Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Dickensian Crete (Η Κρήτη του Ντίκενς)

"You were on a different tangent, Maria", a friend wrote to me the other day. "You never sound Dickensian - you're content with your lot despite the adversities, you're like Nancy singing It's a Fine Life, and that's just not sensational enough." Her advice was that maybe I should start writing about scavenging for food in bins or nicking stuff from other gardens at night, and training my children to do that too. "That would get them to your doorstep, along with all the Greek TV channels. Why don't you do it for a laugh, to show how the media feeds on people's pain?" Better still, I could write something else that feeds on a local kind of pain that is not often well described in the media.

After spending the afternoon at the beach last Sunday, I decided that I was relaxed enough on that very hot day to take a walk through the Agricultural August exhibition, which was being held by the harbour. Agricultural August is an annual trade fair set up for producers to acquaint consumers with their products. The children were very excited about it.

 "We're going to try all that cheese and honey," said my daughter. "And we'll eat loukoumades afterwards," said my son. For both of them, it was all about the food. We parked the car on the outskirts of the town, a rather gloomy grey street whose shops operated only during the week, making the area look rather sad and empty at the weekend. It was really stuffy and muggy - we were hoping to feel a bit of breeze when we got close to the Western Moat where the fair was being held, next to the coast, just down the road from Hania's landmark, the lighthouse.

There were two aisles with stalls on both sides - the middle two rows of stalls were back to back. We began our walk through the free exhibition by taking the left hand side first. To see all the stalls, we decided to walk up one side, then down again on the other side - and the same again through the next two sets of stalls.

The children walked quickly past the first few stalls which were not food-related: the Municipality's stall, an insurance company, a distiller displaying different kinds of cauldrons for making raki (tsikoudia). There were little plastic shot glasses for anyone who wanted to try some raki, as well as wine. But these were not the stalls that the children remembered from the previous year. I was surprised by how much they knew what they were looking for.

The first food stall was selling baked goods. "Is there anything there for us to try?" they asked me. It didn't look like there was - it was for sale, not for trying. So they just walked past it very boldly, their confidence not greatly shattered. The next stall was that of an ice-cream maker. There was nothing there for free either.

"Is there going to be anything to try?" they asked with a slight uncertainty in their voice.

"I suppose so," I assured them. Not everyone seemed to be bringing out their wares as readily as they did last year. Or so it seemed to us, anyway. In the meantime, people were poring into the exhibition. Most Greeks come to Agricultural August, but not many of our immigrant residents. Perhaps they don't know about it; perhaps they don't realise what it is all about; perhaps they don't feel part of the local community; perhaps also they don't want to be seen somewhere that people will accuse them of coming to get a free meal.

The children continued to walk past the stalls that did not interest them. They knew what they were looking for: little bowls of something edible at the front of the stall, in front of the packaged goods that the stall holders were hoping to sell to anyone more interested than just sampling. The first stall they came across with the little basket of goods to try was for bakery goods: paximadi, sweet rusks, carob-flavoured baked products, bread sticks, among others. But nothing that in English would be understood as cookies or biscuits. Cretan baked sweet goods don't usually come in the form of biscuits. That's left for the mass manufacturing market.

The children picked up a piece of rusk and began chewing it, crumbling it over their lips. Their faces showed an earnest seriousness; they were tackling the task of sampling the goods as if it were a duty, nodding their heads at a slant, their eyes showing deep thought. "Mmm, it's good," they said, as they walked past the stall, not quite having swallowed it all.

At the next stall was a honey seller. "How do we try that one, Mum?" I showed them the tiny plastic spoons next to the bowls of honey and encouraged them to dip the tip of their spoon into the jar and twirl the spoon around so that the honey didn't drip onto their fingers or onto the ground. "Mmm, it's good," they said, as they walked past that stall too, still licking their sticky lips which by now had some crumbs sticking onto them.

