Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Tuesday 31 January 2012

Bleak (Ζοφερό)

Dear Angela,

By now, you must be well informed about the angry reactions of my compatriots after the leaked plan from the German government, which proposes a eurozone "budget commissioner" to take control of Greece's tax and spending. I suppose it's only a natural outcome of the events as they have turned out. Most people will agree that Greece is incapable of looking after her own finances, despite the changes that have actually taken place in the country, which reminds me of the saying 'Rome wasn't built in a day'. But by reacting in this manner - behind Greeks' backs, with reckless disregard for history - you must also bear the consequences of your own actions. 

There is a great focus on money right at this moment: the Greeks owe it, the Germans want it paid back. Every day, Greeks hear someone telling them that if some kind of agreement isn't reached with her creditors, she risks default and bankruptcy. Just when we seem to be reaching some kind of mutual decision on this issue, the last thing we need is a misguided comment to upset the seemingly submissive atmosphere, at a time when things are already looking quite bleak and hopeless in Greek people's minds. Talking behind their backs instead of being upfront with them can only result in suspicious feelings being cultivated, the opposite of what my job as a politician (even though I am not one) is supposed to bring about. 

Dusk, 29/1/2012
If both sides are constantly accusing each other of fitting into a one-size-fits-all stereotype ("Greeks are lazy lying cheats" versus "Germans are Nazis"), there is no hope that our mutual problems are going to be resolved any time soon. This is not a denial that Greeks have a different way of seeing things from the Germans, and vice-versa. It simply shows how little focus is being placed on people rather than money. If this continues, I don't think I'll be able to stop any outbreak of unchecked anger and populism from dominating the reconciliation processes. Among a nation of people who have felt not just financial exhaustion, but also international humiliation, there is no knowing where this scenario will lead. It's plainly obvious that there's no amount of money that can solve the problem, whether that money is in euro or drachmasHuman dignity, individual liberty and democracy have always been above any kind of debt.

Please note that this conversation between us must remain private. I personally don't want my name to be associated with the stereotyping of nations and people, like my predecessor, who often claimed that he was governing a corrupt country. It's something the ordinary man (or woman) on the street can talk about, but not public persona in my and your position. 

*** *** ***

Winter in Crete - it's bleak for many reasons this year, and not just due to the economy. This winter has been one of the coldest and wettest in a long time. The road to Lefka Ori (Omalos, Samaria Gorge) is now blocked. I won't be surprised if it snows on lower ground.

Dawn, 30/1/2012

Throughout this past month, the sun has hardly shone more than five days, and there are still at least another two months of winter to go. How different to the winter of two years ago, when we hardly turned on the heating...

©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 30 January 2012

The way we were: Studying in Italy (Σπουδές στην Ιταλία)

My husband attended university for one year in Italy in the late 1970s. 

My family was poor. We lived in various old rented houses around the town, most of which were demolished once we vacated them. My parents couldn't really afford much more than the basics in life for me, which we had. That's why they made a conscious decision to have only one child; they both knew what it meant to come form a family with too many mouths to feed. There was always good food on the table, I had a warm bed to sleep in and I went to school and got an education.

σάρωση0036When I started high school, my father made it clear to me that he wouldn't provide me with pocket money unless I worked. Every weekend, starting spring and finishing in autumn, I'd take the KTEL bus from Hania and go to the village, where I was responsible for irrigating the fields. In those days, the water would be passed through cement channels, and I had to move the hoses around to make sure that each tree was watered. I never questioned why my father never did this, and why I had to; it was just what was expected of me.

During my teens, I also started working on construction sites during the summer when the school holidays started. That was a way of supplementing my pocket money. I'd carry buckets of cement up ladders, lay bricks and scrape off the runny bits of cement. A lot of my friends did this work too, so I didn't feel alone or left out. It was a way of life back then in the late 60s and 70s. If you were poor, that's what life held for you back in those days. If your parents were rich enough to supply your monetary needs, you were lucky. I was unlucky. With the extra money I made, I was also expected to pay for my extra tutoring, so I paid for my private English lessons. I was a good student, and I liked school very much.

Eventually, I wanted to go to university, but I didn't get a place in the business schools at the Greek universities that I applied for. I felt devastated, so I asked my parents if I could go to Italy and study there. Italy was where many Greek students headed to for tertiary education because it was cheaper to study there than England. My parents agreed; I was to find out much much later what I couldn't realise then, and that was that they couldn't actually afford to send me abroad for an education.

I began to learn Italian before I set off for Pisa. A friend of mine recommended the University of Pisa to me, and he said he knew where we could find accommodation. I enrolled for an accountancy degree there. My friend set off in late summer, a little earlier than than I did, for Pisa, but told me that he would meet up with me at the airport. I never saw him again. When I arrived in Pisa, I didn't find him at the airport. Instead, I was greeted by two other Greek students, Nikos and Yiorgos. They were both from Hania. I was welcomed into the country like I was some kind of celebrity; they were all smiles and hugs. I wondered how they found out I was arriving; I hadn't told anyone I was coming!

Nikos and Yiorgos introduced me to a lot of people on my first day. It seemed that every one in Pisa was Greek, not Italian. They took me to a friend's house, where I stayed for a couple of nights before finding accommodation with a group of other students in a very old narrow house with three floors,  at Number 82, Via Mancini. The house was so old that when the bus passed by on the street, all the furniture in it rattled and moved. The wardrobe in my room moved a few inches every time the bus passed, and I'd have to move it back in place against the wall. But the house was actually quite comfortable - it was heated, we had running water, both hot and cold, an indoor bathroom (all of which I didn't have back home) and we could cook our meals in it.

Greek-Italian rendition of "Il Sultano di Babilonia e la prostituta"

I was expecting Pisa to be like Athens, in other words, like any other big city that I knew, and so far, Athens was the only one. But it wasn't like that at all. It had a really good transportation system, everything ran on time, and people were very polite. I had heard the phrase 'una fatsa, una ratsa' spoken by Greeks about the Italians, but I can't say that I found that. The Greeks were wild compared to the locals. The Cretan contingent there was even wilder. Italian men visited hair salons, not the barber, and had their hair blow-dried, if they actually felt that they needed a haircut in the first place.  They wore gold chains, and sprayed themselves with perfumes. At first I thought they were gay, but then I relaised that they couldn't all be gay. They were just Italian men. But they liked us as friends, and I never felt like a second-class citizen in Pisa. We socialised among the Italians as if we were at home.

σάρωση0025I shared a room with a Greek from Sparti. The other three students all had their own rooms: an Italian from Sicily, a Greek from the island of Chios and a Greek Jew from the island of Rodos. He was really shifty and made himself out to be the boss in the house. He kept himself to himself and we tried not to get in his way. He had a raging temper when he felt bothered by something. Not even the Sicilian could get round him. We all took turns at keeping the house clean. Except for the Roditi. He never did any of the cleaning.

We all took turns at cooking too. I remember cooking fasolada and yemista. They were easy cheap meals to make. But most of the time, we ate lunch at the student restaurant, which we had to pay for. At every meal, we ate a primo piato of spaghetti or pennes with a choice of a thin red or white sauce. It wasn't very tasty, but it filled us up. Then there was a second meat course (chicken or pork) served with a bit of salad, and some rice or potatoes. There was never any dessert, but we sometimes got a sanguini orange, or occasionally an apple (never a banana - that was imported and too expensive to feed students with). That kept me sustained throughout the day.

My parents sent me money every month and they phoned me once a month to see how I was doing. I never wrote letters to them, but I sent them a few postcards instead. They would also send me some of our olive oil from our own production, packed in a can, along with some cheese and some paximathia (rusks). That formed my morning and evening meals. The money was just enough to pay the rent and to buy my meals at the restaurant. I also bought some milk for breakfast, and some bread, which I could sometimes sneak out from the student restaurant. But the money never lasted me the whole month. My parents were too poor to send me any more; they sent me what they could afford, and I was too proud to ask for more. By the end of the month, I would not have enough money to spend on enough food. The other boys would always help me out, but I felt embarrassed about my situation. Most of the time, I'd simply dip some bread in the olive oil that I had left a piece of cheese sitting in so that it would have more taste, and just wait for the next month when my parents would send me more money.

bread and oil

Nikos and Yiorgos turned out to be involved in the PAK movement. I found that out after a few weeks of settling into studies. They asked me to join the Greek students' chapter in Pisa. I couldn't say no, after all that they'd done for me. They were my friends, they found me friends, they found me a home, and when I had no more money, they'd make sure that I was looked after. They even introduced me to girlfriends and took me to parties. The Spartan I was sharing a room with was also involved in PAK. He was quite wealthy. During the weekends, he would hire a car and drive us around the area. Only the Roditi didn't come with us. He often stayed in the house alone. We got as far as Florence once, where the Spartan paid for the hotel.

At the end of the university year, towards the beginning of summer, I returned back to Greece with Nikos and Yiorgos. They had a car and we drove back into the country, taking a ferry to Kerkira. Cars were always stopped and sometimes searched in those days. We had only just left dictatorship rule and the political situation in Greece was still messed up. Nikos and Yiorgos gave me specific instructions on how to behave when we driving across the border and when we were talking to customs officials. They had printed out a whole lot of politically-related leaflets and posters in Italy, which they wanted to smuggle back into Greece. The literature was all hidden below the trunk of the car. Our suitcases were sitting on it.

We weren't searched, but it was an uneasy feeling not knowing if I was safe. It was the first time I had ever felt frightened. It made me question relationships of this type: I was in need and they helped me out, but they also put me in danger. I vowed to myself not to return with Nikos and Yiorgos to Pisa in the following term. I would try to make it alone.

σάρωση0032What I didn't know at the time was that I would never return to Pisa to complete my studies. When I arrived back home, I found my father in very poor health. He had just been diagnosed with cancer. He had his vocal chords removed; he never smoked again after that, and he used a special microphone to talk. I signed up for a mechanics course in Hania. That way, I could also help with the work on the fields. When I graduated, I spent three years doing military duty. I never left my family home after that. I began working with my father; we shared the shifts in his taxi. I also maintained our olive and orange groves. What else was there left for me? At least I never had to work again in construction, because I'd already done enough of that.

If you liked this story, you may also like to read about:
- one of my husband's favorite children's bedtime stories, and
- why I never make lahanorizo in our house.

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

Sunday 29 January 2012

Earthquake (Σεισμός)

Just this week, Crete has experienced three earthquakes on three consecutive days of similar magnitude: in the early hours of the morning when most people were in bed: 5.4 at 6.30am on 26/1/2012 at a depth of 15km, and 5.3 at 3.30am on 27/1/2012 at a depth of 9 km, and midday yesterday: 4.9 at 12.50pm on 28/1/2012 at a depth of 20km, not to mention the countless aftershocks of much smaller magnitude which were generally not felt - but they all had the same epicenter... 


Sokrati felt the quake, like he feels all minor shakes and tremors, even ones that none of his family members ever feel. Sokrati had bad memories of earthquakes. He came from the generation of those who had lived in the great quake of Thessaloniki in June of 1978. What seemed like a series of minor tremors in the previous two years was actually a build-up to the final crescendo that was played out in the early summer.

It had started in the previous winter before the big one. Although he didn't actually feel it himself, he was woken up by his parents the night the first shake happened, who then helped him to dress and take him outdoors to an open space close to their apartment building. The northern Greek air was seasonably freezing. Those who had cars - his family did not - huddled up inside them, while the others were stranded in the cold night air.

After that initial quake, there were more. At the time, he did not understand the full meaning of his parents' actions: why they left the apartment (or the school room, or the office, wherever they found themselves) in a rush. By spring he had gotten bored of going out onto the road. By the beginning of June, as he felt the earthquakes, he was able to estimate how big they were. Most people had become quite good at this skill, and most of the time, they were getting the quoted Richter scale figure right. The tremors were getting noticeably stronger, going from 4 in the winter to 5 in spring. But people were taking fewer precautions because the tremors were just that: a minor jolt with no damage. Everyone just carried on with what they were doing and forgot about them.

Then one night, while he was with his family at the house of a relative, the big one started. he could tell something wasn't right when he saw the cupboards flying open and everything falling out, smashing onto the floor. It seemed to last for a long long time. Everyone huddled under the door casings and waited until it had finished and rushed out in great panic. On that night, literally everyone came out of their homes. They all headed to an open area near a forest clearing where there was a dry stream bed, which would have been a racing river had it been winter.

Later, they heard that it measured 6.2 on the Richter scale and they all heard about the block of flats that had collapsed in the center of the city. Sokrati never went back home that summer. Instead, he was first sent to live with an aunt in a small village outside the centre of Thessaloniki, where everyone slept outdoors in the fields or in their cars every night for a week. As a child, he thought he was living the sweet life, leaving the crowded city and sleeping outdoors from the beginning of summer, something like camping among the company of good friends. Then he was sent to his grandparents village near Ioannina. They were sleeping in a tent on the dry stream bed along with hundreds of other people for the rest of the summer.  he only returned to Thessaloniki in September after all the apartment blocks were inspected and found to be quite safe.

Sokrati's second experience with a serious earthquake, if vicarious in nature, was that of Athens in 1999. The apartment he had rented only two months before the quake with his wife was deemed unfit for human inhabitation by the authorities. They discovered this when they returned from their annual holidays in Crete. When the tremor actually occurred, they were sunning themselves on the Cretan seashore. Sokrati and Rania were both thankful that they were not at home when the earthquake struck; they would undoubtedly have been in their state-job offices which were housed in crumbling buildings that had received little maintenance over the years. Sokrati's office was significantly affected in the quake, while Rania was luckier than him. His building had serious structural damage; for the next two years, he worked from a prefab. When he was studying in England, he found it strange to see people in the Science Museum in London paying to get into an earthquake simulator to get the feeling of a seismic tremor. He knew that feeling very well and felt no urge to revive it.

Sokrati and Rania were both woken up by the latest quake, but Rania did not feel particularly moved to get out of bed. She waited to hear whether the children had felt it. On detecting no sound or movement from their room, she turned over in the bed to catch up on her beauty sleep. But Sokrati had already jumped up.

"C'mon, get a move on!" he hissed loudly. Coupled with his occupational field (geology), Sokrati was taking no chances. He had been shaken enough times to develop his own well-thought out earthquake routine, however misguided it might have sounded to someone else.

Rania knew what was coming up. She could not change Sokrati's way of thinking now, not least at half-past three in the morning. Although this was not the first time that they had experienced an earthquake in Hania, she knew that Sokrati was waiting for the big one to come - everything happens in threes, he keeps telling her. His belief in folklore was not reduced after attaining his PhD; in fact, it became more highly attuned, as that was about the time they had moved to Crete in order to be nearer to Rania's parents so that they could raise a family with fewer worries about baby-sitters and home-cooked meals. Coming to the small town that his wife had been raised in and living close to people who had never left it immensely assisted in his reverting to former habits. She got up and dressed herself at a comfortable pace, much to Sokrati's annoyance as he watched her; he would have to wake the children, a thought that he did not treasure, as it would mean having to hear his daughter curse him in her sleep, while his son who usually slept like a log would be difficult to get upright, let alone dressed.

