Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Corned beef (Κονμπίφ)

I usually do the supermarket shopping on my own. It's cheaper and safer than when my kids and/or husband come with me. For instance, it's very hard not to refuse to buy the kids one of those flavoured coloured sweet yoghurt pots when they are with me, while my husband simply finds so much variety bedazzling. On a recent trip when he was with me, he surprised me by wanting to buy something that does not pair at all with the as-close-to-nature transparent food lifestyle that we try to live: he wanted to buy a can of corned beef. Something must have triggered his memory when he saw the can on the supermarket shelf.

corned beef
 france corned 
Corned beef is almost a thing of the past in Crete. This was the only kind available on the supermarket shelves, and there was a very small amount of shelf space allotted to it. On the other hand, there were quite a few varieties of canned luncheon meat on sale, containing all kinds of meat (beef, pork and chicken). Corned beef is neither cheap (this can cost 2.45 euro), nor does it come from Argentina any longer (it is French).

The can of corned beef reminded me of my parents. They liked the stuff enough to make a meal out of it during my youth. I couldn't understand why they liked it, as it resembled nothing of what my mother cooked for us. In fact, it looked quite repulsive. It was always packaged in that special can with a key on the side. On opening the can, you are faced with an oozing brown jelly fat wrapped around a dense sliceable mixture of pinky-red mince. On opening the can with that special key, the jelly would force the meat to slide out of the can when upturned. I remember we used to serve corned beef like this, straight out of the can, sliced up on a plate, and nothing more. It was considered a meal in conjunction with salad and bread, the cheap white resilient spongey pre-sliced stuff, with a zombie-like, yeasty odour and bleached and puffy crumb that we used to buy in NZ before the days of artisan bakeries. This 'meal' would be served on picnics, or when my mother had no time to cook, which was rare. What's more, it was always treated as a full and nourishing meal. It would be a long long time before I put two and two together; in fact, both my parents had died by the time I realised why they treated corned beef as a superior kind of salami.

corned beef patties
I got six lean slices from the 200g can of corned beef. Half of them I fried in olive oil by flouring them first, while the other half of the mixture was added to a kolokithokeftedes batter (courgette fritters) and then fried in a similar way. Both patties were palatable - but would I bother to make this again?

My husband also remembers corned beef very well. There was one particular moment in his life where corned beef was in fact the only food available. After completing his studies at a local training centre for aircraft mechanics in the late 70s, he was then drafted for military duty. On arriving in Athens by overnight ferryboat, he took the train to Tripoli in the Peloponese. An army officer had been consigned to this journey, and his role was to take care of all the νεοσύλλεγκτοι, young men like himself, as they made their way to bootcamp. For most of them, it was their first time away from home, and the train journey was where they all ate their first army meal: a slice of cold corned beef, placed on a slice of stale bread. Husband, being unused to such coarse food served so roughly, threw his away, not because he didn't like corned beef, but because, as he explained to me, it wasn't cooked. He later discovered that he would have plenty of time to learn to eat cold corned beef: during training runs in the air force, each cadet would be given a slice of bread (this time, it was always fresh because there was a bakery in the camp) and a small can of corned beef to eat while they were away from the base. If they could manage to hold out a little longer, they would take their can back to the camp kitchens and eat it fried in slices.

*** *** ***

Corned beef became known to Greece during WWII. When the Nazis began confiscating people's food, the Greek people came to know hunger on a large scale. After the Nazis' departure, items like corned beef and other American food products were shipped to Greece through aid packages due to a local shortage of high energy food. Before the advent of supermarkets, not only was food expensive for the average Cretan, it was also difficult to come by so much variety. So corned beef was actually considered cheap and nourishing food, a handy and economical meat product that could be stored easily for a long time until needed.

canned pork canned pork
My husband isn't the only curious person in the house. I was curious to find out why this kind of canned pork made such a sensation in the film "Christmas with the Kranks", starring Jamie Lee Curtis; apparently, Christmas just wasn't the same without this ham in their house (the shape of the can is the same as in the film, but I don't know about the texture).

I have never eaten corned beef since I left New Zealand, so I wondered how we were going to make use of the can that my husband bought. Due to the present ease of access in Crete to any kind of food that one's heart desires, combined with the abundance of fresh local food products, it was difficult to think of a moment when I would need to open a canned product to cook with.

My husband's food memories rest mainly with his mother's food. Although his family were considered poor, being the son of a taxi driver (and possibly also because he was an only child), quality food was always a top priority in their household. His father would go to the central town market, the Agora, and buy the biggest fish, which was never on display, because you had to be a 'special' customer for that kind of product. Still, corned beef made an appearance in his home. He remembers eating it often. Due to her proud Cretan spirit, his mother never served any food straight out of a can; this for her was a sign of slovenliness, γυφτιά. Similar to her recipe for canned Californian squid, she used corned beef in a cooked meal with a red sauce. According to my husband, he remembers eating this meal regularly while growing up.

canned meat egg casserole

You need:
1 can of corned beef (or pork, like the one I bought)
2 eggs
1 large tomato
1 medium onion
olive oil
salt and pepper

Heat some oil in a wide saucepan and add the finely chopped onion. Saute till transparent, then add the crumbled corned beef. Let the meat cook for a few minutes until it is coated well in the oil. Add the tomato, crushed as a puree, and stir it into the mixture. Season the corned beef with salt and pepper. Let the pan cook till most of the liquid has evaporated. Then add the two beaten eggs and stir them into the mixture. When the eggs have set, this casserole is ready to eat.

