Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Thursday 27 October 2011

Vegan tzatziki (Tζατζίκι νηστίσιμο)

71 years ago, on the 28th of October, 1940, the Prime Minister of Greece, Ioannis Metaxas, said NO to the Italian ambassador to Greece when he delivered a message to him which asked that the Italian army be allowed to pass through the country in order to secure strategic positions.

Flags like this are used to decorate schools on days national events are commemorates.

Today, the Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, said YES to Germany and France, when he accepted to pay for a haircut with Greece's sovereignty.

It had to happen some time. The sad truth is that Greece was never able to make any objective decisions that would benefit the whole country. Most (I personally believe all) the decisions taken in Greece for the last three decades benefited only certain groups of people; there were few decisions that actually worked in the interests of all people. Greece had been allowed to govern herself subjectively for many years in this highly discriminating manner, and somebody had to pull the plug on that.  

On the eve of a the commemoration of a nationally important historical event, it is a Greek custom for children to recite poems and sing songs that re-enact the event.

It couldn't be a Greek him/herself that could have done it. It had to be a foreigner. George Papandreou is often regarded as a foreigner by a lot of Greeks because (like me) he was born and educated outside Greece. But when national issues are at stake, Greeks will remind people like us that we aren't foreigners and they will expect us to behave 'like a Greek', which means that we mustn't punish people in power, we must turn a blind eye to the corrupting practices of our peers, and we must keep handing out political favours. We can't shake that one off, no matter what we do; hence, sovereignty is meaningless - the privilege Greece enjoyed for so long was abused at the highest level. 

The children sang this song with oblivious enjoyment yesterday at the γιορτή while their parents and teachers looked on with sombre faces as they took in the meaning of the lyrics (you can find them here). Nikos Xilouris sings it with a Cretan accent, which is why he says οχτροί and not εχθροί ('ehthri' = enemies); the rest can be translated online.

But today, George Papandreou's glowing; in the end, he got his way: Rogue EU member Greece borrowed lots of money, which she doesn't have to pay back in full, without being thrown out of the EU club or the eurozone. "Ναι!" he probably said, "take our sovereignty, just give us a haircut."

This little girl got stage-fright during her turn to recite the poem which she had learnt off by heart. Her teacher (with the blond hair) coaxed her as much as she could, but to no avail. But when her grandmother came to the stage and held her hand (she had probably helped the child to learn the verse), the girl obliged and said her poem. 
Don't criticise Greeks for being too close to their family clique; the Greek state has consistently failed them, so they only have family to fall back on.

With the smaller Greek debt, the more taxes and the consequent loss of sovereignty, I hope that my children won't have to put up with as much nepotism as their father had to tolerate. He often reminds me that even though he was a good student at school, he never got the end-of-year prizes because they were given to the 'right' students (ie the children of the local dignitaries). He also never had toys, not even those that were given away freely to poor children; they were only given to the children of people who belonged to some workers' union (eg public servants). He wasn't given a position in the cycling team either, even though he had bought his own mountain bike and was one of the better members of the team he exercised with: there were other 'more important' members of society who had to be attended to. And finally, he never got a job based on his skills and qualifications, because he didn't know the 'right' people. No wonder he found it easier to take over his father's taxi. It seemed so much simpler than making promises that he didn't want to make in the first place, and what's more, there was money in his pocket. 

With the final link of the μέσον shackles broken, maybe there is some hope for his children that they will live in a fairer society.

*** *** ***

So, fewer debts, but no sovereignty. Hey, there's no such thing as a free lunch, is there? It's getting much harder to get something for nothing. Here's a very frugal/vegan/lenten tzatziki for those harsh times to come, but take note: it's only frugal in blessed places like Crete, where tasty 100% Greek strained yoghurt costs more to acquire than a fresh avocado. Avocados are available almost all year round in Crete, like oranges, due to the different varieties that ripen at different times in the year.

You need
2-4 ripe avocados (if you live in Hania, don't buy them; ask your friends/neighbours if they can procure some from their village fields)
the juice of one lemon (ditto)
2-3 cloves of garlic (this is usually imported from China, as there is not enough being grown)
a few drops of olive oil (our own production, of course)
a dash of sea salt (we are lucky to be given salt every year which a friend harvests from rocks)
a sprinkling of red pepper
1 large cucumber, peeled and grated (we have half a dozen left over from the summer garden)

If you use an electric blender, you will get a smoother puree; my vegan tzatziki is extra-frugal because I didn't use electricity.

