The Delicious Legacy
The Audacious Gourmand Archestratus
History's first ever gourmand, foodie, hipster of the Ancient Greco-Roman world!
The question of Archestratus life story had me puzzled for ages! I wanted to write an episode for a while now, but the more I looked for information about his life and works the more unanswered questions I have had! Admittedly, countless classicists, historians and food writers have been puzzled through the ages too, with the same burning questions.
Imagine the worst foodie hipster (I zest here, I am one!) friend you have; The one that visits the local farmers market every weekend, goes to Borough Market as if on a religious pilgrimage at least once a month and also on top of that knows every single Vietnamese store in Hackney or the South-American food stall in Seven Sisters Indoor market. He also seem to know the food trends, the new ingredients and read the reviews on Eater for the cheapest eats at the outskirts of South-East London for some reason! (as if he or she will ever visit south east!)
Well your friend doesn't compare to Archestratus little finger! If you thought your friend was bad for visiting the mercado de san martin in San Sebastian, mercado San Miguel in Madrid and La Boqueria market in Barcelona, mercato delle embre in Bologna, Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or Varvakios Market in Athens spending hours looking at fish that cannot buy...you know the friend who watched all the episodes of Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" and can quote all his lines...Well, our dude Archestratus, was a lot worst!
New tastes, the freshest ingredients, so local and seasonal and simple, that even the inhabitants of the nearest town wouldn't have heard them, well he would have been there first, straight to the local fishermen begging them for a fish. Well this is Archestratus! The tourist who went to every food market on every city he visited; only he accomplished your feat 2500 years ago and all by sail!
In the interconnected world of the ancient Mediteranean we then find Archestratus, a Sicilian who circumnavigated the world to satisfy his hunger - and even lower appetites, as a Roman scholar said once quite disparagingly. He was though an inveterate traveller. How else could he have found out about the specialities of all these places, small seaside cities over 50 of them from Sicily to the Black Sea? Remarkably what he writes rings true, as sometimes their specialities are exactly the same now as they were 2400 years ago. Archestratus loved the taste of Lesbian wine but also praised the aroma of the Phoenician wine that came from Byblos. (Although he though it to go off quickly)
"When a libation to the gods you make,
Let your wine worthy be, and ripe and old;
Whose hoary locks droop o'er his purple lake,
Such as in Lesbos' sea-girt isle is sold.
Phœnicia doth a generous liquor bear,
But still the Lesbian I would rather quaff;
For though through age the former rich appear,
You'll find its fragrance will with use go off."
We know almost nothing about him, apart that he was a Sicilian Greek from Gela (or Syracuse) and that he wrote a now lost, remarkable and unique poem "The Life of Luxury" (Hydipatheia). The poem is dated variously around 350BCE.
What we know of the poem, is mostly from Athenaus from his work "Deipnosophistai" -Philosophers at Dinner- which was composed in about AD200. This, is our only source for Archestratus work, which is telling. Lost works of ancient literature - poetry, drama etc- are usually reference by multiple ancient authors; however this lack of interest demonstrates the status of food and recipe books. Not high literature and therefore not carefully preserved for posterity.
What would I give for the chance to glance upon the book on bread-making by Chrysippus of Tyana or the book on salt fish by Euthydemus of Athens! Sadly both are lost completely and only know of their existence through second -hand passing accounts from other authors! Lost masterpieces!
Archestratus cooks the fish simply, boiling roasting or grilling with light seasoning and oil added if its quality fish. Freshness and quality are his watchwords and these features mustn't be damaged by strong sauces based on cheese and pungent herbs. His favourite fish tend to have firm-textured and strongly flavoured meat; rather than mild tasting flesh like the white fish we are now used in French cooking as the vehicle for sauces. He also shows much interest in eels; common, conger, mooray. He emphasizes flavour and the oil/fat of the fish, where the taste and interest is to be found. There is much interest in texture of the fish, the different cuts and parts, from head meat, fin, tail, belly as well as in the varieties of fish.
OK I will stop now and let the audio do the talking! Happy listening!
Links, sources, further reading:
Andrew Dalby, "Siren Feasts": https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Siren_Feasts.html?id=wtLgAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y
Sally Grainger, Andew Dalby : "The Classical Cookbook" : https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Classical_Cookbook.html?id=T7S5iC3pZp0C&redir_esc=y
Ancient History Encyclopedia: https://member.ancient.eu/article/911/carthaginian-trade/
Athenaeus of Naucratis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athenaeus