A Fish Banquet: 3rd Century

Oh my God, it’s hot. It’s so hot that when my daughter went to the kitchen to look for an ice-cream she found that the heat had somehow penetrated through the freezer door and vaporised an entire box of her Fabs – wrappers and everything. Truly nature is a wonderous thing.

In weather like this, what else is there to do but have a barbeque?

My husband was delighted when I suggested BBQ for lunch but his joy quickly turned to apprehension as I announced gleefully “not just any barbeque! A history barbeque!”

All I had to do was find some inspiration.

Today’s experiment is from Athenaeus’ The Deipnosophists, specifically book seven: “The Phagesia”. Deipnosophists was an early 3rd century Greek work which somehow managed to fuse the two genres of philosophy and cookery together in a fairly entertaining way, despite being fifteen books long. Maybe it was just the translation I used, but I was able to read quite a few chapters without wanting to pull my brain out through my eye sockets in boredom and confusion, as can sometimes happen with ancient philosophical texts (looking at you, Plato’s The Republic.)

A 17th century version of Deipnosophists depicting the fusion of philosophy and food: the birth of “Plat-ato”…

Put simply, Deipnosophists is a fictional account of the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus’ time at various banquets where he spoke with educated and philosophically minded guests. In it, he recalls the conversation between the guests on all manner of things, but one thing in particular stood out for me: the food.

Book seven is long and entirely dedicated to discussion of fish. Every kind of fish is discussed with various epithets attributed to them: “gold brow’d fish”, “sacred fish”, high-backed fish”, even “girl-like fish” (I don’t know why either.) In fact, fish are so exulted in this book that early on Athenaeus reminds us of the words of the 4th century BC Athenian poet Amphis: “Whoever buys some relish for his supper and, when he might get real genuine fish, contents himself with radishes, is mad.”

Equally important to bear in mind is the information that if you found yourself on Rhodes and came across the chance to eat a “fox-shark” you should resort to any means possible – even stealing – in order to taste it; according to one guest, the experience of tasting fat fox-shark can compose even those about to be executed and allow them to “meet [their] fate with brow serene and mind well satisfied.”

Despite all this talk of fish, there wasn’t a huge amount in the way of practical instructions from preparing it. The guests in Deipnosophists seem more interested in showing us how well travelled, how knowledgeable, how learned they are. Guidelines for preparing food are vague at best and often left open for interpretation. What I’ve done for today’s experiment, then, is to pick a selection of foods mentioned in book seven and form a sort of guesswork meal based on ingredients and cooking methods.

The experiment

One such “recipe” that stood out for me early on was for “dainty” fish soaked in oil and covered in marjoram which was then wrapped in fig leaves and cooked under hot ash. Elsewhere, another recipe following similar guidelines used prawns. I rang my mum, who is the proud owner of a long-suffering fig tree. It has never borne any fruit and until earlier this year we really thought it might die. Only a few months ago, when she moved it to another part of the garden in an effort to save it did it seem to come back to life and grow large leaves. No fruit, still, but lots of leaves.

“You know that fig tree you only just saved?” I started by asking.

“Yes…”

“Can I come round and hack some branches off it?”

Once her screams had died down I was able to explain that actually I only needed 10 leaves. We bartered for a while and eventually I was granted two large leaves, three medium ones and one small one “just for any gaps.”

The next dish I wanted to try involved tuna. Athenaeus told of a very simple recipe, supposedly belonging to the 4th century BC poet Archestratus, for roasted tuna sprinkled with salt that I thought would cook well in the heat of the BBQ once the smoke had stopped. This could be served with a “brine sauce”, but also went very well on its own.

I returned from my jaunt to the shop (via mum’s garden) laden with prawns, tuna steak and a few green bits to make it into a full banquet.

I started by lighting the BBQ, which was very exciting for next door’s dog, who I think gets a sausage every time next door does one of their own. But at lunchtime on a Monday, when they were both trying to work, hearing the whines and door scratching of Lulu the Lab for a solid twenty minutes was probably a bit annoying. Oh well, I thought, that’ll teach them to let her dig a hole under our fence.

