From olive oil to mastic gum, these pure products can give your health a boost!
Oregano adds the familiar fragrance to a Greek salad, but it also provides relief for a sore throat. Olive oil is an essential component of Greek cuisine, but it is also medicinal. Honey is a sweetener that also contains more than 180 nutrients. Ancient Greek gastronomy, the ancestor of the food culture of Rome, is the source from which many features of European diet and cuisine are derived. But that’s not all. Ever since antiquity, the Greeks have not only sought to satisfy their hunger or to find enjoyment in foods. Many foods were used to prevent or treat a number of health conditions.
OLIVES AND OLIVE OIL
A plant native to Greece, the olive tree was being cultivated in the Aegean as far back as 2000 BC. The olive and its precious oil have been omnipresent components of Greek life ever since: in the diet, in religion, in mythology, in medicine, in literature and in art. Olive oil was particularly important at the palaces of Knossos, Mycenae and Nestor (Pylos). It was a key ingredient in most cooking, used in bread-making and even eaten with bread for a light meal. However, it also had important uses beyond cooking; it served as a fuel, as a cosmetic and as a medicine (60 medicinal uses are referenced in the Hippocratic Corpus). The olive tree was endowed with rich symbolism as well: it was the sacred tree of the goddess Athena, and its branches were used to make the kotinos, a crown given as a trophy to Olympic champions.
The mainstay of the Mediterranean diet to this day, olive oil is critical to good health. It is ideal for the heart and prevents blood clots. Its polyphenols reduce bad LDL cholesterol and increase good HDL cholesterol. Its cancer-fighting and anti-aging actions derive from its valuable antioxidants (flavonoids), vitamin E, provitamin A, minerals and trace elements. It helps to regulate glucose levels in diabetes, plays a key role in central nervous system development, and also aids in the normal function of the digestive system, decreasing the possibility of ulcers and improving intestinal tract motility.
“But why Greek olive oil?” you may ask. Well, first of all, because of its unique flavor. Secondly, because more and more research is confirming that olive oil produced in Greece is higher in polyphenol content – polyphenols are the precious chemical compounds that promise to rid us of many health problems – than those produced in other parts of Europe.
Its official botanical name is in fact Salvia officinalis, which is partly derived from the Latin verb salvare, meaning “save,” and alludes to its therapeutic properties. The ancient Greeks used its fresh leaves to treat wounds and snake bites, and as a drink to enhance female fertility. As a beverage, sage-infused “Greek tea,” as the French call it, or “Greek sprout” for the Chinese, remains popular to this day, either on its own or combined with other aromatic herbs.
Sage is also associated with some less scientific benefits. In Syros, for example, they say it exorcises gossip. You will often find little bunches of it hanging outside homes. A beneficial herb, sage has anti-catarrhal properties (for asthma, bronchitis and coughs), as well as anti-fungal and anti-infective action (for flu, gingivitis and insect bites). It is an effective antispasmodic (in cases of dysmenorrhea) and healing agent. Its broader effects include stimulating the nervous system, improving memory and boosting blood circulation, while its antioxidants act against free radicals.
According to gastronomic history, modern-day trahana has evolved from a porridge-like mixture of milk and wheat eaten by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The noted gourmet and recipe collector Apicius (1st c. AD) refers to this food substance as tractae. In Byzantium, it was popular as tragos or traganos. Until a few decades ago, when the refrigerator was still largely unknown in most Greek households, it was a practical method for using up leftover milk and was critical to a family’s survival – trahana could be stored for more than a year in a cool place.
Trahana is made with fresh cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk that has soured, to which wheat is added. The wheat can range from coarse to fine – Cretan xinohontros, for example, uses coarse wheat. Trahana is rich in carbohydrates and is a good source of energy. It’s also a source of fiber, which aids intestinal health. The lactobacilli in the sour milk have a beneficial effect on the digestive tract, too.
Trahana contains protein, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and calcium in a form which the body can easily absorb. It also has carotenoids, such as lutein, a powerful antioxidant that works to prevent the harmful effects of free radicals, thus helping to maintain healthy eyes, skin and heart.
Trahana can be made into a thin or thick soup, and is low in calories (100 calories/100g). In recent years, many chefs have enriched the classic trahana soup recipe with bits of meat and vegetables or fish. It can be added to savory pie fillings or used in stuffed vegetables or grape-leaf dolmades instead of rice.