When they were all up and had put on their winter jackets, they left the apartment without making too much noise. No one else seemed to have gotten up. They all boarded the car. There were no lights in any of the other apartments, save one: the doctor's apartment had its lights on. Perhaps he had also felt the earthquake, but did not feel the need to vacate his apartment. The children had taken a pillow and blanket with them - they were well drilled in their father's earthquake routine. They already knew that if one hour did not pass, their father would not allow them to enter the house. The great seismologist that he believed himself to be feared a stronger tremor that would follow within the next sixty minutes. It was zero degrees Celsius and they were all freezing.  

During that hour, the children slowly drifted off to sleep. Rania tried not to express her sarcasm towards her husband's panic. This was simply the result of his methodical one-track-mind approach to handling the crisis that he was facing right at this minute. It reminded her of a flow-chart, which he was used to seeing a lot of in his work. But he was also used to taking the same route, instead of seeking alternatives, and since earthquakes were totally unpredictable, neither of them had had much experience in pre-planning them. All decisions were taken on the spot, using the same old approach. Although she would have preferred to curl up and sleep like the children were doing, she found it difficult to do this. The front seat of the car did not lend itself to such luxuries. Besides, she had Sokrati's sanity to think of. His fear of the big one striking any moment now would not allow him to sleep at all. It was no use trying to tell him that earthquakes could not be predicted. He believed he'd worked that one out too.

So they stayed in the car which was parked opposite the apartment block, on an empty section of land. The road was lined with apartment blocks, except for this empty space. It was only by chance that this section of land was not covered by another apartment block just like the one they lived in. The landlord of half the street had built three apartment blocks, one for each of his children to inherit. He would have started on a fourth one, had one of his sons not died in a car accident, which meant that there was no need to build a fourth apartment block - the third one he had built was already superfluous. Overcome by grief, he left the land as it was, untouched by bricks and mortar. It suited the tenants of his properties, who now had somewhere to park their cars. All of which were deserted: only Sokrati's family were up that night. Sokrati put it down to no one else having had as many big earthquake experiences as himself.

But strange things happen at that time of night. An agrotiko* drove by, the first of only two vehicles to drive down their road during the hour that they were waiting for the next tremor (which never came). The same car returned and parked on a side street leading off the main road, adjacent to the car park which was situated on a corner. Now they both had a clear view of the driver, as he got out of the truck. He lit a cigarette. The fire from the cigarette lighter flashed close to his mouth, giving them a good look at his face. It seemed as though he was waiting for someone. Sokrati realised that the man had probably seen them sitting in the car. But the man did not seem to be perturbed by their spectator status; he probably thought that they were lovers, and they were waiting for him to disappear before they began their frolics. Cheap hotel rooms had suddenly become very expensive during the crisis. Rania also understood that the man had seen them watching him. If he didn't think they were lovers, then he must have thought they were nutters. Either way, he didn't look concerned.

Then a Fiat Punto appeared on the street. It stopped at the front door of the apartment block. Rania and Sokrati were somewhat surprised to see the tenant of an apartment on the first floor of their block coming out of the car, a not very attractive Hungarian woman, who had recently moved to the town from Arta. During her first month of renting the apartment, she had told Rania that she was a cleaning lady who lives alone. Throughout her short term of residence in their apartment block, she had already created problems by not paying her heating bills and rent.

"I always thought she had a night job," Rania whispered to Sokrati. "There's no shortage of cleaning ladies in this town."

"Now we know it for sure," Sokrati whispered back, after checking that the children were asleep. The woman opened the main door of the apartment block (it was never locked) and disappeared up the staircase. The old man who was driving the Fiat Punto drove away. The agrotiko driver got out and entered the building. He was obviously going up to the woman's flat, which by now had lit up the darkness of the wee hours of the night.  

The woman looked out of the window and spotted Rania and Sokrati sitting in the car. We are officially nutters, Rania thought.

"She can't be very successful in her night job," Sokrati said. "She's still not paying her heating bills."

Red light district, Minoos St, Hania; note the number of air-conditioning units: the rooms must get really steamy

They were not completely surprised with the events that unfolded that night. Next door to their flat lived a 50-year-old spinster who was having great success with young men. They had seen her on other nights getting in and out of her apartment, waiting by the front door in her nightgown. But tonight, she was quiet; possibly she had scheduled her visitations better, giving her time to sleep at a normal hour.

"The neighbourhood's quite lively at this time of night, don't you think?" Sokrati chuckled.

"Just think how much time we're wasting," Rania replied. Sokrati looked at her suspiciously as Rania frowned back at him. "These guys seem to be doing over-time while we're peacefully sleeping on the top floor every night instead of working," she added.

"They suffer from the classic Greek problem," Sokrati reflected. "Their productivity level doesn't match their output." Rania laughed, making a minimum of noise, with the children in mind. Although Sokrati can be a total geek at times, he still has a good sense of humour.  

"You can't hide in small places," she mused.

Sokrati smiled. "Well, I think it's more of a case of Greeks showing their true selves in this crisis. We're doing a good deed providing shelter to this gypsy. We should send her more customers so that she'll be able to pay at least the heating bill."

"Μπα, she must be lousy in all her jobs. We clean the stairs more often than she does," said Rania. "Which is like never." 

*agrotiko = pick-up truck; usually owned by someone whose main occupation is farming.

*** *** ***

Just for the record, I don't live in an apartment block, or in the middle of town, and there is no car park located by my street. According to my cab-driver husband, the oldest profession in the world has seen a revival in this little town.

©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 28 January 2012

Kalistounia in the wood-fired oven (Καλιτσούνια στη σόμπα)

Κάθε χρόνο, φτιάχνω τουλάχιστον χίλια καλιτσούνια. Τα πιο πολλά τα βάζω στην κατάψυξη μόλις τα φτιάξω, οπότε όταν θέλω να τα ψήσω, τα βγάζω από την κατάψυξη και τα βάζω σε λαδωμένο ταψί, τ'αλείφω με αυγό και τα ψήνω. Αν έχω χρόνο, τ'αφήνω λίγη ώρα να ξεπαγώσουν. Αν δεν έχω πολύ χρόνο, όπως συνήθως, τα βάζω στο φούρνο που ανάβω στο φουλ, και ο Θεός βοηθός, αν και δεν βλέπω τις πιο πολλές φορές να βοηθάει, γιατί τα καλιτσούνια θέλουν και αυτά την περιποίησή τους. Αν δεν την έχουν, ψήνονται με πολύ υγρασία και γ'ινονται μια μάζα ζύμη.

Μετά από μια μέρα (και ένα απόγευμα) ταλαιπωρίας, ήρθαμε σπίτι οικογενειακώς, παγωμένοι απ'το κρύο, και έπρεπε να βρω κάτι φαγώσιμο για την οικογένεια. Μαγειρεμένο φαγητό δεν υπήρχε, ψωμί και λάδι φάγανε το μεσιμέρι, θα ξεσπούσαν λιγμοί αν τους το πρότινα πάλι. Ευτυχώς που η σόμπα ήταν αναμένη. Βάλαμε άλλο ένα ξύλο ν'ανάψει και έφερα ένα ταψάκι με 10 καλιτσούνια απ\την κατάψυξη.  Δεν είχα όρεξη για τίποτε άλλο. Έβαλα το ταψάκι στο φούρνο της σόμπας και ο Θεός βοηθώς.

Δεν πέρασαν 10 λεπτά και τα παιδιά μου φωνάζουν τα παιδιά: Κάτι καίγεται, μαμά! Τί να κάνουμε; λέω κι'εγώ, αν δεν τα φάμε άψητα, θα τα φάμε καμμένα. Έβγαλα το ταψάκι απ' το φούρνο. Μα τι βρήκα; Δεν έχω ξαναφάει πιο καλοψημμένα καλιτσούνια ποτέ. Δεν πρόλαβα να φάω της γιαγιάς μου τα καλιτσούνια, αλλά σίγουρα έτσι θα τα έψηνε στο ξυλόφουρνο.

