Of Greece and the Balkans

     Every nationality or culture, every region of the earth has certain foods that are traditionally used for their exceptional properties or virtues for maintaining or restoring health.  In this article, I want to introduce you to some traditional health foods of Greece and the Balkans.


Barley:  Health Food Grain of the Greeks

     The ancient Greeks considered barley to be the healthiest grain, although they used a wide variety of other whole grains, including wheat, rye and millet.  Because of its soft, soothing emollient nature, being completely devoid of any roughness or astringency, Hippocrates prescribed barley gruel, or ptisan, of various consistencies, to those on fasts or cleansing diets, or to those convalescing from debilitating disease. 
     Traditional recipes for Greek country style bread usually include a sizable portion of barley flour, along with wheat and rye flour.  Barley was also baked into rusks, which are hard, dry rectangular biscuits, similar to zweiback bread, that are eaten along with other food.
     The ancient Greeks also had a drink called Kykeon, which was like a quick liquid meal, somewhat like a nutritional shake or smoothie would be today. Its base was a soupy barley gruel, not unlike ptisan, to which a number of other things, such as herbs, greens, vegetables, or even medicines could be added.  In short, the barley gruel would serve as a vehicle for many other things; the Greeks would quickly quaff it down and be on their way. 
     I suppose that if you wanted to get eclectic and blend the old with the new, you could cook up barley gruel and then put it in a blender, throwing in such modern smoothie ingredients as spirulina, protein powder, or the like.  Get creative!
     Modern medical research has shown barley to have a number of nutritional benefits.  It is rich in a certain type of soluble fiber called beta glucan that lowers blood cholesterol and reduces the risk for coronary heart disease; it also helps diabetics lower and manage their blood sugar levels.  Other valuable nutrients that barley has in abundance are niacin (B3), thiamine (B1), selenium, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorous and copper. 


Honey:  Food of the Gods

     Greece and other Balkan countries like Romania have always been famous for their honey and honeybee products, like pollen, beeswax, royal jelly and propolis.  The ancient Greeks claim to have originated beekeeping and honey production, but this seems dubious, as the ancient Egyptians were using honey for food and medicine long before the Greeks. 
     The ancient Greeks called honey Ambrosia, or Food of the Gods.  It's one of the basic ingredients in Greek cuisine, is used in breads, cakes and confections, and is recognized as a cornerstone of good nutrition.  In Greece, the best honey comes from the blossoms of Thyme, Lavender, Rosemary, Linden and Orange
     Hippocrates praised both the nutritional and therapeutic value of honey, and used it both as food and as medicine.  It is used in making Oxymel, as well as medicinal syrups, pills and jams, or electuaries.  Honey is lighter, dyer, and more heating than many other sugars and sweeteners, and doesn't create as much residual phlegm.  At the same time, it is soothing and demulcent, stimulates the stomach and digestion, and is a mild laxative.  Honey is a sweet remedy for a sore throat. 
     Since the most ancient times, honey's excellent antiseptic and antimicrobial properties have been exploited in salves and dressings for burns, cuts and wounds.  For these purposes, the ancient Egyptians combined honey with grease and fiber.  Undiluted honey inhibits yeast infections, or Candida albicans, and will shorten the duration of bacterial diarrhea if eaten. 
     Honey's antimicrobial properties come mainly from its ability to cut off the water and nitrogen supply to pathogenic bacteria.  Also, fluids drawn out of the damaged tissue combine with bee enzymes in the honey to produce hydrogen peroxide, which has an antiseptic action. 


Apitherapy:  Healing from the Bees

     We have seen the therapeutic properties of honey.  Besides honey, the beehive also yields many other products of great value as food and medicine.  The use of honey and these other bee products in healing is called apitherapy
     Beeswax is what the bees use to build their hives, or the honeycomb, with.  The honeycomb, when eaten along with the honey, is a great remedy for acute bacterial diarrhea.  Beeswax is also used as a thickening agent in creams and salves; in cosmetics, it acts as a humectant, which helps the skin hold moisture. 
     Royal Jelly is the food of the Queen Bee, and is one of the greatest tonics and nutrient sources known.  It's the richest source of Pantothenic Acid, which has adaptogenic properties to strengthen the adrenal glands and help the organism fight stress.  It's also a rich source of Gamma Globulin, which bolsters humoral immunity and helps the organism fight infection. 
     Royal Jelly is the vital essence of the Queen Bee, and is what makes her live many times longer than ordinary workers.  In its taste, color, characteristics and properties, Royal Jelly resembles the Radical Moisture, which it tonifies greatly in humans.
     Bee Pollen is a fortifying tonic like Royal Jelly, and is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, nucleic acids and protein.  It is indicated to relieve fatigue and prostration, but is contraindicated if one suffers from, or is predisposed to, hay fever, allergies and aggravations of phlegm. 
     Propolis is a resin that the bees collect from trees and various other plants.  They use it to disinfect their hives; it is a natural antibiotic.  A tincture is made from the resin, which has many uses.  It can be used as a wound dressing, to disinfect the wound and aid healing and granulation.  A few drops can be placed on the tongue if one feels a cold or sore throat coming on, and it will usually knock it right out.  Propolis is antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral. 
     Even Bee Venom can be used therapeutically.  Although conventional medicine only uses bee venom in microdoses to desensitize those who are allergic to bee stings, alternative medicine uses it to reduce systemic inflammation in arthritis, asthma, tendonitis and autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis.  Homeopathic bee venom is used for allergic reactions like swelling, hives and rashes, and bloodshot eyes, as well as for burning, swollen glands; all these signs and symptoms are better with cold and worse with heat.


