Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Thursday 31 December 2009

Happy New Year! (Καλή Χρονιά!)

Every culture has some customs which sound perfectly sane and normal to their own people, while those outside of the cultural group, upon hearing about them, may consider them not just strange and peculiar, but utterly ludicrous and absurd. And so it is with the Greek New Year, when we refuse to let anyone enter our house after midnight on New Year's Eve if they are not already inside the house, until our favorite person (or animal) crosses the threshold, performing the annual pothariko (ποδαρικό), the 'first foot' to step inside a house on the first day of the New Year; or when we smash askeletoura (ασκελετούρα), an onion-like flowery tuber, often called a squill in English, on our front doors. Both customs are used to herald good luck for the New Year, and the events of the following 12 months are often blamed on the manner in which these kinky but popular New Year's customs, still practiced today in very similar ways right around Greece, were performed.

Here is the way the pothariko, derived from the Greek word πόδι (pothi), meaning 'foot', was once celebrated in Crete:
"Up until a few decades ago in the villages, the cow would be brought into the house to perform the 'pothariko'. The animal was served bread and other delicacies, as well as specially baked cookies which would be hung onto its horns. It was deemed especially lucky if the animal peed inside the house. In some villages, there was a preference for sheep, and in the village of Kapetaniana, the bells of the whole flock would be blessed at the church. In any case, the animals performing the pothariko were not allowed to be black." (translated from the Greek, from 'The Roots of the Greeks: The Cretans', 2009, Pigasos Ekdotiki - Pegasus Publications)
These days, most likely the youngest child in a family will be invited to perform on this auspicious occasion, with a gift of money from the parents'/grandparents' 'good hand' (i kali hera - H Καλή Χερα), another New Year's custom. It really is a burdensome task being the good luck charm for a household, as my father once told me, when he told me about being invited to perform the pothariko in his youth for a rich family: in that year, all the cows this family owned died. From then on, my father never stepped over the threshold of anyone's house on New Year's Day without asking if someone had already done that before his arrival...

The skeletoura (commonly known n English as the squill - both words are related) is seen as a sign of fertility because it is very abundant, and is also associated with immortality:

askeletoura squill greek new year
The squill - (a)skeletoura in Greek - grows in the countryside, almost anywhere. I found these ones in an olive grove near my neighbourhood. They aren't easy to dig up, but I was lucky with the one I pulled out - the soil was very moist. The bulb is quite large, and some still had the dry stalk of the tall feathery flower that grows from their centre. The skeletoura contines to flourish even when dug up, hence its immortality attributes.
askeletoura squill greek new year askeletoura squill greek new year
"Alexander the Great had discovered the source of the immortal water, which dried up when he filled a beautiful glass vessel with its water. In order for the water to keep its properties, it had to remain a secret. When he returned home, Gorgona, his sister, asked him what was in the bottle, but he wouldn't answer her. The next morning, she woke up before him and opened the bottle. On finding nothing noteworthy in it, she poured the water out of the window, in order to pour something else into the bottle. The water fell onto the skeletoura which was growing below the window, with the result that the plant became immortal, and Alexander remained a mortal." (ibid)
It is also used to ward off evil in the coming year. This explains why the skeletoura is seen lying on the ground beside a door, waiting for the New Year to arrive. This plant is found all over Greece in unspoiled territory, field borders and nature spots.

new year's cake vasilopita 2010
The customary vasilopita (these mass-produced ones were being sold at the INKA supermarket) to welcome the New Year, with 'Christ's bread' (Christopsomo - Χριστόψωμο: a kind of tsoureki) in the background; ours will look and taste a little different this year - one of these cupcakes has a coin hidden in its interior, but nobody knowns which one it is (!).

The most well known Greek food custom for the New Year is the Vasilopita (Βασιλόπιτα), the New Year's cake with a coin hidden in it - whoever finds it is considered the luckiest person of the year. This is usually made on New Year's Eve and cut up on New Year's Day, with a piece dedicated to each member of the family, as well as God and even the house.

decorative pomegranates good luck charm gouri christmas new year greece

The pomegranate is also one of the most popular symbols of the season. This fruit's association with winter and fertility comes from the story of Persephone, who ate 6 pomegranate seeds during the time she spent in the underworld when Hades captured her. In Greece pomegranate is sold fresh when in season, and it is also imported. Pomegranate juice has come into the market through globalisation. Pomegranate seeds feature prominently in memorial cakes, which explains why they have generally been discriminated against in Greek cuisine, but nowadays you will see them used more often in salads and other savoury dishes, prompted by the latest trends in Greek nouveau cuisine .

*** *** ***
It is not a Greek custom to make New Year's resolutions, but that is the good thing about being raised in two different worlds; in the modern times we live in, we can pick and choose the customs we wish to follow. Another year has passed: how did time fly, and how did we spend it?It won't be coming back and we won't get another chance to use it.

So what did I achieve in the year that just passed? You know the answer to that question better than I do. I want to thank all my readers from the bottom of my heart for your support throughout my food writing adventures over the past two and a half years. For me, blogging about the food I buy, grow, prepare and cook for my family was a way to get me started in writing, and that's what I want to do now - I want to continue to write, without being limited to food, because there is so much more that I want to write about, which I am sure you will want to read, eventually, that is, when I get it all written down.

boat greek christmas symbol
Another Christmas/New Year symbol in Greece - the boat. This year it played a poignantly prominent role with the death of 9 sailors, 3 of them Greek, on Christmas Day in a fire on a Greek cargo ship sailing off the coast of Venezuela.

And that's my New Year's resolution: to keep on writing, to inform you, and above all, to keep you entertained. My posting will not be as regular as before, but whenever you look me up, you can rest assured that you will leave with a smile on your face.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year,
With love,
From Hania, Crete

PS: I almost forgot to mention one of the more modern, if outright controversial, New Year's traditions in Crete:

new year's tradition in crete

Hubbie talking to the gun shop owner: "So, have you got any blanks left?"
Owner: "Blanks? No, sorry, I've run out, and you know they've been outlawed."
Hubbie: "So, when should I come to pick them up?"
Owner: "In the afternoon."

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Sunday 27 December 2009

Spetsofai (Σπετζοφάι)

Here's a well-known Greek sausage hotpot, from the region of Pelion. We had a nice version of this dish during our short stay in the region. This dish uses up soft tomatoes and scraggly peppers which are coming in at the tail end of the summer garden season; very soon, none of these plants will be producing any more crops.