Chop the garlic as finely as possible. Cut open the avocado and scrape the flesh out of the skin. Add all the ingredients (EXCEPT the grated cucumber) in a bowl and mash well with a fork till well blended. Then add the grated cucumber and mix that in very well. Allow to rest in the refrigerator to give the flavours time to blend.

This vegan tzatziki can be served during lenten periods, when normal yoghurt-based tzatziki isn't on the menu.

©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 25 October 2011

The funny side to the Greek (food) crisis (Για γέλια)

Similarly to ancient Greek history, Greek food has regularly been used to parody the economic crisis. This shows how closely related ancient history and food are to the Greek identity. It also shows how well non-Greeks know us (or view us: after all, they are the satirists in this case). They all have some idea of our ancient past (even though they will insist that the modern Greek bears no resemblance whatsoever to their anceint counterpart), and our culinary present.

daily mail taramasalata

"Greece is putting a tax on taramasalata and tzatziki in the hope it will prevent a double dip recession."
(comment made by someone on Robert Preston's blog).

guardian taverna

Τα φάγαμε όλοι μαζί - "We all ate it together" 
PASOK MP Theodore Pangalos' (in)famous words, implying that since we all ate it together (ie we spent it together), we must all pay it back together.

houston chronicle souvlaki
From the Houston Chronicle

"... in an effort to stimulate the economy, ... plates must be smashed after each meal, even if it is just a cuppa at 11 in the morning. (steddyeddy)


... Also, in helping to revive the Greek food sector, singer Demis Roussos has been instructed to eat larger meals, and feta cheese will now only be available in 5kg packets." (steddyeddy)


 Notice what the cartoonists know about Greek food: the same old tired taverna entries they probably had on their last holiday - souvlaki ('gyro' in America), plate smashing (only for tourists), feta (widely copied PDO), taramasalata, tzatziki and retsina. But Greek food involves much more than just that, even in global terms: the only economic success stories in Greece that come to my attention concern food - you can read about them in the following links:

1. Aris Kefalogiannis
2. The Douzis Brothers
3. Organic farming
4. FageUSA
5. Local food importers in the global market

... and many more, in the months to come, no doubt.


And since this post is getting good stats in the cybersphere, here is what's happening right now, not just in Greece, not just in Europe, but in the WHOLE WORLD! I made the cartoon from a collage of different cartoonists' drawings, together with a Wikipedia map of Europe, and stuck them together with cellotape. In retrospect, I should have had Papandreou holding a euro note, not the Greek flag. Luxembourg is in there somewhere too; I think she slipped through the crevices in the dynamite, because of her size.

©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 22 October 2011

Food memories from the 1980s (Τροφικές αναμνήσεις από την δεκαετία του 1980)

In a few hours from now, the Rugby World Cup 2011 is going to be won by New Zealand. I was never a follower of the game (and this should come as no surprise: Kiwis who like vegetarian food are generally not rugby fans), but I feel that I can make an exception this time, like I did with the EURO 2004 for Greece. I still remember the words in Maori for the standard version of the Haka - it's a bit like Πάτερ ημών: once learnt, never forgotten. But I also notice that the Haka has changed in form, the beer has a different name, Buzz-o-Bumble has stopped humming and nobody sings the Chesdale cheese song any more. TG for Buzzy Bee; some things are timeless.

In my blog, when I talk about my mother's cooking, I always make a point of saying she cooked only Greek (and predominantly Cretan) dishes. She cooked mainly from the Greek taste spectrum using whatever supplies she found in New Zealand, and in those days, there was a lot of fresh unprocessed produce available (there still is these days, but a lot more is processed before the consumers buys it). But Kiwi food also came into our home. It was impossible for it not to; after all, we lived in New Zealand, shopped from the local stores, and made great use of the New World supermarket.