The next stall had popular fried pastries of a local variety, the kind we make quite often in the winter when the garden is full of spinach. "Can we buy a kalitsouni?" I reminded them that we were going to have loukoumades from the stalls beyond the exhibition when we reached the end. We can't buy everything, and anyway, we'd be too full afterwards to sit anywhere to eat anything else. And it was still hot. Despite being so close to the sea, not a breeze could be felt. It was different when we'd left home, but we live on a hill anyway, and it's always breezier there.

More bakery products. More honey. More bakery products. More honey. "Mmm, it's good," they'd say after every sample, as we walked past each stall. "It wasn't really that good," my son whispered to me, as we walked past one honey stall. "It was bitter." He is used to Cretan sweet thyme honey, so I guessed that he had just tried the pine tree honey produced in Sfakia. Despite being produced locally, the locals are not actually enamoured by it. Better sales of this product are made in Northern Greece, where thyme honey is regarded as inferior; the North is used to a bitter form of fir tree honey which is produced only every two years, in limited quantities. Greeks generally think that their local products are the best; they generally don't know each other's products at all.

Just when I was wondering where the cheese sellers were this year, we came across the first cheese stall. "Finally," said my son. He took a toothpick and picked up a tiny cube. "Delicious," he said, nodding his head, forgetting momentarily that he was supposed to be sampling the products, and not looking to satiate his desires. The word 'cheese' denotes 'hard yellow cheese' in Crete, never white cheese like feta or mizithra. (And again, in the North, 'cheese' denotes white feta, not yellow cheese, which is not common there.) We don't buy much cheese in summer, as we prefer mizithra; hard yellow cheese is too heavy in the summer (it's also twice the price of soft white cheese). Besides that, we have become cheese snobs (due to lots of travelling outside the country); local cheese producers are a little lax in their standards, and we are very picky in our tastes. The best cheese (and I mean yellow cheese) that we have tried in our life was French cheese. (As for feta, I can get very good stuff here too - I only buy certain brands or from certain producers - feta making is a little 'new' in Hania.) There is no reason for Cretan cheese not to be like French cheese - the only reason it isn't is because local cheesemakers do not make a greater effort to produce better cheese.

That was it, basically - bakery products, honey and cheese, with much fewer of the latter than in the previous year. Perhaps they were tired of handing out cheese for little return. Generally speaking, the locals have their own favorite stores and they do not change so readily. All the stall holders are either small or medium-sized businesses, mostly selling to the local market. There is little to gain from Agricultural August for most of them. Despite this, most of the stall holders that had products to sample were very generous, calling out to people to come and try their products, and always showing great compassion for the younger members of the public. The lower takings of their businesses during the crisis is their way of understanding that people no longer have it to give it - we are all in the same boat. This bears an element of responsibility in the businessman, who realises that he must approach the consumer in more realistic terms.

We came across an unusual stall selling the brightest coloured foods in the whole exhibition: green icing on cupcakes and coloured meringues on a stick, pink strawberry liqueur and coloured popcorn. The business is mainly involved in catering for events. A girl in fancy dress was selling balloons while another girl was shovelling popcorn and handing it out as a sample. "Like to try it?" she asked my daughter, who was only too happy to oblige. "Mmm, it's good," she said, and was just about to walk past the stall when the assistant said: "Wanna buy some?" She was not there just to give out samples, she was there to sell.

What is there that I could possibly need to buy from the Agricultural August stalls? My husband picks up bread from his favorite bakery, which he refuses to change. Paximadi is a nice idea, but our house is full of paximadi (I stock up when it is on sale). A beekeeper relative supplies me with honey. We have our own supplies of home-brew wine and there are plenty of bottles of raki in the house because we are given it by home brewers every year, but we are not drinkers ourselves. We buy cheese from the supermarket or the street market, mainly in winter, when we need it.

EVOO-based soaps? Sun-dried tomatoes? Locally produced soft drinks? They are all occasional purchases, and these days, you decide which one product you will buy - gone are the days when we could have everything (and not necessarily use it).

