June 1 2013
As a student of Ancient Greek, the phrase "wine-dark sea" intigued and fascinated me. It conjured up images of far-off lands, of mystery and murder. Even now, it still seems romantically exotic.
If I were to be cynical, it's probably not that at all. Scholars commonly accept that it was merely a poetic device, one of many stock phrases, that allowed bards to take a moment of reflection before moving onto the next section of their story. Even more cynically, Homer, if he existed at all, is said to have been blind and therefore would surely have been unable to have conjured up this image by himself.
In that case, "wine-dark sea" might have been something Homer overheard other people using. This is interesting because the Greeks actually had no word at that time for the colour blue. (Yep, true fact!) So in that case, maybe this expression was just another mundane turn of phrase if you were an Ancient Greek. But that seems too short-sighted, not to mention disappointingly pessimistic, to me.*
The imagery evoked by the phrase "wine-dark sea", to this day, is still that of the Mediterranean.
During a visit to the Massandra winery in Ukraine last year, I learnt that during the 1920s, the winery had been forced to throw all their wine into the sea (so that the invading forces would not get their hands on it.) I smiled as I pictured the colour the sea apparently became. (I quickly had to wipe that smile off my face as Valentin, the son in this family-run company, continued to tell me what a tragedy it had been for them.)
There is still a lot I love about the Mediterranean culture. The sunshine, the beaches, the history, the impossibly vertical, higgedly-piggedly towns and villages. I appreciate the concept of the traditional Italian family with an over-bearing but kindly grandmother figure. Most of all, my stomach appreciates the after-dinner strolls for ice-cream.
The result of this adoration is that my poor freezer has recently been victim to some Mediterranean-inspired experiments.
One of my favourite, and most thumbed, cookbooks on the shelf is Diana Henry's "Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons." It's packed full of Middle Eastern / Mediterranean / North African recipes, but what I personally find the most interesting are the introductions where this lady with a rather old-fashioned hair-do, explains how different ingredients are used in these cultures and gives ideas for other combinations.
In particular, I have used her recipes for Ricotta Ice-cream and Campari + Grapefruit Granita as the starting point for other concoctions. Adding lemon, basil and a little crunch to the ice cream and a sprig of mint to the granita, for example.
I listen to Zucchero's "Baila Morena" (well actually, I put on his Best Hits album), sit out on the Burnt Cream balcony, next to the lavender and the rosemary and pretend that I'm far, far away. Those who come to dinner are hereby duly forewarned that this theme is set to last most of the summer. You should also prepare for your liver to adopt a slightly darker hue...
* Footnote: I didn't want this entry to ressemble an essay that I might have handed in at university - and it was starting to go that way - but there have been many interesting debates about where the phrase "wine-dark sea" came from. My personal favourite (but I can't remember who it was who first came up with the proposal) was that at sunset, after a day of heavy battle, all the blood and the dust would give the shallow waters a reddish colour. Pretty cool, no?