Contact with the locals
Generally speaking, my parents lacked contact with New Zealanders on an informal non-work-related basis. Kiwis were their former employers, their fish-and-chip-shop customers, the people they dealt with at public institutes, as well as their neighbours. But they were not the people my parents socialised with in their spare time. They rarely entered their houses. The truth is that they had very little idea what non-Greek New Zealand citizens ate in their homes. Even in my own case, I rarely socialised with other New Zealanders in a way that involved home-cooked meals. Up until the time I left the country, I had been living at home, and had just finished my unversity studies. The 1980s fashion in meals among my age group - the period when I would have started to socialise without my family - was to eat out:
"Prior to my departure for Europe, New Zealand had not been a mecca for gourmets. My experience of the return home [in 1980], in that regard at least, confounded me. In the space of a few short years, New Zealand had ceased to be the virtually restaurant-less food wilderness of my recollection, and we had become instead a nation of diners-out" (Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine*, 1999, Godwit).
I recall a couple of chicken-in-the-bag meals cooked by an acquaintance and a friend's mother, but that's about it. My non-Greek dining experiences in New Zealand usually consisted of a meal out at a Chinese restaurant.

hania st wellington new zealand
What did Kiwis know about Greek food back then? In the 1960s-1970s, there were still many first-generation Greeks raising second-generation Greeks. The Greeks were known as a well-established minority: they clustered around their church, they kept themselves to themselves, mainly in family groups, and they were involved in the food trade - but not necessarily selling Greek food! They were selling sandwiches, Kiwi pies, cakes and biscuits in milk bars and cafes, while a good number owned fish and chip shops. By the 1980s, Greek migration to New Zealand had come to a halt and the Greeks of New Zealand had become upwardly mobile, moving out of traditional Greek suburbs into newer districts, but still generally clustering together. In Wellington, there were never more than two or three Greek restaurants operating at any one time. The other way that Greek food became known to the non-Greeks was through the Greek community's Greek festival, held annually near the Greek Orthodox church in Wellington. A cookbook was produced by some members, sold mainly among the community; the recipes all have a very Greek base to them, but they could be made with ingredients commonly available in New Zealand. Greek-New Zealand relations were also very good: Hania became sister city to Wellington and Battle of Crete commemorations were held there every year.

The main difference between the Greek and Kiwi food we ate at home was that the former was cooked from scratch, while the latter came in the form of prepared ready-to-eat food. Greek food covered the whole gamma of meals while Kiwi food mainly consisted of sweets and beverages. Some things were bought as pantry staples (eg New Zealand honey), while others substituted for the 'real' thing (Chesdale cheddar cheese, since there was no graviera, and Bell Tea, since there was no malotira, neither of which I had any idea about before I came to Greece). Then there was convenience food (my parents really liked Maggi chicken-noodle and tomato soup packets) and we all indulged in tea biscuits (Griffins Super Wine and gingernuts biscuits); there was always something very Kiwi in our kitchen.

1980s New Zealand food
But there is a void in my knowledge of Kiwi food, which is very hard to fill. It's over and done with, something I can't go back to now. Even if I were to return to New Zealand on holiday, I wouldn't be able to experience 1980s New Zealand food. According to Wikipedia, the Kiwiana dishes that my classmates might have been eating in the 1980s in their homes are now viewed as old-fashioned! Life has changed, the population mix is different, things have moved on, and people are eating different food now compared to what they used to be eating. There's no point googling new zealand food/cuisine/recipes. The food of the mid-1800s historic settlers (when New Zealand was first settled) is a far cry from what was available nearly one-and-a-half centuries later: pressed beef, boiled mutton, stewed opposum, sheep's head broth, pigeon pie, stewed peaches, rhubarb pie, followed by macaroni cheese (apparently, a savoury dish was often served in formal dinners in Victorian times) were all appreciated in 1880, but had probably all fallen out of favour a century later.  

fish shopIf I were able to ask my parents now what they thought New Zealanders ate back then, I wonder what they would say: probably something like they ate fish and chips, of course! My parents (along with many other Greeks) owned a fish and chip shop for about 15 years, throughout the 1980s, after which the fish and chip shop trade declined with the advent of new forms of eating out, and new standards in food hygiene. It was also at this time that butchers disappeared due to the blossoming supermarket trade. That surely had an impact on what people cooked at home; the supermarket offered packaged ready-to-cook cuts, not hunks of lamb-on-the-bone meat that the consumer had to process in order to turn it into a meal. At any rate, barbecued meat was a significant part of both cuisines: the Greeks might have marinated the meat differently from the non-Greeks, but it was a common concept in most cultural groups in New Zealand. Salads flavoured with the bottled dressings of the globalised market were also the norm in Greek-Kiwi households. 