While the flames were flickering higher and higher and Lulu was getting more and more excited at the possibility of a tasty, juicy sausage I got to work on the first fish dish: prawns wrapped in fig leaves.

[Take] a noble and dainty fish…wrap in fig leaves and soak it through with oil and over all with swaddling clothes of marjoram…and hid[e] it like a torch beneath the ashes.

The  Deipnosophistae

“Do these look noble and dainty to you?” I asked my husband, holding up a prawn against a fig leaf.

He smirked. “They’re not the biggest leaves in the world are they? No wonder Eve was disappointed in Eden…”

Absolutely useless, but he was so pleased with his joke I promised I’d put it in. Anyway, the smirk was wiped off his face when I showed him the larger leaves and pointed out that this one was in fact a small one.

No foil in ancient Greece, apparently.

With the prawns wrapped in fig leaves I turned my attention to the next dish – tuna. Now, I’m not going to lie and say this was the cheapest thing I’ve ever bought, because it wasn’t. I had no idea fish could be so expensive, but by the time the lady on the fish counter told me the price she’d already wrapped it out and printed that little sticky label so, as a true Brit, I was bound by the conventions of awkward politeness to accept the fishy parcel with a smile and a quick calculation that if we only ate beans on toast for the rest of the week it would even itself out.

That mighty fish [tuna], whose home is Byzantium. Cut it in slices, and then roast it all with accurate care, strewing on nought but salt most thinly spread; then sprinkle a little oil, then eat it hot, first dipping it in brine or if you like to eat them dry they’re good like the immortal gods in character…but if you once forget and vinegar add to them, then you spoil them.

The  Deipnosophistae

Because of the price tag I was very, very unwilling to go too off piste with the recipe. Not that there was a lot to go off piste with, but the fear was there. I sprinkled salt onto the tuna steaks, made a mental note not to add any vinegar to them, and set them aside to focus on the accompaniments.

Obviously I had to make something with radishes, if only to check I hadn’t gone mad. Spring onions were described in ancient Greece as early as the 4th century BC and it was believed that they had certain medicinal properties such as “balancing the blood” which could help prevent things going wrong with the body – handy, then, for putting right any temporary radish-related madness. I sliced the radishes finely using a side of the cheese grater I’d never really understood before now (you know the bit I’m talking about, don’t pretend), and put them in a bowl with the chopped spring onions. To this I added two tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and a dash of garum (nam pla).

Asparagus was also mentioned in Deipnosophistae along with its various medicinal properties. There were no cooking instructions but I knew it was renowned for being quick to cook thanks to the Augustan expression “as quick as cooking asparagus” to describe something as being fast. With this in mind I imagined that the ancient Greeks, especially Archestratus (of tuna recipe fame) who was renowned for promoting simplicity in food, would have cooked asparagus using the easiest method to hand. For this meal that meant dowsing them in olive oil and salt and placing them on a grate over the ashes of the BBQ to roast.

After fifteen minutes or so of the prawns cooking under the ash and the tuna and asparagus roasting on the grate above them I felt it was time to taste. Tentatively, I removed the coals and and pulled each fig parcel out of the pit. The tuna was placed on a plate with the asparagus and the radish mixture was brought to the table.

So satisfying to unwrap.

Firstly, let me say that unwrapping food from hot leaves, covered in ash and smelling vaguely of fruit and smoke was such a treat. I felt like a child opening a present it was that exciting. The prawns were a rich pink colour and surprisingly juicy considering they’d been right among the coals. There were little pools of moisture in the fig leaves from the meat juices which meant the prawns must have steamed and roasted at the same time. In terms of taste: delicious. The fig leaves did make a difference, albeit a subtle one. It was an unidentifiable sweetness, reminiscent of the sultana filling in peshwari naan, but much less noticeable.