There are some novel products on the market, stuff I would really like to try, like that aloe vera juice, but price is always a consideration. Once it makes it into the regular supermarket shelves, I suppose the price will come down. I will pop into the bakery that says it makes carob-flour bread - I've always fancied the idea of my bread tasting of chocolate. And those cooked jarred farmed snails were rather tasty as a mezedaki, albeit slightly expensive. Apparently, you can add them to any of your favorite sauces - but we don't eat or cook snails in this way, and it is a rather expensive way to have snails, especially when we collected our own from our fields this year.

It was still very hot and we all felt quite uncomfortable by the end of our stroll through the trade fair. We sat at one of the empty benches, feeling rather steamy. I could tell that the kids had had their fill, and they were feeling rather turgid, both in mind and in body.

"I think this year's fair wasn't as interesting as last year's," I said. "What do you think?" The event was marketed as a way to get producers and consumers together, and it remained true to this end. It could work out more successfully for some of the stall holders than others, but there is also an element of chance involved. Rural people have different needs to those of urban people, despite eating roughly the same food; they are stimulated in different ways, and have different kinds of knowledge about natural/food products, naturally because they are more connected with them.

Take carobs for instance; we don't see them as too exotic, since we can see and touch a carob tree whenever we want - they are found in our neighborhood as well as our fields. Spoon sweets are delicious but we have a fridge full of them. We know how easy they are to make, even though we don't make the full range. Some of that cherry spoon sweet that we tried would have been nice, but we'd have scoffed that down too quickly - the bitter orange sweet would be left behind. Maybe we are tired of bitter orange sweet - oh well, have sweet fresh oranges too, plenty of those in the fields...

"I remember there were more things to try last year," my son said. "And it all looks expensive." They weren't actually that expensive to me because I could compare the prices here with what I normally pay at the supermarket (they seemed the same or just slightly cheaper here), but if you bought something for 3 euro here, and another thing for 4 euro there, and something else for 8 euro... you'd lose count of the number of euros you spent, and you'd need to rush out to an ATM to refill the purse (credit cards were not available in this open-air fair).

I did make one purchase: a large packet of novelty savoury rusks, which had been coated in olive oil and oregano. They were very fragrant, with a fresh oil smell (Cretans generally know what a rancid oil smell is like as we are very used to eating freshly pressed year-old olive oil), but they were almost like crisps. They had been made with spongy bread which had been double-baked and dried, sliced into small bits, a bit like thick 'n' chunky potato chips. I knew they would be eaten very quickly (gone by Tuesday), but I thought it would be a nice way to appease the gap between 'want' and 'need' - we didn't really have any 'need' for them, but they were being sold at a reasonable price, so we could fulfill our 'want' cheaply.

"We could make these ourselves, couldn't we, Mum?" I was surprised at how perceptive he was. Yes, indeed, all we needed was a baguette, and oven, some oil and oregano, and perhaps a little salt to make them really moreish. There are few needs that we cannot satisfy in our household - and even our wants are very relative, it seems.

We were glad to leave the exhibition because it was now stifling hot, with no respite, even by the coast, where we sat near a fenced off grassy area to have our loukoumades (these were being sold outside the stall areas). They, along with the souvlaki sellers, were making a roaring trade that night. In fact, these are the people that made the most money on that night - not the producers who were trying to introduce people to farmed snails, carob-flavoured rusks and olive oil soap bars. They may be the best products on the market, but they don't have that edge over a fragrant pork skewer and syrupy fried doughnut, which are cheap, filling and cheering.

The band at the fair had started to play Cretan music so it was getting a little too loud for us. The walk from the exhibition to the car took us through the harbour which was buzzing - and I mean literally jammed with people,  mainly tourists, as the Greeks were all at the fair. But there was no peace and quiet anywhere - it was just as noisy by the port, where a dance display could be heard across the waters on the other side.

We walked past the tangle of illegal traders all selling their home-made wares: beaded jewellery, portrait drawing, roast nuts, grilled corn - there was even a snake charmer, with what looked like a boa constrictor wrapped round her neck. Then there were the Pakistanis selling all sorts of Made-in-China gimmicks like laser torches, squishy neon toys and the like.  I've never seen the children trying to escape a walk by the harbour - they were totally put off. That's not how we like our Venetian port - we want it quiet and peaceful, so we can enjoy all the natural sights and sounds that it offers. The evening, it looked rather garish.