Greek food businesses
Greeks' idea, in those early years of Greek migration to New Zealand, of what the rest of society ate in their homes after work or at the weekends would have come from their knowledge of the food businesses of the area. The concept of sharing home-cooked food as a pot luck meal was a common one, but this would still have been done within one's own cultural group, or at someone's workplace - this is where most first-generation Greeks might have had the chance to get a glimpse into someone else's food world. Steak bars and restaurants in the fine-dining range were common, but not often frequented by them: they involved a more formal atmosphere and higher prices. I remember going out to a fancy restaurant that had just opened up close to where we lived with my parents (which we had booked, of course - another novel concept). My mother was appalled to find that most of the main meals consisted mainly of meat and boiled vegetables, with side servings of cold rice and separate salad bowls consisting of roughly torn lettuce leaves. Her response could only have been expected: I could have made this at home. Needless to say, we never went out for dinner again.

Greeks formed a large part of the food trade up until the 1980s, after which the newer migrants came along and took their place (predominantly Asians, as well as Turks). Apart from the fish and chip shops, Greeks also owned takeaway shops and cafe bars (described in Zisis Blades' Wellington's Hellenic Mile, 2005) where you could pick up a sandwich, meat-based pie, cake, or biscuit, along with a cup of  tea or coffee. Greek mothers would have made similar sandwiches for their kids to take to school, or maybe given them money for a pie from the school's tuck shop. But at home, they would probably have made Greek-style cakes and biscuits, the main exceptions being banana cake and pavlova, two very Kiwi sweets that the Greeks incorporated in their own range of dishes. Concerning drinks, instant coffee and the tea-bag ruled. The above-mentioned could possibly form a concept of common Greek-Kiwi food up until the 1980s.

New Zealand cooks and cookbooks
Thank goodness for cookbooks. Even back then, I was an avid collector; apart from those I borrowed from the Wellington Public Library (my favorite haunt), I also bought old and new ones. Going through the remnants of my collection (I couldn't cart it all with me), I find a few gems that could give me an insight into what the people around me might have been preparing and eating in their own homes. A staple found in nearly every Kiwi home is the iconic Edmonds Cookery Book (1983). This is still my bible for Kiwi sweets and biscuits. If I have any doubt, I could also use it to boil an egg, cook a roast, or prepare a classic Kiwi bacon and egg pie. Owning an Edmonds cookbook was a sign of independence - most Kiwis buy or are given a copy as soon as they 'go flatting' (ie move out of the family environment and live independently). Emphasis has always been placed on independence as a defining attribute of the Kiwi personality; the English nobility who had emigrated to the New World realised just how difficult it was to make anyone a servant there - early wealthy settlers had to manage without maids:
"Maori people did not take naturally to the notion of serving others in a subordinate capacity... White settlers ... very quickly gave up on Maori as a primary source of domestic service. But it came as an even bigger shock to these colonists wealthy enough to employ servants to discover that the working-class immigrants to whom they looked for their cooks and housemaids had not come to the new country to serve them" Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit).
Having no servants naturally had an effect on the cuisine: if settlers (notice how they are not called 'migrants', when in fact, that's what they were!) had to do their own cooking for lack of servants, they probably had to learn how to cook, since they had had servants doing that for them up to now. But there were also other chores to do apart from cooking, hence the need to simplify meal preparations. Elaborate meals were probably served only on special occasions:
 "The farmers' ordinary came to be the standard by which all private family cooking was judged: plain food in abundance. But alongside this, there developed a tradition of social cooking which had no equivalent in the English cuisine (although it was an adaptation of it), and which seems to have been unique to colonial societies such as Australia and New Zealand" (Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit). 
I also own a copy of the New Zealand Women's Weekly Cookbook (1971), described on the web as "good old-fashioned wholesome cooking", which includes recipes like coleslaw, shepherd's pie and home-made marmalade, along with a Kiwi delicacy called whitebait fritters. It also features the rise in popularity of foreign cuisine, like pizza and lasagne, as well as Asian-inspired recipes like chicken pineapple stir fry. Tucked away in this book, I found photocopies from a course I took part in during the mid-80s: Indian and Sri Lankan cookery - ethnic cuisine was definitely the 'in' thing back then.

For an idea of ready-to-eat processed food, a calorie counter is useful as it often lists branded items. I'm still in possession of my New Zealand calorie counter (1982): KFC and McDonalds burgers are listed in it, as well as milk, bread and biscuit labels. Coincidentally, our occasional junk food treat was KFC or McDonalds, since we couldn't treat ourselves to fish and chips, as owners of such an outlet. Souvlaki didn't really take off in Wellington until the Turks got it going, in the late 1980s.

