An ancient Greek poet, fasting foods, and a recipe from Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed

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Hesiod and the muses dancing on Mount Helicon (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

fools all! who never learned
how much better than the whole the half is,
nor how much good there is
in living on mallow and asphodel.
-Hesiod

When last I posted, I promised that next I would explore a bit of the history and use in Greece of the yellow split pea, the mighty little legume that serves as the base for Fava, a delicious vegetarian dish common on the Lenten table. I will get to that, but last night I stumbled upon the above quote, from the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, while thumbing through Patience Gray’s classic tome, Honey from a Weed,  and, well, my intent became a bit muddied.

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In Honey, a wild and sensuous memoir-cookbook, Gray describes living on the Greek island of Naxos as well as in Tuscany, Catalonia and Apulia in the 1960s. She had abandoned her native England to join her lover, the Belgian sculptor Norman Mommens, whose appetite for marble led the couple to follow a vein of it through the Mediterranean. There the two lived simply but beautifully off the foods Gray cultivated and foraged while Mommens quarried and sculpted his beloved stone.

“Good cooking,” Gray wrote, “is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons…Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.”

Hauling her own water, coaxing what crops she could from the stony earth, and preparing local dishes, Gray came to understand the cooking of these places as she never would have from afar.

On Hesiod’s quote, Gray said: “If you are poor and proud enough the half can be made to seem far better than the whole. And if you live among Greeks for long it is pride you are chiefly up against. Poverty at all times stared one in the face. It was a way of life diametrically opposed to the wishful thinking that a consumer society inspires…Each household (in Greece) was more or less self-sufficient, their purchases being limited to paraffin for lamps and cooking, salt, sugar, soap, tobacco, flour, rice, spaghetti, coffee, and during fasting times compulsory tarama and slabs of halva.”

Gray, of course, was writing in the 1960s and even then in the past-tense about Greece, but I find her descriptions to be relevant today. Visit an average house in the village we call home part of each year (or on the island of Spetses, where I spent part of my childhood, or likely throughout much of rural Greece) and you’ll find that the list of provisions she describes still applies. Add to it a television, usually small and boxy, circa 1990-something, perhaps some sweets, and you’ve just about got it.
ImageBut to bring the discussion around again to fasting and, yes, yellow split peas…

Yellow split peas are a variety of the pod fruit, Pisum sativum, or field pea, and are part of the legume family. One of the world’s earliest cultivated food crops, split peas have been a staple in Greece since antiquity. (The field pea still grows wild in Iran, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.)

In Siren Feasts, an excellent history of food and gastronomy in Greece, Andrew Dalby writes that split peas were cultivated in Greece as early as 6,000 BC. I’ve also read that vendors sold bowls of split pea soup from large, steaming vats on the stone-paved streets of ancient Athens. The soup is even mentioned by the playwright Aristophanes in “The Birds” written in 414 BC. Today, the legume is still παντού (everywhere) in Greece, making frequent appearances on tables in tavernas and homes throughout the country, particularly during fasting times.

Split peas are small but nutritionally mighty, chock full of B vitamins, protein, isoflavones, soluble fiber and virtually no fat. They’re good for the heart, the digestive system and for preventing a slew of diseases, from diabetes to cancer.

Although split peas are grown throughout much of Greece, the island of Santorini is perhaps most famous for their cultivation. Nourished by the island’s rich volcanic soils and naturally sun-dried, the yellow split peas of Santorini were included on the European Union’s list of “Protected Designation of Origin” foods because of their unique flavor and history.

Shortly after commenting on Hesiod’s quote in Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray gives a recipe for another common and nutritious fasting dish, Fasolakia. I’ve already posted one recipe for Fasolakia here, but Gray’s is different. For one thing, it’s made with fresh white haricot beans. For another, it comes with no small amount of commentary and local color. In Ms. Gray’s words, the recipe…

Fasolakia
“When there was a crop of fresh haricot beans Angelos (Gray’s neighbor and friend) sent his daughter Kalliope armed with a large saucepan, 2 kilos (4 ½ pounds) of fat white beans, some fresh tomatoes, a few large onions, two big potatoes, parsley, celery fronds and basil, with instructions to give me a perfect example of how to cook them. There was only one way of doing this. Kalliope was 16, very correctly brought up, and made me feel that piety in culinary matters was a specific for preserving life.

The beans were immersed in cold spring water in the enormous pot. Those that floated to the surface were discarded. She lit the outdoor fire in the little courtyard, boiled up the beans with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. After cooking vigorously for twenty minutes the water was poured through a colander onto the path outside and the beans were rinsed in cold water.

She then covered the bottom of the pot copiously with olive oil, chopped up celery and parsley and put them in. She put the pot on a steady fire and proceeded to add the beans, the onions cut in rounds, the potatoes peeled and diced, the tomatoes peeled and cut up, the branch of basil, some sea salt and enough water to cover them. This done, she put on the lid, put more wood on the fire and we went down to the beach. An hour later the fire had expired, the fresh beans were tender, white, delicious and just immersed in a fragrant sauce.

The quantity, however, was so copious that at evening I took some to our neighbour who lived in a walled fruit garden across the onion fields, the old Erynni, who, brought up with prejudice and believing them to be cooked by me and foreign in consequence, later threw them to the pig.”

With that, I wish you Καλό Σαββατοκύριακο (happy weekend) and καλή όρεξη (good appetite)! And, as ever, ευχαριστώ (thank you) for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.

8 thoughts on “An ancient Greek poet, fasting foods, and a recipe from Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed

  1. Good morning Lexy!
    What an interesting blog–I am learning so much about such simple foods and their preparation. Honey from a Weed will be on my reading list. Also, is the yellow split pea different in flavor than the green split pea which I am familiar with?
    Eileen

    • Good morning, Eileen! Thank you! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog! Some say there’s no flavor difference between the two varieties of split peas, but to me, there’s a difference. I have to admit to not liking the green, but I do love the yellow! I find the yellow to be nuttier, perhaps a bit milder than the green. In Fava, the yellow peas are really complimented nicely by the olive oil, onions and garlic we dress them with.

  2. another beautiful post! I am fascinated by the legumes. Delicious, healthy, versatile, cheap, yet also so mysterious… I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who actually grew any in their garden, and yet they are everywhere in abundance. I’ve never seen seeds in garden stores even (and I’m pretty sure that if plant the yellow split peas as is, nothing will happen!). They’re “grown” in the passive voice, but by whom? :P

  3. After having read your post I promptly went into my pantry and found a jar of yellow split peas and followed the recipe…so yummy! My alternative therapist recommends a diet for me that eliminates sugars, starches (not a new thought) and chock full of vegetables and olive oil…so I am trying to follow her advice, but you know how difficult it is in America because I also insist on organic and locally grown not easily found in our high altitude abode.

    What category would you place legumes? Are legumes pulses?

    Did you notice the muse with the frame drum in the tableau with Hesiod above?

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