Between the field and the plate: how agricultural products were processed into food

Between the field and the plate: how agricultural products were processed into food

By Dionysios Stathakopoulos

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, Luke 12:19: Food and Wine in Byzantium: Papers of the 37th Annual Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, in Honour of Professor A.A.M. Bryer, edited by Leslie Brubaker and kallirroe Linardou (Ashgate, 2007)

Introduction: around 570, the villagers of aphrodito in upper Egypt hired the scribe Dioskoros (also known as the ‘Worst Poet of antiquity’) to write for them a petition to the dux of the thebais. therein they complained about the misdeeds of the pagarch (governor). He had taken away their livestock and used up the fodder destined for them. Because of these actions they had been driven to starvation (line 21). Furthermore their region had been subject to a year-long drought, which caused their animals to die (lines 54–6). At present, they were not able even to sow sufficient fodder for those animals that had survived. Due to this shortage of victuals during the winter they had been forced to consume raw vegetables (droxima) instead of bread (lines 93–4). In short, they had been left with nothing. in comparison with today’s exaltation of raw vegetables as healthy foodstuffs (consult the debate in such internet forums as: ‘is cooked food poison?’ or the site of the Living and raw Food Community) this seems a strange statement: why would the people of Aphrodito consider themselves as if in a state of starvation when they had vegetables to eat? the key to understanding this passage is that these vegetables had been raw.

As Lévi-Strauss has shown, food destined for human populations must be cooked in order to separate cultured people from animals or savages: it is through the process of cooking that food is transformed into a signifier of culture.3 Naturally there were numerous instances where raw vegetables, for example, were consumed, but this occurred as a rule either for medicinal purposes, as an accompaniment to other, cooked dishes, or where the vegetables were dipped in sauces and therefore not eaten utterly raw.

Since other contributions to this volume deal with cooked food, I would like to step back and to examine plant foodstuffs after they were harvested but before they were consumed. I will concentrate on specific groups of agricultural products. Among the vast number of cultivated plants utilized in the Mediterranean basin in the Middle Ages it seems natural to focus on the so-called ‘Mediterranean triad’: cereals, olives and grapes and their chief by-products bread, oil and wine. Because, however, space is limited, I will focus on just cereals and olives, or, rather, olive oil and flour. The aim of this paper is to provide a short description of some agricultural procedures, focusing on recent literature.

Click here to read this article from Royal Holloway, University of London


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