Η ξυλόσομπα όχι μόνο μας έφερε πίσω στα παλιά αλλά μας δίνει ευκαιρία να γευστούμε την κουζίνα μας όπως την ξέραμε παλιά.

*** *** ***

Βeing poor is hard work for all of us, but there seem to be some benefits: these kalitsounia were cooked straight from the deep freeze, without being defrosted. Try doing that in my German-made conventional oven and you get a soggy mess, but not in the Bulgarian-made wood-fired oven: they came out to crispy perfection, and they probably tasted just like my grandmother's.

©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 27 January 2012

Cheap 'n' Greek 'n' frugal: Yiouvetsi (Οικονομικό γιουβέτσι)

Prices are in euro (valid in Hania). All ingredients are Greek or locally sourced; those marked with * are considered frugal here because they are cheap and/or people have their own supplies. 

Remember that cheap 'n' Greek 'n' not-so-frugal beef stiado you made last week? It was quite filling, so there must have been a portion left over, right? Well, that's all you need to make this very filling pasta dish: just one regular portion of well-cooked beef (or rabbit) stifado.

Frugal yiouvetsi (serves 4)
leftover stifado (beef or rabbit stew) (you've already cooked and saved that from a previous meal)
400g elbow macaroni (0.50 cents)
some salt (optional)

If you're going to use leftover rabbit stifado, first take the bones out of the rabbit - it will be uncomfortable for your eaters otherwise, and shred the meat. Throw away only the bones - don't throw away the sauce that the meat was cooked in. If you use beef stifado, mash up the meat in the sauce. For each hungry eater, add one cup of water to the meat, and 75g-100 elbow macaroni. Boil the pasta till done. If the pasta needs more water to cook in, add only a small amount, so as not to make the stew too soupy.

You might need to add a bit of salt once the pasta is cooked. These leftovers also work well with orzo rice pasta, used in the traditional Greek youvetsi.

Total cost of meal: less than 1 euro per person - the meat was, in essence, included in the cost of a previous meal. 

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

Thursday 26 January 2012

Half-a-kilo capacity (Του μισού κιλού)

Hania has some old stores that have been doing business for many years, selling some quite standard items at both the wholesale and retail level. There's a paper packaging merchant located in the centre of town, where shop keepers can buy all kinds of packaging supplies, including a variety of paper bags for all sorts of purposes, all sold by weight. This store supplies goods that are needed mainly be storekeepers, but retail customers can also shop there too. I personally buy my sandwich bags from this place, as you cannot buy such small long paper bags (only plastic ones) from the supermarket/. They neatly fit a long filled bread roll in them. I recently went there to top up my supplies.

"What can I do for you, madam?" a very friendly man with a cheery face greeted me. He was slightly short with a fair complexion.

sandwich bags
"I'd like to buy some paper sandwich bags, please," I said.

The man looked at me very seriously, but he was still smiling. "You mean 'paper bags with half-a-kilo capacity', madam."

"I suppose so," I answered, not really knowing what he was talking about.

"Oh, it's very important to ask for them this way," he quickly added, "because if I'm not in the shop when you ask for 'sand-wich-bags', that young man over there sitting by the till" - he pointed to an old man who wasn't paying any attention to us - "will start screaming 'Yianni!' - and he cupped his hands round his mouth at this - "until I hear him and I'll have to come racing back to the shop from across the road where I might have been drinking coffee with Babi to find them because he won't know what you're talking about."

"OK," I smiled, "I'll remember that for next time."

"So, madam," the pleasant man continued mild-mannered, as he turned in the direction of the location of the half-kilo capacity bags, "you make sandwiches for the family." He looked at my children who were accompanying me that day. "And what do you put in those delicious sandwiches you make?"

I began to relish the thought of discussing my food with a non-family member (I only do this in writing, hardly ever in spoken language). "Apart from the usual ham-and-cheese, I add sliced tomatoes from our own garden..." The man grinned approvingly. "... and some summer peppers which I've pickled in vinegar."

The man grinned. "Oh, so you use your own garden produce? That's a good thing these days, isn't it?" He placed a large bunch of paper bags into a plastic one and put it on a scale to weigh the contents. He was about to pick up the plastic bag when his smile widened to a broad grin and he looked as though he were thinking of something.

"Well, I don't have a garden myself, but my neighbour does. He lives right across the road from me. My house is here," he said, pointing his hands diagonally towards the ground in front of him, "and his house is right there where you're standing," he added, pointing diagonally again towards me, again at the ground, "and a couple of weeks ago, he bought me three lit-tle cucumbers, about this size," he said, stopping to show me the palm of one hand with the other hand pointing to his wrist, "and they looked so fresh and delicious, I just ate the two of them right there on the spot," he said, making a movement with his one hand rolled up close to his mouth, as though he was pretending to be eating something. "But my hunger was quite satisfied after having those two, and the wife didn't get any cucumber herself so I put the other one in the fridge, and we quite forgot about it. And then, well, just a couple of days later, I reminded the wife about the cucumber waiting in the fridge, and so she took it out, but she couldn't even pick it up, you know, because it was a soggy mess! It felt like, well, just like a limp macaroni, would you believe it, it was full of a squishy gooey mess! And I thought to myself, you just don't know what you're eating these days, do you?"

"No, not at all," I agreed.

"Here you are, madam," the man said, as he passed the plastic bag to me. Then he shouted out to the old man at the till: "That's 1.40, me lad!"

I bought enough sandwich bags to keep me until Easter. Hopefully, the very friendly chap will be there again to tell me another story, maybe this time about oranges or apples, or even watermelons, although it will be a bit early for them. You never know.

©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.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Cheese from England (Tυρί από την Αγγλία)

"What's that?" my husband asked, when he saw what looked like a child's playdough creation on a plate on the lunch table. It certainly stuck out like my sore thumb (not pictured) which I had sliced through to the bone (you would not have wanted to see it, would you?) that morning while cutting carrots into little cubes to make some classic Greek fasolada.

 Sourdough bread, raw onion, a plate of fasolada, feta cheese with olive oil and oregano, garden-fresh cherry tomatoes - and a cheese swirl.

When we visited London two years ago, we bought some generic-style Red Leicester from a supermarket. It was cut off a large block (rather than a large round cheese wheel). It was being sold on special together with some pale-looking cheddar, packaged in the same way. We paid about 3 pounds for 2 square pieces of cheese of 150g-200g each. The cheese didn't taste particularly appetising (it reminded me of 1980s-style Chesdale cheese sold in NZ), but it was cheap, and it kept us fed in between meals. I was a bit wary of this when I saw the Red Leicester cheese swirl at the supermarket, but it looked very pretty in its own special way, so I decided to give it a try.

English cheddar began selling on a regular basis in Hania (at supermarkets, the main purveyors of imported food products) only about four or so years ago, mainly due to the presence of our 'tourist' residents who've set up home here. Since then, we've been able to get a wider selection of some very tasty English cheeses, like Blue Stilton, cut from a round rather than sold in a packet (much more flavoursome than French Rocquefort), along with value-added flavoured cheddar cheeses: we recently tried one with mustard and ale. I hope one day to see Cornish Cruncher available here too - I search that one out whenever I'm in the UK. I particularly like its slightly granular texture - it's very similar to graviera from the island of Naxos, made of cow's milk, which also has these little bits of milk crystals in it.

My attempt at adding value to cheese: Cretan mizithra mixed with Greek fig spoon sweet, rolled into small balls and placed in a jar of olive oil; olive oil is an anti-oxidant and preserves cheese.

We all liked the cheese swirl. The herbs moulded into the cheese, together with the soft garlic-centred white cheese, turned it into a delicious evening snack with some bread and olives, and a glass of home-brewed wine. It also looks like an idea that can be adopted by Cretan cheesemakers to give their products added value, to make them stand out among other cheesemakers' products, and to give their local audience something new to try; maybe the cheese swirl idea is a little far-fetched, but a mustard- or pepper-flavoured graviera would probably go down well, not to mention grow into the export market, and make Greek cheeses (feta aside) better known - after all, Greeks eat more cheese per head than any other national group. Not that the export Greek cheese isn't doing well abroad - but it's mainly known among Greeks living abroad rather than the wider public.

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Tuesday 24 January 2012

Chocolate lava pots (Λιωμένες σοκολατοπιτούλες)

We've had a long spell of very cold weather in Hania. Our wood-fired heater is working every day to keep us warm. This means that the oven compartment is always working. There is now so much free cooking heat which means I don't have to keep relying on the whims and fancies of the Greek public power corporation, the infamous DEH.

The DEH bill was where the new property tax was added, in order to be collected. Those who didn't pay itwere threatened with disconnections (something I haven't seen being done yet in Hania among those of my acquaintances who insisted that they will not pay). A rise in the cost of electricity was recently announced, put into effect this month, which will be reflected in our next bill. DEH also has one of the most powerful worker's unions in the country, so when DEH decides to strike, the disruptions are felt everywhere.

olive grove
 An olive grove after the harvest: the nets are lifted, the field is cleared of branches and the weeds are mulched for organic manure.

We've always used gas for cooking on an element, but DEH has always powered my oven, until just recently when the wood-fired oven began working. For the winter at least, I won't have to worry about not having an oven to work with. I don't have to worry about not being able to cook my culinary creations when there is no power. We can heat both ourselves and our food with more sustainable forms of energy.

But firewood isn't free, nor is it cheap, even when you have your own supplies. It's just like the olive oil Cretans produce from their fields: that's not free or cheap either. To produce your own olive oil, you need to give up a lot of your own time and use up a lot of your own energy by laying nets, thrashing branches, gathering the olives, sifting them to get rid of the leaves and twigs, sacking them, taking them to the olive mill, gathering the oil into containers that you can carry to your home and filling up your coffers with it.

Most people working in another job during the day (like us) don't have time to harvest their olive crop on their own, so they hire someone else to do all this work for them (these people are nearly always Albanians). If they have a suitable vehicle, they just pick up the sacks full of olives and take them to the mill to pick up the oil that is produced from them. The people who did the job for them are paid according to the harvest - they get about 40% of the oil (which they can take home for their own use, or they can leave it at the olive press and be paid for it), the olive mill gets about 10% of the oil (for the work they did to produce the oil) and the owner of the field gets the remaining 50%. One litre of olive oil costs a litre of olive oil to produce. At the moment, Greek mills are paying out about 2 euro per litre. If you are paying less than that for the olive oil you are buying in a country that doesn't produce olive oil for its own supplies, then you can guarantee that someone else is suffering.

57. A 3000-4000 yr old olive tree at Ano Vouves
 This olive tree is believed to be the oldest olive tree in the world - and it's found here in Hania.

Our firewood comes from our own fields. The olive trees need annual trimming to maintain them with an umbrella-like shape, which makes it easier to harvest the crop. The umbrella shape also keeps the tree healthy, allowing it to 'breathe'. If the canopy of the tree is too dense, the tree will harbour a lot of insects amidst its branches, notably the Mediterranean dakos fly which favours olive trees, and the oil produced from dakos-infected crop will not be of a very high quality, as dakos infestation rasies the acidity level, ie the olive oil risks losing its extra virgin quality.

burnt stump
An olive grove located on a mountain slope, which makes harvesting very difficult. Most olive groves in Crete are located on slopes.  

To collect the firewood, you need your own appropriate vehicle; to run your own vehicle, you need diesel fuel; to buy diesel fuel, you need money - it can't be bought any other way in Greece. And once you bring your firewood home, you need to chop it into small enough pieces that fit into your fireplace or wood-fired heater. If you don't have the appropriate tools to cut your wood into suitably sized pieces, your arms are going to hurt a lot (my husband was off work for a week due to an inflammation in his shoulder - he couldn't change gears or turn the sterring wheel).

Our supplies oif firewood are as plentiful as the energy required to gather the wood and chop it. If worse gets to worst, and we can't afford to buy engine fuel, we won't be able to bring it home.

There's no such thing as a free lunch.

*** *** ***

Using our own supplies of olive oil and firewood, I made these delicious chocolate lava pots. The recipe was based on a French one in Lunch in Paris by Elisabeth Bard, using butter and a conventional oven. But everything that requires butter can also be made with olive oil, as I've shown in other recipes. Even if you don't have a temperature gauge on your wood-fired oven, you can learn to gauge the heat, so that you can work out if something has been cooked and is ready to eat. You also need to know what the final product must look like.

You need
8 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (use some good stuff - low quality olive oil may have a bad odour or rancid taste, which will ruin the final taste)
200g cooking chocolate (I used the 55% variety - Greeks generally don't like their chocolate too bitter)
a pinch of sea salt (even though I added just a few grains, my kids could taste it - 'don't add it next time, Mum')
3 eggs (or 2 eggs and 2 yolks - my version is more economical)
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons of flour

Melt the chocolate in the olive oil on very low heat (you won't need a double boiler). Add the salt and stir it in. Put the chocolate mixture aside. In another bowl, beat all the eggs with the sugar until light and fluffy looking. Add the egg mixture to the (slightly cooled down) chocolate, and mix it in well. The result will look like a thick gooey batter. Then add the flour and mix it in evenly, but lightly, careful not to overmix.

I used an old metal baking tin to place in the oven. I'm afriad that my purex and ceramic dishes might crack if I place them in the oven without some form of protection. Metal tins may warp and discolour, but they don't break.

Pour the batter into 6 ramekins. If you want to remove the cooked deserts from the ramekins before serving, you need to grease them first. I served them straight from the ramekins, but some people may prefer to place them on a decorative plate and pour some cream over the desert - but I've had the same desert at Pizza Hit in Iraklio, and it was served in the ramekin, with pouring cream on the side. 

To cook the ramekins in a wood-fired oven, place them in a baking tin to which you've added two centimetres of water. To check the temperature of the oven, open it and place your hand insde the cmpartment, carefully so that you don't touch the walls. Ask yourself: 'does it feel warm?' or 'does it feel hot?' or 'does it feel very hot?' If it feels too hot to even leave your hand in for two seconds, that means that the oven will burn whatever you put it in it. (It's happened to me once, with a cake.) For the chocolate lava pots, you want the oven to feel 'very hot'.

Definitely done - the one that lost its shape looks as though its centre is gooey.

Place the tin holding the ramekins in the oven compartment of your wood-fired oven (this ensures that even when the oven is too hot, the lava pots won't burn). The chocolate pots will need no more than 10 minutes to be ready. You will realise that they are cooking correctly when you see the water in the tin boiling away. Not only that, but you will also see the chocolate pots rising slightly, and creating a cracked crust on the top. When you think they are done, take them out of the oven to test them for doneness. NB: don't touch anything with bare hands - the tin and the ramekins and the water will be at burning point! Use you finger to press the top of one of the chocolate pots. If it looks like a biscuit on the top and feel like a cake when you press it, then it's ready.

My chocolate lava pots could have done with less cooking time - it all depends on how molten you want the interior to be.

Allow the lava pots to cool down enough to allow you to handle them. You can cool them down more quickly by pouring some cold water in the tin. Enjoy your chocolate pots 'neat', or with some cream or ice-cream or dried fruit and nuts, or even some Greek spoon sweets, in the same way as depicted in the Greek-style custard pies I made recently.

This poverty thing doesn't mean you can't have your cake or eat it.

