For more than 2,000 years ancient Greeks made a pilgrimage to the temple of Demeter, the goddess of farming. A few weeks ago, I did, too.
Today, the temple is in ruins, but it is possible to walk the stone streets, run your hand over ancient walls and contemplate the importance of farming in Greek mythology.
Demeter was more than the patron of farming — it was through her that one was granted everlasting life in paradise, a place the ancient Greeks called the Elysian Fields.
Here is her story, in a nutshell: Demeter was sister to Zeus. One day, while picking wild flowers, her daughter Kore was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld.
Demeter searched the land for her daughter, so distraught that she neglected to make things grow. The people implored Zeus to find and return Kore before they starved to death.
In the meantime, Demeter stopped to rest at the town of Elysium, where she was treated kindly. Eventually, Kore was returned to her mother with the proviso that she return to the underworld for part of the year. While in the underworld, it was winter on Earth. When she returned, it was spring.
Demeter was so grateful she gathered up wild wheat and barley and showed the people of Elysium how to farm. They were so grateful, they built a temple to worship her.
Demeter also gave them special rites — to eat her bread, sip her sacred drink, chant her prayers — by which one was granted life after death in the green Elysian Fields. Just as a seed of wheat comes to life when placed in the ground, the soul came to life in paradise.
These rites took place once a year at Elesium, a short distance from Athens. It was the desire of everyone in the Greek world to make this pilgrimage once in a lifetime.
Every personage we know from ancient Greece, from Plato to Socrates to Pericles (the ruler who built the Parthenon), would have done so, as did the pre-Christian rulers of ancient Rome who changed the names of Demeter and Kore to Ceres and Persephone. Ceres is the basis of our word for cereal grains.
Today, the temple site is surrounded by urban sprawl and the sacred wheat fields have given way to oil refineries, factories and container ports. But stepping through the gates, it is possible to turn one’s back on the modern world and walk the same paving stones as thousands upon thousands of pilgrims, for whom wheat was more than food but a sacred symbol of life itself.
At the Acropolis Museum restaurant, I ate a delicious wheat salad but sadly, they would not share the recipe. So instead, my other favourite, a true Greek Salad. No restaurant in Canada had prepared me for the simple marvel of a real Greek salad. After sampling several in Greece, I have drawn these observations: The vegetables are crisp and chunky, dressed with good olive oil (no vinegar or lemon juice) and topped with slabs of feta cheese (not crumbled or cubed).
The peppers may be any colour (including yellow banana pepper). Onion may be white or red and the olives may be replaced with capers. In one version, the feta was topped with finely chopped pistachios.
I have fond memories of Greece, but the taste memories are the best.
For pictures of the Demeter/Ceres temple ruins, visit my food blog homefordinner.blogspot.com.
- 2 ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges
- 1/2 cucumber, cut in thick slices
- 1 sweet pepper, seeded and cut in rings
- 1/4 small onion, slivered
- Kalamata olives (a few per person)
- Greek olive oil
- Slabs of feta cheese (one per person)
- Sprinkling of dried oregano
Toss vegetables lightly with olive oil. Top with slabs of feta. Drizzle feta with olive oil and sprinkle with oregano.