Italian Cuisine and Greek Cuisine: The History, Differences, and Similarities of the Cuisine We All Love is a fascinating journey back in time that shows that there was a fusion of Greco-Italian cuisine in historical times that continues to the present day enough.
This is the sixth in a series of stories about the history of Greek food. In this second of three articles, we continue to trace the journey that formed the basis of the cultural identity of the Greek people.
By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
When after years of war the minds finally calmed down and the ancient Greek territory lived 27 years ago.
It was then that a unique gastronomic brand was created that represents the ancestor of the first common identity of the Mediterranean diet.
The integration of Greek cuisine and its way of life was not immediately received positively by everyone, despite the great admiration and curiosity that aroused among the Romans of the time.
This is especially true for politicians who feared the loss of Roman identity, such as Cato the Censor (the politician and general), who described the gastronomic and sociable Greek culture as too primitive and “impure”.
Earthier Greek cuisine combined with Roman refinements
However, after all skepticism was overcome, the introduction of Greek recipes and customs began, including the introduction of the culture of using the fruit of the olive tree, which until then, incredibly, was only used by the Romans for religious purposes.
At that time, however, Greek wine was preferred; Even in pre-Hellenistic times, the Greeks had used sea water as an additive to fermented grape juice.
In addition, wine yeast was also introduced into the culture of Roman bread-making.
Various sauces for legumes and vegetables soon conquered the Roman palate, such as gÃ ron (Î³Î±ÏÎ¿Î½), a sauce made from salted fish and its entrails.
Another important import by the Romans at this time of the Greco-Roman culinary fusion was the custom of a personal cook in the more aristocratic houses as a symbol of great wealth and attention to all that is good and beautiful.
At the same time, the Greek food culture was positively influenced by the introduction of Roman elegance and grace, which even then shaped the ideal of conviviality.
It must be said that the Greeks of the time had a more crude attitude towards the experience of eating: in fact, eating was only a pleasure and spiritual enrichment for the highest social classes, while for the rest of the population it was only food, urgently needed for those who do physical labor.
A great example of this concept would be the Î¼ÎµÎ»Î±Î½Î±Ï Î¶ÏÎ¼Î¿Ï (mÃ¨lanas zomÃ²s) or
black broth based on meat, vinegar and pig’s blood, used by the Spartans in the war to give the necessary energy for battle.
With the arrival of Roman culture in their country, the Greeks learned the importance of adding a touch of sophistication to the dishes they consumed, which gave importance to presentation, even at outdoor banquets.
The end of the Byzantine Empire marked an enormous cultural division in Europe
The Greco-Roman cuisine remained the most important figurehead of these countries in the following centuries until the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453: this was the first great historical division of European gastronomic culture.
With the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, Greece was suddenly stripped of its own culinary identity by accepting and incorporating the Ottoman world for 400 years.
In the meantime, the Italian countries began a journey that allowed them to have cultural exchanges and experience periods of artistic and culinary development that led to the foundation of today’s traditional and regional cuisine in Italy.
Indeed, the difference between the two culinary realities, Greek and Italian, lies in this historically imposed distance that began centuries ago.
Even today, Greek cuisine shows many similarities with Turkish cuisine, not only in the recipes and in the usual traditional dishes, but above all in the preparation processes and the spices used. This can be seen in the heavy presence of roast meat and a large use of spices (such as allspice and cumin) typical of Anatolian cuisine and the countries of the old Ottoman Empire.
Greek cuisine is a cultural crossroads
Today, Greek gastronomy represents a very important cultural hub, strongly combining Mediterranean ingredients with the old culinary spirit of the region and the recent cultural infiltrations of Asia Minor and the Balkan Peninsula.
The Italian territory, on the other hand, has managed to assert itself strongly as an artistic home over the centuries, strengthening its own culinary identity and leaving just enough room for development.
This is evident both in the techniques used, which have many Spanish and French influences, as well as in their philosophical relationship with food, which always puts it at the forefront of its own identity.
Italy is a unique country, but it has many cultural variations that have absorbed different gastronomic influences over the centuries, thus creating a unique culinary identity in its many regional facets.
Many similarities between Greece and Italy have been re-established in the last few decades thanks to a path of culinary rapprochement between the two countries – mainly from Greece, which has always been fascinated by the Italian gastronomy of today.
Greece’s lighter pastries today with more Italian influences
Indeed, in today’s Greek family life, more and more elements of the Italian footprint are found: the use of pasta and rice as a main course rather than as a side dish; the increase in the presence of beef as a substitute for sheep and pork; and in the habit of consuming lighter baked goods that are no longer restricted to oriental influences (the best-known example of this is baklava, made from pastries, syrup, honey, dried fruits, and nuts).
From an organizational point of view, Greek cuisine is increasingly trying to adapt to Italian customs: the division into starters, first and second courses is becoming more and more popular and replaces the concept of banquet from food, which is still very present in the interpretation, in Greece today.
The new generations are now used to the ritual of the aperitif and are replacing the more classic ouzo (a dry distillate with a high alcohol content) with mezedes (various selections of small samples such as olives, tzatziki and feta), with Italian spritz and finger food.
As for gastronomy, the Italian trend of recent years to create a conscious and much more productive economic system is becoming a valid example of the Greek tourism industry, which may not yet be adapted to an innovative and fast-moving market like today.
The two realities are still linked by the Mediterranean identity and character, a never-lost common spirit that unites both countries and cultures.
The attitude and way of life of the kitchen make these two countries examples of gastronomy, conviviality and spirituality, even in a culinary world that is becoming more and more modern and less traditional.
Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. You can find his Instagram page here.