You need:
a few tablespoons (at your will) of olive oil
a few bell peppers, preferably in all colours (I used about 18 distorted peppers from our garden; the number of peppers is not important - the more you add, the more this dish stretches)
3-4 soft ripe tomatoes
6 medium sausages (spicy ones are the best for this dish)
1-2 large onions (I particularly like onions, which is why I use a lot - you can also add leeks)
1 small teaspoon of tomato paste (I used Thai red curry paste, for a spunkier taste)
salt and pepper (if the sausages you use aren't very spicy, you can add spices like cumin, oregano, fresh garlic, chili)

spetsofai ingredients

Heat the oil and brown the sausages in it. Remove the sausages when done. Now add the thickly sliced onions and roughly chopped peppers. Saute till wilted, stirring constantly so that they don't fry or burn. Add the grated tomatoes, tomato paste and seasonings. While this mixture is blending in the pot on low heat, the sausages will have cooled down; chop them into medium sized slices and add them to the stew. The hotpot is ready when the sauce has thickened to a desired consistency.


Serve on a bed of rice (I made a delicious pilafi) or mashed potatos, with a green salad and some bread to mop up the sauce. And bring on the cold beer!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Christmas carols (Κάλαντα)

Christmas in Crete is a rather quiet affair. For a start, it's cold, a climate not usually associated with the sunny Mediterranean, and most people like to stay indoors or at least keep themselves warm. In any case, Christmas is not the most important holiday season of the year, as it is in most other predominantly Christian Western countries; Easter is the most important festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar. Christmas in Crete is associated with family get-togethers and nameday celebrations for Manolides - Emmanuel (my late father's name), often shortened to Manolis, is a very common boys' name in Crete.

pohutakawa lots of snow in hania chania
Christmas in Wellington (left) and Crete (right)

New Zealand Christmas was a day to remember in our own household. It was synonymous with the start of the summer holidays, when the beautiful pohutakawa tree was in full bloom, its red spiky flowers covering Mt Victoria above our house, hence its role as the New Zealand Christmas tree. We spent hours cleaning the house, under our mother's orders, while she spent hours cooking. The best cutlery and crockery came out, sparkling crystal like the Christmas lights on our fake tree. The only time we ever had a real pine tree, we regretted every minute of it; the needles fell off the tree pretty much as soon as we put it up, creating a mess all over our carpeted flooring.

While the rest of New Zealand was thinking about summer holidays and barbecues on the beach, we were holding a banquet in honour of my father's name. So much food was cooked for Christmas that we survived for days on leftovers: lamb chops, oven potatoes, yemista, meatballs, pilafi, roast chicken, cabbage and lettuce salad, tomato and onion salad, tzatziki, the whole range of Cretan kalitsounia, and the full gamma of Greek and Kiwi desserts, with pride of place reserved for my mother's pavlova.

Christmas in Greece: melomakarona (honey and walnut syrup-steeped biscuits) and koura(m)biedes (shortbread cookies dusted with icing sugar ) are standard fare in most Greek households at this time.

Peter from Souvlaki for the Soul, a superb Greek-Australian food photographer with origins from Thessaly, was very creative this Christmas: he made star-shaped melomakarona and tree-shaped kourambiedes. Visit his sites for more spectacular food photography and good Greek food.

The Greek community in Wellington always organised a group of children to visit all the Greek households and sing Christmas carols on the evening of Christmas Eve. Money was collected on behalf of the community, and was used towards the maintenance of the church, the Greek school and various other community activities. My most memorable participation in the Christmas carol singing was when I was seven years old. We visited all the Greek households of Mt Victoria, where most of the Greek people lived at the time, and sang the traditional carols associated for the Year, to the tunes of a guitar and an accordion played by some of the older members of the community:

Αρχιμηνιά κι αρχιχρονιά (First of the month and first of the year)
κι αρχή- κι αρχή καλός μας χρόνος... (And the start of the good new year)
Άγιος Βασίλης έρχεται,(St Basil's coming)
από- από την Καισαρεία (From Caesarea)
... ... ...
Σ΄ αυτό το σπίτι που ΄ρθαμε (In this house that we have come)
πέτρα να μη ραγίσει (Not a stone should crack)
κι ο νοικοκύρης του σπιτιού (And the head of the family)
χίλια χρόνια να ζήσει... (May he live a thousand years...)

Carol singing is still a very important feature of Christmas throughout Greece. Children dressed in Christmas caps carry a triangle, walk around the neighbourhood, knock on people's doors and sing the carols appropriate for the day: there are different ones sung on Christmas Eve (to welcome Christ), New Year's Eve (to welcome the New Year), and the eve of the Epiphany (to celebrate the baptism of Christ). The carol-singers are sometimes treated to sweets, but the most important reason why they trot around the town in the cold singing carols in hoarse voices is to collect money, which they can choose to save or spend on Christmas presents.

Even though Easter is the most important festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar, Christmas takes on its own importance in the commercialised world of Western Europe. Even die-hard agnostics and atheists will not turn down a chance to celebrate a merry Christmas meal with all the trimmings, and they will not remain unmoved at the sight of young children singing with eager voices, collection box in hand. The most money I have ever given to individual carol singers was on Christmas Eve during a torrential downpour; the three children were the first carol singers to come by our house on that day, and I guessed (rightly) that there wouldn't be any others.

Sadly, this tradition has also been marred in recent times by opportunists finding the chance to get rich quick by overpowering unguarded children free of their parents' watchful eyes, stealing their money pouches and carol singing takings, which is why this tradition may slowly die out or continue on a more organised basis. But the gift of money is a more modern offering bestowed to carol singers; in the recent past of the island of Crete, up until the mid-20th century, children went from house to house holding, not a collection box, but a collection bottle, which was filled with olive oil as they sang more and more carols.

Last year my children took on the role of musicians at the Christmas Eve office lunch. My co-workers suggested that they sing the carols to them. The restaurant chef gave them a bread basket, and they collected enough money to buy their own Christmas toys that year. In the troubled economic times that we live in, I prefer to keep this tradition within the circles of close family and friends, who all play a small role in creating Christmas cheer during a time appropriately associated with happy children.