We took a side street and got out of the thick of the mob, walking past one full taverna after another - and more Greek music. Not the kind I listen to - the kind tourists like. Finally, Pireos St. And the car. It was a garish finish to our evening, and we couldn't wait to get home. We found the balcony breezy, the neighbourhood quiet (despite our deaf neighbour's TV being too loud again), and the house just as we had left it - waiting to welcome us back home after a tiring outing.

"Σπίτι μου, σπιτάκι μου*," my daughter said, as we soaked up the cool air of the evening while sitting on the balcony. Urban life is OK, but rural life is OKer. At such times, this is confirmed.

*Σπίτι μου, σπιτάκι μου - 'My home, my little home' = Home, sweet home.

It goes without saying that we have enough food to eat, and even if we did have to buy everything we ate, then I'd place a bet that we would have found legal ways to get as much as we could for free without resorting to Χρυσή Αυγή handouts. Dickensian Crete is simply a miscollocation. 

©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, 30 July 2013

Bitter orange (Νεραντζάκι)

What does the Greek economic crisis taste of? One of the projects at the 2nd Symposium of Greek Gastronomy that greatly touched my heart was that of the bitter orange art project by Ino Varvariti and Persefoni Myrtsou. They harvested the well known bitter oranges in December 2012, January 2013 and March 2013 from the trees that line the roads of the largest cities of Greece, Athens and Thessaloniki, as a way to identify the taste of the crisis. Bitter orange trees are very hardy trees, and they make a spectacular sight throughout the period when the dark green foliage stands as a stunning background to the bright orange fruit that it is laden with.
Bitter orange trees in Syntagma Square

Bitter orange trees in an inner-city Athens street.
These bitter orange trees are used purely for decoration, as their fruit is too bitter to be eaten raw. They can survive in cold/low temperatures where sweet orange trees do not grow, even in highly urbanised settings. When they are in flower, they mask the polluted air of the city with the sweet smell of their blossom; when the oranges take on their bright colour, they look similar to a Christmas tree. Christmas is when they look their best.
"Their strength against harsh weather conditions and sicknesses, their fragrant flowers and their beautiful fruits, are some of the reasons why these trees are often planted in the urban centres of Greece in order to embellish the urban spaces. However, these 'urban' bitter oranges are rarely harvested by the citizens, due to the polluted environment of the cities and due to the fact that the origin of food is usually connected to its production in the rural space."
I thought that the historical centre's taste of bitter orange was a little more bitter than Syntagma's taste. By trying the different varieites, you are able to understand the effects of the crisis in each area through the bitterness of each variety. 
But the fruit of these trees, despite being too bitter to eat raw, can be used in a number of ways:
"After a certain procedure and with the addition of sugar, it is often used for the making of marmalades and sweets. Also, the leaves, the flowers and the skin, due to their fragrance are used for the making of confectioneries, in alcoholic beverages and in aromatology."
In Crete, the juice of the bitter orange can be used to flavour dishes or to marinate meat and fish, in the same way as lemons. Bitter orange juice is also used as a curing treatment and preservation for olives. The peel of the fruit can be dried and candied, to be used as dried fruit in sweets, pies, savouries and salads. But most of the time, the peel is turned into a typical Greek dessert known as the γλυκό του κουταλιού, the spoon sweet, where an array of bitter or under-ripe fruits are turned into a syrupy dessert.
Bitter orange spoon sweet is typically served in Greece as a refreshment with a glass of water, sometimes together with black coffee. This is considered a special treat for guests to one's home. Therefore, it serves as a medium for discussion
The harvest points of Persefoni's and Ino's bitter orange spoon sweet were some well known spots in central streets running through Athens. Most of these areas carry some emotional weight in the minds of all Greeks:
"The selected urban areas (around Syntagma Square, the historical centre and Kypseli in Athens; Agiou Mina, Vassileos Irakleiou, Proxenou Koromila and Mitropoleos streets, as well as the “Upper” town in Thessaloniki) are spaces registered in the personal and collective subconscious as agents of historical memory, but they also remain alive parts of the cities in the present. Now the marks of the economic crisis are visible in these spaces."
So Ino's and Persefoni's bitter orange, harvested from the urban areas of Greece most heavily bruised by the economic crisis, takes on a symbolic social character:
"The spoon-sweet still maintains this [hospitality] attribute, and thus becomes the point of departure for the creation of new associations and construction of new meanings. Furthermore, it enables an open dialogue and exchange of ideas in relation to the crisis in Greece."
By turning the urban bitter orange into spoon sweet and serving it in the village of Amari, Persefoni and Ino brought the taste of the crisis to the Symposium and to the village of Amari. It had also previsouly travelled to Berlin, as part of the exhibition “Domestic crisis” at the Institut für alles Mögliche. There, the audience, being predominantly German, had to be shown how to eat the bitter orange spoon sweet, because, being German, they were not familiar with this tradition, unlike at Amari, where the bitter orange was more well known to the participants and the subtle differences in taste among the different areas where the fruit was harvested (they were all prepared separately) could be appreciated.