Therapeutic Vegetables

     Some vegetables, like carrots or potatoes, are the common property of all mankind, but others are local delicacies, particularly to a certain region of the world, where the locals appreciate their special healing virtues.  In the open air markets of Greece and the Balkans, there are such special vegetables, which you will find nowhere else. 
     Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) are a perennial favorite of Greece and the Balkans, where you will find them in the open air markets as one of the first fresh green vegetables to come up in the springtime.  Although the fresh Nettles sting, they lose their sting after they've been dried or cooked.  The best way to cook fresh Nettles is to first wash them well, then chop them finely, then either steam them or sautee them in a little oil, preferrably with a little garlic. 
     Nettles are a nutritional powerhouse, and are rich in iron, calcium, potassium, beta carotene, vitamins C and K, lycopene, chlorophyll and the flavonoids rutin and quercitin.  Nettles both strengthen and nourish the blood against anemia and bleeding disorders, and cleanse the bood in arthritic, inflammatory and gouty conditions.  Nettles are also good to eat in the spring because they relieve or reduce the symptoms of allergies and hay fever. 
     Nettles are an essential food and tonic for women.  Taken as a food in the third trimester of pregnancy, Nettles act as a gentle diuretic that can relieve water retention without draining potassium from the body; its vitamin K protects against hemorrhaging during childbirth.  After delivery, Nettles enrich and increase the supply of mother's milk.  Nettles are also good for premenstrual syndrome.  Because Nettles are a uterine stimulant, a woman should not eat a lot of them during the first trimester of pregnancy. 
     If you can't get a hold of some fresh Nettles, don't worry.  You can either make a tea from the dried leaves, or grind them up to make a powdered green food that you can take by the spoonful and wash down with water. 
     Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is another great herb whose root is often used as a women's tonic.  But in the Balkans, the fresh green shoots are available in the markets as a vegetable.  In taste, Lovage most resembles celery leaves, but the flavor and bouquet are stronger, and much more aromatic.  In Romania, fresh Lovage is traditionally used to flavor soups, but they're also great chopped up and put into salads.
     Fresh Lovage is great for freshening the breath and stimulating the digestion, but its greatest value is as a heart and circulatory system stimulant.  It's also great for relieving menstrual cramps and premenstrual syndrome and in regulating the menstrual period.  The fresh leaves boiled into a hot tea make a great diaphoretic for breaking a healthy and profuse sweat in colds and chills. 
     The Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a small tree that grows throughout Europe.  Virtually every part of the plant is used, either as food or as medicine.  The parts that qualify most as health foods, whose medicinal properties are the mildest, are the flowers and berries
     Dried, the flowers brew an infusion that's one of the best diaphoretics there are, whose sweat not only breaks fevers in acute colds and chills, but also aids in the eruption of measles and latent skin rashes.  The fresh flowers, which usually flower in late May or so, can be made into a cooling summer drink with lemons, honey and water. 
     Fill the bottom of a large pot with fresh Elder flowers.  Pour boiling water over the flowers and put on the lid to let the flowers steep for two to three hours until room temperature.  Mix in honey and fresh lemon juice to taste.  Strain, chill and drink.
     Alternatively, the fresh Elder flowers may be soaked in red wine to make a delicious medicinal wine with a delicate floral bouquet.  Elder berries can also be soaked in red wine in the same manner.  Both the flowers and the berries are extremely rich in rutin and other flavonoid antioxidants that strengthen the blood vessels and capillaries and stimulate blood circulation.  In this manner, red wine, which is already a great heart and circulatory tonic, can be made even better. 
     Elder berries are a tonic for the blood and the immune system.  They purify the blood in fevers and putrefactions of the blood, and exert a mild laxative effect on the bowels.  In today's herbal medicine, the vitamin C and bioflavonoids in Elder berries are seen as powerful immune boosters.     