According to Greek mythology, knowledge of cheese-making was gifted to humans by the gods of Olympus through Aristeas, son of Apollo. There are references to cheese products in the writings of Aristotle and in the comedies of Aristophanes, while Homer famously referred to them in the Odyssey as well, citing the production of cheese from goat’s and sheep’s milk by the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus who was eventually blinded by Odysseus. Could this cheese have been anthotyro? It is quite possible.
Soft, white and rind-less, anthotyro is made in most regions of Greece from whey (left over from making another type of cheese) and the addition of sheep’s or goat’s milk, or a combination of the two. Lightly salted, it combines a pleasant rich flavor with high nutritional value. It provides all of the substances that dairy products offer (protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus), but contains less fat (it is not high in cholesterol content) and is just 200 calories/100g Compare that to 470/100g calories for graviera cheese, 420/100g calories for kefalotyri, and 350 calories/100g for feta.
Anthotyro is served as a side dish with meals, used in savory pies and salads or as a spread on bread. It pairs deliciously with fresh fruit and nuts, and makes an excellent dessert when topped with honey.
These greens are a variety of wild chicory (Cichorium spinosum), and have a bitter flavor. They are a key element of Cretan cuisine. The Greek name originates from an old habit the Cretans had of placing these greens over the mouth of the water jars to keep bugs out of the water. The Stamnagathi plant is a source of dietary fiber, antioxidants, iron, calcium, potassium and vitamins A, C and E, and beta-carotene. It is an excellent tonic and diuretic; it helps to detoxify the liver and has slightly cathartic properties. The ancient Greeks considered it medicinal. The greens can eaten raw with a lemon or vinegar and olive oil dressing, boiled on their own, or cooked together with lamb or goat. They can also be pickled after parboiling.
The ancient name for rusks was dipyritis artos, meaning “twice-baked bread.” Rusks have been a staple of the Greek diet since before refrigeration or preservatives, when a way of keeping bread for as long as possible was needed. Rusks, particularly those made with barley (which thrives better in the Greek climate than wheat), are considered a key ingredient of a healthy and balanced diet.
They are a good source of vitamin B complex, selenium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, silicon (which helps to rebuild and protect bones), chromium (for better control of glucose levels in diabetes) and dietary fiber (especially beta-glucan, linked to lower cholesterol). They also aid in better intestinal and liver function and help reduce cellulitis. It should also be noted that barley contains less gluten than wheat.
So, why not try replacing your breakfast toast with barley rusks? Alternatively, you can also replace commercial breakfast cereals, which contain a high level of hidden sugars, with boiled barley, honey and cold milk. And remember that, because their low moisture content eliminates the risk of microbial spoilage, rusks do not contain preservatives, either.
The ancient Greeks considered figs a luxury, with a quantifiable economic value that lent prestige to those who could consume them. But they were also a special delicacy. There was a word – sykoskopos – that referred to someone who brought news of where syka (figs) were to be found; there was also the term sykofantis, used for the person who revealed their illegal trafficking. It was not uncommon in Attic comedies to see the impoverished protagonists dreaming of buying wine and dried figs as soon as they could find a little money. In classical times, figs were eaten fresh as an appetizer, and were usually salted. In dried form, they accompanied the wine served at symposia. The leaves of the fig tree were soaked in brine to remove the bitterness and were then used to prepare foods similar to modern-day dolmades.
The nutritional value of figs, particularly dried ones, is indisputable. Rich in natural fiber (which stimulates intestinal motility), they help in weight control because they enhance the feeling of satiety. They are one of the best sources of potassium, which regulates blood pressure and boosts ligament health: just half a cup provides 300mg. They also contain magnesium, which is important for the function of the nervous system, for metabolism and for bone health. Surprisingly, they contain more calcium than milk does. You can add chopped dried figs to milk or yogurt along with your favorite breakfast cereal, eat them together with white cheeses, or try them on their own as a snack.
The history of apiculture, or beekeeping, in Greece goes back thousands of years. Excavations at Phaistos uncovered ceramic beehives from the Minoan era (3400 BC). Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended honey to all his patients. Honey, eaten with bread, was the main food for Pythagoras and his followers. Frequently, the libations to the gods included honey with wine and milk, while ambrosia, the food of the immortals, was said to contain royal jelly. In classical times, desserts with honey were very popular, including honey pies called melitoutta to plakountes, which also had sesame seeds and spices.
