Recently we were invited to attend a demonstration on Minoan Cuisine – appropriately held near the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. Jerolyn Morrison, a trained archaeologist and one of the creators of Minoan Tastes, reenacted cooking techniques from ancient times. Minoan Tastes organises cooking events for people to (as she prints on her card) “experience the flavors of the land, sea, and sky of ancient Crete”.
The cooking pots she uses are custom made on Crete, based on pot shapes and ceramic fabric found in archaeological contexts – including the iconic tripod cook pot of the Minoans.
Before cooking, the unglazed pots are prepped by soaking in water, and charcoal is heated to the white heat stage.
The pots are then surrounded with the hot charcoal and diligently monitored, adding more coals when required to sustain the long, slow cooking process.
The food is also carefully attended to with an occasional stir to distribute the heat into the belly of the pot.
During this process, particularly near the end, other ingredients are sometimes added: chopped figs to the chicken and vine leaves in the case below.
The ingredients she uses are those that we find traces of in archaeological contexts – grains, pulses, and other seeds as well as bones of pig, cow, lamb and birds such as quail. Or, they appear in the written contexts of the linear B tablets – like coriander seeds seen here in its linear B form. Jerolyn creates a display of these typical ingredients – products of farming and foraging. They also show different preservation techniques – drying, pickling, salting. Displayed here on the table are honey, wine, vinegar, oil, lentils and chickpeas, dried cracked wheat, sea salt, various varieties of cured olives, pickled capers, small wild Cretan pears, preserved Cretan bulbs (the bulbs of the tassel hyacinth), dried mushrooms, dates and figs, and various nuts. Seasonings would have included garlic, mountain sage, lavender, rosemary, saffron, and coriander.
No written recipes exist from Bronze Age Greece, so the menu is based on old recipes that do not use historically introduced ingredients. Some foodstuffs such as aubergines and rice came into the repertoire from the East via the Ottomans. Vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and beans were introduced after explorations of the New World. Because these “new” ingredients have become embedded in Greek cuisine, we now think of them as traditional. Removing them from the equation does not beggar the cuisine, but results in something different.
Our menu – as much as I can remember it – consisted of stewed chicken (a modern quail substitute) with vine leaves and figs, pork with cracked wheat, pork with pears, and seasoned lamb with trahana (cracked wheat dried with sour milk). The best was the simplest – a lovely dish of lentils seasoned with coriander seeds and spring onions that had a dash of honey added at the end. Rustic paximadi (dried rusks) and greens complemented the stews.
It was a wonderful experience and incredibly delicious – due entirely to Jerolyn and her dedicated team.