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Monday 23 January 2012

The way we were: Belgium (Βέλγιο)

After the shock of Paris, I made my way through more organised and often quite picturesque places in Northern Europe.  

Friday 12/7/91 - 5.10pm BRUSSELS: Another nice train trip (Eurocity trains are such good value), another big, old, beautiful city. Staying at the Jacques Brel youth hostel. Bought a collection of his songs on CD - my first ever CD purchase! - at a huge shopping mall. Passed by a monument dedicated to the unknown soldier with an ever-burning fire: quite poignant, as it feels that the war happened only recently. Lovely fountains in the city - looks like there are hundreds of them. Quite a commercial area, many shops near the Grand Place, which is like a huge piazza surrounded by lots of old buildings. Had an interesting chat with the shop owner. Had to pry myself away - he was showing too much interest in me.

brussels 1991
A typical 1991 scene in the centre of Brussels: a bit of French-style cafe culture combined with the promising EEC (as the EU was then known) spirit that was being cultivated in the city given its role as host of the EU headquarters.

Now I'm sitting in front of the youth hostel in the place des Barricades. Very hot during the day, quite cool at night. This place is quite expensive: 3 nights for 1000BF, just as much as the CD cost me. Bread and cheese, a few postcards and some stamps have set me back by another 300BF. Minus the CD, that's 1300BF= ₤22.

Saturday 13/7/91 - 3.25pm BRUSSELS: Slept well in my sleeping bag - beats paying for sheets. Sharing a room with 5 Spaniards from Vigo-Galicia - I got a top bunk. They told me to visit Ghent. The breakfast was very filling, one of the best hostel breakfasts I've had so far on the trip. Shame I won't be able to have some tomorrow morning, as I depart on a very early train for Bruges.

manneken pis brussels july 1991
The Acropolis of Brussels - Manneken Pis
Took a guided walking tour around Brussels today. Manneken Pis was treated as the highlight of the tour. But the walk was good value in other ways. Mainly young university graduates on the tour, touring through Europe in a similar way to myself. Met a Greek from Finland (from Chios). During the walk, we passed by a few Greek restaurants. The guide told me that Greeks are mainly in the restaurant business here. Came back to the youth hostel early because it's been raining steadily all day - I should have had a brolly with me! Washing clothes at the moment in a launderette close to the youth hostel. Will visit the EEC centre later in the afternoon with some of the people I met on the walking tour. Bought some frites for lunch - 40BF. 

brussels?? july 1991
Young and carefree - at 25, I was just a fresh university graduate, not much different to a child.
Cambios de change - they charge very high commission rates for changing money. No way to avoid it: I change currencies as often as I change country, which is every three or four days at this rate.

Sunday 14/7/91 - 12.30pm GHENT: I have a cold. No wonder; it IS cold. Decided to try out Ghent on my way to Bruges - Eurail tickets let you hop on and off trains on the same day. Ghent is quiet and picturesque, but the weather is absolutely miserable - it's cold, cloudy and drizzling. That's what mid-July summer weather is supposedly like in Northern Europe: cold. This is supposed to be a bustling university town - a lot of young people walking about. Tried to find an information centre, but they were all closed. Walked about a bit, and got a little lost. I ended up at a flower market - nice sea of colours against the backdrop of a dull sky. While getting waylaid, I passed by some old but very pretty buildings, quite a few luscious green spaces, a lily pond and what looked like the university. Was hoping to visit the castle the Spaniards told me about, but I couldn't hack the rain any longer. The drizzle is so fine it doesn't feel like it's raining, but eventually, you feel your clothes are wet. Wearing a plastic raincoat doesn't help - you can feel the humidity.

Waiting on the platform for a train to Bruges. "I came, I saw, I went." It just occurred to me that I haven't had much to eat today. If only I could find some more of those delicious frites I had in Brussels. Found a pizza and salad place near the station: 165BF. I really needed that sustenance!

mermaid t'zand fountain
File:Bruges canal corner.jpgSunday 14/7/91 - 2.45pm BRUGES: Bruges is much more colourful than Ghent. It has that pretty postcard look to it, but it's very crowded. The architecture has been preserved very well and the canals weaving through it make it look like a little Venice. Ave Maria (Our Lady) statues - people must be quite religious in this area. Now sitting in the Grote Markt, looking out at the Belfry chiming away. Europeans love their bell-ringing; it's like a hobby for them.  As I left the area, I came across a woman wearing traditional costume, sitting outside a shop selling traditional crafts. She was making lace. Quaint.

T Zand fountain bruges july 1991 bruges canal july 1991
"I came, I saw, I went" - my travels through Northern Europe in 1991 could be summarised by this sentence. As I search the web for more information on the same towns, I find out that Manneken Pis has a huge wardrobe, Ghent's weather is generally cloudy all year round, and Bruges has been granted protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for similar reasons to those of the Acropolis in Athens. (The large photos are my own from my 1991 trip; the smaller photos come from internet sites, showing the exact same scenes two decades later.)
grote market bruges july 1991 horse and carriage bruges july 1991

File:Bruges main square.jpgBruges is probably the most picturesque town I've visited so far. (I'm pretending I can't smell the horse manure all over the place from the horse-and-carriage tourist transport.) But it makes me wonder what these European cities survive on. All they sell is pretty looks. There doesn't seem to be anything else happening here, other than looking at pretty old buildings. Cute sightseeing, great place to walk around in. That's it. Charming Flanders country for good photography sessions. Interestingly, no biligualism apparent here in the street signs - all signs were in Flemish.

Met up with a Canadian and we're on our way to the youth hostel. She's got open train tickets too and she's suggested Strasbourg for tomorrow. We can pay a little extra for a sleeper wagon. Don't know how I feel about going back into French territory after Paris. We'll see.

(to be continued)

*** *** ***
Looking back on my 1991 photos of Europe, when she was in her heyday so to speak, given her rising importance in world politics and economics at that time, it's quite obvious why she's now gone stagnant. Europe has a lot of culture to sell, something people don't need in their daily lives to survive: at any rate, modern people create their own culture. What people need is worthwhile and productive work in order to provide them with food and shelter. The climatic conditions of Northern Europe even make it difficult to feed the population without imports. A sustainable lifestyle is hindered in such situations.

Someone provides something for someone else to possess or use. But what one country provides to the other is seen in unequal terms. How can it be equal when the conditions are not the same? The climate, food and lifestyle of Greece cannot be compared to that of Northern Europe. Neither can an office job in a centrally heated building and an outdoor job tilling fields and sowing crops. We continue to seek what we don't have; we rarely value what we do have. Europe's in trouble and she knows it, like a sinking ship. Can she reconcile her vast differences amicably? Not from what we hear and read.

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Sunday 22 January 2012

Dutch donuts - oliebollen (Ολλανδέζικα ντόνατ)

It's Chinese New Year's Day tomorrow, and the Year of the Dragon begins. As with most cultural celebrations, symbolic food will be cooked and eaten: 

New Year's days are associated with special dishes in most cultures of the world. Here is a Dutch New Year's treat: oliebollen. Tomorrow's Chinese New Year's Day is a good excuse to make them as any other.


Oliebollen are a no-fuss way to make donuts. The original recipe includes currants, raisins and finely chopped apples, but I didn't have these on hand; instead, I used finely chopped Greek quince spoon sweet and a finely cubed banana. These donuts aren't too sweet and they make a really nice evening snack for a cold evening. Because they contain yeast, the batter needs some time to rise, so you need to be a bit organised. 

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Saturday 21 January 2012

Value-added meat (Κρεατικά με προστιθέμενη αξία)

The town of Hania is the urban centre of the prefecture of Hania, which is the westernmost province of Crete. In Hania, you'll find gaudy concrete apartment blocks, shops and traffic. You may be reminded of an urban nightmare, as some parts of it are truly aesthetically distasteful. If it weren't for the old Venetian port, Hania would not be the charming place it is considered to be by many tourists.

fortezza cafe
The Fortezza cafe at the Venetian harbour is no longer operating...

