A Matter of Taste

The Experiment of a ‘Byzantine Taste-lab’ Placed in Socio-Historical Context

Joanita Vroom and Mink van IJzendoorn


The subject of this paper is an experimental ‘taste-lab’, which aims to connect present-day Dutchmen with elements of Byzantine and related Medieval cuisines in the Mediterranean (ca. 4th-15th centuries). The goal of this taste-lab is to bring together cultural habits of two different culinary traditions, separated both geographically and historically. This study, which is partly theoretical and partly an example of experimental archaeology through a public survey utilising a question-based form, is an effort to comprehend today’s view on Byzantine and Medieval Mediterranean foodways.
The main research questions can be formulated as follows: How do modern Europeans perceive the Medieval Mediterranean dishes and drinks offered to them during the taste-lab? What are the expectations about Byzantine and Medieval Mediterranean eating customs in general and about these recipes in particular? More specifically, how do participants relate such dishes and drinks to social status? Furthermore, can any parallels be made between Western perceptions of Byzantine and Medieval Mediterranean food (as known from written sources) and current perceptions?
We obtained survey data from ca. 300 participants during the first taste-lab, which was organized in 2014 at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University. Currently, we are collecting new information during a smaakstudio (Taste Lab) held at the Wereldmuseum (Rotterdam), as part of the contemporary exhibition ‘I cook, therefore I am. A culinary journey with Abdelkader Benali’ (10 February – 31 July 2017). These experiments are received enthusiastically by the visitors, and therefore we regard them as a successful device to familiarise the general public with the past in a playful and educative manner.
In this paper we provide some background information on archaeological concepts of taste, food and social class, as well as a short overview of Byzantine and Medieval Mediterranean diet and eating habits, ranging from the 4th to the 15th centuries. Within this theoretical, historical and archaeological framework, we hope to interpret the results from our experimental investigation and, thereby, to contribute to the ongoing discussion about food and taste in the past.