The bitter orange spoon sweet project was directly associated with the economic crisis, as was my own presentation (Greek food, Greek identity and the economic crisis). If I lived in the middle of the crisis-ridden neighbourhoods where the bitter oranges were harvested, I would probably be the first to use them. Therefore, I can relate to Persefoni's and Ino's urban bitter orange spoon sweet - it's all part of the frugal food lifestyle that the crisis has forced us to adopt.

All the photos (except the first two) come from the artists' personal archive. The photos of the bitter orange trees in urban Athens have been taken from the blogs credited to them below each photo. The italicised paragraphs come from Persefoni's and Ino's exhibition work.

©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, 29 July 2013

New Greek food

The Greeks of today eat a great variety of food. They like their region's traditional products, as they have grown up with them, and have heard a lot about them from the home environment. But they also like their national products because these products link them together as Greeks.

In many parts of the country, there is a resurgence of interest in the region's food of the past, not because people are going hungry or they can't afford to buy food, nor is it because these things are cheaper (most of the time, they are not) or they drop off trees so to speak. These days, there is a growing interest to use the great variety of local products of each different Greek region, as a way of adding value to existing products, or creating something new.

In many ways, we could say that this interest is crisis-born, and in many ways, indeed it is. But if we were to say that they Greek economic crisis erupted in later 2009, then this interest in regional natural products is actually quite a bit older. It was actually the post-2004 Olympics recession that provided the impetus to most of these novel ventures. In other words, the crisis was foreseen.

Evening snack: novelty flavoured locally-produced paximadi with olive oil and oregano, cheese from Limnos (which you couldn't in Cretan supermarkets until only just recently), and home-made natural carob drink, a popular drink in Cretan people's darker past, which remained popular until at least the end of the 70s when fizzy drinks (also local ones) became very widespread. Over the 80s, it became scarce and people didn't search it out, so it stopped being made. By the 90s, it was dead and gone. The idea of using carob in daily food including bread has become popular only since the last 3-4 years; in other words, the resurgence in interest is crisis-related.
At the same time, it remains to be seen what will become of these new products, often cited as 'superfoods'. In some cases, the Greeks themselves are reluctant to adopt them into their own food regimes; in many cases, the prices are actually somewhat prohibitive to do this. The real test is to get them on the international market - that's where the money is. So eventually, the Greeks will be selling food products that they don't actually eat. It sounds crazy, but that is the truth about Greek cuisine: it's a totally different concept when comparing Greece and abroad. 

©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, 28 July 2013

The good life (Η καλή ζωή)

The BBC4 Food Programme on Frugal Food is to be aired today (12.32 GMT, 14.32 Greek time), for which I was recently interviewed. I'm not quite sure how it will use the ideas that came up in the discussion, as I notice that the web page does not link to my blog, only to the other (UK) bloggers who were also interviewed for the same programme (see comment). We shall find out soon enough...