The Magic of Forest Berries

     In the traditional herbalism and natural healing of the Balkans, Forest Berries are an important health food group.  Traditionally, many of them are valuable blood cleansers and astringent tonics that tone and strengthen the kidneys and genitourinary tract. 
     Nutritionally, these Forest Berries are rich in minerals like iron, and in antioxidants like vitamin C, beta carotene, and various bioflavonoids.  These nutrients cleanse and tonify the blood, strengthen and protect the blood vessels and capillaries, and stimulate the heart and circulatory system.  Many also protect and strengthen the eyes and vision. 
     Some of these Forest Berries are commonly eaten, or are already in widespread use in herbal medicine.  Others are natural wonders that deserve to be better known, and more widely used.  I will start with the more common and proceed towards the less well-known. 
     Raspberries (Rubus idaeus) are a valuable astringent tonic for the genitourinary system that protects against urinary tract infections in both sexes and enhances virility in the male.  A tea made from the leaves drunk during the final trimester of pregnancy prepares the woman for an easier delivery.
     Blackberries (Rubus fructicosus) are also an astringent tonic for the genitourinary tract, and a general tonic for the blood and circulatory system.  A decoction of the root is good for chronic diarrhea and digestive atony.
     Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtilis) are a blood and circulatory tonic rich in antioxidant anthrocyanins and bioflavonoids, which also improve the eyesight.  A tea made from the leaves acts as "vegetable insulin" to lower blood sugar levels in diabetes, and to stimulate the stomach and digestion while discouraging flatulence and intestinal putrefactions. 
     Black Currants (Ribes nigrum) are quite tart and astringent when fresh, but when dried are quite similar to raisins.  They are an excellent blood tonic.  The leaves are brewed into a tea for rheumatism with water retention. 
     Rose Hips (Rosa canina) are best known for their abundance of vitamin C and bioflavonoids, which work synergistically together as antioxidants.  Besides protecting against scurvy, the Rose Hip berries are an excellent hepatoprotector. 
     Hawthorn berries (Crataegus oxycantha) are well-known as a heart tonic; they have also been shown to lower blood cholesterol.  Hawthorn berries also have a beneficial hepatoprotective effect on the liver, and are a mild sedative.  The leaves and flowers are used to make a tea with stronger cardiostimulant and vasodilating properties. 
     Rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) are a great kidney tonic and blood purifier, which have a mild diuretic effect.  Eating the berries, or making a tea from them, is good for treating urinary tract infection and inflammation, and to cleanse the blood of pus and purulent toxins.
     Sea Buckthorn berries (Hippophae rhamnoides) are the king of all forest berries.  They are described in more detail in the article Legendary Tonics, in this Therapies section.


Quinces and the Quince Juice Medicine

     Quinces (Cydonia oblongata) are a specialty fruit of the Rose family, which Galen called Cydonian Apples.  The flesh and seeds of the fruit have a number of medicinal uses.
     The seeds of Quinces have a sticky mucilage in them that's great at pulling thick, sticky phlegm out of the lungs.  Drinking a hot tea made from the seeds is a great expectorant in colds with lots of coughing and phlegm congestion in the lungs. 
     The flesh of the fruit and its juice are quite similar to that of apples in many ways, but somewhat more drying and astringent.  The fruit and its juice act as an astringent tonic for the stomach, liver and bowels, improving their tone and increasing their secretions. 
     The flesh of Quinces can be sliced thin and dried.  The dried Quince slices can be decocted in medicinal teas, or they can be ground to a powder and taken in teaspoonful doses, either washed down with water or mixed with honey and taken as a paste.  In whatever form it's taken, it is indicated in cases of gastric and digestive atony and the chronic diarrhea resulting therefrom. 
     At the end of his treatise on Hygiene, Galen gives us a recipe for a delicious medicine made from the juice of Quinces.  The recipe is as follows:
     Take two pints of fresh Quince juice.  Mix this with an equal amount of honey and a pint and a half of vinegar.  Put all these ingredients in a large pot and boil this mixture slowly, skimming off the froth or scum that forms.  Add three ounces of powdered Ginger and two ounces of White Pepper and simmer this all down to the consistency of honey. 
     Take a spoonful of this medicine fasting, ideally about two to three hours before food.  Galen recommends it for chronic dyspepsia and indigestion due to an atonic liver.  If you wish, you may take it before eating to stimulate the appetite.
     Those suffering from hot dyscrasias of the stomach, or from Choleric or bilious conditions of the stomach and digestion may prepare the Quince Juice Medicine without the Ginger and Pepper.  Those whose stomachs are only slightly hot in temperament may add only half the aforesaid amounts of Ginger and Pepper, whereas those with very cold, Phlegmatic conditions of the stomach and digestion may double the usual amounts of Ginger and Pepper. 



Internet Resources

     There are a number of internet sites and articles that I consulted in preparing this article.  They are as follows: