BMCR 2004.02.34

Flavours of Byzantium

, Flavours of Byzantium. London: Prospect Books, 2003. 268. £25.00.

This delightful book must have been inevitable for Andrew Dalby, who had already written books on Greek food and Roman food.1 Flavours of Byzantium offers a novel and humane approach to the Byzantines and their culture, and one that should appeal to Byzantinists as well as general readers.

In Dalby’s brief introduction to Constantinople and the empire in Chapter 1, he mentions the arrival of three Illyrian farmers — Zimarchus, Dityvistus, and Justin — who had only twice-baked bread to eat on their way to the City. Greeks then and now call this twice-baked bread paximadia. Dalby goes on to say (italics ignored):

The paximadia in Justin I’s knapsack were a standby that was well known Empire-wide, to judge by later derivatives of the name: these extend from Venetian pasimata, Croatian peksimet and Romanian pesmet to Turkish beksemad and Arabic bashmet, baqsimat. (p.27)

In another example (italics still ignored), Dalby looks at foods with Latin roots. This is of particular interest because a smaller version of boukellaton, now wrist-sized rings of bread, sold all over Greece — often carried on a stick by the man who sells lottery tickets — and rodakina is still the way to ask for peaches:

There is boukellaton (Latin bucellatum), the ring-shaped dry loaf typical of the rations for which the auxiliary armies depended. . . .There is Phouska (Latin pousca), the watery, vinegary wine that was typical of soldiers’ drinking in early Byzantine times. There is konditon (Latin conditum), the famous spiced wine aperitif of late Rome and Constantinople. Then there are rodakina, peaches, whose Greek name seems to describe these fruits as ‘rosy’ . . . but actully derives from the old Latin variety name duracina, ‘clingstone’. (p. 25)

Chapter 2 looks at Constantinople though its smells: the herbs and incense of religious processions, the perfumers’ shops and the empress who made perfume, the foreign trade that provided ginger, sugar, sandalwood, and cinnamon. Chapter 3 visits the markets of the city through travellers’ reports and Byzantine municipal regulations. Chapter 4 talks about the wines and waters in the city an Anglo-Saxon writer called Wnburga“cities of wine.” Chapter 5 looks at reports of visitors and chroniclers to give an impression of food and banquets in the imperial palaces. Chapters 6-7 contain translations of Byzantine writings on food, and Chapter 8 provides 50+ pages of massive research into Byzantine vocabulary (and sources) for food. The book also includes a list of rulers and dates, along with the contemporary sources Dalby has used. This means a certain amount of flipping back and forth to keep dates in mind as he moves from Liutprand to Bertrandon de la Broquière to Constantine Porphyrogenitus.

Byzantines were theorists and makers of lists and compilers of authorities; this shows up with remarkable clarity in the quotations and texts Dalby provides, as does their interest in encouraging or inhibiting bodily excretions.2 In fact, this presentation of food-by-theory offers an unexpected and useful access to the Byzantine mind-set. When Byzantines thought formally about food, their ideas for the most part derived from Galen’s second-century On the Properties of Foods and used Galen’s theories of the humours and the powers of foods.

The human body has four humours which rule individual consitutions or personalities — blood (sanguine), phlegm (phlegmatic), yellow bile (choleric), black bile (melancholic) — which ideally are in balance. Imbalance among the humours causes illness. Restoration of balance requires familiarity with the powers of foods: what humours does a particular food encourage or discourage, and how efficiently. Once the constitution and particular imbalance are identified, then an appropriate regimen of food, spices and drink can be prescribed. Dalby’s Chapter 6 presents four major prescriptive texts. In Text 1, an anonymous Greek nutritionist classifies all foods and drink into eight flavours: sweet, pungent, salty, sharp, oily, astringent, tasteless, melting, and uses these to balance off the four elements (hot, cold, dry, moist) with the four humours. Text 2 categorizes goods into types and positions them on hot/cold, dry/wet axes. Text 3 classifies foods according to the way they affect the humours, and Text 4 is a prescriptive dietary calendar.3

These prescriptions for food for various purposes show a provoking muddle of practicality and what can only be a willful determination to ignore daily evidence. For example, in Text 3, a list of indigestible foods includes beef, venison, snails, hard-boiled or fried eggs, yoghurt, lobsters, rice, lentils, apples, pears, figs, dates, and water. De Alimentis, in fact, gives thirty-one categories of foods, among which are: Foods that produce phlegm (marrow, mushrooms), Foods that produce black bile (meat from oxen, billy-goats, bulls, hares, tuna, cabbage, wheat bran), Foods that produce bile (carobs, artichokes, honey), Foods that are not windy (skimmed honey, barley bread, hemp seed), Foods that are windy (peas, beans, dates, sweet wines, figs, cold milk), Foods that are least nourishing (fish, almonds, peaches, onion, garlic, oysters, various breads and fruits), Foods that hurt the head (mulberries, dates, yellow wine, milk, plums, saffron, onions, leeks, tarragon). The category of Slimming Foods includes — readers will be glad — nuts, olives, wine, and cream. (pp. 141-160)

