Cooking vol. 3: Archestratus of Gela (330 b.)

Food scout and product freak: Archestratus, the most important culinary author of antiquity, is also the most modern. Deeply convinced that good cooking begins with the best ingredients, he knows the specialties of all the regions and markets of the world at that time. He vehemently rejects excessive seasoning and too much chichi. The history of European culinary art would have been different if his cookbook "Life in Luxury" had been handed down in more than just a few fragments.

4 mins read

The creator of gastronomy

Drinking cup (kylix) with young man fishing, c. 510-500 BC

Archestratus also came from Sicily, the culinary hotspot of ancient Greece. However, he does not speak well of the cuisine of his compatriots: They had no idea how to properly prepare a catfish, for example – because they would completely ruin it with cheese, vinegar and spices. After all, cheese with fish was one of the garnishes that his predecessor Mithaecus had recommended. At least, in this matter Archestratus prevailed permanently. For Italians, the combination is still a no-go. Otherwise, he did not have many successors. His demands are too rigid, too detail-oriented – especially in a field that did not have the best reputation among many contemporaries.

Only 62 fragments of the Archestratus have survived. We owe them to Athenaios of Naukratis, who included them in his extensive work “The Philosophers at Dinner”. For all his distance, he respectfully calls him the “Daedalus of tasty dishes” after the most imaginative inventor in Greek mythology. He also quotes other philosophers who speak of Archestratus՚ “gastronomía” and “gastrología”, literally “gastric law” and “gastric science”. This is the first evidence of the term gastronomy before being rediscovered in 18th century France. This gastronomy of the Archestratus is, according to the Athenaios, the “heart of the Epicurean philosophy” of which he is the “precursor”.

“The experience of the sweet things”

“Krater of the tuna seller”, 380-370 BC

There is not much that we know about Archestratus. Unlike Mithaecus, who communicates his recipes briefly and laconically, from cook to cook, so to speak, the latter writes in hexameters. This form of poetry was hardly mastered by simple cooks, moreover, in Greece it was not read in the quiet chamber, but recited at symposia, the ancient drinking parties. The participants were rich citizens who did not cook themselves. Archestratus also seems to have come from such a class, otherwise the elaborate use of hexameter cannot be explained. It is a paradox that we cannot solve today: Not a cook himself, an author writes an instructional poem that deals primarily with the purchase and preparation of food, without that should actually interest his audience.

First Italian translation of the fragments of the Archestratus from 1842

But perhaps the effect of these verses at the time corresponded to today’s reading of gourmets who appreciate cookbooks by three-star chefs without even dreaming of realizing the recipes themselves? Archestratus, at any rate, is all about pleasure from beginning to end. “Living in luxury” is the common translation of “Hedupathia,” as his book is called in the original Greek. More accurately, it would be “the experience of sweet things” – and it is precisely this theme that seems to have fascinated his audience. But because Archestratus emphasizes it, he polarizes even more than his predecessor Mithaecus. Even Anthenaios, who will still quote him extensively some five hundred years later, clearly shows his moral disapproval, whereas all technical details and facts seem to fascinate him. Other authors mention Archestratus in the same breath as the author Philainis, who had written a book about the different positions in the act of love.

A gastronomic trip around the world

Dionysus bowl of Exekias, 540-530 B.C.

Archestratus, in any case, knew what he was writing about. It is believed that he himself visited all 60 places mentioned in his gastronomic journey around the world: Lake Copaïs in Boeotia, home of the tastiest eels, the famous Byzantion with its phenomenal year-old tuna, Phaleron and its tasty anchovies, Ambrakia in the Ionian Sea and its scallops, or the oyster beds of Abydos in the Dardanelles. Again and again the text is about how he visits the local markets and buys the best local products. But the right origin is only the first step. Archestatus continues to ask in search of the optimal product. In which season does which fish taste best? And at what age … and which cut or texture: head, back or belly. And finally which preparation? In the fragments of “Life in Luxury” we encounter a product ethic that seems almost Japanese to us today, but was almost uncanny to contemporaries.

And if you come to the holy city of famous Byzantion, I urge you again to eat a steak of peak-season tuna; for it is very good and soft.

Fresco of a procession from Akrotiri, around 1,600 BC.

The concentration on sea creatures also appears Asian; the majority of the recipes deal with fish or crustaceans. This is based, however, on the fundamental division of Greek-ancient cuisine into a sacred and a profane cuisine: into the ritual for the gods on the one hand, in which the sacrificial meat slaughtered and prepared by special “Mageiroi” was consumed, and into the communal meal, which was prepared by cooks and in which, on festive occasions, a distinction was made between the Deipnon, the main meal, and the subsequent symposium with wine accompaniment, also with regard to the food served. Fish was considered the luxurious highlight here, and Archestratus devotes special attention to it, even though he also has recipes for hare and goose, which were not considered sacrificial animals.

Product ethics and intrinsic taste

Imaginary portrait bust of Archestratus by Roberto Tascone

In doing so, he respected the inherent taste of the products through restrained seasoning and little addition of sauces, two thousand years before this was to become the most important category of the culinary art again with Nicolas de Bonnefons at the court of Versailles. In fact, Anchestratus himself will probably have experienced the new luxury as it flowed from the East to the West after Alexander the Great’s march to Persia and India, characterized by the strongest flavors and products whose culinary value consisted only in their rarity. His heir will then be the Roman Apicius, whose completely over-seasoned cuisine has determined our culinary image of antiquity and in whose spell Europe should stand for over a thousand years.

The plate: Bonito in fig leaves

Archestratus is talking about the Frigate tuna, a relative of mackerel and tuna, which are common in the Mediterranean Sea. Fig leaves and bonito are rarely on the market together in Germany, so a photo of the plate must follow later.

The bonito in autumn when the Pleiades set, you can prepare in any way you please. . . . But here is the very best way for you to deal with this fish. You need fig leaves and oregano (not very much), no cheese, no nonsense. Just wrap it up nicely in fig leaves fastened with string, then hide it under hot ashes and keep a watch on the time: don’t overcook it. Get it from Byzantium, if you want it to be good.

Archestratus, fragment 35

Image copyright:

Feature image: Lancelot Théodore Turpin de Crisse: Vue imaginaire d’un port antique. Collection particulière, Paris

Kylix: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Krater: Museo Mandralisca, Cefalù

Dionysus Cup: State Collection of Classical Antiquities, Munich, Germany

Portrait bust: Roberto Tascone, Antopignato, CC-BY-SA-4.0


Archestratus: The Life of Luxury. Translated with an introduction and commentary by J. Wilikins and S. Hill, Blackawton 2011.

Andrew Dalby: Food in the ancient world from A to Z. London and New York 2003.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog