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Multidisciplinary approaches to food and foodways in the medieval Eastern Mediterranean

Sylvie Yona Waksman


The making of the Byzantine dinner

By a participant observer

Andrew Dalby

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1The idea of holding a Byzantine dinner as part of the POMEDOR conference was conceived in the initial POMEDOR project, but it really emerged from a meeting between Ilias Anagnostakis and Yona Waksman in Athens in December 2015. I know no more, but I allow myself to guess that it was a lively, wide-ranging discussion nourished by food and wine.

2Ilias is surely the most knowledgeable of all living scholars who have worked on Byzantine food and wine (e.g. Anagnostakis 2013). He was eager to help with the planning, but he already knew that he would be unable to come to Lyon in May 2016. At his suggestion Yona wrote to Andrew Dalby. Andrew happens to live in France, and, though a classicist rather than a Byzantinist, had written a short book on Byzantine food (Dalby 2003). Would he be prepared to help? He would, but Andrew is not a cook: he merely talks about food. He in turn suggested another name: Sally Grainger, a food archaeologist and chef, whose life work is the reconstruction of ancient flavours (Dalby & Grainger 1996; Grainger 2006). Sally and Andrew had worked together on Byzantine banquets twice before, in London long ago and at the Getty Villa in 2014.

3An informal buffet or something more elaborate? Early discussions were fruitful but academic, because no members of the group commanded the infrastructure required to cook and serve a dinner to a large party in Lyon. Without that infrastructure nothing would happen. However, at the beginning of March 2016, thanks to the patronage of chef Régis Marcon,1 Yona was able to announce to the others that she had reached agreement with its Director Dominique Giraudier to hold the Byzantine banquet just outside Lyon at the Château du Vivier in Écully, spectacular headquarters of the Institut Paul Bocuse, the greatest school of culinary arts in France.2

4In the same email Yona promised to arrange with potter Jean-Jacques Dubernard3 for replicas of Byzantine serving dishes to be on display and in use at the dinner. For some years Sally has been researching the nature and flavour of ancient fish sauce: naturally, therefore, her first demand was a gararion for serving hot oinogaron (fish sauce with wine) (p. 15). Yona responded with images of what she knew as a chafing-dish (p. 14):4 exactly what was needed. This was an early example of the interdisciplinary insights that were to multiply in these discussions and during the weekend of the conference itself.

5Given the setting, the idea of a buffet of Byzantine delicacies was abandoned. The dining room at the Institut Bocuse is the ideal setting for a formal dinner, and the students of its intensive “Worldwide Alliance” program would be the ideal waiters. One waiter per guest: what could be more Byzantine than that?

6The ambience, although French in dress, in setting and in silver service, would at the same time be medieval thanks to the spectacularly successful replicas of serving dishes, thanks also to the whole loaves of bread, authentically stamped as prosphora (the stamps supplied by a monastery of the mount Athos5 found by Ilias), to be broken by the guests’ own hands. The choice of wines developed from ideas of Ilias and Andrew, albeit diluted by French reality. The choice of dishes emerged from closely-argued discussions between Ilias, Sally and at least three figures from the Institut Bocuse, Alain Dauvergne, Maxime Michaud and Jean Philippon, together with Philippe Rispal who was in charge of operations there, with results that managed to retain considerable Byzantine authenticity.

7The wine first. Ilias named two wines made by Lyrarakis in Crete6 and one of these two was chosen and ordered, arrived in good time in Lyon, and was served, last in order, to the great pleasure of all who tasted it. Nowadays rarely encountered, and practically unknown outside Greece, it was a Malvasia (or malmsey) from the very region from which medieval Constantinople sourced its sweetest wines. Quite possibly (as observed by Andrew at dinner and footnoted by Nicholas Coureas) the Duke of Clarence was drowned in 1483 in a butt of this very wine.

8The two preceding wines, in deference to the world heritage status of French wine, were perforce French, yet with Byzantine connections. Eudokia Komnene, who travelled west to make a dynastic marriage and in 1180 was very unhappily married to William VIII of Montpellier, spent most of the rest of her life confined to the abbey of Aniane, where she probably often consoled herself with Picpoul de Pinet, that lively wine of the Coteaux du Languedoc. As for Eudokia’s younger contemporary, Agnes of France, the future Byzantine empress Anna, she on her journey to Constantinople in 1179 spent a night at the abbey of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire: her attendants perhaps drank deep of the red wine of Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil before one of them unluckily set fire to the abbey kitchen.

9Now to the food. Sally’s recipes will be found elsewhere in this volume, but the route by which each of them came to figure in the menu7 is worth recounting. Academics will, of course, eat anything, but Yona, aware that not all the guests would be academics, was a little nervous that some of the flavours would be too startling. There were tight negotiations on this issue, and negotiations with the Bocuse team over what can and cannot be served from French kitchens. But in the end I would say that we obtained what Yona was looking for: a menu and recipes based on the adaptation of Byzantine sources, in an environment evoking through different items and details the Byzantine table and culture. As each dish and each wine was served Andrew spoke to whet the appetite of participants, quoting sources, recalling historical contexts.

10The evening opened with spiced wine sweetened with honey. It was served to guests as they entered the château. Flavourings, chosen from Byzantine literary sources for a banquet in late spring, included pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and also two much rarer spices, cinnamon leaf (malabathrum to Romans, folia to Byzantine Greeks) and spikenard (nardostachys). It warmed the atmosphere.

