At some point midway through the 4th century BC, a man from south-eastern Sicily sat down to yet another banquet of superior quality and thought it an original idea to set out his thoughts on what constituted good living. The upshot of these revelations was the Hedypatheia, otherwise known as the Life of Luxury, which, although it only survives in fragments, provides us with fascinating insights into the culinary life of a wealthy Greek living in pre-Christian Sicily.
Archestratus’ remaining text mostly focuses on fish, an abundant resource given his location, but he also makes reference to ancient forms of antipasti and that essential ingredient of any good meal, wine. He incurred the wrath and finger-wagging displeasure of certain more Stoic philosophers, notably Chrysippus of Soli, who found his hedonistic suggestions a trifle on the indulgent side.
It’s not much of a stretch for the imagination to see him reclining on a marble couch, propped up by purple cushions, greedily picking through whatever the slaves had laid before him. Not for Archestratus the simple fare of chickpeas, beans or even figs, albeit the dried variety, considering, as he did, such offerings to be food for the plebians and ordinary men of the polis. He was clearly one of the many ichthyophagoi in the Ancient Greek world, someone tempted by the seemingly limitless gastronomic wonders to be found in Sicily’s seas.
From Gela, or possibly Syracuse, nobody seems to know, it would be wrong to call Archestratus a simple imbiber and glutton. He was first and foremost a poet who wrote his references to the food he found tasty in a form of hexametric verse. Of the 60 plus fragments that survive today, over 75% are dedicated to fish. And he wasn’t just a stationary gourmand, he reported delicious culinary experiences from many corners of the Greek sphere of influence, including modern-day Turkey and the myriad islands off the coast of mainland Greece.
What of his actual recommendations? Would we take his advise on how to cook a trigger fish:
‘Buy in Eno and in Ponte the trigger fish, / Which some call the sand excavator, / Boil the head without any condiment, / But turn it often in the water.’
Hmm, it sounds less than appetising, but not all of his work is so alien to modern palates, after all we happily eat cod cheeks.
He assures us that the tuna from the shores of Cefalù and Tindari are excellent and considers a young tuna (aulopias) underbelly most succulent when roasted on a spit. He also sees benefit in conserving it for leaner times:
‘Eat a slice of tuna from Sicilia, / From that which has been preserved in salt / In the usual amphora…’
He also has something of a thing for eels, liking their strong taste and oily texture. One of us had a particularly bad experience with smoked eel in Zeeland and, therefore, no longer shares Archestratus’ enthusiasm. His best place for the slippery customers is the Straits of Messina:
‘I praise any eels, but the most exquisite / Is the one that is fished from the strait…’
He suggests the happy citizens of Messina, above any other mortals, eat them in abundance. Although, returning home to his familiar Syracuse, he recommends the thresher shark:
‘The thresher, but the best, go to eat it / In the distinguished city of Syracuse…’
The mullet is best in Tichiunte and the sands of Mileto harbour some rich pickings for the lover of prawns. Frogs, however, should be bought wherever they can be found and care should be taken in preparing the stomachs.
We can see from Archestratus’ choice of verse form that his work was more than a prose tract intent on delivering knowledge. Wilkins and Hill, in their commentary on his text, suggest his words were meant to accompany the symposium, the drinking session, full of philosophical badinage that used to follow a good meal. We now see Archestratus ennunciating in melifluous slightly drunken tones after having devoured a good side of roasted tuna, whilst gazing at the buxom fullness of a serving wench and the sea beyond, the glinting medium that has just provided his repast.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.
They are also authors of the newly released (30th Sep, 2016) Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, endorsed by Jason Webster: ‘It is essential reading for anyone who has ever fallen for the charms, mystique and passion of southern Spain’ and Alejandro Luque: ‘An itinerary from which dreams are made.’
Sardines are so prominent in Sicilian cooking today. Just curious — were they less so in Archestratus’s time?
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