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Food and Cooking in Minoan Crete

One way to connect with an ancient culture like the Minoans is to learn about their daily life: what they did for a living, what their houses looked like, and especially what they ate. Food is a powerful way to connect with other cultures, and that includes those of the ancient world.

A while back I wrote about how the Minoans cooked - what their kitchens and cookpots were like, how they used braziers or outdoor cookfires instead of hearths. Today I'm going to talk about what they cooked. Most of this information comes from an appendix in my book Labrys and Horns.

Crete is an island, so obviously fish and seafood were (and still are) a valued food source. The lovely Minoan fisherman above, from a fresco found in Akrotiri, is holding a large catch of mahi-mahi, also known as dolphinfish (yes, Minoan art is so accurate, we can identify the species of animals and plants the artists painted). In addition to fresh and salted fish, the Minoans ate octopus, squid, and shellfish like mussels and limpets.

The interesting thing is, eventually fish and seafood came to be seen as "poor people's food" and other meats became status symbols. The Minoans had large livestock herds, both privately owned and belonging to the temples in the big cities. From these they got beef, goat, mutton/lamb, and pork. They also hunted deer, grouse, and rabbit and ate snails, though we don't know whether the snails were farmed like they do in France today or simply collected from the wild. Bear in mind, meat was an expensive food that not everyone could afford.

Now, don't panic - the Minoans didn't survive on just meat. They also ate fruits and vegetables, lots of them. Chickpeas, fava beans, and lentils provided the base for soups and stews (you might have heard the term pottage - along with bread, this was a staple food in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East). They grew leeks, garlic, and onions and harvested olives from their groves. They also gathered wild mushrooms and wild greens of all sorts as well as wild asparagus and artichokes. Those wild greens, known as horta, are still popular and available in local markets on Crete.

As for fruit, the Minoans had access to the same assortment that the rest of the people around the Mediterranean ate: dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, and quinces. They ate all of these both fresh and dried. They also enjoyed almonds, pine nuts, and sesame seeds.

As I mentioned above, bread was a staple not just for the Minoans but for everyone in that region and time period. For a shepherd in the hills of Crete, it might be the main source of everyday meals, perhaps with a bit of salt fish and a flask of diluted wine. The Minoans grew barley, rye, and three varieties of wheat, so they had choices in terms of bread, which would have been flattish loaves similar to pita bread or naan. Their bread would have been whole grain, so it would have been quite nutritious.

Dairy was also a big part of Minoan culinary life. Their huge herds provided milk not just from cows but also from goats and sheep. They drank milk, sometimes with herbs steeped in it, and made soft, uncured cheeses from it as well, much like you find in Crete even today.

For seasoning they had olive oil, of course, and wine vinegar. They boiled down seawater for salt - an easy source for an island culture. And for the sweet things in life they had not just honey but also boiled-down grape juice. They may also have made date sugar the way the Egyptians did.

Speaking of seasoning, the Minoans had a huge variety of herbs available for their cooking and seasoning pleasure: anise, bay laurel, coriander, cumin, dill, dittany, fennel, lavender, marjoram, myrtle, oregano, parsley, poppyseed, rosemary, rue, saffron, sage, thyme, and verbena. That makes for quite a nice spice cabinet, don't you think?

What have I forgotten? Oh, drinks. I suspect that, like much of the Bronze Age world, the Minoans avoided drinking plain water since it wasn't necessarily safe. Instead, they had quite a few beverages to choose from. We know they made beer, mead, and wine, and there's evidence that they added resins to their wine to make the ancient precursor to retsina. They probably drank their wine diluted just like everyone else in that time period and region. They also drank milk, as I noted above, and made tea from the various herbs they had available.

If you look at the Minoan diet as a whole, it doesn't look a whole lot different from the way the people in rural areas of Crete eat today - though they now have the newer imports from the Americas like potatoes and tomatoes, foods that were unknown in the Bronze Age Mediterranean. It's a very healthy way of eating, and quite delicious, too.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

 

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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