11First to be served at the table, beautifully dressed by Alain Dauvergne and his students, were the pickles de légumes for which the recipe will be found on p. 14. The vegetables were for dipping, and they could have been served raw, but light cooking with honey, vinegar, salt and hot spices was appropriate historically and made them all the more interesting. The dip, presented in beautiful replica gararia in which it was warmed with a little charcoal, was oinogaron, fish sauce with wine, olive oil and well chosen spices. Sally herself brought the pitta bread and also the fish sauce (the finest “Red Boat” brand), not easy to find in Lyon or at least in Écully.

12The soup (pp. 58‑59) was based on a recipe set out in verse by the 12th century author of the Prodromic poems (Ptochoprodromos, poem 4, lines 204‑216). It is usually dismissed as fantasy, but Sally and the Institut Bocuse boldly made it real. “We have cabbage, leek, kohlrabi, feta, spring onions, poached quail’s egg, multiple species of fish guaranteed to include prawns, swordfish and mackerel, botargo and fake caviar, I suspect”, Sally wrote to me in pre-dinner discussions: “I doubt they can run to real [caviar]. All in a fish broth flavoured with garlic, saffron, cinnamon and ginger.” “It seems almost criminal to use caviar to flavour a soup”, I replied, “though no doubt the result will be stunning! The draft menu says œufs d’esturgeon, which ought to mean that it is real.” It was real, and so was the botargo, listed on the menu as poutargue in regional French. Both, as Sally predicted, amounted to “a sliver and a dot”, but the overall result was astonishing. “What a soup!” as the poet himself exclaimed.

13The main course appears in French on the menu as caille farcie en croûte. In English one might say “quail pie”, and while saying this one might wonder whether such a recipe could really be Byzantine. It was in fact a chef-d’œuvre from the 12th century kitchen of a member of the imperial Komnenos family, lovingly described in a letter by archbishop Eustathios of Thessalonike, as explained in the article by Ilias Anagnostakis (Anagnostakis, in this volume; Eustathios, letter 4, letter 5). There were disputes over this dish (recipe on p. 209): could such individual pies really be constructed, in edible pastry of varied and toothsome texture, as Eustathios describes? They trumphantly were. Should they be poussin or quail? Chefs must respond to supply as well as demand, and quail worked perfectly. Should the guests have their pies opened and their quails deconstructed for them? No: Eustathios describes the pleasurable shock of opening one’s own pie and revealing an almost-whole bird nested inside. Guests in Lyon experienced this shock; I know that one, at least, found the experience emotionally challenging, but all, eventually, faced the challenge. None regretted it.

14There were two desserts, and one of these was perhaps too bold an experiment. Kollyba is a Greek dish with an ancient history and a very special religious significance, a strange mixture of many grains and seeds served once a year in memory of the dead. Charles Du Cange, in his great Byzantine dictionary of 1688, gives it a whole column of closely printed quotations and commentary (Du Cange 1688, col. 686‑687). The earliest detailed recipe takes the form of a list of ingredients in verse by the same 12th century Prodromic poet (Ptochoprodromos, poem 2, lines 43‑45), but is it a complete list? Modern koliva is based on thoroughly cooked wheat grains and is topped with an abundance of sugary and spicy decoration. The Byzantine poet mentions no wheat, and the recipe (p. 401), following this hint, has no wheat and relatively little sweetness. It appeared to me that not very much of this kollyba was eaten.

15The second dessert was a runaway success, and it showed what wise chefs and good kitchens can do when presented only with the merest hints from medieval sources. The same poet mentions – but abstains from describing – a diplos sphoungaton. Which might be a “double omelette”; or it might, in the hands of Sally Grainger and Jean Philippon, be a sweet, succulent and aromatic omelette soufflée au safran et à la rose (pp. 400‑401). “I interpreted the double aspect as lightness and height”, Sally explained, adding that almonds and hazelnuts were among the ingredients as well as saffron and rose syrup. Not a mouthful of this remained on the table when the meal was finished.

16The great success of the Lyon Byzantine dinner was to have shown that Byzantine gastronomy, reinterpreted from literary texts and archaeology, can be recreated in a modern context and will give pleasure to contemporary diners. As an additional element in the cross-disciplinary studies of the medieval Eastern Mediterranean catalysed by the POMEDOR project, it was a natural, indeed an essential, part of POMEDOR’s closing conference.8


Anagnostakis 2013: Anagnostakis I. (ed.), Flavours and delights: Tastes and pleasures of ancient and Byzantine cuisine, Athens, 2013.

Anagnostakis, in this volume: Anagnostakis I., “What is plate and cooking pot and food and bread and table all at the same time?”, in Waksman 2020, pp. 211‑228.

Dalby 2003: Dalby A., Flavours of Byzantium, Totnes, 2003.

Dalby & Grainger 1996: Dalby A., Grainger S., The classical cookbook, London, 1996 (2nd ed. 2012).

Du Cange 1688: Du Cange C., Glossarium ad scriptores mediae et infimae Graecitatis, Lyon, 1688.

Eustathios: Kolovou F. (ed.), Die Briefe des Eustathios von Thessalonike, Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 239, Munich-Leipzig, 2006.

Grainger 2006: Grainger S., Cooking Apicius: Roman recipes for today, Totnes, 2006.

Istanbul 2007: Istanbul: 8,000 years brought to daylight: Marmaray, metro, Sultanahmet excavations, Istanbul, 2007.

Ptochoprodromos: Eideneier H. (ed.), Ptochoprodromos, Heraklion, 2012.


1 (accessed 28/11/2017).

2 (accessed 28/11/2017).

3 (accessed 28/11/2017).

4 Its model was taken from a chafing-dish found in the excavations of the Great Palace in Istanbul (Istanbul 2007, p. 150).

5 (accessed 28/11/2017).

6 (accessed 28/11/2017).

7 See the menu (design A. Dauvergne): byzance_final.pdf.

8 (accessed 28/11/2017).

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