Once a year, the Getty Villa, Los Angeles’ leading (and only?) antiquities museum puts on an event celebrating historical food culture. For me, these are at a nexus of my interests, being (surprise!) such a foodie as well as a history buff.
This year’s event showcases the food of Byzantium. Sadly, most Americans are barley aware of this empire that (off and on) ruled half the western world for 1100 years, and is in itself the 3rd of 4 phases of the 2,500 year old Roman Empire (combining Republican, Roman Imperial, Byzantine, and Ottoman phases). But that’s history. What about the food?
Food scholar Andrew Dalby has a new book on the topic, Tastes of Byzantium, and before the meal he spoke for an hour on the topic. Essentially, Byzantine food is a mid point between the complex sweet / salty / herbed Roman cuisine and modern Greek and Turkish (i.e. Mediterranean) food. A few years ago I went to a similar event on Roman food too where he talked.
The dinner is located in the central courtyard of the lovely Getty Villa main building, a reconstruction based on the famous Villa di Papyri near Naples.
And the meal was accompanied by lovely Byzantine secular music, of which you can hear a sample.
This pomegranate juice was delicious. I had about 5 glasses (sugar rush!). I suspect, however, that the original historical variant was probably less sweet, or even if sweetened, wouldn’t have been with one of our modern easy dissolving versions (they probably used simple syrup). It might have been honey in the old days, which is very different.
Appetizers include figs, walnuts, and these incredibly delicious marinated green olives stuffed with honey, vinegar, and thyme.
Kalamata olives. Having just recently returned from Greece (and Kalamata), I can say that Kalamata olives are the best black olives I’ve ever had.
Multigrain bread with olive oil from Costa Navarino.
Grilled Eggplant with shaved bottarga and lemon vincotto. Coriander, parsley, oregano, and olive oil. The sweet, salty, herby notes here are distinctly Roman — but they are also representative of elements of both modern Greek food and of certain Italian dishes, particularly in rural areas.
Our wine selections are modern Greek. This white was typically quafiable and a good pairing.
Scallop and Caviar. Seafood foam of cream and egg whites, fish sauce, dill, fennel, minted pea puree, and crispy shallot.
This was a nice dish. Somehow it felt modern. I have to assume that even if the basic dish is ancient, the plating is highly modern. Individual plating entered Western Europe from Russia in the early 19th century, so I’m betting that Byzantine food was served (even at the Imperial level) from an elaborate central arrangement on the table. Still the tastes may be fairly authentic. Byzantine food apparently continued in the Greek and Roman tradition of liberal use of Garum, only loosing this important condiment with the Ottoman Conquest (1453). Garum is a salty/fishy sauce made from fermented fish innards that was used to add salt and umami to dishes for at least 2,000 years.
This Greek red reminded me of an Aglianico.
Cumin and Fennel rubbed lamb chop and loin. Oinogaros (fish sauce, dill, coriander, thyme, red wine, honey, costus). Garnished with pickled cabbage and leeks.
Pallekaria. Chickpeas, black-eyed beans, and fava beans with fresh parsley, dill, onion, and lemon.
This was a fabulous dish, and very interesting. The lamb was very tasty with a nice herby note (I have to assume they toned down the fish component of the Oinogaros for the modern palette). The salad was very unusual and lovely. It had a vinegary, herby quality and seemed to settle the stomach.
Rice pudding with whipped cream and honey. Sugared almonds, cherries, and candied citron.
I don’t know how authentic this one was, but it was a fabulous rice pudding (of which I’m a fan). The nuts and candied fruit added both texture and sweetness, plus a sort of Sicilian vibe that was vaguely reminiscent of a good cannoli. This is probably not unrealistic as Sicilian cuisine is one of the more traditional Italian zones and had many of the same influences as medieval Greece (Greek, Roman, Crusader, Arab).
All in all, this was a very interesting evening. Not necessarily as hedonistic as many of my dinners, but both tasty and highly intellectually interesting. The authentic past is lost, an elusive reality that shimmers all about us, but remains only in glimpses. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to bring even a part of it into blurry focus.sharethis_button(); ?>