Notes from a Chef: The Convergence of Italian and Greek Cuisines
Despite their geographical and cultural closeness, Italian and Greek cuisines have taken different paths throughout their history. But now their cuisines are becoming linked closer together as Greeks incorporate more and more aspects of Italian cuisine.
When, after years of war, tempers calmed down and the Ancient Greek territory became a province of the Roman Empire in 27 BC there was a strong fusion between the two cultures, especially in the habits and customs of daily life and there began the construction of an unique gastronomic stamp which constitutes the ancestor of the first common identity of the Mediterranean diet. The integration of Greek cooking, despite the great admiration for it by most Romans, was not immediately viewed favorably by all: especially by politicians who feared the loss of Roman identity at the time, such as Cato the Censor (a politician and general) who pointed out the gastronomic and convivial Greek culture as too primitive and impure. Once all skepticisms were overcome, the introduction of Greek recipes and customs began. First the habit of using the fruits of the olive tree was introduced, although it used by the Romans mainly for religious purposes. Greek wine was preferred for its durability and ease of preservation, since as early as the pre-Hellenistic era the Greeks used sea water as an additive to the fermented grape juice. Moreover, wine yeast was introduced in the culture of Roman bread making. Various sauces accompanying legumes and vegetables entered the palate of Romans, such as gàron, a sauce based on salted fish and its entrails. Another strong import by the Romans was the custom of a personal chef inside the more aristocratic homes, as a symbol of high wealth and attention to the taste of good food. At the same time, the Greek culture of food was positively influenced by the introduction of the Roman class and grace which already at the time characterized the perspective of high culture. Greek people of the time had more crude attitudes: in fact food was a pleasure and a spiritual enrichment, as mentioned before, only for the highest social classes, while for the rest of the population was only used as sustenance, especially for physical strengthening: Great example the “mèlanas zomòs”or a black broth with a base of meat, vinegar and pig’s blood, used from the Spartans in war in order to gain the necessary energy in combat. With the arrival of Roman culture Greeks learned the importance of giving refinement to the dishes consumed and giving importance to the presentation, even outside banquets. The Greco-Roman cuisine remained the main cuisine for the following centuries, until the end of the Byzantine empire in 1453 when the first real big split of the European gastronomic culture occurred.
With the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, Greece was strongly deprived of its own culinary identity by accepting and incorporating the Ottoman world for 400 years; whereas the Italian territory began a journey which allowed it to have cultural exchanges and to go through periods of artistic, and gastronomic, development, which led to the base of today's traditional and regional cuisine. The difference between the two culinary realities, Greek and Italian,in fact is due to this historically imposed detachment. Greek cuisine still today has many similarities with Turkish cuisine, not only in the recipes or in the common traditional dishes, but above all in the processes of preparation and in the condiments, with a strong presence of frying in the cooking mainly towards meat and a great use of spices (such as pimento and cumin), typical of Anatolian cuisine and of the countries of the old Ottoman empire. Nowadays, Greek gastronomy represents an important cultural crossroad which strongly binds Mediterranean raw materials and the ancient culinary spirit, to the most recent cultural influences of Turkey and the Balkans. The Italian territory, on the other hand, has managed over the centuries to strongly impose itself as an artistic homeland, consequently reinforcing its own gastronomic stamp, leaving the right space for evolution: both under the aspect of techniques, with many Spanish and French influences, and under the aspect of philosophical thought related to food, always putting it at the highest places of its own identity. A unique territory but culturally varied, which over the centuries has been able to accept various gastronomic influences, thus arriving at a unique culinary identity in its many regional facets. Many similarities between the two cultures have been recovered in the last decades, thanks to a path of culinary realignment between the two countries, mainly from Greece, which has always been very fascinated by the Italian gastronomy of today. In today's Greek family life, in fact, one can find more and more elements taken from the Italian footprint: the use of pasta and rice as main dishes and no longer as a side dish; the increase in the presence of beef as a substitute to sheep and pork; the habit of consuming lighter pastry products, no longer limited to oriental influences ( the best known example is baklava, made of pastry, syrup, honey and dried fruit). Even in terms of organization, the Greek population is increasingly trying to align themselves with Italian habits: the subdivision into a starter, first and second course is becoming increasingly popular, replacing the concept of a banquet,which is still present in the way of interpreting a meal even today. The new generations are now accustomed to the ritual of the aperitif: replacing the more classic ouzo with mezedes (various selections of small samplessuch as olives,tzatziki and feta), with Italian Spritz and finger food. As far as the world of catering is concerned, the Italian trend of recent years in create a conscious and much more productive economic system is becoming a valid example for the Greek tourist industry,which is perhaps still not adapted to an innovative and fast-moving market such as todays.
The two realities still remain linked by the Mediterranean identity and character, a common and undying spirit that unites both countries and both cultures. The attitude and the way of living the cuisine, makes these two countries examples of gastronomy, conviviality and spirituality, even in a culinary world which is increasingly modern and less and less traditional.