The "celebrity cooks" of the day were maternal-looking Delia-Smith-like lasses: Alison Holst (she's still going, joined by her son) and Lois Daish immediately come to mind. They had weekly columns in the Dominion, the Evening Post (no longer in existence) and the Listener. Anne Doornekamp was also a regular columnist with vegetarian posts (see below). From the few yellowed clippings that I've kept of the above-mentioned dames' writing, the recipes seem to range from comfort meals to ethnic dishes to ways with novel ingredients, like tofu, carob and creme fraiche.

Vegetarianism was growing in popularity in the 1980s at the same time that butchers were closing. My copy of the AMRITA cookbook (1984), published by the homonymous vegetarian restaurant, is actually my most-stained cookbook, because it turned out to be the handiest during fasting periods in the Greek Orthodox church; it contained a number of vegan recipes that I perceived as making our meals more interesting, since we cut out milk, cheese and butter. Among my favorite recipes are the date and walnut loaf and the apple cake; I also gave the vegan tofu loaf a go (the comment on the recipe page says: made this - got to be pretty desperate!). The rising interest in vegetariansim among the well-travelled alternative-lifestyler Kiwi was also epitomised by the instant success of the iconic Mount Vic Cafe, which operated in an old Victorian house in what is now considered one of the most expensive real estate regions of the city. The VUW student newspaper was also publishing recipes for cheap, easy-to-prepare flatter's fare which was often vegetarian-based (I even transported a few of those clipping too - I really must do a clearance soon): rice salad, tomato walnut casserole, easy bread and banana cake could easily make a complete meal. Students really did have so much more time to cook back then, because we were getting a student allowance as university students...

None of the above, in my opinion, really tells me what true New Zealand food was all about. New Zealand is generally known around the world for its meat, butter, shellfish and other fresh food. Norma Cameron's New Zealand's Best (1986) summarises this notion well in her introduction:
"I hope this collection of recipes will... show New Zealand and overseas cooks how to prepare simple, elegant meals using New Zealand's finest foods, inspire cooks to combine flavours and ingredients in new, imaginative dishes, and promote the New Zealand tradition of cooking with fresh, wholesome foods." (Norma Cameron, "New Zealand's Best", 1986)
The book's chapter headings reveal in simple terms what are considered New Zealand food products: "Vegetables, Seafood, Dairy Foods, Lamb, Cooking with Wine, Venison, Fruit". The recipes in this book represent culinary creativity: Mussel Chowder, Lamb Sate, Tamarillo Mousse. This, for me, characterises my own mother's use of New Zealand food - she was generally able to find the products she needed in their most unprocessed form, in order to be able to cook according to her own culinary traditions. New Zealand was, after all, "a land almost flowing with milk and honey... in which the ingredients of a potentially great cuisine are freshly ready to hand" (Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit).

For a truly authentic Kiwi taste, my mind always goes back to the range of very tasty biscuits, cakes and slices that I very fondly recall eating in the warmth and comfort of the various cafes in Wellington that I used to frequent; I count ginger crunch, afghans, and gingernuts among my favorites. It should come as no surprise that Kiwis like their baked treats: eggs and butter were always plentiful since the early days of colonisation: 
"... New Zealanders, like the Scots, think that baking is the better part of cookery, and spend their ingenuity, exhaust their interest, on cakes, and pastries and ebullient, vast cream sponges." (Eric Linklater, a Scotsman, on visiting New Zealand in 1951, quoted by Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit).
According to Wikipedia, home-baking is the main element of the New Zealand-based cuisine that Kiwis haven't done away with. It's reassuring to know I will still be able to find these tasty sweets.

The second millenium
When I went back to New Zealand for a short visit, the cafe culture noticeably dominated the food scene, like it does now. Dining out, takeaway meals and easy-to-assemble dishes for eating literally anywhere were all considered the norm in the laid-back culture of Kiwidom. My favorite purchases from that trip were: 1) a 2004 New Zealand Home Diary containing one recipe per week: Quick Blini with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Cream, Pork Passaround Kebabs, and a classic recipe for Scones, among other useful information like stain removal, weights conversion, etc; and 2) Off the Eaten Track (1999?), a beautiful coffee-table book that provides 'recipes' for the perfect packed lunch according to the place where you're going to have it, with simple creative picnic ideas like, for example, Akatarawa Paradise: "bread from Pandoro's, avocado, hummus, sprouts, tomatoes, bubbly, towel and togs**". The opening line of the book is:
I see a shrub divaricate. To honour it I masticate Jackson dekker Munday
The picnic lunches are combined with the superbly photographed scenic attractions of the city of Wellington. That book, to me, summarises the true spirit of New Zealand food: eating fresh local products in any combination, wherever you find yourself at the time. Bliss.

