Cattle, from Ancient Sacrifice to the Contemporary Dinner Table

This is a very significant change, as cows and oxen are deeply rooted in Greek culinary history and tradition.
A well known sight on the lonely roads of the Epirus highlands: cattle grazing peacefully and confidently on lush meadows, no electric fences, often standing right in the middle of isolated country lanes. This is very typical of Greek cattle-rearing, but the rising number of government-subsidized cattle farms stands in stark contrast to the falling number of self-sufficient small farms and small-holdings in rural areas. This is a very significant change, as cows and oxen are deeply rooted in Greek culinary history and tradition.

The ox had a special role in cult worship, and sacrifices often began with the slaughter of an ox; the rituals surrounding such a sacrifice are described in detail in the Odyssey. Red wine was poured over the best piece, the leg, which was wrapped in fat and burnt on an open wood fire as an offering to the gods. The entrails and the remaining pieces of meat were cut up, threaded on skewers, roasted on the fire, and eaten in an almost picnic-like fashion. If an urban family found a reason to sacrifice an animal, it could hire a specialist (mageiros), who would not only expertly slaughter and sacrifice the creature, but also prepare its meat for the celebrations.

In ancient Greek cuisine, beef was used with restraint, which is odd, as it was not only prized, but also readily available. Likemost advanced ancient civilizations, the Greeks knew how to rear beef cattle, and owning large herds guaranteed a community's survival. Beef cattle were also easy to keep, because, like other domesticated animals, they grazed on the meadows, requiring only the protection of the herdsmen and the gods, protection they did need, however, as whole herds of cattle are historically mentioned as war booty. Beef cattle were used as working animals, as can be seen from the images on ancient Greek vases, where oxen appear yoked to the plough.

Nowadays, the Epirus region has a wealth of interesting recipes using every part of the steer. The preferred way of cooking meat in the rather isolated mountain villages of Epirus, is to braise it in a large pan with a variety of herbs and spices. You should try it!