With more than 180 nutrients, honey is a food of high nutritional value. It is an excellent source of carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamin B complex, trace elements and minerals (calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper) essential for keeping the body in balance and contributing to everything from bone strength to metabolism. It has a lower glycemic index than sugar. In other words, in small quantities, it is even suitable for people with diabetes. The great biodiversity of the Greek land – 1,300 endemic plants and an exceptional variety of flowers, herbs and trees – also affects the quality of the honey produced in Greece: it is far superior in flavor, aroma and density than honey from other countries.
Closely tied to Christian fasting, tahini, the paste made from roasted sesame seeds, re-entered the Greeks’ diet through migrants from Asia Minor who carried with them the knowledge of how to make it and its cousin, halva, from their lost homelands. It has the delicious essence of roasted nuts and the rich flavor of its precious oil.
One spoonful of tahini, particularly whole grain, is the perfect dietary supplement. First, the fatty acids it contains are mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated: these are fatty acids which raise the level of good cholesterol (HDL) that protects the heart. It is rich in high-quality proteins, vitamin B complex (which regulates the synthesis of several hormones, among other things), calcium (acts against osteoporosis), iron (for physical and mental well-being), potassium, zinc (fortifies the immune system), phosphorus, magnesium (relieves stress and migraines), manganese and copper (reduces joint pain). It also contains selenium, which is one of the weapons in the body’s defensive arsenal against oxidative stress.
Tahini is the ideal topping for breakfast (try bread with tahini and honey). It goes well with sweet flavors (honey or chocolate), with tangy lemon and with garlic, pepper, pulses and salads (it makes a great dressing). It can also be used in soups, pies, cookies and hummus.
In the days when there was no sugar, or it was hard to come by, homemakers made full use of everything the Greek soil gave them to expand their cooking repertoire. This is how moustalevria was born. The exact date of that birth is not known. We do know it is a dessert that dates back to antiquity; during the Byzantine period, it was called moustopita and was made with flour and boiled grape must. That is more or less the recipe that survives today, though it is now embellished with nuts and cinnamon.
Moustalevria is a highly nutritious food, thanks to the raw material – grape must – which provides a large quantity of antioxidants. With the addition of walnuts, almonds, cinnamon and sesame seeds, it is enriched even further, not only in flavor but also in nutrients. Sesame seeds are rich in amino acids, minerals, trace elements and calcium. Cinnamon improves glucose levels in the blood, while walnuts and almonds provide valuable omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and phytosterols. What’s more, all this comes with zero fat.
Yogurt has always held a special place on the Greek table, although it is in fact widely consumed throughout the southeastern Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks called it oxygala, and they had a particular liking for it. French explorer Pierre Belon (1517-1564) wrote, “The Greeks and Turks have oxygala, a type of sour milk which they carry in fabric bags hanging off the side of their animals. Though it is quite watery, it stays in the bag without spilling.” There’s been a lot of milk under the bridge since then. Nowadays, as the food industry endeavors to offer products with long shelf lives, most yogurt is processed at temperatures high enough to prevent the growth of unwanted microorganisms. However, this means that beneficial live bacteria are also eliminated and yogurt loses a large part of its nutritional value.
Traditional Greek yogurt, the one with the skin on the surface, it made from cow’s or sheep’s milk and contains valuable bacteria which have a positive effect on the entire digestive tract. These bacteria include the Lactobaccilus, which research has shown to have cancer-fighting properties. In addition, yoghurt enhances digestion, provides all of the nutrients of milk (protein, carbohydrates, fats, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B complex and others), and can often be consumed by people who are lactose-intolerant. It is, indeed, an all-round superfood!
The ancient Greeks held it to be a symbol of joy: it was used to make wedding crowns. But they also knew of its therapeutic value and used it as a drink to treat poisoning, diarrhea and colic, or externally to relieve skin inflammation. Arcadia and Tenedos are famous for producing oregano. Until a few decades ago, Cretan folk medicine used oregano leaves fried in olive oil to make a poultice for back pain, and oregano oil offered relief for toothache.