The "new technologies of the kitchen and hearth" coupled with "the internationalisation of the food production and supply" (Tony Simpson, A Distant Feast: The Origins of New Zealand's Cuisine, 1999, Godwit) are now what dominates New Zealand cuisine, a case of "anything goes", reflected in the cultural mix in combination with global trends, which can't be avoided. In fact, it feels strange to me that I've retreated somewhat by immersion into a predominantly historically-based mono-culinary society. That's Greece for you: always going against the tide - and always getting away with it.

* I used the first edition of this book - the 2008 edition has a different cover.
** togs: the down-under word for 'swimming costume'

UPDATE: New Zealand 8, France 7: that was a close shave!

©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 17 October 2011

Karidopasta-Amigdalopasta-Tourta (Καρυδόπαστα-Αμυγδαλόπαστα-Τούρτα)

The Greek community of New Zealand had its origins in a sequence of chain migration events. As one Greek arrived, (usually) he brought his family members over. By the time my mother arrived in New Zealand in 1963, and started her own little migration chain, the Greek community consisted of Greeks coming mainly from Crete, Cyprus, Mytilene, Macedonia, Akarnania and the Ionian Islands (mainly Kefalonia and Ithaki), with a few other regions also represented in the wider community. There was also a very sizeable group of Greeks who, up until the 1940s, had been living in Romania, and were displaced after WW2.

New Greek immigrants, 1960sWhen my mother left her family in 1963 to go to New Zealand, she boarded a plane with a number of other Greek women, mainly from Crete. For any other woman, it might have felt like an exciting moment, but if I know my mother well, she was probably thinking about the family she had left behind: tired aging parents, two brothers and two sisters, all of whom were still in the village. Till my mother left the village, she had always lived among Cretans. Now finding herself outside her homeland, this was probably the first time my mother actually kept company with Greek people who were not from her own region. (Left: Cretan women working at the Wellington Hospital Laundry)

I suppose it must have been a strange time for my mother because she was used to being close to family and village acquaintances. But I believe she was probably very relieved: these women, like herself, had left the same homeland for the same reasons that my mother had left Greece. They came from similar backgrounds - poor people, from the Greek countryside, with primary school education at the most. They practiced the same religion and they all spoke (more or less) the same language; these are the elements of their identity that they shared. Unbeknownst to my mother, this would be a defining moment in her own identity: this was when she finally became Greek, as her passport stated - before that, she was very much a Cretan.

In those days, this group of women were probably ignorant of the concept of Greek cuisine: they each had an idea of what food was eaten in their own regional cuisine, and it was probably quite different, according to the region where each one came from. Their rural isolation, coupled with little access to printed material in the form of recipe collections, and the lack of money to buy cookbooks, did not give them the chance to make culinary connections in their country. Each one cooked different food, according to the regional culinary customs they were familiar with. But when they came together in New Zealand, they were confronted with their differences; by living close to one another, making friendships on the basis of nationality, and sharing their most popular, more festive dishes in the Greek community of Wellington (where they mainly ended up after their work contract finished), they suddenly started cooking Greek food, rather than regional Greek dishes. This is about the time when my mother wanted to own a Greek cookbook, a tselementes, as we call them in Greek, after the (in)famous Greek cook, Tselementes, which she eventually bought, but never ended up using. (Right: my mother's cooking notes)

*** *** ***

I was reminded of my mother's culinary identity only recently during our road trip through Greece last month, when I was at a taverna in Gavros, on the road towards Proussos, located in the depths of Evritania, on the foothills of the Kalliakouda mountain range, near the Karpenisiotis river. Amidst this scenic landscape, within seeing and hearing distance of the river, we had a meal at the "Spiti tou Psara" taverna.

The view from the "Spiti tou Psara" taverna in Gavros, a small village nestled between two mountain ranges, with the river running beside it. There were a number of nut tress growing just below the taverna's balcony.

We had become friendly with the taverna owner who talked to us about the problems of living in an area like Gavros: "What can we grow here? It's very difficult to grow anything here. Look at where we are: in the middle of two mountain ranges. On the one side, we have Kalliakouda, on the other the Panaitoliko. And in the middle, running through the village, we have the Karpenisiotis river. We are blessed with nut trees and river fish, but the sun doesn't shine here very much. And it rains a lot."

