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Herbs, Greens Fruit. The Key to the Mediterranean Diet – Part 1

What Are Herbs?

According to the Oxford dictionary herbs are all the useful plants whose leaves, roots, stems and flowers are valued as food or medicines by dint of their aroma or other characteristic. This definition applies to a variety of plants that are used in foods, drinks, medicines, cosmetics, etc. however, in the last few centuries the term “herb” has been reserved strictly for a limited range of plants attributed with medicinal qualities and used for infusions, popular treatments, or as raw material in modern pharmacology.

Herbs and Their Medicinal Value

The distinction of plants into herbs, vegetables, greens and fruits is only a few centuries old. In antiquity, even up to the Middle Ages, the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese and the Hindus, attributed to plants therapeutic qualities and included them in their diet. Plants were consumed raw or cooked and combined with fish and meat dishes. In any case, it has been proved that the above plant categories maintain their active ingredients and therapeutic qualities even when cooked.

The Cretan nutritional model includes a wide range of plants (wild greens, vegetables, fruit and seeds) known as “herbs of the kitchen”. This qualification is used with the implication that these herbs, if consumed daily, promote health and long life. For a cook in ancient Greece or in the Middle Ages, the lettuce, saffron, bulbs, asparagus, radishes, even pomegranates and berries were in the same plant category as sage, marjoram, and dittany, although the former was not used for infusions. Extracts from ancient Greek texts prove that most greens, vegetables, fruit and herbs were attributed effective therapeutic qualities. Hesiod, for example, was urging the Athenians to consume nettles to shield themselves from common aliments for an entire year.

Centuries later, John Evelyn (1699) wrote, “It [the borage] is known to enliven the spirit of hypochondriacs and relieve the mind of people steeped in study…”. Borage was used in salads, as is the case today. Charlemagne, king of the Franks (742-814 AD) commissioned the compilation of a list of the most valued aromatic herbs and named the list “friend of the physician and the pride of the cook”. He then ordered that the herbs on that list be grown in his lush gardens.

basil leaves

The Myth of Goddess Flora

The bonds between our ancestors and nature (mainly plants) are not only by volumes of specialist works and literary extracts but also by myths, as is the case with the myth of the goddess of vegetation, Flora. In his book “The Flora of Greece”, chapter “Myth and Cult”, E. Bauman provides a wonderful description of the connection between nature, gods and people: “Goddess Flora was assisted in her tasks by the Horae (or Hours) the daughters of goddess Themis and Zeus and attendants to the Sun. the Horae were the three goddesses of seasons and of orderliness. Zephyr, representing the west wind, brought the Spring rains that were so valuable for the awakening of nature. The Oceanids, nymphs and daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, were protectors of their father’s marine kingdom and cared for all sea and river plant life. Where the nymphs were unable to attend, there Zeus rolled his thunders and lightning from the heights of Olympus, thus wetting fields and meadows with rain. Artemis (Diana), the goddess of the hunt and the moon, would cover plants with evening frost, while her brother Apollo showered plants with the invigorating rays of the sun…”

Modern epidemiologists, physicians and nutrition experts believe that herbs, wild greens and fresh fruits native to the Mediterranean are “loaded” with solar energy. The sun over the Mediterranean seems to exert a most beneficial influence on all edible plants with subsequent effects on human health.

Myths and legends concerning plants and their development are no accident but result rom the Greeks’ deep knowledge of their natural resources. The Greeks were mostly vegetarians with their daily diet consisting mainly of cereals, legumes, vegetables, wild greens, roots, fruit and fish. For the Greeks the term vegetable was reserved for all greens while the term herbs were reserved for spices/ the distinction is currently employed today in various parts of Macedonia and Epeirous. Ancient Greeks, as well as the ancient Romans, were able to distinguish over 1000 plant species and, therefore, had compiled scores of detailed descriptions concerning their particular qualities, as well as their kitchen and medicinal applications. Among the most prolific experts in botanical matters were Dioscurides, Theophrastus, Hippocrates, Antiphanes, Galinus (Galen), and Pliny.


Thephrastus, who had set up a pilot farm in Athens, provides handy onstructions for cultivating and growing fruit-baring trees, olive trees, almond trees and pot plants! Even Homer, whose monumental work does not make detailed gastronomic references, makes specific references to 36 plants and tree species in his Iliad and 44 in his Odyssey. Among those plants cited are the crocus, lentisk, leek, moss, wild carrot, prickly bush, mallow and poppy.

Equally significant are the gastronomic accounts bequeathed to us by Athenaeus (170-230 AD) in “Deipnosophists”. In his work Athenaeus talks about the emollient qualities of the mallow, the sub-acid taste of the sorrel, the vegetable texture of the nettle, the aphrodisiac qualities of bulbs, while there are also references to asparagus, fennel, caper, oregano, sage, laurel, rosemary, fig tree, grapes and pomegranates.

Households in ancient Athens maintained supplies of salt, oregano, vinegar, thyme, sesame, raisins, caper, eggs, salted fish, cress, figs, olives, olive oil, etc. an extract from comic poet “Alexi” says, “Place ground oregano at the bottom of the dish and use molasses for color”. The Greeks made considerable use of herbs as condiments for bread and stuffed pies (“Plakountes”). The most common herbs used in bread making were the spearmint, oregano, thyme, dill and nutmeg. According to Athenaeus, “roasted pasta with honey and olive oil are served over laurel leaves”.

Ancient Artemidorous, the disciple of Aristotle, described a piquant dish which consisted of tender meat, animal intestines and blood spiced with vinegar, roasted cheese, cumin, savoury, coriander, poppy seeds, honey, raisins, and sour pomegranates seeds. The Hellenistic and Roman cuisines had a lot in common with the ancient Greek cuisine and probably evolved into the modern Italian cuisine. Roman engraver Martialis left us with a list of meals that he prepared for his guests: for dessert: mallows, lettuce and leeks garnished with mint and rocket the aphrodisiac.

Resourceful Apicius, renowned organizer of gastronomic symbosia, had his meat dishes dressed with herbal sauces. For example, for boiled tuna he used a sauce made from “…pepper, thyme, aromatic herbs, onion, dates, honey, vinegar, olive oil, mustard”. His sauce for game boiled or broiled: “…8gr pepper, dried mint, 3 gr bog-bean’, and for fried courgettes:” …pepper, cumin, oregano, onion, wine and olive oil. Thicken the sauce in the pan with flour and then serve.”

Source: Myrsini Lambraki “Herbs, Greens, Fruit. The Key to the Mediterannean Diet”, Third Millennium Press Ltd.

Click to read Part 2.