If I were to pick one photograph from my vast collection (due to my blogging) that summarises the economic crisis, in food terms and on a personal basis, it would be this one:
The wood-fired heater would never have come into our home if the Greek recession had not turned into an economic crisis. As soon as we installed it in December 2011, we stopped pushing a button to heat the house, and got used to hoarding wood and fire starter material, carrying logs up one floor, clearing the ashes from the previous evening, sweeping away the remains, building a pyramid out of branches, twigs and paper, and having everyone sitting in the same room to keep ourselves warm until it was bedtime. Eventually, as the main cook in the house, I got acquainted with the flames from the wood fire, and I knew when the embers had cooled down just enough so that I could cook a meal in the oven compartment of the heater, and I quickly learnt to synchronise my food preparation with that moment. We rarely use liquid heating fuel now, like 85% of the population in Crete (being one of the warmest regions in Greece) who have switched to another form of heating in the winter.

During the very heavy cold winter of 2011-2012, when the effects of the economic crisis and the consequences of the enforced higher taxation of Greek citizens drove families to an unprecedented form of deprivation ever seen in modern times due to a lack of cash-flow, I began a Cheap'n'Greek'n'Frugal  series of posts that featured every Friday on my blog, to highlight how I try to overcome the problem of keeping my family well fed on high quality food that costs as little as possible. 
Thoroughly sickened by the derisive treatment that Greece and the Greek people were being given by the mass media abroad, who understood very little of what was going in Greece at the time, despite Greece being in the news - and actually, the centre of it - on a daily basis, I began a 'beat the crisis' frugal food' album from June 2011 in my facebook page, featuring home-made meals that cost me very little to make, whose quality could not compare with the daily meals of people living in the so-called richer Northern European countries, as a way to remind myself that Greece was being purposely misrepresented on a global scale.

The series of Cheap'n'Greek'n'Frugal posts began in January 2012 and ended in June 2012. This should not be viewed as a complete coincidence - our summer garden then started to provide us with so much food after that, that my (still cheap 'n' Greek 'n' frugal) food lost its economical appearance. But that is the advantage of living in a rural environment. Frugal living does not mean you live in a hovel like a hermit - it means you search for ways to curb your costs, prioritise your needs, and stretch the resources available to you. Urban frugal living involves the same principles, but they come in a different form. The media is biased by selectively covering and emphasizing the negative welfare effects of high food prices on urban consumers, because their rural counterparts supposedly 'have' food:
"The groups who usually respond politically with strikes, protests or riots to the negative income effects of food price changes are urban consumers, not rural farmers; it is easier to mobilize the urban populations who are already concentrated in the cities." (Yuksel, H. Mass Media and Food Crisis, MAICh research currently being studied)
The photo was taken in a highly urban area of Hania in mid-March 2013. It shows what looks like a messy garden with a lemon tree in the middle. Look more closely: behind the garden is a chicken coop - the chickens are barely visible, but one is sitting on top of a rabbit pen. The area where the animals are kept will be covered by a shady leafy grapevine by the middls of summer (that's what the dry branches are: a vine about to start growing leaves). Next to the garden on the right are the remains of a wood-chopping session. The house looks unkempt and rather poorly; I believe economic migrants are living here, and not the Greek owner. But that makes no difference to what the photo depicts: it illustrates the frugal urban life in times of adversity.
But no one is self-sufficient in the world we live in. Rural consumers buy food too, while their income is generally lower than urban consumers. The media (which is generally biased to start with) prefer to cover more negative than positive news because the 'bad news hypothesis' is more catchy.