When I asked her if it snowed as well, she had this to say: "Yes, it does snow here. But don't think it snows a lot. And when it does, it doesn't last for long. During the winter, people are able to choose between the Velouhi and Arahova ski resorts for sightseeing. They check the weather reports to see which one has the most open roads. If the television report gets it wrong, and they are misinformed, our business could go down the drain for the whole weekend. I remember hearing at one point last year that the road for Proussos was blocked with snow. We're only a quarter of an hour away from Proussos, and I could tell you that the road was quite clear. So few people passed through Gavros on that weekend. Instead of the Velouhi ski resort, they went to Arahova. That was in fact where the roads were blocked! So Arahova was empty because the roads were blocked, and Velouhi was empty because everyone was trying to go to Arahova. I call that sabotage."

At the end of the meal, as is customary in tavernas all over Greece, a dessert, compliments of the chef, is brought to your table when you ask for the bill. It consisted of two layers: a dark one on the bottom and a yellow one on the top. I immediately recognised that cake. It was the cake my mother made for my birthday (every single year - it never changed). One look at that cake, and I knew I was going to eat a semolina-based walnut (dark layer) and almond cake (light layer). My hunch was right, verified from the taste of the first bite - it was undoubtedly the cake my mother made in our house, the only difference being that my mother used to fill it with custard and top it with fresh cream for extra effect.

"The last time I ate this kind of cake was twenty years ago in my New Zealand home," I explained excitedly to the taverna owner when she next came round to our table. "My mother always made it for birthdays, Christmas parties and other special occasions. But she always used to finish it with cream to make it look more festive."

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Mother's tourta: her children's birthday cakes throughout the 1980s

"Oh, that's a tourta (torte) your mother made, not a plain cake like this one." The woman understood exactly what kind of cake I was talking about. "When we make just the cake, we call it karidopasta if we add walnuts to it, and amigdalopasta if we add almonds. Βut when we fill it with cream, we call it tourta."

And there, in Evritania, the pieces of my past all came together for me. I was beginning to understand how my mother came to make this cake. It wasn't a cake she had learnt to make in her homeland, which explains why I rarely see it made in Hania. The Greek zaharoplasteia sell pasta, which vaguely resembles the tourta version, but these pasta cakes (pas-tes in the plural) come nowhere close to the taste of a tourta (possibly the progenitor of the modern Greek pasta): the former contain more (fake) cream, while the latter contain more cake than cream. Karidopasta (and amigdalopasta) are a local specialty of Evritania, which neighbours Aitoloakarnania (both regions are filled with streams and rivers, where nut trees abound), where many of my mother's Greek-NZ friends came from.

"Oh, I can't give you my recipe, dear," the taverna owner told me when I asked for it. "I make a huge tin for the taverna, so I use about 40 to 45 eggs! In your kitchen, you can make a version with just a dozen or so eggs, even half a dozen, if you want to make a small one just to try out the recipe and see what works for you. For each egg, you need a tablespoon of ground nuts, a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of  semolina."

"What about butter?" I asked. I thought that possibly she had forgotten to mention it.

"No, no butter, this cake has no fat. Just remember the one-of-each ingredient list, that's all, it's so simple. You can add some flavour to it with some cognac or vanilla, and a teaspoon of baking powder to make it rise. Oh, don't forget to grease your baking tray with some butter and sprinkle a little flour over it, so that your cake batter doesn't stick to the tin."

It doesn't surprise me that this cake does not use any fat. The region is covered in mountains, and it freezes in the winter. Butter may have been made in small quantities, but it would mainly have been used as a cooking fat. Forget about growing olives here - they dont like snow... 

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DSC05939 Having no notebook on hand (throughout my blog writing, I never use a notebook, relying only on my camera shots), I felt a little overwhelmed and wasn't quite sure if I would remember the recipe well enough to make it at home. To take the guesswork out of my kitchen experiments, I was lucky to come across the recipe in a book published by Δίρκη (Dirce), the Network of Tourist Enterprises in Evritania and Aitoloakarnania, which included the recipe for this very cake that we tried in Evritania. Interestingly, the name 'Dirce' was chosen for this network, as symbolic of the cooperation of the local enterprises, given that Dirce (in ancient Greek mythology, the daughter of Acheloos - the name of the river running through Evritania - and sister of Peirene) was the name of one of the two ferry boats (the other was named Peirene) which used to transport passengers and vehicles in the 1970s between Evritania and Aitoloakarnania over Kremasta Lake. This form of transport does not exist today since bridges connect the two regions by road - Tatarnas and Episkopi.

