Odysseus said that ‘a hungry belly is something no one can hide, damn thing, it causes men many troubles’. It’s with good reason that the Odyssey is called ‘that eating poem’ in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The characters of Homer’s epic are constantly feasting, seeking food, serving food, and trying to avoid becoming food. Even the Cyclopes lovingly press cheeses and lay them out in wicker baskets, an image I’ve always found inordinately funny.
The Odyssey, though, is less about food than about what it means to withhold food, lack it, or transgress the rules surrounding it. Across the many landscapes of the poem, hosts are expected to offer guests, even perfect strangers, meals as a mark of ‘xenia’ or hospitality. Those who do not dine together, or breach that code, as one-eyed Polyphemus does most dramatically, separate themselves from the civilisation others share.
The old idea has never died. Today, Greece’s food crisis has wrought such feelings of exclusion and isolation as can only exist in a culture that has always placed food at the centre of civilisation. Over 17 per cent of the population of Greece is said to be suffering from food insecurity – one of the highest rates in Europe. The strain on soup kitchens has been so intense that other ventures to address the crisis can only be lauded.
One of these, organised by NGO Boroume, redirects 15,000 portions of food each day from restaurants, shops, even parties, to orphanages, hospitals, and homes. To fund its work there is now a cookbook, which recently landed on my desk.
Diane Von Furstenberg’s favourite meat, it tells me, is lamb, slow-roasted with lemon, oregano, garlic, olives and bay, served with tzatziki. Rita Wilson eats Greek yoghurt with honey for breakfast. Victoria Hislop could live on fava alone and Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark likes to watch tourists attempt to drink the dregs of their Greek coffees. It sounds glamorous, this cookbook, but considering it was coordinated by HRH Princess Tatiana, what could one expect?
Not this. For all the celebrated philhellenes who have contributed recipes to its pages, A Taste of Greece is pretty grounded – and not just because of its charitable aims. Like the ancient traditions of hospitality and feasting, very little has changed in Greece’s culinary culture down the millennia, and that means that simplicity rules.
Michel Roux’s description in the book of Greek food as ‘fiercely local and exquisitely simple but always fresh, unpretentious and evocative of the colours, scents, and flavours of the landscape’ is hard to improve on. His recipe for ‘Savoro-Style’ red mullet uses olive oil, garlic, cherry tomatoes, rosemary, raisins and red wine vinegar. It is no surprise to learn that the dish probably originated in ancient times.
A recipe by the book’s editor Diana Farr Louis for a raisin cake, full of cinnamon, orange and cloves, and another for tahini cake, dense with seeds, feel strangely evocative of the cakes enjoyed by the ancient Greeks. Tastes in Greece haven’t changed much. Many of the core components of contemporary Greek cooking – including olive oil, lamb, shellfish, and goat – were enjoyed in Greece long before the Odyssey was first written down. Recipes in the cookbook for things like ‘goat with prunes’ look deliciously archaic.
When tradition and simplicity are so characteristic of Greek food, it seems fitting that efforts to alleviate today’s food crisis should also operate on direct, xenia-like lines. There’s something of the Odyssey about the Boroume system (founded, incidentally, by one Xenia Papastavrou), which puts restaurants and other food donors in direct contact with the people who need it, aiding social cohesion as well as hunger. Whether this and other existing programmes can succeed in combating the crisis awaits to be seen, but harnessing Greece’s historic culinary culture can only help to restore pride.
A Taste of Greece: Recipes, Cuisine and Culture by HRH Princess Tatiana and Diana Farr Louis is published by teNeues. Daisy Dunn is the author of Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, and editor of Argo, a magazine of Greek culture. She tweets @Daisyfdunn.