Saturday, 6 February 2016

A little bit of fun

This fortnight's Historical Food Challenge is History Detective - "For this challenge, you get to be the detective! Either use clues from multiple recipes to make a composite recipe, or choose a very vague recipe and investigate how it was made".

Since it is barbecue season in this hemisphere I've researched ingredients known from Linear B texts and come up with two marinade recipes for grilled meat.  We know the Mycenaeans enjoyed grilled meat, and while we can't conclusively say whether they used marinades it's not an unreasonable assumption.

Beef with saffron and coriander, and lamb with mint and cumin.

We don't have any recipes from Mycenaean Greece, which is deeply unfortunate because they probably had quite a sophisticated cuisine.  We do know a bit about the kinds of food they ate, partly from archaeological remains, and partly because a lot of food products were recorded on Linear B tablets.  The staple food was grain, and workers were paid in grain; they might also get olive oil and figs.  There were a wide variety of domestic animals including cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, although meat may have been a special occasion food for many people.  The elite got to enjoy a range of exciting spices, and probably a range of cooking techniques*.

Grilling meat on skewers the way modern Greeks make souvlaki was apparently common practice in Greece during the Bronze Age, and the Mycenaeans had a unique type of portable grill which archaeologists call a souvlaki tray.

Personally, I find the term "souvlaki tray" a bit misleading, because the meat wouldn't have tasted anything like modern souvlaki.  Souvlaki is made with lemon, which was not available in Greece at that time, and oregano, which may or may not have been available but is not attested in Linear B.  Based on the spices listed on Linear B tablets I would expect Mycenaean food to incorporate flavours we now associate with the Middle East, like cumin, mint and coriander.

Recipe 1 is flavoured with saffron and coriander, and I found it worked very well with beef.

Recipe 2 includes mint and cumin.  I used it to marinade lamb, and I think it might also be nice with pork.

The sign shaped like a T usually refers to a unit of weight equal to about 3 kilograms, but as Dr Richard Vallance has discussed this depends on context.  When it refers to spices it represents a much smaller quantity.  In these cases Vallance translates it as a gram (about a quarter teaspoon).  I've used it to refer to grams here, and I've also used it to represent mililiters, since a mililiter of liquid weighs close to a gram.  Mycenaean scribes sometimes did use weight measurements for liquids.

So here are the recipes in English:

Recipe 1

100mls red wine
50mls olive oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Around 20 saffron threads

Recipe 2

100mls red wine
50mls olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cardamom

Both recipes are made by simply combining the ingredients and marinading the meat for 4 hours or, ideally, overnight.  After that all you have to do is thread the pieces of meat onto skewers and barbecue them.

The Challenge: History Detective.

The Recipe: See above.

The Date/Year and Region: Greece, 1600 - 1100 BCE.

How Did You Make It: See above.  If you're unfamiliar with saffron, remember to soak the threads in a spoonful of warm water for a few minutes before adding them to your marinade.

Time to Complete: A few minutes to prepare, plus grilling and marinating time.  I suggest making the marinade the day before and leaving it overnight, especially with recipe 2.

Total Cost: $9 for a packet of saffron; all the other ingredients are ones I normally have in my kitchen.  In the Bronze Age, however, the saffron and other spices would have been eye-wateringly expensive.

How Successful Was It? Both recipes were very nice.  Recipe 1 is my favourite, but they're both good.

How Accurate Is It? As I said previously, these recipes represent my best guess as to what Mycenaean cooking might have been like.  It's an educated guess based on what we know about how the Mycenaeans prepared food and the ingredients they used, as well as my own experience of what makes a good marinade, but it is a guess.

* We know this because of the many types of specialised cooking vessel mentioned in Linear B tablets.  For more information see Lis, B. 2008.  "Cooked food in the Mycenaean feast - evidence from the cooking pots", published in Dais or available online here.


  1. Mmmm, marinated meat. Your proposed recipes sound tasty, and plausible for Mycenae, even if supporting evidence is limited.

    1. Yes, they did taste pretty good, and really I think "plausible" is the closest we're ever going to get with this period.

  2. Wow, I think you took the detective challenge to a whole 'nother ballpark! What an amazing idea! Congrats on tasty food and I am in awe at your research skills. Clearly you need to have a Mycenaean picnic and lounge around in tunics and eat grilled meat. :-P

    1. Thanks so much Tegan! That's really nice of you to say.