Traditions of the ancient Greeks continue to echo through modern life, including food customs such as trahana. This combination of a grain and protein sustains modern Greek supermarket shoppers just as it did ancient travelers.
The temple of Delphi, where the ancient Greeks consulted their politically astute oracle, was once a month’s journey over land from Athens but can now be reached virtually overnight by boat through the Corinth Canal, provided the vessel is shallow and slender enough to slip between the narrow cliffs.
Delphi is no longer inaccessible but can be reached via the port of Itea by taking an hour’s coach ride with fellow tourists through a fertile valley with newly planted olive trees and almond trees. As the road rises into the mountains through pine trees with bee hives, snaking up near-vertical slopes in hairpin bends, the landscape becomes bleak and inhospitable, dotted with thorn bushes. It is dry as a desert, so it is impossible now to imagine the survival of any living thing, let alone a community of the size that occupied what are now the Delphic ruins.
The ruins are visible from a distance as planes of pale stone that reveal themselves, on closer inspection, as a vast stone pavement bordered by half-broken Corinthian columns. The semicircular amphitheater is perfectly angled toward the setting sun and a handful of semi-restored domestic buildings, all reached by a steep pathway heavily trodden by tourists’ feet.
There is a museum, of course, an elegant modern building in which rescued artifacts are displayed in cool white rooms. These include statues, fragments of bas-relief, drinking vessels, amphorae, domestic utensils and jewelry.
Eat like the ancients
In an anteroom, a line of screens displays information in Greek and Italian of the foodstuffs used by the temple-dwellers in the days of Homer. The medicinal plants available in region included lemon, bay, juniper, dianthus, unidentified wild fungi, opium poppy and disinfectant rosemary. There also was tilia, or lime-blossom, for soothing infusions. Hemp was grown for rope, genester for thread, and flax for cloth. Olives were pressed for oil and grapes, Vitis vinifera silvestris, for wine.
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Fruits enjoyed by the inhabitants were rose hips, quince and peaches. The little scarlet fruits of arbutus or strawberry trees were available, as were figs and pears, which were preserved in honey. There was also, on occasion, feasting on fresh meat from the temple offerings because the gods received the smoke and mortals consumed the substance.
More dependable protein, however, was goat’s or sheep’s milk consumed in the form of yogurt or cheese or conserved as a miniature grainfood, trahana. It is prepared by mixing wheat flour into a dough with some form of liquid, such as milk, yogurt or whey from the cheesemaking. It is then rolled or broken into little pieces and spread in the sun to dry.
Given the Delphic spring-water and a store cupboard full of trahana — protein and grain food in a single portable package — the Delphic community could survive without outside provisioning from one year to the next. This was an important consideration when the advice delivered by the oracle didn’t deliver as planned.
Sweet and savory versions of trahana are sold in most Greek grocery stores at home and abroad. Some households still prepare it in much the same spirit as Italians make their own pasta, because it’s good for you and you know what’s in it.
On Ithaca, the island that Ulysses called home, I watched trahana prepared in the old way, with a pestle and mortar for grinding the wheat and the cheesemaking whey used to bind the flour. The dough was then shaped into egg-sized balls turned daily till dry enough to crumble onto clean cotton sheets spread in the sun.
“A most convenient foodstuff,” said my informant, adding that if trahana is prepared in sufficient quantity, your family will never go hungry. Fishermen take it to sea in case they miss the evening tide. Travelers never leave home without it. Trahana, one might suppose, provisioned Agamemnon’s ships as they sailed to Troy to recapture runaway Helen.
1 pound flour
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Mix the eggs with your hand slowly into the flour and salt until you have a few pieces of very stiff dough. If you need more liquid, add a little water. If the mixture is too soft, add more flour. Leave the dough, covered with a cloth, to rest and dry out a little.
2. To use right away — perhaps as tiny dumplings to fortify a soup or as first food for a baby – grate the dough through the largest holes of a grater straight into the boiling liquid and they’ll take less than a minute to soften.
3. To dry trahana for storage, grate the dough onto a clean cloth over a roomy tray, allowing the gratings to fall loosely in a single layer like grains of barley. Leave them on the cloth for 2 to 3 days in a warm dry kitchen, tossing them lightly every now and again to keep the grains separate and allow them to dry evenly till they’re as hard as catapult pellets. Thereafter they can be stored in an airtight tin more or less forever.
To prepare dried trahana as porridge: Bring 1 pint milk and 1 pint water to the boil and stir in the above quantity of dried trahana. Simmer for 3 minutes or so, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Eat with honey and yogurt as a nourishing breakfast, or with grated cheese for supper.
To prepare as gratin: Toss the cooked trahana with butter or olive oil and spread in a heated gratin dish, sprinkle with grated cheese and bake in a hot oven — 450 F — for 10 minutes or till brown and bubbling.
To prepare as a risotto or pillau: Treat dried trahana exactly as you would grains of rice: fry them first with your chosen flavorings, then add the cooking liquid and simmer till soft.
Top illustration: The amphitheater at Delphi. Credit: Elisabeth Luard