I'm presenting the original recipe, as found on the web and in the cookbook. Variations of this cake are found below the recipe.

For the cake batter, you need:
12 eggs, separated
12 tablespoons of roughly chopped walnuts (or almonds)
12 tablespoons of large-grain semolina (fine-grain if using almonds instead of walnuts)
12 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon each of ground clove and cinammon (I didn't use these flavourings - I don't recall them in my mum's cakes, so I omitted them from here too)
1 teaspoon of baking powder, dissolved in half a glass of cognac
grated orange zest
1 vial of vanilla

I made both an almond layer and a walnut layer, using only 3 eggs for each layer, and used the analogous amount of the remaining ingredients - when the cakes come out of the oven, they don't look different from the top because the cake batter browns and its inner colour is concealed!

To make the syrup, you need:
3 glasses of sugar
2 glasses of water
a slice of lemon
a cinammon stick (which again I omitted)

When the cakes come out of the oven, they are left to cool before being doused with very hot syrup. The bottom layer (walnut) is laid upside down on the serving dish (this is the same one my mum used to use for out cakes!) for a flatter finish when filling the tourta. I used a ready-to-make, just-add-milk creme patisserie,  although I recall that mum made everything from scratch - she used a different cream in the filling to the one decorating the cake.

Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar; beat well, preferably with an electric mixer. Add the walnuts, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon and cognac, and mix well. Now add the semolina spoon by spoon, and mix well. Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl. Add them to the yolk mixture, but beat them in lightly, just enough so that everything is mixed evenly. Pour the mixture in a large greased and floured baking tin. (I took no chances here; I remember my mother using baking paper!) Bake in a moderate oven at 200C until the top of the cake is golden and has formed a firm crust (approximately 35-40 minutes).
Boil the syrup ingredients together for 10 minutes. When the cake has cooled down, pour the hot syrup over it.

For a more impressive effect, make both varieties of the cake (like the taverna owner), halving the provided recipes to make each one. Pour the walnut batter into the baking tin, and cook for 10 minutes, so that the cake simply forms a crust on the top. Then pour in the almond batter and cook until the cake is done (approximately 30-40 minutes longer).

This truly was my mother's tourta - the layers were tall enough to be sliced through so that this two-layer cake can be made into a four-layer cake (in this way, the layers will soak up more syrup, which will come closer in taste to my mother's tourta - her layers were thinner).

The same cake can be made into a torte: When the cake is cool, take it out of the tin by shaking it upside down onto a large platter. Slice through the cake in the middle (my mother used to have me help her to cut the cake into three - not just two! - slices). Lay each slice on a separate platter and pour syrup over each one, one spoonful at a time, making sure you cover each slice without making them overly soggy. At this stage, it doesn't matter if the cake slices break (it will be covered with cream and no one will be able to see the breaks). And for a more spectacular effect, just make two different cakes: one with almonds and one with walnuts - the former is a yellow cake, while the latter is brown.

Make a custard filling, enough to put the slices back together again, one on top of the other. (You can use both vanilla and chocolate fillings for each slice if you slice the cake into three layers to make an impressive display of your culinary prowess.) Whip some fresh cream and cover the top and sides of the cake. The cake can then be decorated with more cream (again, my mother would frost the cake with chocolate whipped cream and decorate it with vanilla cream), adding cherries and chocolate snow if desired.

mercina viatos greek nz community cookbookThe cake is simple to make - the assembly requires a bit more attention than what I usually pay to cake-making, but it really isn't a complex recipe. This makes one of the best birthday cakes ever, and will be remembered by your children for the rest of their lives. I'm very lucky to have discovered this cake at this moment in my life when I have young children myself, especially since they never had the chance to taste their grandmother's baking. Although I've looked through my mother's cooking journal, I found some of her notes difficult to follow: she usually jotted the ingredients and left out the method. I've looked through my first-edition copy of Favorite Greek Recipes, produced by the Greek Community of Wellington, and found similar no-fat cake recipes, using almonds or walnuts, assembled as tourta, but none use semolina. If anyone has a Greek-NZ tourta recipe to share like this one, I'd love to hear from you.

Just imagine: if I hadn't been to Karpenisi on holiday this year, I would never have rediscovered this recipe!

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