Sunday, 21 August 2016

Homeric kykeon

Kykeon (κυκεών in Greek) is a drink made from barley, herbs, and sometimes wine.  It was a popular everyday drink in Classical Greece, although it was considered a bit low-class.  There are a couple of different recipes for kykeon in ancient Greek texts, because it was mentioned in Greek mythology.  

This is undoubtedly one of the weirdest things I've ever consumed.  What's that white stuff in it, you ask?  Grated cheese, of course.

Kykeon made with barley and pennyroyal was a central component of the Eleusinian mysteries.  According to mythology the goddess Demeter consumed this drink to ease her grief at losing her daughter; pennyroyal can be used as a mild sedative.  During the Eleusinian religious festival humans consumed kykeon as part of the initiation process.  This kykeon obviously had some special additives not usually present in everyday versions of the drink, because the Eleusinian initiates' experiences show that it was psychoactive.  It's often suggested that Eleusinian kykeon may have contained ergot, but there are other psychoactive ingredients that were available in ancient Greece and could have been used.  

In the Iliad 
(XI, 638–641and the Odysssey (X, 234), kykeon was made with wine and grated goat cheese as well as barley.  In the Iliad kykeon is served to Nestor and his companions, and in the Odyssey Circe gives it to Odysseus' men.  Of course, Circe's kykeon contains a drug which incapacitates the sailors and allows her to turn them into boars.  Some scholars probably interpret Circe's potion as a hallucinogen, but personally I don't see a need to rationalise the story into something that could have actually happened.

My kykeon is the Homeric kind, made with wine, and it most definitely doesn't contain ergot.  I like to think I'm a reasonably adventurous eater, but I have my limits.  

People who have made kykeon attest that the way to do it is to put all the ingredients in a pot and stir them together over a heat source, so that's what I did.  I cooked wine and barley flour on a low heat until the mixture thickened up, then I grated goat cheese over the top.  The cheese didn't melt, because goats' milk has a different protein structure to cows' milk and won't melt no matter what you do with it, but it did break apart into particles that mixed in with the kykeon.

The result was surprisingly palatable.  It smelled really good while it was cooking, and tasted mostly of wine with a little sweetness from the barley.  The grated cheese seems weird, but in fact it was quite good.

The Challenge: Myths and legends.

The Recipe: Wine and barley flour simmered together for 10 minutes, with grated cheese on top.

The Date/Year and Region: The Homeric epics were written down in the 8th or 7th century BCE, but they are set in the Late Bronze Age.  It's possible that the recipe dates back to the Late Bronze Age and I'm inclined to think it probably does, because the Iliad gives the recipe along with a very accurate and detailed description of Mycenaean furniture, but it's impossible to know for sure.

How Did You Make It: I put everything in a pot and simmered it for 10 minutes, stirring constantly.

Time to Complete: Ten minutes.

Total Cost: All the ingredients were ones I already had on hand in my kitchen.

How Successful Was It? While it's definitely a strange concoction by 21st century standards, it wasn't at all unpleasant. 

How Accurate Is It? I cheated by using an electric stove and stainless steel saucepan.  Other than that, I followed the recipe in the Iliad, but it's difficult to say how closely my kykeon resembles the original in terms of consistency and flavour.  The Homeric epics specifically state Pramnian wine was used to make kykeon, so I chose a rich, dark, relatively sweet wine (Peter Yealand's 2014 Merlot - it's a nice wine and I recommend it), because apparently that's what Pramnian wine was like.


  1. Interesting! I wouldn't have thought that barley flour in wine with cheese would be very palatable. Kudos to you for trying it out.

    1. I wouldn't have thought it would be palatable either, but life is full of surprises. I'm glad I gave it a try.