If you love the idea of living on a Mediterranean island but prefer an urban environment within it, then you would enjoy living in a place like Hania. You won't need transport to get around because it's a small town and everything is clustered close together. The Agora and the shops around it will supply you with everything you need in your daily life. Living in the town means that you will also have more creature comforts available to you than people in rural areas have. And that Venetian port will be a stone's throw away from your home...

Chicken is a (generally cheap) healthy meat - everything in this photo has been prepared with chicken.

One of those comforts is the range of products available to you. Outside the town, you can still find everything you need, but some things will cost more, many things will be available only through a supermarket, and not everything that is store-bought in a rural area will be fresh. This is only natural since most people living in the Cretan countryside often have some form of own production.

 Filled pork mini-rolls, seftalia, marinated souvlaki, plain souvlaki, pork kebabs, boli (stuffed meat and mince patties wrapped in fat), beef kebabs, meat pizza (the base is made of meat chunks)

The disadvantages of being a foodie and living in the town are that you might have a small kitchen and limited space for storage. So you'll prefer to buy things that don't need much preparation time. That's where Yiannis the butcher comes in handy. His display is one of the most alluring in the whole area. One look, and you will be hooked. There's a great variety of processed fresh meat products to choose from.

Various breaded and marinated meat chunks

You can also buy meat in its most basic form, which is also the chepaest way to buy it. Everything else is value-added, so it will cost a little more to buy. When we visited the shop, it was good to see a lot of people wandering in and out of the shop, all buying a great variety of things. We didn't buy any of the value-added stuff, mainly because I prefer to add value to our meaty meals in my own kitchen, but I got lots of ideas from here. We bought some French beef (10.50 euro a kilo, as opposed to 12 euro at supermarkets located near our home), and a village-style chicken, which means the skin and fat are yellow (they are free-range hens), not white (which resemble battery hens). Yellow-skinned chickens make good pilafi rice while white-skinned chickens cook more quickly.

The traditional way to buy meat in Crete 

Yiannis is situated just a few metres away from the Agora. You can't miss him, as you will immediately be struck by his mesmerising display of comestibles in the window.

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Friday 20 January 2012

Cheap 'n' Greek 'n' frugal: Stifado (Οικονομικό στιφάδο)

Prices are in euro (valid in Hania). All ingredients are Greek or locally sourced; those marked with * are considered frugal here because they are cheap and/or people have their own supplies. 

Making a beef stifado in Greece illustrates how one country's frugal meals may actually form another country's luxury meals. Meat is quite expensive these days, especially beef which now costs over 10 euro a kilo for Greek-raised beef, and about the same for French beef (and a little more than that for Dutch beef), so I wouldn't call a beef dish frugal in Greek terms. Since we aren't vegetarians, we still indulge in the classic meat-based meal for Sunday lunch. The trick to making a frugal meal out of expensive meat is to find ways to stretch the dish and keep it filling and tasty.

Classic Greek stifado is basically a stew made from chunks of (usually) beef or rabbit, slow-cooked in a light tomato/wine sauce, with spices and lots of onions. I usually make this dish with rabbit, which I'm given every now and then by farming folk living in the area... but I haven't been given one in a while. I made stifado recently with some Greek beef, which takes a long time to stew to make it very tender. You can use a pressure cooker if you have one; I let my stifado slow-cook for about three hours on the element, just checking it constantly to make sure there are enough liquids in the pot.

To make stifado frugal, I cook a bit more than I need for a Sunday meal, so I can have some leftovers to use in a more frugal meal the next day (serves 4-6)
1 large onion, finely chopped* 
1-2 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped*
a few glugs of olive oil*
1kg beef cut up into golfball-sized chunks (~11 euro)
half a wineglass of home-brewed wine*
~150g tomato sauce* (a third of a store-bought tin costs about ~30 cents)

2 bay leaves*
1 teaspoon of allspice berries*
salt and pepper*
20 small onions (~50 cents)

Pour some oil into a shallow heavy-based pan, and cook the large onion and garlic till translucent. Add the beef chunks and brown them well all over. Then pour in the wine, and let the beef cook in that (uncovered) for about 20 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, spices and seasonings, together with a cup of water and turn the heat down to the lowest point. Cover the pot and let the beef cook for about 45 minutes. It will need to be checked at this point, and you will add more water to it, but never too much: I added two more cups of water at regular intervals. If you add the water altogether, it will feel like the beef was boiled rather than stewed. Test the beef for doneness by checking if a knife goes through a chunk without too much trouble. As soon as you think you are nearing this point, add the small onions (peeled, with a small cross incised on their root side) and let them sit on top of the meat, half soaking in water. Close the lid and allow the beef to continue to cook until it is done.

Stifado is traditionally served with fries in Greece, but only with freshly-cut potatoes - don't use pre-cooked ones because you'll ruin the taste. You'll need about 4-5 medium-sized potatoes, cut into French fries and (~70 cents for the potatoes) some olive oil for frying.*

Serve 3-5 pieces of beef and a 3-4 onions per person, sitting in a good amount of sauce on the plate, and place a few French fries next to the meat. Serve the stifado with a plain green salad. Keep about 3-4 chunks of meat (with sauce and onions) for tomorrow's frugal meal...

Total cost of meal: about 13 euro; 2.50-3 euro per person.

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Thursday 19 January 2012

Dregs (Kατακάθια)

One thing I'm pleased about these days is that the kids are becoming more independent. They make their own dakos meals these days. As I watch them, I get the idea that they feel they are preparing a sumptuous meal.

If you could ever get yourself to overdo it with the olive oil, and you find a thick film covering the plate after you ate your dakos salad, don't despair - just mop it up with some bread and enjoy it. If you aren't hungry at that particular moment, put it in the fridge for the next day. 

It's still a little difficult to teach them not to over-do it when pouring olive oil over the paximathi (rusk). Phrases like 'go easy with' and 'olive oil' do not collate well in Crete.

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Wednesday 18 January 2012

Stains in the extra virgin olive oil industry (Λαδολαδιές)

Buy peanuts, get peanuts.

Since the Telegraph's revelations about Italian olive oil not being Italian (something Greeks had known about it for a long time), there's been a flurry of reports about fraudulent practices in the olive oil trade. A book was published just last month about this very topic by a an American olive oil expert. Immediately following the Telegraph article, the Guardian published their own report as well as an article giving tips on how to buy genuine EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) - apparently, the UK is the world's 10th largest consumer of the product.

Prices of olive oil at INKA supermarket, Hania

What makes an olive oil 'extra virgin' is its acidity level, and nothing else (it cannot be more than 0.8%). To be fair, extra virgin olive oil doesn't have to be a single unmixed variety to be of the highest qauality. It also doesn't have to be made of hand-picked olives. The olives used to make the oil do not need to grow in one specific area for the best taste (this is up to the individual), nor do they have to be cold-pressed (a little bit of heat treatment won't destroy the quality). Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) produced by artisans will not necessarily taste better than mass-produced extra virgin olive oil, nor does it have to be very expensive to be very high quality. Any Greek - and probably Italian, or Spaniard, since they live in the three most prolific producer countries of EVOO - can tell you this. The fradulent practices of the biggest exporter of olive oil in the world concern mainly the labelling of EVOO: all exported olive oil being sold in import coutnries seems to be EVOO.

The scandal involved in the olive oil trade is not just the lower quality of EVOO that is being sold using misleading - but legally permissible - terminology (technically, even non-EVOOs can be EVOO, if you can understand that); it has to do, to a great extent, with the profits being made by those in the business. In brief, EVOO-labelled olive oil (of dubious EVOO quality) is being exported to lucrative markets and sold at cheap prices. This practice places a squeeze on the producers of the more 'genuine' EVOO, who sell at much higher prices. But if all EVOO is being labelled in similar ways with only a price difference involved, then how does the consumer choose? With his/her wallet, of course.

