taste. Add the "barrels" and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Add the juice of 1 lemon and serve.
This is a fish soup, which is improved by having as many different varieties of fish as possible. You can make it with salt or fresh water fish, but you will need at least 2 or 4 varieties for he best results.
1 cup scallions or leeks, sliced
Sauté onions in oil until soft. Add fennel, herbs, wine and water and bring to a boil. Season with salt and simmer for 45 minutes. Pour stock through a sieve and squeeze out the juice from the vegetables and discard the fibers. Return to the pot and bring to a boil. (For a richer stock, ask the fish-seller for the heads and bones from your fish and add them to the water for the initial boiling. Remove when you strain out the vegetables. Or you could add a bottle of clam juice instead of some of the water.)
Lightly salt the fish and let stand for 10 minutes, then rinse and lower into the boiling liquid. Lower heat and simmer ten minutes. Add shrimp and scallops or mussels and simmer an additional 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Toast the bread slices and place them in large soup plates or bowls. Place a variety of fish and some of the broth in each dish. You can also pass the avgolemono sauce with this.
½ cup olive oil
½ stalk fennel, sliced
3 sprigs of parsley
1 bay leaf 1 tsp. thyme
2 cups dry white wine
4 cups water
4 pounds or fish (3 or 4 different types)
1 pound shrimp
1 pound mussels or scallops in the shell (well scrubbed)
Thick slices of homemade bread
Here is something sweet to round out the meal. Use equal weights of honey and sesame seeds. In a heavy skillet bring the honey to a very firm ball stage (250° to 256°F). Stir in the sesame seeds and continue cooking until the mixture comes to a bubbling boil. Spread the mixture ½" thick on a marble slab or tray moistened with orange flower water. Cool and cut into small diamonds or squares.
Chantiles, Vilma Liacouras The Food of Greece. Avenel, 1979.
Diehl, Charles Byzantium: Greatness and Decline. Rutgers University Press, 1957.
Haussig, H.W. A History of Byzantine Civilization. Praeger, 1971.
Rice, Tamara Talbot Everyday Life in Byzantium. Dorset, 1967.
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