Italian Food and Greek Food: The History, Differences and Common Traits of the Cuisines We All Love is a fascinating trip down memory lane, showing that there was a fusion of Greek-Italian cuisine in historic times that continues to the present day.
This is the sixth in a series of stories about the history of Greek food. In this second article in a series of three, we continue to retrace the journey that built the foundations of the cultural identity of the Greek people.
By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
When, after years of war, tempers finally calmed down and the former Greek territory became a province of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, there was a strong cultural fusion between the two cultures, especially in the domain of the habits and customs of daily life. life.
It is then that a unique gastronomic imprint is created which constitutes the ancestor of the first common identity of the Mediterranean diet.
The integration of Greek cuisine, and the way it was experienced, despite the great admiration and curiosity aroused among the Romans of the time, was not immediately perceived favorably by all.
This is especially true of politicians, who feared the loss of Roman identity, such as Cato the Censor (the politician and general) who denounced the gastronomic and convivial Greek culture as too primitive and “impure”.
Earthier nature of Greek cuisine combined with Roman refinements
Once all skepticism was overcome, however, the introduction of Greek recipes and customs began, including the introduction of the culture of using the fruits of the olive tree, which, incredibly, had only been used by the Romans only for religious purposes until that time.
Greek wine was however preferred at the time; Already in pre-Hellenistic times, the Greeks used seawater as an additive to fermented grape juice.
Additionally, wine yeast was also introduced into Roman breadmaking culture.
Various sauces accompanying legumes and vegetables quickly conquered the palate of the Romans, such as gàron (γαρον), a sauce made from salted fish and its entrails.
Another significant import by the Romans in this era of Greco-Roman culinary fusion was the custom of a personal chef inside the most aristocratic homes, as a symbol of great wealth and attention to all things good and beautiful. .
At the same time, Greek food culture was positively influenced by the introduction of elegance and grace from the Romans, which already at that time characterized the ideal of conviviality.
The Greeks of the time, it must be said, had more raw attitudes towards the culinary experience: in fact, food was a pleasure and a spiritual enrichment only for the highest social classes, while for the rest of the population it was only food. , very necessary for those who engage in physical labor.
A good example of this concept would be the μελανας ζωμος (mèlanas zomòs) or
black broth, made from meat, vinegar and pig’s blood, used by the Spartans in war to give the energy needed for battle.
With the arrival of Roman culture in their lands, the Greeks learned the importance of giving an air of sophistication to the dishes they consumed, placing importance on presentation, including even outdoor banquets. .
The end of the Byzantine Empire marked a huge cultural divide in Europe
Greco-Roman cuisine remained the main refuge of these lands for the following centuries, until the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453: this marked the first major historical division of European gastronomic culture.
With the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, Greece was suddenly deprived of its own culinary identity by accepting and incorporating the Osmanic world for 400 years.
During this time, the Italian lands began a journey that allowed them to have cultural exchanges and experience periods of artistic and culinary development, which led to the basis of today’s traditional and regional cuisine in Italy.
The difference between the two culinary realities, Greek and Italian, is in fact due to this historically imposed detachment that began centuries ago.
Greek cuisine still today has many similarities with Turkish cuisine, not only in the recipes and in the common traditional dishes, but especially in the preparation processes and in the condiments used. This translates into a strong presence of meat for frying and a great use of spices (such as chilli and cumin), typical of Anatolian cuisine and countries of the former Ottoman Empire.
Greek cuisine is a cultural crossroads
Nowadays, Greek gastronomy represents a very important cultural crossroads that strongly links Mediterranean ingredients to the ancient culinary spirit of the region and to the more recent cultural infiltrations of Asia Minor and the Balkan Peninsula.
The Italian territory, on the other hand, has managed over the centuries to strongly establish itself as an artistic homeland in its own right, thus strengthening its own culinary identity, leaving just enough room for evolution.
This can be seen both in the techniques used, which have many Spanish and French influences, and in its philosophical relationship with food, always placing it at the forefront of its own identity.
Italy is a unique country, but it has many cultural variations that over the centuries have accepted various gastronomic influences, resulting in a unique culinary identity in its many regional facets.
Many similarities have been found between Greece and Italy in recent decades, thanks to a path of culinary rapprochement between the two countries – mainly from Greece, which has always been fascinated by Italian gastronomy today. .
The lighter pastries of today’s Greece are part of more Italian influences
In Greek family life today, in fact, we find more and more elements drawn from the Italian imprint: the use of pasta and rice as main courses and no longer as side dishes; the increased presence of beef as a substitute for mutton and pork; and in the habit of consuming lighter pastry products, no longer limited to Eastern influences (the best-known example being baklava, made of pastry, syrup, honey, dried fruits and nuts).
Even in terms of organization, Greek cuisine is increasingly trying to align itself with Italian habits: the subdivision into starter, first and second course is becoming more and more popular, replacing the concept of banquet, still very present in how to interpret a meal even today in Greece.
New generations are now accustomed to the aperitif ritual, replacing the more classic ouzo (a dry distillate with a high alcohol content) with mezedes (various selections of small samples such as olives, tzatziki and feta) , by Italian Spritz and finger food.
With regard to the world of catering, the Italian trend of recent years to create a conscious and much more productive economic system becomes a valid example for the Greek tourist industry, which perhaps is not yet adapted to a innovative and rapidly evolving sector. market such as today.
The two realities are still linked by the identity and the Mediterranean character, a common spirit which has never been lost and which unites the two countries and the two cultures.
The attitude and the way of living the kitchen, make these two countries examples of gastronomy, conviviality and spirituality, even in a culinary world that is increasingly modern and less and less traditional.
Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.