Different grades of olive oil are also available in Hania, to suit all pockets, even pomace olive oil.
The standard practice of mixing olive oils from different countries seems to be a new one to the uninitiated, ie non-producing countries with very high imports of the product, like the UK and USA. These two countries use terms like 'olive oil' and 'extra virgin' differently; in other words, they're playing with words for profiteering purposes. Higher income levels in such countries allow consumers to pay any price that suits their pocket: this entails paying a higher-than-average price for a perceived quality according to the wording on the label. But if that perceived quality is not in fact as high as the consumer believed at the time of purchase, due to false or misleading labelling, then the consumer is being duped, which creates the scandal: in societies with a high level of transparency, this amounts to fraud. Making informed choices about which olive oil to buy is also a big problem in an information-overloaded society. The subject matter is often misreported, and the advice given is sometimes not always possible to put into practice (like taste tests).

It's easy to ignore all the facts when money rules. In a world where unemployment is growing, incomes are falling and prices are rising, the choice of which product to buy between two same/similar products sitting on the shelf side-by-side with different prices is an obvious one. To a certain extent, we are all price-conscious. What motivates us to make choices that do not depend solely on our income levels depends on our knowledge, educational level, nationality and personal preference, to name just a few of the many and varied factors that dominate our thinking. Given that I belong to the world's highest EVOO-consuming group, and the world's greatest producer of EVOO, I could never take just price into consideration without checking the designation of my olive oil's origin. If I lived close to Greece (eg somewhere in Europe), I'd be filling my suitcases with bottles of the family's supplies of olive oil (like I do now for other family members). If I lived in another continent, I might consider import my family's olive oil supplies, without giving too much consideration to the cost (like many Greek-Americans).

Most Greeks who buy olive oil (ie they have access to their own production) use a different olive oil for frying/cooking and another kind for salad dressings or dipping bread.

The UK is the world's tenth largest consumer of the product. But all her supplies must be imported, since she's a non-producer country. It can be said of the British that they are a largely well-informed society that takes food labelling seriously. Wording such as the following, however, misinforms Brits about the true situation:
"With the global appetite for olive oil on the increase, unscrupulous producers are meeting the demand by mixing in cheaper oil from Greece, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia and passing it off as top-end extra virgin oil." 
For a start, 'cheaper oil from Greece' implies 'lower-quality oil': But Greece's olive oil production is 80% extra virgin - almost double Italy's (the second biggest EVOO producer)! For the same reason, the implication that it isn't 'extra virgin' is probably also misleading. 

Two years ago, the Telegraph published a report claiming that aggressive-discount supermarkets LIDL and ALDI olive oil is superior to the olive oil sold by M&S, according to expert testers:
"In a study of 12 standard extra virgin olive oils available in supermarkets conducted by Which?, the consumer watchdog, oils from Marks & Spencer, Carapelli, Bertolli, Sainsbury's and Felippo Berio were all trumped by Aldi and Lidl's versions.
Both cost just £2.49 for a 750ml bottle, considerably cheaper than all its rivals and nearly £4 a bottle cheaper than some." (The Telegraph, 20 July 2009)
Coincidentally, in Greece, M&S is known only as a clothes store. The Independent then followed suit, publishing a report with the headline: Want the best olive oil? Then save yourself some money:
"Want the best olive oil? You can buy the tastiest extra-virgin for half the price in budget supermarkets, according to Which?" (The Independent, 23 July 2009)
Apparently, the cheapest olive oils (and just look at the prices, even just three years ago!!!) are winning the 'best olive oil' award. Which? is, apparently, a highly respected consumer organisation, making checks on quality and competitive pricing. Interestingly, no one commented on the articles. Such an uninteresting issue?

Our own supply of extra virgin olive oil takes on a different hue depending on the light conditions (clockwise starting from top left: the same olive oil goes from green to gold to yellow to amber).

Just six months ago, Which? conducted more blind testing of olive oils from major supermarkets. Its general report was entitled: "The best oil is not always the most expensive":
"Napolina extra virgin olive oil has come out on top in a Which? taste test of olive oils from supermarkets and big brands. But the results proved that the most expensive extra virgin olive oil is not always the best. Which? experts rated the standard Napolina higher than Napolina Special Selection, despite it being nearly £2 cheaper. Napolina was the only olive oil to achieve a Best Buy, but Aldi's EVOO Extra Virgin olive oil also impressed the panel, gaining the second-highest score in the test." (Which? 24 June 2011)
Well, who could argue with that?! Which? reporter Matt Clear tells us that in the UK, you can buy 'good' cheap olive oil from the supermarket:
"We Brits consume 28 million litres of olive oil a year, so we could definitely save a fair bit by going for cheaper offerings, without compromising on taste." (Which? 30 June 2011)
Seriously?! What a load of cobwash, as one of the readers pointed out:
"I would assume that people who enjoy olive oil and similar products are likely to be willing to look a little further than an edge-of-town supermarket... I’ve regularly bought 5 litre cans ... @ £45 per 5 litres. Could I do better?"
Matt Clear's response to this very comment says it all:
"If it helps, the experts felt that the standard of the olive oils on test was generally not that high, and even the Best Buy would not match up to a good estate-bottled oil."
Buy peanuts, get peanuts. At the same time, it's not difficult to find a genuine EVOO. The Guardian gives some advice aiming to ensure higher quality for the consumer "in a market where labels on olive oil bottles simply don’t indicate the quality of the oil inside, and where trust in a person, a brand, a store, or an institution is the only way to ensure you’re getting excellent oil."

Our pockets will always rule our spending, but we don't need to be brainwashed by the major players who simply want to keep making a profit, going to the extremes of redefining even the term 'olive oil':
"The term 'olive oil' doesn't just mean the juice pressed from olives, but denotes a heavily refined concoction of low-grade oils which, like pomace oils, have been deodorised, deacidified, degummed, and the rest. Where 'extra virgin olive oil' which actually IS olive juice, sounds vaguely unnatural, as though it has been processed. Where high-sounding terms like 'pure' and 'light' mean oils that have been stripped of nearly all of their sensory and health benefits. A business whose laws and regulations have been written for (and frequently by) olive oil industrialists, rarely with the interests of olive farmers or honest extra-virgin producers in mind. Much less of consumers."
As discussed in an earlier post about olive oil, people are constantly becoming better informed about the oily EVOO business with the very fast spread of web-based information, as can be seen from the comments sections in all the following articles:

It's just a matter of time before the controls tighten on the EVOO term. And in all fairness, not all EVOO sold at LIDL is the same: what is being sold in Hania is probably very good stuff. It's locally produced (in the Hania region itself), and is sold in small and large containers. A 5-litre canister will set you back by 18-20 euro, which is quite a good price for very high quality EVOO. But if you feel you can't can't spend that much*, there's also a cheaper variety available too, even in the Hania LIDL stores: a 5-litre canister will cost you only 15 euro and it's still Greek - but it's not Cretan...

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When olive oil is over-used in a home kitchen (like ours), it's inevitable that your clothes will get stained by it. If you're close to a kitchen, dab a little dishwashing liquid on the stain and rub slightly; this will ensure that the stain will be removed in the next wash. This method works well if you notice the stain immediately, but don't despair if you do not: in thise case, you need to rub a little βενζινη καθαρισμου into it. Your clothes will then smell a little as if they came out of a dry cleaner's, but again, in the next wash, the stain (and smell) will disappear.

*Pomace olive oil is also sold at the Hania LIDL stores at a much cheaper price - no imported olive oil is found there. 

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