Mediterranean Diet Post 9: Bread, The Most Important Component In The Greek Diet, Did Not Come Easily

In Greece in the 1960s, bread was eaten at almost every meal, as it had been for centuries. A person might eat between 2 to 3 pounds of bread a day, much like present-day Sardinians, a population known for their longevity.

The process of transforming wheat in a field to flour for bread is labor-intensive:

So, apart from the work of ploughing a field, sowing the wheat, and tending to it as it grows, you have to harvest it, dry it, thresh it, winnow it, and grind it. Then you can make bread with it, itself another several-day affair for people not using commercial yeast.

In the late 50s and early 1960s when Ancel Keys was collecting his information about diet, the people of Greece were still processing their wheat manually. In more rural areas, manual harvesting continued until after the 1980s: “After the 1980s, the importing of large agricultural machinery made the manual harvest obsolete. This transition would have happened earlier, probably in the sixties, in less remote and mountainous areas.”

Here is wheat being harvested, by hand, from Vintage Everyday, Everyday Life In Greece In The 1950s:

Wheat harvesting, Western Macedonia, June 1957

Wheat harvesting, Western Macedonia, June 1957

Here is harvested corn or wheat, I can’t tell, on its way to be threshed. Donkeys and mules were commonly used for transportation and farm work. (The photo is from Corfu, Greece, one of the cohorts in Ancel Keyes’ Seven Countries Study.)

Harvested wheat was taken to a threshing circle, called an alonia. These circles were usually situated on a windy high point, surrounded by valleys (where wheat was grown), so the threshed grain can be winnowed. The woman in the photo above may be traveling uphill.

All of the photos below, except for the last one, are from Explore Crete, Alonia, The Threshing Circles Of Crete, as is this excerpt:

The first major task was making the floor of the aloni smooth enough for the grain to be threshed and collected as a clean product. This meant remaking the floor each year before the harvest. … Making the floor of the circle smooth was big job, utilising all available resources of donkeys (15 I thought I heard! I need to use my imagination here) plenty water, hay, sheep to make mud, and children – presumably to help stir it all up with the straw and get dirty.

When the floor was ready, the threshing could begin. The crop of ripe wheat or barley is spread around on the floor of the circle. Then a volosiros is used, which is one of those wide, wooden, sledge-shaped objects with lethal looking spikes made out of either sharp flints or metal teeth. … The volosiros is dragged round the flattened wheat or barley by a donkey, breaking up the wheat and loosening off the grain. Next began the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. This was done manually with big flat wooden pitchforks, and if the wind was on the right side, the wheat would fall back into the circle and the chaff would be blown away as it was skilfully (so as not to land either outside the circle or in the next guy’s face) tossed in the air.

Separating wheat from chaff (Winnowing). Source: Only Crete

The grain had to swept up, packaged, and sent via donkey to a local mill for grinding. Windmills, water wheels, and donkeys were used to power grinding stones into the 20th century. The windy Greek islands are noted for their windmills.

You could also take some home to hand-grind:

All of the above is just wheat. They also harvested potatoes manually:

Potato harvest in Thebes, 1955. Source: Vintage Everyday

In between doing laundry:

Kastoria, November 1958. Source: Vintage Everyday

All of the above was within our lifetimes. It was certainly how things were done when what we call the traditional Mediterranean diet was being consumed. No electricity, no refrigerators, few automobiles.

Context is everything. If you’re eating the traditional Mediterranean diet, you’re eating 2 to 3 pounds of bread a day, and working pretty hard for that bread! As well as everything else you’re eating.

2 thoughts on “Mediterranean Diet Post 9: Bread, The Most Important Component In The Greek Diet, Did Not Come Easily

  1. Bix Post author

    Wow is right. The whole lifestyle is so different from today’s.

    Yes, they made sourdough bread. They used a starter which they kept going by feeding it. I have a starter that is now over a year old, I think, at least that. I feed it twice a week whether I use it or not. I found a great little video I’ll post from Dan Buettner of the Blue Zones.

    Reply

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