Andrew Dalby’s Tastes of Byzantium (2010)
It’s always a good idea to be prepared, and here’s a book that covers an unlikely eventuality that would nevertheless be an exciting one. Should you find yourself puzzling over the bill of fare in a restaurant in medieval Constantinople, it contains a fifty page phrase-book of Byzantine foods and aromas!
This is a book full of interest. After providing a brief introduction to Byzantium, successive chapters discuss the tastes and smells of the city, its foods and markets, water and wine and monks and travellers, and rulers of the world, which gives an insight into life in the palace that could come in handy if you find yourseld summoned into the imperial presence. There follow translations of four very interesting texts on food, some instructions on preparing various dishes and recipes, and finally the phrase-book, the preparation of which was clearly an act of love by Dalby. I defy anyone not to be fascinated by its information. Among other things, it provides insight into the vocabulary used by people writing in a language that operates unsteadily between high and low registers. For bread, the classical word artos turns out to have been moderately more common among Byzantine writers on food than psomin, while the modern words for wine and water, krasin and nero, makes a very poor showing against the traditional oinos and ydor.
I was also very grateful to this book for clearing up a peculiarity in the letters of pope Gregory the great. Gregory refers to a drink called condignum which his friend, the patriarch of Alexandria, used to send him. Commentators have suggested that the drink could have been retsina, but I learn from from Dalby that the Byzantines drank a kind of spiced wine they called konditon or kondyton, and this must have been what the pope enjoyed. He even provides two recipes for it. According to the easier one, you grind an ounce of pepper into thirty pints of first quality wine, and then blend in ten pints of skimmed honey. I’m not sure that this sounds like a good idea.