Even though we talk about a period as far as at least 2500 years ago, there are surprisingly common features between modern eating habits and the ancient ones. Ancient Greeks and Romans calculated the day hours differently, but still they had three main meals per day. They varied during different periods, but we can generalise as follow:
1. Breakfast called "akratismos" was taken very early in the morning, at dawn. In Iliad, we see Odysseus, just back from his long journey to prepare breakfast at daybreak. The name of the breakfast suggests that it consisted of unmixed wine (akratos meaning "unmixed" for liquids, esp. wine). Bread was dipped in the wine, sometimes accompanied by figs or other fruits. Olives or a small piece of cheese or different types of fried pancakes also were eaten at breakfast. As we know the ancient habit not to drink the wine pure, such start of the day sounds very interesting.
2. Lunch, explicitly named "ariston", was considered as the best (the most important) eating for the day as it comes from the adjective aristos - "the best". This meal was taken at late noon and consisted again of bread, olives, some cheese and fruits, but of some fish too. Since not everyone used to have breakfast in the morning, for some people that was the first meal of the day.
3. Dinner was called "deipnon" and was taken at nightfall. Somethaimes a separated meal, called "hesperisma" was provided late afternoon when the dinner was skipped.
4. Social meals
"Symposia" were, as the word suggests, gatherings for enjoying drinking. Nevertheless, the first part of a "symposium" was dedicated to eating, and the second to the drinking itself. During the first part, wine was consumed with the food. During the second, the accent was on drinking wine (mixed with water, of course) with some nuts, toasted wheat or honey cakes for nibbling. Except the musicians and dancers, no women were allowed to attend these gatherings. This explains well why the large, special room, where "symposia" took place, was called "andron" (from aner, andros – "man" in Greek).
Wearing wreaths on these meetings was not a sign of a caprice, but an integral part of the event. Flowers wreaths not just decorated the guests’ heads. They were believed to ward off drunkenness, migraines and other maladies.
"Syssitia" were another type of common meals. They were very popular in Crete and Sparta and represented mandatory gathering of the members of different religious groups of men and male youths. They were referred to as "hetairia" or "andreia" and again were reserved for the men. Unlike the "symposia", "syssitia" were much more moderate in food and drinking.
Ways of eating and sitting on table
You all have seen pictures of ancient people eating on beds, laid on one side. The reality though was slightly different. Usually during their normal meals, Greek ate sited on high chairs and high rectangular tables. They used couches and low tables only for the "symposia", where they ate and drank reclined on the couches. Different vessels were used, mainly terracotta. The table setting consisted of knives and spoons as they didn’t know of the fork as an eating utensil. The bread was often used for picking food with, or for cleaning hands after eating instead of napkins.
During the second part of a "symposium" one shared cup or a special vessel – "kylix" was often used for all guests to pass it around and drink in turns.
Kylix, black-figure ceramic, around 550 BC
Cereals took a big place in Greek diet. The two main grains cultivated were wheat and barley. Cereals were usually served with vegetables and some fruits. Greeks made different types of flours and used leavening agent (a kind of yeast) for their bread - "artos".
They backed the bread in clay ovens and often added poppy seeds, sesame seeds or bran before baking the bread.
No spinach or eggplant, no tomatoes or capsicum and certainly no potatoes were part of the Greek menu, as they entered Europe after discovering the New World.
The vegetables were eaten as soup or puree, boiled or mashed. They were seasoned with herbs, olive oil or vinegar. The most common soup was of lentils. In fact, lentils were eaten on a daily basis. In one philosopher dinner, given by Parmenicus the Cynic, there were at least three meals of lentils that have been served, as Athenaeus informed us. Other often consumed vegetables were cabbage, broad bean, onion, garlic, leeks, chickpeas, olives. The fruits were eaten both fresh and dried. Most popular were figs, raisins, apples, pears, pomegranates, grapes, and dates. Nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts and chestnuts were a common part of the menu.
Meat and fish (or did meat conquer Troy?)
According to epic poetry, the most popular meat eaten by Mycenaean heroes was beef. "Iliad" and "Odyssey" represent many scenes where men boil or roast meat as their main food. Was that what gave them enough strength to endure the ten years siege of Troy until Odysseus came up with his smart “horse- plane”?
However, after fifth century BC, the meat has been much less mentioned in ancient texts. It appears that the ordinary Greek of this period ate meat very seldom, usually at official celebrations and sacrifices. Among the consumed meet were beef, pork, and goat. Poultry was popular too. Spartans were famous with their black pork stew that was considered as almost daily dish accompanied by cheese, figs, and sometimes even fish.
Fish was not mentioned in epics as a dish at all (Well, once in "Odyssey", but the fish was eaten just out of necessity.) In a late epoch, during the Classical period, fish and seafoofd - squid, octopus, and shellfish - were regulary consumed.
Sardines and anchovies were the most popular small fish and were used for preparing a special fish sauce for cooking – "garon". The name of the sauce suggests that initially it was made from shellfish and shrimps. This sauce was probably the ancestor of the famous Roman garum. Common saltwater fish were tuna, red mullet, and swordfish.
Eggs and Dairy products
Greeks most frequently ate quails and hens eggs. Pheasant and goose eggs were known, but as rare and rather exotic. Eggs were usually consumed soft or hard-boiled for lunch or as hors-d’oeuvres at dinner. The whites and the yolks were also used in preparing other dishes.
Goat and sheep milk was both drunk and used for the preparation of different types of dairies such as curdled milk and cheese. The produced cheese was very close to what is calledricotta cheese, although other fresh and dry cheese types existed too. Butter was known as a product of the “barbarian Thracians” and was not used in Greek cuisine.
Greeks knew how to produce different kind of wine both white and red. Varieties existed such as resin wine, wine mixed with sea water (esp. from Lesbos) and mixed with different herbs or honey. The ones coming from the islands Thasos, Lesbos, and Chios were considered as the best. The Greek manner of drinking wine was to dilute it with water (ratio three parts water and one part wine) in a large vessel called "krater". The krater was positioned in the middle of the dining room and the wine was poured in guests cups from it. The Modern Greek word for wine - "krasi" derives from this habit of mixing ("krasis" in ancient Greek) the wine with water.
The "gift of Dionysus" was considered to have medicinal properties and was used as medicament by ancient doctors. Drinking wine was a privilege of men, as women were prohibited to enjoy it. Only in Sparta women were allowed to drink it freely.