Other theorists produced prescriptions for monthly diet, baths, sex, exercise, soap and lotions. The recommendation of Text 4 for March concludes with: “Six baths in the course of the month: for three of these, on Tuesdays, anoint with oil but no myrrh or aloes; for the other three, wash with water, on Fridays. Light aromatic wines of the color of olive oil. Moderate sex.” (p.164) In June (which governs the hot blood), there should be a moderate use of oregano and no love-making, while August (green bile) permits four baths and warns against black olives. December (salty phlegm) prohibits cabbage and recommends eight baths, rinsing with wine and sodium carbonate, and love-making. In February, which is when this review will appear, one should have no beets and no vegetable soups except leek, celery, dill and garlic. Crustacea and fish with mustard are encouraged, as are four baths, extensive use of skin lotion, and love-making.4

Chapter 7 presents a number of Byzantine recipes and a few modern recipes for foods where the name is found in Byzantine texts. A recipe for loukanika, smoked sausage — not the flavorless loukanika found in Greece today — reads as follows:

Crush pepper, cumin, savory, rue, parsley, mixed herbs, bay berry, fish sauce, and mix in well-beaten meat, rubbing it well into the mixture. Then, adding fish sauce, whole peppercorns, plenty of fat, and pine kernels, stuff into an intestine (pulled as thin as possible) and hang in the smoke.5

If you do not have a recipe for fish sauce, garos, one is provided here. The five recipes for curing olives are essentially identical to various local olive preferences in Greece now.6 A recipe for a one-pot meal — monokythron — makes Nestor’s wine with onion, cheese and barley seem almost merciful. It calls for 4 cabbages, salted neck of swordfish, salt sturgeon, 18 eggs, Cretan and Vlach cheese, pepper, garlic, mackerels and wine. A passage from the Byzantine medical writer, Oribasius, gives twelve different recipes for spiced wine.

Perhaps most striking is a recipe for soufflé cooked on the coals, where one might have thought an oven nearly essential (italics again omitted):

Greek has the name afrutum [aphraton] for what is called spumeum in Latin. You must take a lot of white of egg so that your afrutum becomes foamy. It should be arranged in a mound on a shallow casserole with a previously prepared sauce, based on fish sauce, underneath. Then the casserole is set over the coals and the afrutum cooked in the steam of the sauce. The casserole is then placed in the middle of a serving tray, and a little wine or honey poured over it. It is eaten with a spoon or a small ladle. We often add fine fish or scallops to this dish, because they are very good and also common at home.7

Dalby intentionally restricted his material to literary and historical sources, saints lives, and recipe books.8 While some of these sources are immediately familiar — Book of Ceremonies, Book of the Eparch, Choniates’ Chronicle, Psellos’ Chronographia, Eustathius of Thessalonike — more of his material comes from fairly specialized material that most Byzantinists probably never see. For this reason, it is disappointing that no Greek texts have been provided for any quotations, or for the “Four Texts” in Chapter 4. This is in part addressed by the splendid 53-page list of terms and their sources provided in Chapter 8, but the reader has no chance to evaluate the translation or vocabulary in context. I assume this omission of Greek texts was partly an economic decision by the publisher, and partly because of the hope for an audience somewhat wider than that of Byzantinists. Second, dates for manuscripts mentioned in the text, whether for originals or recensions, are often difficult to determine. Not all sources quoted are listed with the dates of rulers and manuscripts. Another irritation is that Dalby’s list uses the English titles for manuscripts where his text usually refers to their Greek or Latin titles. It is clear from cooking ware survivals that types of foods went in and out of fashion, and new foods were introduced, and it would be useful to have some idea of how the manuscripts might relate to the dates produced in archaeology, or to foreign influences in Constantinople.9 A final quibble is the use of Latin spelling for Greek names: since the topic does concern Byzantium, Greek does not seem too much to expect.


1. Other Dalby titles: The Classical Cookbook, Food in the Ancient World A-Z, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World, and a translation of Cato On Farming.

2. It is perhaps unfair that this brings to mind the remark, “Puritanical peoples are always fascinated by excrement. It is their only outlet,” by Imbrie Buffum, former professor of French literature at Yale.

3. None of these four texts reproduces the content of a single text. Dalby has pieced each together with sections from three main manuscript selections known as De Cibis ca. 670, De Alimentis, and the 2nd century Peri Trophon Dynameos, considering them as representing the collective knowledge of Byzantine dieticians.

4. For a lotion recipe (p. 162): Mix 3 lb. aloes, 1 lb. myrrh, 2 egg yolks, and apply to the skin before the bath. After washing this off, rub down with wine and egg yolks mixed with hot rose oil.

5. p. 176. Recipe from Apicius 2.4 (b. 25 BC) but known in Constantinople.

6. One of the recipes (p. 179) calls for soaking the olives in sea water. Today in the Argolid, they specify “enough salt in the water to float an egg”: this is approximately the salinity of Mediterranean sea water.

7. p. 176. From Anthimus, Letter on Diet 34.

8. Dalby suggest two further sources of material which became available after he completed this book: the Dumbarton Oaks collection of monastic typica, John Thomas and Angela Constantinides Hero, eds., and Harry Marks’ Byzantine Cuisine which includes a hundred recipes adapted for the modern kitchen.

9. See Theodora S. MacKay, “Pottery of the Frankish Period: 13th and early 14th century,” Corinth: The Centenary, 1896-1996, Charles K. Williams II & Nancy Bookidis, eds., (Athens, 2003), esp. 418-420. While the cooking ware described comes from the period of Frankish rule, there is no indication that non-Franks in Greece and Byzantine territories used different forms, and it suggests a productive direction for the study of Byzantine foods in real life.