Merry Christmas everyone!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Monday 21 December 2009

Egg and lemon soup (Σούπα αυγολέμονο)

Five minutes: that's about the amount of time I would say I spend washing my hands and face, brushing my hair and teeth, and applying a dab of perfume and maybe some lip balm on a cold morning, before going to work. That's after I've spent 10 minutes toasting bread, warming up milk and serving it all up for the kids' breakfast. So Xanthe Clay is way ahead of me when she makes the classic Greek soup, avgolemono, in just five precious minutes:

(Thanks for link, Peter)

Is chicken stock really truly that kind of brown colour? Is pre-cooked rice an ingredient or a fast food? Maybe this is the way soup is served in a fast food restaurant; it needs five minutes to cook, and if not eaten in the next five minutes, it will go off. To cook such a soup from scratch, admittedly, it would not take 5 minutes to make, but whoever heard of a whole meal being cooked in 5 minutes, except in fast food restaurants?

This kind of video is supposedly an attempt to get people cooking some kind of 'real food', which is all the rage these days, judging by discussions among 'top chefs' like Alice Waters and Anthony Bourdain:

(Thanks for the link, Elissa)

And I congratulate Xanthe's effort in this direction. But let's not forget, as Alice Waters says: where did each of Xanthe's ready-to-eat ingredients come from and how easy is it to actually cook the same food from scratch without wasting, beg your pardon, spending too much time in the kitchen? Xanthe's version of avgolemono soup serves 2 people and can be made in just 5 minutes. She probably needed a longer time buying her ingredients from the supermarket; in how much of a rush can 2 diners possibly be?

My mum used to make avgolemono soup very often on cold winter nights in New Zealand, especially after she came home with my father and her children from the fish and chip shop my parents owned and operated. It would be 7.30 at night, and she'd go into the kitchen as soon as we came home. She'd tell us to take our baths or finish our school homework, while during this time, she'd whip up the evening meal. Even though convenience foods were widely available in 1980s New Zealand, she hardly ever used them. Nearly everything she cooked was related to the food she remembered from Crete, and it was cooked from scratch.

I can still remember how she made avgolemono soup. As I write this, I remember our house in Wellington, the kitchen table, the cutlery and crockery; most of the time, I used to help her mix the hot stock with the egg and lemon sauce. "Pour it in drop by drop!" she'd tell me. "Wait till I've blended it in well!" she'd ask me. "Don't let the egg cook!" she'd warn me.

kid-friendly egg and lemon soup
This soup took longer than five minutes to cook; by planning ahead, it is never a toilsome soup to make.

Here's my version of quick and easy avgolemono soup, using Xanthe's ingredients list as a base, which you can make for dinner after you've come home from work, to feed your family a nourishing winter warmer in the cold days that are ahead of us - and making use of all the fresh ingredients available around you. Making chicken stock does not require the luxury of time; you can make it in the 15-20 minutes it took Xanthe to buy her ready-to-gloop ingredients from the supermarket (and if time really is a hassle, then make your stock 1-3 days before: it keeps this long in the fridge).

For a family of 4, you need:
2 fresh chicken drumsticks (We usually buy whole chickens - I reserve the wings and neck to make really good stock, but you won't get much meat out of them if you intend to add bits of chicken to the soup)
the juice of 1-2 lemons, depending on how tangy you want it to be, placed in a medium sized bowl
2 eggs (we like our avgolemono less eggy and more lemony)
a fistful of raw rice (I am using Asian egg noodles today instead, for a more kid-friendly meal)
salt and pepper (you can add some chopped parsley as a garnish, like Xanthe did, but this is definitely not what the average working wife and mother who lacks time would feel the need to do when serving up a nutritious meal right after she's been at work...)

Place the chicken parts in a medium-sized pot and cover with cold water. Let the water boil away for about 15 minutes. Depending on the kind of chicken used (ie how the chicken is reared), it may require more or less cooking time (which is why I prefer to use chicken wings and necks for stock making). Strain the stock into another pot. If the use of too many pots in the kitchen perturbs you, then it's best to make your stock the night before so you can maintain control over the dirty dishes; my urbanised friends always freak out when they see the detritus of my kitchen - that's before they've tasted the food of course, after which they've forgotten about the kitchen chaos. Maybe they realised it was worth the effort. But they probably wouldn't invite me to cook in their kitchen.

My chicken stock always comes out golden, never brown, in colour. I only ever watched my mother make chicken stock in New Zealand, and her Kiwi chicken also gave her golden, never brown, liquid. The stock in the above photos looks fatty, but you can skim the fat off before you use it, like I did for this soup. This pot produced 4 servings of hearty chicken soup.
making chicken stock

Make sure your chicken stock is very hot, then add the washed rice (or noodles). Let it boil away, without stirring (which will make the rice go mushy), for as long as it takes to cook the rice/noodles. At this point, start making the egg and lemon sauce. Break the eggs into the bowl containing the lemon juice, add some salt, and use a fork, whisk or hand-mixer to blend everything together. Remove the meat in small bits from the chicken and set aside. Switch off the stock pot.

soup making
Making a hearty chicken egg and lemon soup; even the dog gets her share today (bottom right-hand corner: the tub contains the chicken bones and skin).
avgolemono soup avgolemono soup

Now comes the tricky bit. Stir a shotglass-full of the hot stock (clear liquid is preferable - strain away the rice) into your egg and lemon sauce and whisk it in really well. Keep doing this until at least a third of the stock liquid has been added to the egg and lemon sauce, which should be cool rather than hot at all times. Now turn up the heat for the soup pot to very low, tip the egg and stock mixture back into the soup pot and stir it gently but constantly, so that the egg does not 'cook'. Add the chicken meat and stir till the soup has warmed up, and has a thick soupy texture, but don't let it boil because the egg may start to cook, and that's highly undesirable.

kid-friendly egg and lemon soup
Avgolemono soup with all the trimmings: a selection of cheeses, two different kinds of olives, extra lemon for tanginess, and paximadi (Cretan dry rusks) for dunking.

Serve hot, ladled into soup bowls, and sprinkle (read: garnish) with pepper. I had also added a carrot to the chicken as it was boiling, so I could make this soup more nourishing; the carrot was sliced into thin rounds, and added at the same time as the chicken pieces (along with some tinned corn - remember, we're making this soup kid-friendly).

Real food, for real people.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Friday 18 December 2009

Cafe World (Καφέκοσμος)

This is probably how most migrants entering the catering business (a popular migrant occupation worldwide) feel when they move to a new country and enter the food trade: no doubt, my parents felt like this too, as owner-operators of a fish and chip shop in New Zealand.

It all began as a bit of fun and what seemed like a profitable venture. It was never my intention to enter the catering business, nor did I have any idea about how to cook the food that was on the menu at the particular establishment that we took over. It certainly felt weird being asked to cook sliders* and French onion soup, when I'd been used to cooking things like fasolada and yemista. In fact, it was the first time I tried this food when I started cooking it in our cafe!

The most popular dishes were the ones that needed very little cooking and preparation time, like the bacon cheeseburgers and guacomole. They also tended to spoil easily if business was slow or we forgot to check the cooker. A chunky fruit salad was wholesome and you could get many servings out of one preparation round, but it was also cheap, and you couldn't make a large profit from it.

avocado guacomole and nacho chips
Due to favourable climatic conditions, Crete has become a prime Greek producer of avocado, which is mainly exported, both to the mainland and abroad. For a long time, however, the locals had no idea how to eat this particular fresh product. They initially treated as a fruit, sprinkling sugar on it because it wasn't sweet; now they also use it as an addition to salads.

The best money to be made was from the dishes that needed long cooking periods, like the oven roast chicken and homestyle pot roast. We'd get them going from the evening and they'd be fresh and ready to serve the next day. These meals also yielded a lot of servings, and I didn't feel that I was slaving away in the kitchen all day.

Mama's taverna will always be fondly remembered;
fasolada and oven-cooked rice-stuffed Swiss chard (silverbeet) dolmades

Customers are very predictable: they like to stick to old favorites. Spaghetti with meatballs and classic pizza are always sure to please. Follow this by a triple berry cheesecake or pumpkin pie, and they'll leave you a good tip, telling you that it was the best meal they ever had in their life. Didn't they ever have the home-made versions of these? I often wondered what food they had been brought up on, and what their mothers cooked for them.

Italian cuisine has practically become a staple in most restaurants, which makes it sound all too common. To attract the customers with better-padded wallets, we added a few other 'ethnic' dishes to our menu range. Chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken have a distinct Indian ring to their names: who would have believed that tikka masala wasn't even cooked by the Indians, who invented it for the more sensitive foreign palate! To vary the menu from one week to another, we alternated between Indian and Chinese meals: crackling peking duck and kung pao stir-fry were among the most popular choices among the Chinese specials - and to think, I've never even been to China!

cafe world facebook cafe world facebook
To cook Greek food at Cafe World, you need to have been playing for a long LONG time...

There's never a day off in the restaurant business, even during the holidays. We would often tailor some few recipes to suit the season. For instance, in the period leading to Halloween, I offered vampire steaks and toffee apples. How these two paired well in the customers eyes, I shall never understand, but it kept us in pocket, as the customers turned up in hordes.

Yemista and yiro will always make popular wholesome meals, no matter what you call them.

In due time, I even added my own cuisine to the regular menu, choosing dishes that were seemingly unobtrusive, as though they had always been a part of the standard menu card: instead of 'yemista', I called my herbed rice "overstuffed peppers", while I left out the word 'souvlaki' and just called the sandwich a "chicken gyro" instead. Somehow, Greek-labelled cuisine had fallen out of favour with the general public, but as soon as you served the same food under a different name, everyone would be rushing to try it, even if they couldn't pronounce the name of the meal properly!

kalitsounia spring rolls
My attempts at fusion cuisine have been met enthusiastically by most family members - above: Mediterranean spring rolls; below: pad thai singlina.
pad thai singlina

Over time, I learnt that the melting pot culture that had become my new home had put aside their traditional meals, not necessarily forgetting them entirely - Mama may not be cooking any longer, but she could never be forgotten - but adding new ingredients to an old traditional favorite. Fusion cuisine was a dangerous field to experiment with, but some meals did manage to become popular, like fiery fish taco, which was also regarded as a healthy alternative to the regular meat version. As long as it sold, I wasn't too fussed over how much better it was for you; we simply wanted to make a profit.

cafe world facebook
Cafe World, a Facebook application (a euphemism for 'game')

The best moment would have to be when we finally retired. We had been longing to go back and live in Greece, but decided against it when we realised how different life was there and how much we had gotten used to living in another world. But we had managed to amass a small fortune by working so hard for so long, as long as we have our health, we'll be cruising back and forth, playing ping pong between the Old World we left behind and the New World we made our home. Even if we can't go back to the old Greece that we knew, it's a nice feeling to know that we can sit at a Greek taverna a few times a year and enjoy the same food we grew up with.

paleohora hania chania
How many immigrant Greeks envisage retirement...

For more standard and not so standard American restaurant favorites, visit Cafe World on Facebook, which is where I doodle whenever I have a minute to twiddle my thumbs. The inspiration for this post comes from a popular online game; the food it served could be said to be based on some standard truths about food and the restaurant trade.

* all italicised words are names of dishes mentioned in the Cafe World Facebook application.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Bloody food - Xidato (Ξυδάτο)

This post is based on a recent discussion on the blogosphere about the use of blood in food.

My upbringing was not based in the countryside or the mountains, even though both my parents were born and raised in such environments (my father in the countryside, my mother in the mountains); my links with these worlds have been lost in the migration and settlement patterns of my more recent ancestors. Despite my present residence in a rural environment, it is anything but rural - noisy cars speed past my house every day, nearly all my neighbours live in modern newly built houses, and nearly all the residents of this rural suburb, apart from retired folk and the remaining few housewives, commute daily to the town centre for work. Although it has a rural outlook, my suburb could be described better as an 'urban village'.

It therefore goes without saying that my food stories, based mainly on my own experiences, will have an element of modernity in them, even when I try to relate them to my past: my parents' first thirty years of their life in Crete, my first twenty-five in New Zealand, and the last two decades of my life in Athens and Crete. My cooking techniques and culinary adventures are nearly all based on lower ground, household settings and commonly found, easily accessible ingredients. We grow most of our fruit and vegetables, but there are some ingredients which we do not have access to, which are always bought, like meat: we have never raised our own meat, an integral part of my weekend cooking regime.

This is the reason why there will inevitably be a gap in my knowledge of Cretan cooking. It is simply not possible to experience the whole range of Cretan cuisine (and indeed any other cuisine in the world) if one does not venture any further than the known 'tourist' track, a path which more often than not, is only opened up to visitors and strangers by invitation. In Crete, some of our food history is found within the closed rural mountain communities, which were the traditional residences of the oppressed people of the island: when the enemy came, one way to avoid the invader was to run off into the mountains. It's an honour to be accepted into the homes of the members of such communities, which involves its own difficulties, as these people are used to being isolated from mainstream society and generally view strangers, whatever their motives, in a suspicious manner.

Just last weekend, on a cold wet day in Hania, I left my comfortable warm house and drove up the mountainside, landing in a completely rural setting, a few kilometres away from the last village (Fournes), before the road becomes steeper and the mountains start to rise, one and a half stops short of the Omalos plain, where the Samaria Gorge begins. I'm in the kitchens of the Botanical Park of Crete. This restaurant is run by a family who has always lived in this remote mountain setting. When their olive trees burnt to the ground in a forest fire a few years ago, the four children of the owners - only their generation has received secondary and tertiary education, both in Greece and abroad - decided not to re-plant the land with olive trees, which was their parents' main livelihood at the time. Instead, they explored alternative avenues that would use the land sustainably, as well as bring in some kind of profit. Their modern education and inherent love for their land resulted in the creation of a botanical park hosting a range of exotic (for Crete) trees, shrubs and low-lying herbs, and a restaurant that uses the harvests from the botanical garden, with the aim of developing a modern twist to traditional Cretan food. They also serve lesser known (to the general public) meals steeped in the rural traditions that their family was raised on.

To understand what rural isolation means, try to picture yourself living in a hilly environment, among thirty other families, without electricity (it first operated in 1973 in this particular village), no local shop to buy anything, and a steep dirt road that leads to the closest village with a general store (but you don't have a motorised vehicle to get there; you can choose to walk or ride on a donkey - if it is not in use by another family member at the time). You eat you have, what you forage, what you store and what you grow, whether it be flora or fauna. You don't cook according to recipes in cookbooks (you've probably never seen one in your life); culinary creativity becomes a means of survival. And above all, you do not waste; never, ever, ever.

And that is the basis of the pig in the Cretan kitchen. The pig was a sign of affluence. If your family could afford to raise a pig, then you were considered well-off. Certainly you wouldn't be going hungry; the pig (most households would own one or two) needed to be fed and it needed its own space. If you could afford to raise a pig, then you probably lived on a large land-holding and could buy the extra feed needed. Often associated with filth, the pig has always been an important farm animal in Greek rural life. It was significant, not solely as a food source; the pig in rural communities was the garbage disposal unit, the source of preservable meat for colder weather, and a motive for large gatherings of villagers when it was slaughtered. The pig had an environmentally friendly role: it ate all the leftovers of the farming family's meals. Each family would take their turn to slaughter theirs in the colder seasons; it is no wonder that pork is the meat associated with a Greek Christmas, since this was about the time that the pig was ready to be done away with.

For more information about the photos in the slideshow, click here.

In the days before refrigeration, once a pig was killed, the meat was shared out among the extended family and the village neighbourhood, while every single part of the pig was cooked in various ways, ranging from soup and sausages to rendered cooking fat and pork preserves. The most perishable parts of the animal (blood, intestines, offal) were cooked or prepared first, followed by the least perishable. The owner kept what his family would eat, while the rest was preserved or distributed among the other villagers. This was a trade in kind; the following week, it would be someone else's turn to slaughter their pig, and the same process would be repeated. All parts of the animal were used; even the skin, which became crackling preserved in fat, to be added to soups or stews in less abundant times, and the urethra, washed meticulously, was blown up and made into a children's ball, one of the few children's toys of the time.

After the slaughter, which was a man's job, the women would then begin to help in the food preparation. The first meal to be served in this particular community was ξυδάτο (xithato, xidato), finely cubed bits of pork cut from the softest part of the pig's body (the neck - it was also the fattiest part), cooked in pig's blood and vinegar (hence its name - in Greek, vinegar is called ξύδι: xithi/xidi). The villagers would all gather together to eat this meal, and the event was usually accompanied by singing. Xidato was more of a meze, an appetiser so to speak, as it is rather heavy on the stomach. The use of animal blood in Greek food is not commonly known nowadays, but the tradition of making xidato still survives among the older generations in pockets of rural Greek communities, although every different region has their own special blood recipe. The advent of refrigerators and the urban drift have diminished the need to cook the whole animal; hence, it is becoming less common, an understandable consequence of the conveniences of modern living. At the same time, alternative agro-tourist sites like the Botanical Park of Crete have revived interest in the history of the food of a race of people whose survival depended on their skilful use of all that nature had to offer them.

xithato xidato

The idea of including blood in one's food does sound off-putting; this is the reason that most people are put off by the idea of eating this kind of food. But one man's garbage is another man's treasure, and the idea of blood in food is based on antiquity: the Greek gods are said to have used it in their food, giving a sense of power to the mortals that ate it. People who cook rabbit or hare in its own blood (this practice continues up to the present time in Crete) claim that the stewed meat comes out tastier.

The knowledge of such old-fashioned food customs may be dying out with the westernisation (globalisation) of Greek life, but this hasn't quite happened yet in Crete, which has always been known as the bastion of Greek traditional life, the place which will hold out last. There is a general worldwide interest in the revival of forgotten customs for the greater good of cultural diversity; Crete is one of the places in the world where food history is more traceable since the traditions of the old world have not quite yet been replaced with the newer trends - they are often found side-by-side.

For more strange Cretan food, try roast sheep's head, lamb intestines, and stewed snails.

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Saturday 12 December 2009

Acrylamide (Ακρυλαμίδιο)

Don't photographs like this one freak you out?

Thanks to Mariza for sending it to me.

Surely not good for business, is it? But in this case (unlike most other complaints against McDonalds and other fast food restaurants), it isn't something McDonalds does that is causing toxicity in the food they are serving you - it's something you do even in your own home. So you shouldn't feel that you can't eat McDonalds food for this reason. Just when you thought that you were eating healthy food, making the change from conventional to organic produce, buying, cooking and/or eating more fresh produce, you will now start to wonder what you're doing at home that might be poisoning your food.

In 2002, a group of Swedish scientists reported that they had found evidence of the chemical acrylamide in various fried and oven-baked foods. Acrylamide in high doses causes cancer in experimental animals. It forms in certain foods like vegetables, bread and baked goods, while they are being cooked, and it is not something new, nor can it be ascribed to the modern world: it's been produced for years and years, ever since Prometheus gave the world fire. One could say that Prometheus is to blame for acrylamide formation in our food: if he hadn't stolen this precious tool from the gods and spread it around in the mortal world, we'd still be eating our food raw - but we probably wouldn't have any fear of acrylamide residues in our food.

The ability to cook our food allowed us to develop our taste buds. Cooked food usually has a more superior taste to it than raw food, without a doubt. The slightly charred smoky taste of a grilled pepper, the sweet aroma of a fresh batch of cookies, the hard crust of a freshly baked loaf of bread; such foods look so innocent, yet they are the main culprits of acrylamide content in food. Yet, these are common foods in the daily diet of most people, using very common cooking methods. Ironically, it is not the hardcore carnivores among us that need worry about acrylamide content in their food, because acrylamide rarely forms in meat and dairy products.

Acrylamide formation in food is a tricky issue. It forms in most things we cook at high temperatures, even toast and french fries (hence the warning McDonalds posted in the photograph). But very little scares human beings these days, not even health warnings. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did not stop us from travelling for pleasure. Neither did the outbreak of swine flu. People continue to smoke, despite bans being introduced in public spaces and the high prices of tobacco products. So it's highly unlikely that reading about acrylamide formation in cooked food is going to stop us from eating golden french fries, crispy biscuits, melted cheese on toasted bread and all those delicious vegetables we like to barbecue as a side dish to our meat.

We can't stop eating in the fashion that we have gotten used to for the last many thousands of years, and neither are we being asked to. As acrylamide formation is a rather new idea (having been born this millenium), levels of acceptable acrylamide content in food are still being formulated. Lists of information are available on the acrylamide content of packaged mass-produced foods, and some basic advice is offered for reducing acrylamide content in food.

The acrylamide problem has added another dimension to the topic of food safety: GMO, conventional farming, organic produce, local products, and now acrylamide content. Probably the best thing we can do is not to allow our food to burn or form an unnecessarily dark crust, and to keep away from too many fried foods, which we knew about already, from cholesterol warnings and other negative effects of eating fried food.

The subject of food safety will always be a constant worry in a world which needs to develop faster propagation methods to obtain greater quantities of food, sadly, at the cost of food quality.

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Friday 11 December 2009

Frozen vegetables (Λαχανικά κατάψυξης)

I was having an off-day, one of those days when everything seems to go wrong. I felt wheezy, my throat was itchy, and there was lunch to prepare. It had to be something quick and easy. The freezer is a good place to look for that kind of food, but since we had had pastitsio the previous day, it was a bit too much to bring out the frozen portion-sized moussaka, which would have been the easiest solution.

I found a packet of mixed frozen vegetables in the deep freeze, the type that contains peas, carrots and corn (this one also contained red kidney beans and green runner beans). It had been, let's just say, forgotten about, without any expressed intent to be used for any particular meal. I can't remember why I had bought this packet of frozen vegetables in the first place. We have a large garden, so there are always fresh vegetables in the house. I suppose the picture on the packet looked tempting: a jumbled pile of coloured pebbles.

In New Zealand, my mother would often boil this kind of vegetable medley and serve them with pilafi rice or boiled potatoes. This kind of meal was quick and easy to prepare, a very important factor for a working wife and mother who left the house in the middle of the morning, and did not return home until after seven or eight o'clock at night. Even though she worked away from home for so many hours, I don't recall a day when there was no freshly prepared food in our house.

Frozen vegetables don't do it for me anymore. I remember a time when I ate them with greater relish, during my dieting stints when my food intake was reduced in terms of portions and variety, so these frozen vegetables looked colourfully inviting. I now find that frozen vegetables have a strange plasticky smell and a woody texture even when cooked, as if they were unripe at the time of processing. You will find a spoonful of this vegetable medley as an accompaniment to meat steaks at tavernas; they are used to fill the gap on the plate - very boring, and highly suspect. For this reason, when my mother-in-law would serve up this convenience food to her family, she would cook them Mediterranean-style in a light tomato sauce.

mixed frozen veges greek style

You need:
a 250g packet of frozen mixed vegetables
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
some olive oil (between 5-10 tablespoons, depending on how oily you like your food)
2 freshly grated tomatoes
1 tablespoon of red curry paste (that was my addition, not from my mother-in-law's original recipe)
1/2 glass of water
a few sprigs of parsley
salt, pepper and oregano

Chop the onion and garlic finely, and saute in a pot with the olive oil heated up. Add the frozen vegetables and coat them in the oil. Then add the tomato and curry paste, and the water. Let the pot simmer away, covered, for 20 minutes, so that most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the chopped parsley towards the end of the cooking time. Done!

pilafi and curried mixed vegetables

I keep some chicken off-cuts in the fridge for making stock, with which I can make a hearty Cretan pilafi. It doesn't take a long time once you have the stock ready. This is what I served the vege medley with. The curry and rice mixture reminded me of another cuisine I haven't had in a while? To date, I have no knowledge of any Indian restaurants in Hania...

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Sunday 6 December 2009

Memorial (Μνημόσινο)

Death from natural causes is an integral part of life in all cultures around the world. It is the wish of many people all over the world to go quietly without causing inconvenience to their close family. Death from natural causes can also be a tiresome journey whose end is certain but whose traveling time is unknown, especially now that medicine and technology can prolong life. A long life is a double-edged sword, and in my neighbour's case, although her small family enjoyed her company among them for many years, she seemed to have over-stayed her visit towards the end of her life.

Elvira* was born into a family of Greek refugees from Smyrna, the Koumantatzoglous. Her parents had been expelled from Turkey during the forced population exchange in 1922. These refugees did not have any choice about their new abode; they were sent wherever the authorities ordered them to go. Although Elvira's parents married in Crete, they were both from Smyrna; the marriage was arranged according to the traditions of the time. Her parents' families could be considered some of the luckier ones; their exile from Turkey eventually landed them on the shores of Crete:

"When the first wave of refugees arrived [in Greece], initially in the Aegean islands and later on the mainland, some were received well by individual benefactors who acknowledged them as ethnic kin and co-religionists in need of help. Refugees who landed in Crete, where the spirit of Greek pride was strong and the code of filotimo (honour) set much store by hospitality, had warm words about the locals who received them..." (Twice a Stranger, Bruce Clark, Granta Books, London, 2006)

Elvira's family was probably received in a similar way to the manner in which the other refugees who landed in Crete were treated. This was not the case throughout Greece; some places were more hospitable than others. Saroula Skyfti, a refugee from Smyrna recalls the chilly reception her family received when they initially landed on an Aegean island:

"It was drizzling, and all the doors were closed to us. Perhaps the people there were frightened of us... They looked down on us from upper windows, as we tried to shelter from the rain... We went into a grocer to buy a few things... but the grocer wouldn't take our banknotes. 'These notes are no good here, I don't want them,' he said." (ibid)

Saroula's family were eventually settled in Hania. She recalls a completely different reception at Souda Bay, the main port of Hania:

"As soon as they saw us, they cooked meat soup for us and handed it round. Anybody who... didn't have (their own tin can or saucepan) just drank the soup there and then. Then they put us in a bus and brought us to Chania, every single one of us who had arrived on the ship... All the people from my family and village were put in a cafe with a billiard table whose owner had gone to America... each family took one corner and used chairs to divide it off, and one family made the billiard table a bed. A woman from the neighbourhood brought us a mop and bucket so we could clean up, and she let us wash in her own house..." (ibid)

Elvira's family were given some land by the state in a hilly area of Hania, with a view to the sea, which was previously uninhabited. Other refugees were given land directly on the shore. These areas, also previously uninhabited, were seen as barren, infertile and useless because the earth was too sandy to be viable for growing anything on. This was the pervading opinion throughout most of the 20th century until the 60s; now, most of the present owners of such lands have built hotels on them, or have sold them for a mint, in line with the global idea that locations with a good view are worth the high price asked for...

Elvira was born in Crete, and she and her family have never felt anything but Greek. In one of the few conversations that I had with her, she told me that she had been raised just like any other Greek in her neighbourhood. She spoke Greek and never learnt the Turkish language that her parents sometimes used when they congregated with other refugees. She and her family were invited to all the feasts and weddings of the local Cretan people, and she always felt equal to all her neighbours, whether they were Cretans or descended from refugees from Asia Minor. She herself had few memories of her parents' past life in what is now Turkey; they preferred not to remember it themselves.

Elvira lived a very average Cretan life for a woman of her generation. She did the 'done thing': she grew up, married and had children, who in their turn gave her grandchildren, and, along with her siblings, looked after her aged parents until their death, a cycle repeated by her own children who all now live in the same area where she spent most of her life. Her husband died many years before her; when I met her, she was already wearing black, the typical dress code of the typical village Cretan widow.

sad day in my neighbourhood
When a person dies or there is a memorial service taking place for a loved one, notices like these three on the lamp post (commercially printed by funeral homes) are stuck up close to their house, around the neighbourhood, on the announcement board of the parish church, among other places.

Old age got the better of Elvira; she died of it. She was not ill, nor was she on any medication. She just got old. After growing up and marrying and having children and grandchildren and burying her parents (always more preferable to burying one's children) and her husband ('kallia mavro pokamiso para tzemberi**' men would joke with her), there was not much else for her to do but to die herself.

In her better days, I would often see her walking along the street carrying corn and clover to feed her chickens (her garden was not on the same property as her house), or a pail filled with eggs, which she would sometimes give to me. "What am I going to do with so many?" she'd say to me. She was extremely thin, even then when she was able to walk unaided, and I always wondered how she wasn't blown away by the breeze.

My mother-in-law (she's 85), getting her daily exercise; her dress style is typical of widowed village women in the area. Most Greek people of her generation are cared for in their own homes by live-in nurses. Retirement homes are few and far between and nursing homes are expensive. It is much cheaper to hire a live-in nurse. At the time of writing, she looks after herself entirely (we only do the shopping for her and pick up her pension payments).

Towards the end of life, she needed to be cared for. A Bulgarian live-in carer (they came and went) looked after all her needs, as she lay helpless in a bed-ridden state. The last time I saw Kiria Elvira was in what was to be her last summer, on the eve of the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. She was carried by her two daughters, one on each side propping her up by the shoulders. They had spruced her up for the feast, combing the tuft of white hair that remained on her scalp, and had dressed her in a grey floral robe (common widow's clothing). She was brought before the icon of the Transfiguration, and the priest held it up for her to kiss. Everyone offered her their chair, but her daughters explained that she couldn't sit up straight, and would only slump in it if she sat down. So they took her back home to her bed. Elvira looked like a bag of bones. Her steps seemed to be forced by her daughters' forward movements rather than any muscular force in Elvira's body. She was a living, breathing corpse. Hades called on a very wet day in September. Her time had come to enter the underworld. When she finally breathed her last, it was a tremendous relief for both her and her family; finally, it was over.

*** *** ***

No one really knows how long the wait for death is. Most of us are usually not ready when it knocks on the door; in the case of Kiria Elvira, it was long overdue. As I watched her on that feast day in early August, I remembered the day my 90-plus-year-old grandmother Calliope died. My aunt had been travelling from her home in Athens to Crete and back every weekend when she realised that Hades was closing in on her mother. It was by chance that she was there the day he called. She had been sitting in a rickety armchair next to her mother's bed reading an old magazine that had probably been lying around the house for a few years. She recalled that she had seen it before, even though the text did not remind her of anything she had already read. She looked across to her mother, and was surprised she was opening and closing her mouth in rapid movements; she sometimes had to prise her mother's mouth open to feed her. Then she noticed that her mouth remained open at one point.

"Tharo pos apothane i mana mou," (I think my mother just died) she said, and called out to her brothers, who had been resting in their bedrooms as it was during the siesta period on a quiet Sunday afternoon in autumn.

"Yep," they confirmed after seeing her, "she's dead alright." And that was that. The priest was informed, and the church bells chimed in death toll mode that afternoon, just like they had done when my mother died (even though she had died in a faraway land), and all the neighbours knew it was Calliope who was dead, because they had also seen Hades hanging around her house for a while.

She could not be buried immediately - her youngest brother wanted to attend the funeral but he lived far away, and would need at least a day to come down to the island. The wake would be a long one. The coffin cover was placed by the door, the mirrors of the house were covered, and not a sound could be heard indoors. The women, dressed in black from top to toe, poured into the house solemnly. They carried plates of food to feed the closest family members who were sitting by the coffin all night, keeping the deceased company. The men, some dressed in black shirts and trousers, others wearing black armbands on one sleeve, carried chairs from their homes, because there would never be enough in a person's house to cater for all the mourners coming to say their last goodbye. Then they stepped out of the house and stood by the gate, talking in hushed voices about the same things they would have talked about at the kafeneion, had Calliope not died that night and altered their regular routine.

One of my grandmother's neighbours had made some coffee (tea is still seen as something sick people drink), and was serving it round to the mourners. Roxani, another elderly neighbour, picked up a cup from the tray and examined the crockery.

"Who do these cups belong to?"

The tea lady was slightly startled by Roxani's outburst, as it had broken the deathly silence that had prevailed up until that moment before she had spoken.

"I... they're mine... I thought maybe there wouldn't be enough..." the tea lady stuttered.

"They're really nice. Make sure you remember to bring them to mine."

Some people laughed. A few began talking. Everyone was now smiling. The silence had been broken and people began voicing their recollections of Calliope to each other in a low voice, their whispers hushed every now and then by the more solemn mourners, who were probably more concerned that the wake did not end up sounding like a joyful reveillon from the street level.

I wondered then what it would feel like to be able to sense death so close by. This notion always brings us back to the realisation that we are mere mortals, and no matter who we are, where we live and what we do on this earth, we can't escape death. I bumped into one of my cousins the other day as I was getting some chores done in town. His father is my deceased father's oldest sibling (while my father was the youngest), now in his mid-80s. His children live far away from their parents' village, but they check p on them as often as they can, whenever the modern demands of work and family allow them.

"How are your parents doing?" I asked him, feeling guilty that I did not visit them to see for myself how they were doing. After all, they are my Thio and Thia.

"Nearly dead," he answered, with a smile on his face. "One of these days, I'm going to find them lying on the ground, like logs of wood from uprooted trees." And with that, we both laughed, because if we didn't laugh, we'd both start crying.

*** *** ***
Gone, but not forgotten. Elvira's forty-day memorial felt more like a celebration of long life than a memorial of a loved one who had passed away from life on earth into life in heaven. Elvira came from a small family and had a small family herself. But the church was full on that bright Sunday morning. The whole village was in attendance. The priest reminded the congregation that life is nothing but a long trip to God's kingdom and whatever we do on earth is unimportant; what is more significant is how your name is written in the skies above. Are those words written in the stars or the clouds, I wondered.

koliva macaroon and koliva
Koliva and a sweet, like this Greek-style macaroon, are the traditional offerings of a memorial service, supplemented by a piece of bread and cheese, or something grander, as was the case for Kiria Elvira.

Aionia i mnimi autis, he chanted (May she be forever remembered), as he jiggled the censer above the cake of koliva, the ritual food offering served at all Greek Orthodox memorial services. The word 'koliva' comes from Ancient Greek, but it is used throughout the Christian Orthodox world as the name for the sweet wheat dish that is made for memorial services. It looks like a cake, but it is actually just boiled wheat, sweetened and enhanced with sugar, nuts, parsley and pomegranates. The wheat is packed tightly under a blanket of icing sugar, which is decorated on the top with a simple cross and the name of the deceased. Silver sugar balls are often used to decorate the cross and other decorative parts of the 'cake'. At the end of the service, the cake is 'cut' by scooping small portions and bagging them, to be shared among the congregation, each person taking a little bag after paying their condolences to the family who are lined up at the door of the church to shake the hands of their 'guests' and hear them say the appropriate set phrases for the occasion: 'Zoi se sas' (May God grant you life), 'Na ehete hronia na tin thimaste' (May you have many years to remember her), 'Silipitiria' (My condolences).

As with all sacraments, food is also an integral part of a memorial service; there are no sacred mysteries in the Greek Orthodox Church that are not accompanied by a meal. The most important memorials for loved ones take place 40 days and 12 months after the date of death. At the end of the service, everyone was invited to the community centre adjacent to the church to join together in a traditional offering. In the past, a piece of bread and cheese was offered, accompanied by cognac and coffee, and some kind of sweet cake. Nowadays, the same basic food customs are maintained, but with much more food available according to one's pockets. The reasoning behind this is that people may have travelled far to come to someone's mnimosino; tired and weary travellers (who nowadays come in their SUVs) need to be refreshed.

My mother in law could not attend the memorial service, so we took a plate home to her, piled with all the offerings at the meal after the mnimosino. This mnimosino meal consisted of finger food which was all provided by a caterer; some people still cook on these occasions, but it isn't always easy to do this in the busy globalised world that Greece has developed into.
mnimosino food memorial service

Kiria Elvira will not be remembered for much more than her contribution towards raising the population of Greece. She was a typical example of her generation. Kiria Elvira's mnimosino, however, honoured her memory, and revived in all of us our own memories of Kiria Elvira. Her children will remember her as a mother and grandmother. The village will remember her as a fellow neighbour. I will remember her as the woman who walked tirelessly up and down the steep road, carrying buckets of chicken feed and eggs, as so many of her predecessors did, but not one of her descendants will, because times have changed so fast, and the village women of today will simply take their car and drive to the supermarket to buy eggs, and they won't even remember Kiria Elvira's chicken coop, because the land it was on will be developed into modern state-of-the-art housing. That the whole village came together in her memory is an act of gratitude for those individual memories, one of the rare moments in our times that a neighbourhood, a private community, congregates to honour the insignificance of a mundane life. A sit-down meal is usually reserved in the modern world by invitation only or among close family.

mnimosino memorial service
The people here are not related; they have simply come together to have a meal in their neighbour's memory.

A memorial service (in Greek: mnimosino) is a chance to 'visit' the dead via a service of remembrance held in their honour, a way of keeping their memory alive in their absence. The most insignificant life is immortalised in a mnimosino. When the death is of natural causes, it is also a chance to celebrate a complete life.

* Names and relationships have been changed.
** "Better a black shirt than a black headscarf": what widowers and widows, respectively, wear upon the death of a spouse

My mother's grave in Wellington, NZ, in the Greek Orthodox section of the cemetery:
Mαταιότης ματαιοτήτων τα πάντα ματαιότης

This post is dedicated to all my friends and family in New Zealand that remember my mother's grave whenever they visit Makara Cemetery in Wellington, cleaning it, lighting the kandili and perfuming it with incense; even though her immediate family is gone, she is never alone.

Thanks to Mariana for the gift of the book "Twice a Stranger".

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