Categories: Friday feeling

A traditional Greek snack from Oliveology

Image: James Critchlow

The sources are questionable. Even counting Herodotus, the phrase ‘Ancient Greek energy bar’ is hard to credit. Yes, the Greek historian does refer to cakes of honey and sesame seeds in his Histories, but he doesn’t give any details as to the recipe, or when exactly it’s consumed.

Its name is pasteli—the word derives from Italian—and it is found throughout the world in many guises. Even your nearest newsagent will have it, in the form of sesame snaps: pale, substance-less imitations of the richly squidgy, golden bar you’ll find in Oliveology, of course, but a sweet flat bar made with sesame seeds all the same.

There is, nevertheless, something in the idea that pasteli was a kind of Ancient Greek energy bar. The Greek people have always eaten a lot of honey and sesame seeds—both staple foods in the country—in various forms. While they probably didn’t market them thus, their renowned sporting prowess means the high energy value of these foods is unlikely to have been lost on them.

Rich Greek honey
Today, the Greeks largely consider pasteli a healthy snack to keep you going between meals. “Sesame seeds are very nutritious,” says Marianna of Oliveology—though with the rich Greek honey, it’s pretty heavy-going, too. “You probably would not want all if it in one sitting.” Her supplier, a family business based in Peloponnese, has been making it for “many generations, in many different sizes and styles”.

We opt for two bars, one straight sesame, one with other nuts and seeds, and find Marianna is right: there’s no chowing these down hurriedly between meetings. Yet the odd nibble, snuck in when you have time to savour each crunchy seed, its malty, savoury undertones melding stickily with the warm sweetness of honey, is a true source of sustenance. We don’t think the early Olympic Games had billboards, but if they did, they’d have advertised pasteli.