The tuna was cooked to perfection, which I was doubly relieved about as it meant our money hadn’t been wasted and also that I’d managed to keep to Archestratus’ exceptionally vague instructions to “judg[e] by instinct of the time it takes to be completely done without being burnt.” Helpful, right? It was tender, juicy and so flavoursome that I double checked the recipe – surely these elegant and sophisticated tastes were modern creations, not ones that were thousands of years old?

I think this might be the best photo I’ve ever taken.

The asparagus was slightly crunchy – we ate the tips and left the very bottom of the stalks – but rich and oily and salty all the same. My husband squeezed some lemon over his asparagus but I abstained since there’s some debate as to whether lemons were used in ancient Greek cooking – the lemon was used in Roman cooking from the 1st century AD, but whether it made it into Greek recipes soon after is unclear.

I had to admit that by this point I was sure radish-hating Amphis had been right; who would ever choose a bowl of raw veg over meals such as this? And then I tried the radish and spring onion mixture. It was the perfect relish for the tuna – tangy and crunchy. I know that Archestratus had been very clear that adding vinegar to the tuna would ruin it, but maybe he hadn’t tasted good vinegar. Or maybe he had and it was my taste buds that were unsophisticated and uncultured (after all, Deipnosophistae was also known as the “The Learned Banqueters”, and I wasn’t sure I fit that description.) Whatever the case, the radish was so delicious that even after the fish had all been finished I was still eating it out of the bowl.

Okay, the skewers weren’t authentic, but I had a pepper and some spare prawns to use up.

Overall, this looked and tasted incredibly modern. Possibly that’s because I was allowed a little more creative freedom to interpret the recipes in this one, so I chose techniques and flavours that I’d be used to, but I’m not so sure. Rather, I think that ancient Greeks just knew really, really good food when they saw it. I will absolutely be making this again – just as soon as we’ve saved up enough for two more tuna steaks.

E x

Prawns in fig leaves

Two fig leaves per person
Three to four raw, shell off king prawns per fig leaf
Olive oil
Marjoram

Tuna steak with salt

Tuna steak (1 per person)
Salt
Olive oil

Accompaniments

200g Asparagus spears
150g radishes
4 spring onions
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Nam Pla
Salt

  1. Light a barbeque to give the flames a chance to die down.
  2. Rub each prawn with olive oil and cover with marjoram
  3. Wash the fig leaves and then place three or four prawns on the leaf. Fold the edged of the leaf over the prawns until you have a small parcel. Flip over so the the weight of the prawns keeps the fig leaf from opening up.
  4. Rub the tuna steaks with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.
  5. Grate the radish into slivers and chop the spring onions. Place both into a bowl.
  6. To the bowl add the oil, vinegar and nam pla. Stir well.
  7. Rub the asparagus with olive oil and salt. Place the asparagus on the BBQ.
  8. When the flames have stopped, carefully remove the grate with the asparagus on and move aside the charcoal and place the fig leave parcels on the bottom. Pile the ash and charcoal over the leaves.
  9. Replace the grate and turn over the asparagus to ensure all sides are cooked.
  10. Place the tuna steaks onto the grate with the asparagus. They will only need a few minutes on each side depending on how hot the BBQ is so keep an eye on them for when they start to flake.
  11. After ten to fifteen minutes of cooking (again, depending on the heat of your BBQ), the fish should be cooked. Remove the tuna, fig parcels and asparagus from the BBQ.
  12. Give the radish mixture one last stir and serve it all up.

2 thoughts on “A Fish Banquet: 3rd Century

  1. So the prawn recipe may prove to be my final reason for fruitlessly cultivating my figless fig for five (no it must be more) years in Manchester. I am delighted by this post. And your husband should be commended on his witticism. Wonderful stuff!

    1. Oh she’ll be so pleased to know she’s not the only owner of a figless fig! It’s been frustrating for her, but the prawns in figs were delicious – I would genuinely do them again next time I have a bbq (with fig leaves; I know in reality their role was to be like foil and stop them burning but i do think the leaves gave the prawns an aromatic edge that foil wouldn’t).

      My husband is pleased someone appreciated his joke – I just rolled my eyes!

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