We had this dish served with a salad and some bread, but my husband also recalls that his mother used to cook corned beef from Argentina in this way, and serve it on pasta (spaghetti). My friend Laurene tells me that this could also be used as a pie filling, as she recalls eating in her youth.

This meal resembles sludge. I thought it would end up as the dog's meal. I was surprised that it was enjoyed by 3/4 of the family. I honestly don't think I really want to eat it again. During my husband's youth, the gap between the rich and the poor in Hania may not have been very wide, but even then, the 'not-haves' stood out like sore thumbs among the 'haves'; at times like this when fresh produce was not cheap enough for everyone to afford, this kind of meal was considered real food.

©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.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Modern food trends in Hania (Καινούργιες τάσεις στα τρόφιμα)

I use two supermarket chains in Hania: one has its headquarters based in Hania, while the other is based in Athens*. The locally-based chain (let's call it LOCAL) sells mostly local produce, ingredients often used in Cretan cuisine, and mainstream Greek brands in dry/canned goods - they also sell imported fresh produce, mainly due to the demands of facing competition, and lately, they have also been selling more foreign brand canned/bottled/dry goods. I also use one large multinational-type supermarket (let's call it NATIONAL), where I buy products like imported beer, Pink Lady apples (when available) and my favorite brand of feta cheese (called PLATAION).

pink lady apple italy

LOCAL will sell you only Cretan tomatoes; even when we limit ourselves to localness, there is still a wide range to choose from: large beef tomatoes, small soft cooking tomatoes, vine tomatoes, and son on. Why should LOCAL bother bringing anything else in the first place? They may be tasteless in the winter (because they are grown in greenhouses), they may be odd shapes and sizes year-round, sometimes they will be soft, but they will rarely be too firm or under-ripe. You even have a choice cost-wise: B' grade tomatoes are cheaper.

heirloom tomatoes
This is a local variety of tomato; it isn't marketed even though may people grow it all over Hania. It cracks easily, the top stays green, and it has an odd shape.

NATIONAL, on the other hand, will sell you the most beautiful looking tomatoes you will ever see in your life. They may not have been grown in Crete, but they will all have a uniform shape, they will never look 'off', their skin will be perfectly red, they won't have a blemish on them. having said all this, they will also be tasteless, because that's what most multi-national competitive upmarket-supermarket tailor-grown produce is like: beautiful to the eye, distasteful to the tongue. Beauty has always been skin deep.

ab tomatoes
The perfect tomato, or is it? NATIONAL supermarket tomatoes

But NATIONAL will also sell you the size of a piece of watermelon that you desire. One of the consequences of the Greek economic crisis is that people are no longer willing to buy a large watermelon unless they are sure it is ripe and good for eating. In the past, it was very difficult to get watermelon sellers (especially the ones on the roadside being sold by gypsies) to open them.

gypsy truck
This gypsy truck was parked by my local beach for a while, on the pretext of selling watermelons.

You could argue yourself black and blue trying to convince them that you really do want to buy that super-size watermelon but you just can't carry one whole big watermelon in one hand (it usually weighs 10-15 kilos), and it would be a great help if the seller would be so kind as to cut it into two pieces and put it in two bags so that you can share the load. They simply cannot see the logic in this, especially when they know they are selling unripe and/or tasteless watermelons when (the flesh is very light pink, and it tastes almost like a sweet cucumber). If you're buying a big one (which is more likely to be ripe), you feel let down when, upon opening it, you realise that it is a bad 'un, not to mention the fact that you have just wasted your money (this used to happen to us every season until this year).

ab watermelon
Since you get what you pay for, it's always more preferable for the transaction to be as transparent as possible.

Because NATIONAL is opening up those watermelons and therefore providing more transparency in the food chain), allowing consumers to try-before-they-buy, LOCAL will follow suit in no time, as I recently discovered. But NATIONAL is still one step ahead of them, because they have already cut the watermelons, whereas LOCAL still expects you to choose the watermelon of your choice and then cut it - which means that you still run the risk of choosing a bad 'un, and getting involved in a fracas with the seller.
*** *** ***

Well, you can guess which supermarket is selling the well-known (at least to most of the modern world) pre-cut, no-washing-required, pre-packed, ready-to-eat (at least, that is what it says on the packet) salads in a plastic bag to the Cretans, can't you? Pre-cut bagged salads are, generally speaking, a relatively new way of selling fresh produce. Oh, it's for the foreigners, you say, the tourists and the trickles of ex-pat Europeans who have come to start a new life in their retirement among the Greek gods. Not so, from what I discovered just recently.

I was waiting to get some beetroot weighed at the fresh produce counter. Waiting is unusual in high-end supermarkets or multi-national chains - they even over-do the 'Hello', 'Good morning', 'Thank you' and 'Have a nice day' formalities, which is very not Greek (in the LOCAL, you get: "Γεια σου κοπέλα μου!" and you can exchange a dirty joke or two if you know the assistant well enough). While I waited, never wanting to waste a minute (and that's a loooooooong waiting time in a supermarket of high calibre, isn't it), I got a pen out of my bag and noted down the prices of those bagged fresh salads on my shopping list. And what a range to choose from! There was:
  • σαλάτα εποχής (seasonal salad): 130g/1.50 euro, consisting of shredded/torn lettuce, rocket and other greens, none of which actually have a specific season per se
  • σαλάτα κηπουρού (gardener's salad): 230g/1.74 euro consisting of shredded/torn lettuce leaves and some other cheap leafy greens (eg parsley)
  • σαλάτα καπριτζιόζα (capricciosa salad): 160g/1.81 euro consisting of shredded/torn lettuce varieties that are curly (hence the raunchy name ascribed to it)
  • σαλάτα τρίχρωμη (tri-coloured salad): 160g/1.81 euro consisting of shredded/torn lettuce varieties in different colours (eg pink or purple leaves)
  • σαλάτα φάρμα (farm salad): consisting of of shredded/torn lettuce leaves mixed with cabbage and carrot
... and one more variety of bagged salad containing lettuce and something else, whose name, bagged weight and price I did not manage to jot down because that's when the manager of the fresh produce section came along and saw what I was doing. Store managers of large firms don't like it when they see people they don't know or have not been warned about taking notes in their shop (the reasons for this are widely discussed in the relevant literature), but I guess he couldn't grab my shopping list from my hand to see what I was writing, because I could then sue him for unprovoked assault while I was minding my own business (or something like that) and get a huge out-of-court settlement if I could prove I had suffered ψυχική οδύνη to a great magnitude. Admittedly, it was to my advantage that I had the good fortune not to have taken my camera out of my handbag and strung it round my neck, like I usually do, because it most likely would have contained defamatory food porn, and then the manager would have mistaken me for some kind of food journo, and even though I'm not one, I'd have a hard time proving the contrary...

He gave me that knowing look (= "wtf is she doing?")**, which I understood immediately (= "I have nothing to hide"), so I gave him my routine explanation, which I spew on pretty much anyone who can't for the life of them think why I would want to take notes while on a routine shopping expedition when they ask me what I'm doing, and in Hania, which goes something like this:

"I'm just doing a price comparison,"
"This looks like a new product, and I'm making a note for future reference,"
"I'm just wondering who would buy this sort of crap, I mean, thing."

It was the last one that concerned me on this particular day: who is likely to buy pre-cut non-local over-priced mainly-cheap-lettuce salad in a place like Hania, where fresh produce grows under the Mediterranean sun, and it borders aromatic plants, all of which give our crops that special 'Taste Crete' gout. This bag of shredded greens was clearly not from Crete: in fact, if you looked at the packaging (like I did), you would be amazed to discover that not only was this chlorine-washed ready-to-eat 'fresh salad' not from Crete, but it contained products that weren't even grown in Greece. NATIONAL even ships edible weeds (purslane) and common varieties of horta (like vlita) which have been grown in the Attiki region (to which Athens belongs) to their stores in Crete, at the same time that we are completely deluged by the stuff overtaking the garden and growing without any assistance.

Click the notes to seethe free food we get from our garden; in Crete, you don't need to spend you rprecious euros buying this stuff - just ask someone nicely of they could pull out a few weeds for you from their patch of earth.

Concerning the bagged salads, Mr Fresh-Produce told me that lots of people buy it, not just tourists - in his own words:

"We don't have tourists in the winter, so who are we stocking it for then, and why are they buying it?"

Actually, I didn't really need to ask Mr Fresh-Produce who would eat this stuff in Crete, since I already know of people who regularly buy it:

"I love salads," a friend once said to me, "but I hate all that cleaning and chopping; it's so much easier to buy a bag of chopped salad."

My MD also confirmed what I (and most people) have suspected all along: he said his patients generally do not follow the Cretan diet any longer, which is why the incidence of heart disease has risen alarmingly in Crete. It isn't my own MD who is talking about this same problem: in a public speech concerning the Cretan diet (organised in Hania by ILAEK), another MD in Hania made reference to the rapid rise in consumption of the ready-to-eat foods consumed by young couples (he pointed out this particular group): Gone are the days when women went to the fields 'για να βροβολογούν', gone are the days when the woman of the house 'έπλαθε, κοσκίνιζε και ύφαινε'. In addition, a few months ago, a Greek national newspaper published findings that revealed changes in the daily diet of young Cretans - the title of the article was: "Goodbye dakos, hello hamburger.".

ILAEK speech
The subject of the diet of the ancient and modern Greeks was discussed in a series of speeches made at the Municipal Garden open-air cinema in Hania recently. One of the speakers was History of Greek Food.

If anything has changed in the diet of the geographically isolated island, it has happened in the last 5-6 decades. Whereas Cretans once lived off whatever the earth gave them, supplementing this with bread and pulses (also known as 'poor man's meat'), and literally preserving or practically bathing all their food in olive oil, the modern Cretan now consumes fewer beans (they just aren't fashionable enough these days) and less bread (most young Cretan women have heard about the Atkins diet, even though they don't know who Dr Atkins is), while less olive oil now being used per capita on the island, despite Greece still having one of the highest per capita worldwide consumption rates for olive oil. Nevertheless, in places of 'mass congregation' (eg tavernas, fast-food restaurants, etc), more and more seed oils are being used (they're cheaper, and usually imported). There is no doubt about it: Cretans are eating a lot more animal fat, more lipids, more meat and more prepared food in their daily diet than they did 5-6 decades ago, and to the detriment of cereals, grains and bread - as well as to the detriment of their general health. Only a few days ago, the TV news was reporting the alarmingly increasing rates of high cholesterol levels of Greek children, attributed to a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet. It's hard to believe that the diet of young Cretan children can be so bad, yet it is: Cretan children are said to be some of the fatter Greek kids around...

This photo was taken two years ago at an inter-school sports event in Hania. It gives you an idea what people look like here(kind of unhealthy, much heavier than they ever were in the past). 

What looks like an imported food trend that may be favoured by the non-local population is actually being sold to locals, and being used to replace other products in the traditional diet. The temptation of buying a fuss-free product is immense in this day and age when both men and women are working away from the home for long periods of time: a ready-to-eat salad requires no cleaning up and it doesn't spoil your manicure.

cretan cookbooks
The Cretan diet: a way of life or a marketable souvenir product?

As Cretans become more upwardly mobile, their food will have a more global appearance.

yiayia maria yiayia calliope
Yiayia Maria (early 70s) and Yiayia Calliope (early 90s); they both had five children each and both died nonagenarians. Maria was widowed during the Battle of Crete, while Calliope had the misfortune to outlive one of her children (my mother).

But I still can't help thinking about Michael Pollan's rules for eating, one of which states: "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." Most of the salads contained lettuce varieties that would have been unknown to them in their time. Not even my grandmothers ever saw a bag of ready-to-eat salad in their life, but I wonder what they would have thought of it if they were presented with one, maybe something like:

"Μπα, πράμα δε κάνει. Σα' τ'αχυρά 'ναι.Δε'ν'αυτό φαγητό, παιδί μου, βάλ' το στο κουβά για τσ' όρνιθες, μπας και το φαν' αυτές."
(Ba, prama de ganei. Sa t'ahira 'ne. De 'nafto fajito, val' to sto gouva gia ts'ornithes, bas ke to fan aftes.)
Nah, it's useless. Like eating straw.
Put it in the bucket for the chickens (ie where the leftover vegetable scraps are placed, used as animal feed), they might eat it.

*** *** ***
για να βροβολογούν = foraging, picking wild greens
έπλαθε, κοσκίνιζε και ύφαινε = shaped (bread), sifted (flour) and wove (cloth)
*Most supermarkets around Greece are based on this kind of scenario: one or two local and a few national chains.
**I don't really know if, in Hania, it is still unusual for consumers to pay more attention than a cursory look at the label, and maybe a glance at the fineprint of the packaging, or whether it's just me and the effect I have on people that makes them suspicious of my eager-beaver interest in what I'm buying to feed my family...

©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 20 July 2010

Baked chicken and eggplant (Κοτόπουλο και μελιτζάνες στο φούρνο)

Having a summer garden in Crete means that you do not need to go food shopping very often. Apart from the money you save, the dishes you cook can be as creative as you want them to be. You sometimes don't know what will come out of the cooking vessel, because the combination of ingredients used may be unique, even to the cook, and the dish won't even have an internationally recognisable name to it. It'll just be a creative part of the Cretan kitchen.

eggplant aubergine

I had recently made some papoutsakia and moussaka with the fresh harvest of eggplant from our summer garden, which all went into the deep freeze for that rainy winter's day when there won't be so much fresh food or time to cook these fiddly dishes. There were some eggplants left over and I really needed to clear the fridge to make some more space for more fresh harvest, zucchini, as usual, being the most productive. Kiki recently helped me out in making an aubergine specialty from Zakinthos, but there are still too many aubergines leftover!

I had already boiled some chicken to make some stock for pilafi, a favorite Greek children's meal (whereas eggplant doesn't win so much favour among children until a later age). Plain boiled chicken is never very appetising on its own; it is usually used to make another dish. As I was toying with some ideas about how I was going to use up the boiled chicken and the excess aubergine crop, I came up with this winning dish, which I made up as I cooked.

baked chicken and eggplant

To make enough to feed 2-3 hungry people (or 4 small portions), you need
4 large pieces of boiled chicken
2 large aubergines
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
half a can of tomato pulp (I used my own home-made tomato sauce)
salt and pepper
oregano (optional)
olive oil

Chop the onion and garlic finely. Slice the aubergine thickly and chop into cubes. Heat some oil in a wide pot and saute the onion and garlic till transparent. Add the eggplant and saute on high heat. Eggplant soaks up olive oil faster than other vegetables, so you will need to add more to the pan (unless you don't want to for health reasons - but beware: the sticky aubergine will cause a burning mess in your pan). Cook till the eggplant is brown but still firm. Add the tomato pulp and season with salt and pepper. Let the sauce cook away for 15 minutes. 

Place the chicken in a small tapsi (a round roasting pan often used in Greek cooking) and season with salt, pepper and oregano (if using). When the sauce is ready, pour it over the chicken and add some more liquid (an oil/water mix in the ratios you prefer; a veritable Cretan adds more oil than water) to make a sauce as runny as you like. I probably added 2/3 of a cup. Place the dish in the oven and cook for half an hour, which is just enough time for the flavours to blend.

It would have been nice to have a photo of the plated dish, but it was so delicious, it just got eaten too quickly - nevertheless, look at who it inspired!

To serve, ladle out a piece of chicken and place it on a bed of rice (like pilafi). Then pour some of the vegetable sauce over the rice and chicken. Serve with crusty bread, a green salad and some chilled white wine. Pure ambrosia.

©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 16 July 2010

Eggplant skordostoubi from Zakinthos (Μελιτζάνες σκορδοστούμπι από την Ζάκυνθο)

Greek television is currently serving up 'κονσέρβες', repeats of old programmes and serials that the average Greek will have seen a few thousand times. Most of the programmes are not high quality; this could be said for television in general in any country. Amongst the trash, there are a minor few that stand out for their entertainment or informative value. I'm not a great fan of television, but I don't mind watching 'Εισαι το ταίρι μου' (comedy - entertainment value) every summer, and my whole family never tires of watching Ilias Mamalakis, Greece's favorite all-time cook, whose food shows combine travel all over Greece, where Ilias enters people's kitchens and watches them cook lesser-known Greek regional dishes that never get written into Greek cookbooks. Ilias' food travel shows have done more than educate Greek people about the different kinds food of their compatriots: he has united the Greeks who share a love for the gastronomical culture of their country by introducing them to food and ideas that not even the popular Greek food blogs and Greek cookbooks can do.

Nowadays, sadly, young people are not so involved in the food customs of the family. More and more food is being sold ready-to-eat, and people do not have to go far to find any food product they desire, due to the ease of shopping in supermarkets. The traditional food of every regional pocket of Greece is either mainly seen as an 'old-people' thing because of the newer more globalised food trends taking hold in Greece, or something that is cooked at large gatherings and isn't often made by people in their homes, hence there is a lack of tradition in the passing of knowledge from one generation to another.

cretan cookbooks
Greek souvenir cookbooks tend to be too generic: the full range of Greek cuisine has never really been showcased in such books, since most present an often nationalised segment of regional cooking, containing the odd exceptional dish.

Greek cookbooks tend to be sold in the region where they are produced, and because of low demand, regional cookbooks about Greek cooking, other than those produced in the region where one lives, are difficult to find. In Hania, for example, I can find just about any book my heart desires about Cretan food, but not, say, about the food customs of the island of Zakinthos, to name one example. Such cookbooks will also have a low demand commercially outside their native region, so that they are not widespread, even in large bookshops. I can't browse Greek cookbooks in a bookshop in Hania - I have to go to Athens for that kind of shopping. Thankfully, we have people like Ilias Mamalakis and other Greek chefs who also do gastro-travel programmes and give away recipes on the show. And now, for the first time on the internet, we have a Greek Food Blogs portal, which anyone writing on the web about Greek food can join, showcasing the food that is being prepared by home chefs cooking Greek food from all over the world.

*** *** ***

The other day, a repeat of Ilias' television programme Mπουκιά και Συχώριο was showing at midday while we were having lunch. Ilias was in Zakinthos, an island in the Ionian Sea (Western Greece) which is also known as Zante. Ilias first had a taste of a local sweet called φυτούρα (fitoura - also known as fritoura), a completely unknown traditional delicacy of the island, made primarily in this area and not elsewhere, which is available all year round, and is especially popular during the fasting periods because it does not contain animal products. Fitoura is a dense semolina pudding, which is poured into a tin and allowed to cool. It is then cut up into diamond shapes and the fitoura pieces are fried in oil (not necessarily olive oil). When cool enough to handle, the fitoura is rolled in sugar before it is served. It sounds so simple, but it is never made outside Zakinthos. It is a local treat, made primarily in large quantities and served at festivals, from where it is never missing.

After Ilias ate his fitoura, with the help of a local cook, he made aubergines 'skordostoubi', another specialty of Zakinthos: eggplant cooked in a garlicky vinegar tomato sauce. This seemed like a perfect alternative for us to try now that we have a glut of eggplant in our summer garden. Eggplant grows easily in Crete and it is one of those vegetables that landmarks a Greek summer, including the Cretan kitchen. It is always difficult to keep accurate notes when watching a television cookery show, so I asked my Zakinthian friend Kiki to help me out. This dish requires a lot of olive oil and a lot of frying, neither of which are these days very popular in excess for health reasons. Through Facebook (finally, I found a valid use for it!) Kiki gave me some tips to reduce the excess frying.

eggplant skordostoubi zakinthos

For 3 average servings, you need:
3 large eggplant, cut into thick slices (not small, not cubes)
1 large onion coarsely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic coarsely chopped
half a wineglass of vinegar
2 tomatoes, grated
100-150g feta cheese cut in cubes (in Zakintho, they use a local product called ladotiri, cheese preserved in olive oil, but it is doubtful that you will be able to find an authentic alternative such as this one outside the region - feta is a good substitute)
olive oil
salt and pepper

Heat some olive oil - you will need quite a bit because eggplant soak up a lot of oil - and brown all the fleshy sides of the eggplant pieces. (Alternatively, if you don't like frying, you can brown them in as little oil as you prefer, but they won't have that Mediterranean taste we've come to know well in fried eggplant.) Remove the eggplant from the pan when it is ready and set aside.

In another saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and saute the onions and garlic. When they are transparent, add the grated tomato. Let the sauce cook for a few minutes, then add the vinegar which has had the salt and pepper added to it. Stir the sauce, then add the cooked eggplant.

eggplant skordostoubi zakinthos

Now the cooking can be finished off either in the pot or the oven, whichever you prefer: If cooking in the pot, allow the eggplant to cook till soft (if you didn't fry them, they will need a longer period of cooking time), add the feta cheese cut in cubes, allow the ingredients to blend, and the meal is ready. Alternatively, pour the dish into a baking tin and place in a PRE-WARMED oven. Add the feta cheese chunks on top of the mixture. Again, if the eggplant wasn't fried, then it will need a longer cooking time. When the cheese has softened/melted, the dish is ready (about 20-25 minutes).

This dish makes a very rich sauce - you don't need much to accompany it, except maybe some good quality bread. And if you want to keep it vegan, just omit the feta cheese.

If you are interested in other recipes from Zakinthos, check out Kiki's blog: she has also written a Greek cookbook (in Greek) containing some of the local specialties.

©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 13 July 2010

The migrant experience (Eμπειρίες μεταναστών)

Here's a taste of multicultural Crete. 

"I don't think I'll be going back home this year. My husband doesn't want to, he's been offered a lot of jobs from landowners in the fields. I hate taking those long journeys on my own. I'll never forget the last time I travelled without him; the children were very young, I was trying to juggle their hands with holding the suitcases, and my Greek language skills weren't so good at the time, so I couldn't read the signs and understand the officials' directions as quickly as I needed to; I almost missed my connecting buses. It was a frightening experience. It's also a very long trip; it takes two days to travel from Crete to the village I call home...

"Once I get there, though, I forget that I ever left my home country. I catch up with my parents and siblings, and the children get a chance to discover their parents' homeland and compatriots. They meet up with their aunts and uncles and cousins from their father's side and speak in Albanian. I sometimes think that they don't know how to speak their mother tongue - they always speak Greek to one another here in Crete, as well as to all their cousins from my side of the family.  I have seven brothers and sisters, and they all live here in Crete with their families, except one who lives in Trikala. But as soon as we go back home, they start yapping away in Albanian, and it makes me so proud to know that they can speak our language, that they can learn about their roots and will be able to come back home every now and then, even though times aren't too good for us to move back now. I bought some books for them to learn to start reading in Albanian, so now they speak both Albanian and Greek fluently, and they're starting to learn English at school, too...

"Even though I want to go back home, I still feel like a stranger in my country. Every now and then, people say things to us that remind me of that. People look at us in a different way, as though we're made of money and we can afford anything in the world. That's not true; we can afford to live well in Albania, but the money just gets spent there; last time we visited, we went through 3,000 euro, and we were off work for over a month! We're only just able to afford our expenses here in Greece on the wages we earn, especially since we also try to put a little money aside. If we couldn't do that, then we may as well stay at home rather than leave, to live just like we do now. My friends and family back home don't know how hard we've worked to be able to afford this life, how much we try to save, how much we do without. They call us Americans, even though we've never been to America! We've never even been to a taverna here in Crete. Our only outings are to the sea. When we go to the beach, we take a packed lunch with us, we don't buy toasts and drinks from the beach canteen like everyone else does. Our clothes are from street markets, other times from the Chinese shops. The boutiques are so expensive! Who can afford to buy clothes from there? They'd have to be millionaires! If we did that, we'd never save any money, we'd never be able to better our lives. We didn't come here to spend, we came here to work and save...

my old kitchen
My friend's kitchen; bits and pieces of miscellaneous furniture tossed away by Greeks (usually left by bins) are given a new lease of life by economic migrants.

"Work is a good thing. It doesn't matter if it involves cleaning or cooking or factory work. I don't have anywhere to leave my children when I work, but I've instilled it into them that they should not leave the house while I'm gone, they should keep quiet and watch television or read books, or listen to music. I'd be so ashamed if they disturbed the neighbours in any way while I'm out. And I know they do just what I tell them, because if I found out that they were up to something else, I'd find a job for them to do, and then they wouldn't have any free time at all. I can't understand why some of the local women don't work, though. They have their mothers and grandmothers and sisters all living close by to each other, who can look after their children and share the cooking among them, and they still don't work. I don't want to sound offensive, but what's up with those people? How do they make ends meet in times like these? And how can they afford to eat out all the time, and order delivery food regularly? I just can't understand it...

"I don't waste anything. Not a single thing. If it can be eaten, we eat it fresh, we eat it cooked, we preserve it, we freeze it. A lot of people waste food, then they complain about the cost of living. The other day, my husband bought some nerantzia* home that he had been given by the landowner where we keep a garden. Just imagine, the man has nerantzies** in his orchard, and he told us he doesn't use the fruit himself, and nor does his family! I work in a packing house. Nerantzi and grapefruit aren't popular packing house fruit, so I took them home myself. I squeezed the juice out of the grapefruit and mixed it with orange juice. We drank as much as we could handle. Then I made spoon sweets out of all the grapefruit and nerantzia peel. I gave some to the landowner and he told me he hadn't had the grapefruit kind of spoon sweet before. I offered to teach his wife how to make it...

CIMG9744 CIMG9752
Making traditional spoon sweets involves few ingredients, but quite a lot of time. The fruit used is often underripe (figs, aubergines) and/or bitter (citrus peel), which necessitates placing the fruit in water which is changed on a regular basis to remove the fruit's bitterness. But the final result is always worth it - cholesterol-free, refreshing sweets, that can be enjoyed alone with a glass of water before a meal, or as a topping for yoghurt or ice-cream, making the perfect dessert. I used 20 small bitter (Seville) oranges to make this sweet, using the recipe pictured here.
nerantzi bitter orange spoon sweet

"Before we moved into this house, we were living in very cramped quarters in another area. It didn't feel right, but I didn't like living altogether in the one room. Then there were all the other people in the other rooms. There was never any peace and quiet, everyone knew what each other was doing. Some people still live like that, but I think they should know better. We did that for a little while, but we couldn't carry on living like that forever. When I first moved into this house, everyone kept telling me that I didn't need an extra room, and I could lower my rent costs by letting out the extra room, to another migrant like ourselves. I'm surprised that people don't value their privacy as much as I do. When they visit us, they are surprised at how large the rooms are. Some of our acquaintances are still living packed like sardines in very old village houses, sometimes a family of four or five people in each room. I don't see why I should live like that at all...

"We were thinking of buying some new furniture to fill the empty spaces in this rented property, but we really don't know how long we will be here for. We recently bought a new car; we know we can take that back with us. In any case, the next time we go back home again for a visit, we'll go by car instead. If ever we want to move back home, we can use it to transport some of our things. But we can't pile beds and armchairs and tables into it, can we? So we're just making do with some cheap second-hand furniture that some friends were getting rid of, because they had decided to move back home. But they came back again after only two months; the house that they had built in their village was demolished by the authorities without informing anyone first. They were simply told it was illegal. I feel sorry for them, because they had invested 35,000 euro in that house, money that they were scrimping and saving from their jobs in here, and now they have to start all over again...

"I'd like to move back home one day. I love our village, we're building a house there. Every year, we build something new in it with the money we've saved here. But we can't move back now. Not now, and not for a long time yet, judging by the way the economy is going here and there. There are no jobs, and few prospects for anyone who still lives there. Still, it's better than what it once was. You couldn't leave the house in the darker days. There were children as young as nine patrolling the streets with guns. That's over now. But life is still hard there. People are very poor. They work on their land, gathering food and storing it for the winter. Each household has a couple of cows, one of which is kept for milking while the other is slaughtered for meat. It's a question of basic survival; there is very little available for them to do there apart from that. If I were to return and stay for good, what would I do there? Here at least, my children are at school, and they're good students. We moved to this house so that they could be nearer to the English school too. They may even go on to university, and there are always jobs available here for them. We're happy here, and people treat us kindly. We want to go back home one day, but the time has to be right before we do that. There is hope for this to happen one day. And hope always dies last."

* bitter (Seville) oranges
** bitter (Seville) orange trees

The woman was surprised to discover that I was 'not from here':

"Oh, so you're not from here!... And you're working?... Where is that?... Albanians?... I don't know, I haven't met any who work there... They're students?... What are they studying?... I didn't realise that there were so many of them... I wonder where they come from, possibly Tirana or Korca, I doubt they're from the villages... So what do you do there?... You're teaching?... You're a teacher!... You could go to any country in the world and teach English, couldn't you?... So why are you still here?...

*** *** ***

This conversation could have taken place between my parents and their New Zealand neighbours, if the appropriate place names are replaced. I remember many discussions of exactly the same kind as I was growing up in NZ. But it wasn't my parents talking. It was the wife of the Albanian man who we employ to pick our annual crop of olives (Albanian people are known to be hard workers - and good savers, according to the Greek banking system - and the locals appreciate their work ethic.)

The kind of lifestyle the Albanian immigrants are living now in Crete in 2009 and the life my parents lived in the mid-1960s in New Zealand are incredibly similar. Even though Albania neighbours Greece, few take flights back home, preferring the cheaper 2-day bus journey, overnighting on the ferry boat, coaching to Ioannina, changing buses there for Albania, and finally taking another bus to their own village (they've seen more of Greece than I have). Their journey lasts just as long as it takes me to get back to New Zealand from Crete!

Generally speaking, the unskilled immigrants do not come from large towns; urban and rural citizens of undeveloped countries do not have much to do with each other, and there is an intense feeling of class differences among them (similar to how rural people were viewed up to the 1980s in Greece - before joining the EU - by their urban compatriots). Working, saving, never wasting, living frugally, eating in, raising their children according to the strict old ways, educating them, and planning on returning home are all part of the unskilled, uneducated, working-class immigrant's dream, no matter where they come from.

And no matter what is happening around them, they continue to live an isolated existence away from mainstream society and worry about how fast their children will assimilate into the new world, and how quickly they will forget their old world, which is why the mother tongue is of primary concern to them: it is very often the only link they have to the 'other' country, since, in many cases, Greek (and Albanian) immigrants blend into mainstream society wherever they migrate, as their skin colour and dress code do not differentiate them much from the locals.

And just like my parents did all their lives in New Zealand, the economic migrants of Greece constantly dream of going back 'home' one day.

©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 6 July 2010

Chez Maria (Ταβέρνα Μαρία)

The original title for this post was 'Austerity (Αυστηρότητα)': on second thoughts, I changed it to something more positive.

Recently, after spending part of my annual leave clearing out the house of unwanted/useless items (baby furnishings that had been tucked away out of view, children's clothes that my growing offspring don't fit into, toys that they have grown out of, books that I didn't want to keep/enjoy reading, and anything that looked like junk), which all went to charity services*, as well as finding my way round my new computer (after five years of trusted service, my old one died), I felt I deserved a break. I took off to the beach with the children, and planned on a taverna meal in the evening. I didn't let the economic crisis prevent me from putting this luxurious idea out of my mind. I didn't even care that our taxi had been out of service for over a week because our co-worker had crashed it (just what you need a few weeks into the tourist season at a time when business was only just picking up, after two rounds of cancelled flights due to volcanic ash, the enforcement of austerity measures and forced union strikes). I just felt like going out for a meal, and you can do that relatively cheaply in Hania.

stalos beach overlooking thodorou island
The sign above refers warns people not to remove the endemic plants that grow in the area.
stalos beach stalos beach

We are very lucky to live close to the sea. The coastlines in my area have even been designated blue flag beaches. Apart from the cost of running the car, going to the beach is free, and it is something you can do every day in the summer in Greece. The only drawback to my local blue-flag beaches is that they are located in areas that have grown along with tourism, so that they now look gaudy, unplanned and cheap. The area has developed randomly; businesses are situated next to private dwellings, with little respect for the landscape. This stretch of coastline has been commercialised in some parts. The better part of the beach area is overrun with umbrellas and deckchairs, with a small beach bar serving snack meals and cold drinks. Most of the area close to the main road has been left to its own devices. Apart from a rubbish bin, it bears few other signs of man-made development.

This beach never really gets busy. The people who frequent it seem to be mainly non-tourist foreign residents, people who have migrated to Hania in search of better living conditions and work. Amongst them there are also a few Greeks coming here for similar reasons to my own: they do not want to endure other people's consumerised 'noise', preferring to bring their own deckchairs and umbrellas, and some lunchbox meals and drinks prepared at home.

beach stalos beach
These clouds offered a short respite from the heat.
runaway clouds

The water was good on this particular day, warm and clear, with the blue flag guarantee. The waves gave it a more exciting feel; on our previous visits, it was so still that it felt like lake water. The beach is shallow enough to walk into it without fear for a few metres. After the heat of the average Greek summer's day, a trip to the beach is invigorating and refreshing. The bonus of going to the beach in the afternoon is that the sun's rays do not feel so harsh on your bare skin.

stalos beach
Can you see the effects of the Greek economic crisis? Click on the photograph to read the notes.

While watching the children playing on the sand after their frolics in the water, a more general image of the economic crisis came into view: closed businesses, for-rent signs, hotels that did not open up this year for lack of business. There is a good side to this slowing down of life in Hania. Suddenly, the town has suddenly become more bearable. The economic crisis has forced people to minimise their expenses. The rising petrol prices (1.60 per litre of unleaded) have made people reconsider the overuse of the car. Shops in the town are empty, quite a few businesses have closed down, tavernas don't do as much trade as they used to. The roads now look empty in the evening. People are staying put; the less one moves, the less one expends energy.

The people I was surrounded by were clearly making a conscious effort to minimise their expenses. They would probably be going home for dinner - not out. I suddenly had second thoughts about that cheap taverna meal I had promised myself in the evening, and decided against it. I could actually re-create it in my own home.

*** *** ***

On a warm summer evening, if you go out to a taverna in Crete, the mainstays of your meal will consist of some fried kalamari rings, fried potatoes, tzatziki, Greek salad and dakos. Apart from the kalamari (I had bought a packet to cook during Great Lent before Easter, but didn't get round to it), I also had some green-lipped NZ mussels (bought on a whim of kiwi nostalgia). There was also half a jar of freshly marinated gavros sitting in the fridge - this was the perfect moment to finish them off. There were drinks in the fridge and plenty of fresh bread in the bread box.

taverna maria
The food on my table are typical of a Greek summertime taverna meal.
fried calamari rings mussels in wine sauce
Fried calamari is easy to make, as long as you don't mind clearing up the mess afterwards. The mussels were the 'special of the day': they are usually not available in tavernas in Hania, because as my friend informs me, the Cretan waters have too many currents, and cannot be easily farmed here.
taverna maria
All the dishes are presented in the middle of the table and everyone takes their share from each plate. Unlike Asians, Greeks are sometimes less polite, so that not everyone gets their fair share of the dish. As you can see, by the time I got stuck into the kalamari, I ended up with the dregs...

As a price comparison, here is the probable cost of the same meal I cooked at a taverna, and the cost at home (not including the cook's payment), with the number of servings indicated. I used the prices I paid at the last taverna meal I had. Only the olive oil and seasonings are not taken into account in the home cost of these foods, because they are pantry staples and have minimal costs when bought in bulk.

ITEM                              TAVERNA                  HOME
2 kalamari rings              2 x 6.00 = 12.00           500g = 4.00
2 fried potatoes               2 x 2.00 = 4.00             home-grown garden produce
1 tzatziki                          2.00                              150g yoghurt = 0.50
1 Greek salad                  5.00 (with feta cheese) apart from the kumatos (3 x 0.50), it was made from garden produce
1 dakos                            3.00                              1.00 (I served six pieces)
1 mussels*                       not usually available    special product- cannot be compared to a taverna meal
1 gavros                           5.00                              200g = 1.80   
bread (cover charge)       4 x 0.30 = 1.20              0.50 (daily staple)   
2 beers                             2 x 2.50 = 5.00             2 x 1.92 = 3.84 (Bodington imported ale)
2 sodas                            2 x 1.20 = 2.40              2 x 0.44 = 0.88 (bottles refundable: 2 x 0.12 = -0.24)
TOTAL:                           approx. 40.00                approx. 15.00
* the mussels were not included in either of the totals          

The whole meal took me 90 minutes to prepare, while everyone else was showering after the beach and tackling gardening jobs. There were no special recipes involved; most of the time was spent letting the pan cook. We sat outdoors on our wide cool balcony, with a view to the motorway (not busy), a neighbour's party music (fair enough, it was a Saturday night - Voskopoulos and Zambetas στο δια πασόν!), and a fireworks display coming from the area of the Venetian port close to the town centre. As we sat down to eat, we watched the first ferry boat leave the ship harbour in Souda Bay; the second ferry boat left at the end of our meal.

city lights
Can you see the ferry boats? Click on the image to read the notes.

Dinner and a movie, I guess.

* I had forgotten a couple of bags full of baby things in the boot of the car, but couldn't be bothered driving back to the church, so I left them by a rubbish bin in a central city suburb in a quiet residential street where many economic migrants reside. Two hours later, after I had run my errands and come back to the car to go back home, I noticed that the bags had found another happy home. 

©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.