Oregano grows practically everywhere in Greece. Fresh or dried, it adds beneficial properties along with its characteristic fragrance to many dishes. Rich in vitamin C, it also contains calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, copper, boron, manganese and vitamin A. The essential oil of Greek oregano is considered the best in the world, as recent studies have shown it to have the highest content in carvacrol and thymol, both of which have powerful antioxidant and cancer-fighting properties. It has antibiotic and antiseptic properties as well. Oregano can relieve intestinal upsets and abdominal pain; it exhibits stimulatory, sudorific and anti-asthmatic effects; it is used to treat flu, colds, gingivitis and sore throat (in a gargling solution). Amazingly, oregano demonstrates 42 times greater antioxidant action than apples, 30 times greater than potatoes and 12 times greater than oranges.
…or saffron, is probably the result of efforts to tame the wild Crocus cartwrightianus in ancient Greece, as the plant appears frequently in Crete’s Minoan-era frescoes and pottery, as well as in a fresco from the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri in Santorini depicting a woman collecting the flowers. Saffron was widely used in medicine – the ancient Greeks drank it in a tisane to cure sleeplessness and hangovers. Today, Kozani’s saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world (it takes more than 150,000 flowers to produce one kilogram of the stuff) and is very sought-after for its subtle aroma and flavor, its properties as a coloring agent and its health benefits. Saffron contains vitamins A, C and B complex, as well as iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and lycopene, which is known to help prevent cancer. It also has powerful antioxidant and anti-aging properties, as its carotenoids protect cells from free radicals. It is good for the digestive tract, boosts the metabolism and improves memory and overall brain function. In addition, it helps fight anxiety and acts as a mood elevator. A mere pinch is enough to give food a rich yellow color, a subtle tang and plenty of aroma. It goes particularly well with rice, pasta, white meat and fish; it is used in salads and soups; and it is also used in sweets. It can be found in powder or thread form and as a tea.
Traces of stored crops and seeds found at Akrotiri indicate that a local species of vetchling, Lathyrus clymenum, was cultivated exclusively on Santorini for more than 3,500 years. Dioscorides, a famed 1st c. AD physician and botanist, distinguished the plant that provided the specific fava from its relatives in other regions. The particularities of the Santorini soil, the climatic conditions and, strangely enough, the lack of water combine to create a unique product with a velvety texture and sweet flavor. Rich in protein (20 percent) and carbohydrates (65 percent), the local fava is an excellent source of vitamin B1, iron, copper, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. Its high fiber content makes it ideal for maintaining normal levels of glucose and cholesterol in the blood, for promoting the proper function of the digestive system and for preventing cancer of the large intestine. And it’s just 85 calories/100g. The fava is served in pureed form with lemon juice, oregano and olive oil, and sometimes with chopped onion and capers or with tomatoes and olives. You might also see it in salads, made into patties or even served with seafood such as octopus or anchovies.
MASTIC FROM CHIOS
The mastic tree was particularly popular with the ancient Greeks: its shoots were pickled and considered a fine appetizer, while its “tears,” the well-known mastic resin, were chewed to clean the teeth and freshen the breath. These tears were also used to flavor wine. The aromatic resin of the lentisc plant, of the Pistacia lentiscus Chia variety, is not produced anywhere in Greece but Chios, and even there, it only grows in the south of the island.
Prescriptions based on mastic can be found in medical texts dating from late antiquity, when it was already considered beneficial. Modern-day studies have confirmed this. Its antioxidant extracts prevent the formation of atherosclerotic plaque on artery walls, thus protecting against heart problems. Its polyphenols reduce glucose and cholesterol levels in the blood. Regular use of mastic limits the formation of dental plaque. It plays a critical role in preventing and treating diseases of the digestive system. It exhibits powerful anti-inflammatory action, and acts as an analgesic, a cough suppressant, an appetite stimulant, an aphrodisiac, an astringent and a diuretic. It is an amazing multi-purpose medicine! Nowadays, mastic has many uses: as a spice in cooking, mainly for meat and fish, and for ice cream, loukoums, spoon sweets and cookies; in beverages (in mastic liqueur and ouzo, drunk as an aperitif or added to foods while simmering); and in cosmetics. Commonly seen in the form of chewing gum, the resin can be also found in a variety of other forms, including as powders and crystals, as mastic water or as an essential oil.
* Information courtesy of Antonis Kafatos, Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine and Nutrition at the Univeristy of Crete.