Vegan eggplant pie with home-made filo (approximate cost: 1.50 euro)
I can create virtually any meal I want at very low cost, using the resources around me.
Taiwanese dumplings with home-made filo (approximate cost: 1 euro for 12 pieces; recipe forthcoming)
It sounds really easy to be frugal, when you have your own garden, doesn't it? You grow this and that, so you cook and eat it. But few people realise how small the variety range is when you eat what you grow. In summer, for example, we grow tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, corn, beans and vlita greens (which is English are called amaranth). So those are our vegetables throughout summer - we eat from that range for approximately a quarter of the year. Since I rarely buy vegetables from the stores, that means that I am prepareing meals from a very limited range of items. To make this diet palatable, that means that I must cleverly cook these vegetables in many different ways.

That's what being frugal is all about: using the resources around you as wisely as possible. For this reason, you rarely see recipes on my blog that involved expensive unusual fruit or vegetables - it's not really a frgual way to cook. But my recipes still bring out a wide variety of food types - I just invent different ways to use the same ingredients, so that the recipes rarely resemble each other, even though they are oftne made of the same things.
Ways with zucchini: you will find them in all the above dishes - with boiled greens, as the main ingreident in burger patties, as a dip and as cupcakes. Below is the king of Cretan zucchini dishes - boureki (with potato and cheese).
Below I list some of my articles about frugal food (and by extension, frugal living) that readers may find useful, to understand my own ideas about frugal food:
  • Frugal living - take a peek inside my fridge to see what I stock
  • Price comparisons of imported and local food in Hania
  • Imam baldi - a dish I make in summer using 99% home-grown produce
  • Tomato sauce - this is prepared to last me throughout the year until the next tomato season
  • Yiros - the Greek version of a Happy Meal
  • Lentil stew - a very Greek, very frugal and very much loved meal throughout Greece
  • Some photos taken at a private subsistence farm whose owners spend little money on food, other than to buy fresh fish, bread, staples like beans, rice and pasta, sugar, salt and coffee
If I were to forecast the economic situation, I would say that for most Greeks, 2013 was not much different from 2012, and 2014 looks set to continue in the same way. I will still continue to act like an ant, hoarding for the winter. But I can still sing like a cicada, even if it means waiting to do this in the winter; at least I do not have to compete with them. Even if the situation suddenly changed and things began to look brighter, I don't think my own lifestyle will change: once you start being frugal, it's difficult to shake it off. 

©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, 27 July 2013

How to be Greek without being Greek

Free, today only, on Kindle.

Get yours now for some light summer reading.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Ethical clothing (Ηθικά ρούχα)

Three stories today about clothes. They seem to fit well together, so I didn't divide them up into tops and bottoms. See you after the weekend.

The summer dress
My whole family buys clothes from Primark which isn't regarded as a fairtrade clothing store any longer since the Bangladeshi tragedy, despite the signs around the shop that announce to customers the great care taken to ensure that the some of the poorest people in the world who are used to make the clothes are paid an adequate living wage. (They even sell argan oil-based lip block at bargain prices - not even my Moroccan students can get their hands on argan oil due to the price.) The element of fairtrade is not really regarded as an issue of great importance in Greece: it got some publicity through the famous Greek 'potato movement', where producers and consumers meet without the use of middlemen, but it does not carry its wider more international meaning.

The fashion industry is worth billions all over the western world. Just like coffee and chocolate, the people who make the products are rarely its users. Pictures of third world clothing workers show people clad in the traditional clothing of their culture, making the kind of clothing that they wouldn't wear themselves. It is not a question of whether they like the clothes they make; it is a question of the appropriateness of wearing such clothes in their culture. It is a sad fact that some of the poorest people in the world make clothes for the richest.

I liked this video showing how my husband's cotton business-style shirts are produced. The video shows slim-built men carrying bales of material , while women in traditional clothing (even when wearing uniforms) are seen folding and packing the shirts. The video aims to inform us about the improved social status of these women in their own environment, through education on health and hygiene practices. Yet they continue to live at the mercy of their direct (ie local) employers, not necessarily their indirect employers (ie businesses like Primark). 

I've made a conscious choice to shop at Primark whenever we're in London because cheap clothing choices in my hometown are very limited, and I would still be supporting sweatshop alternatives, in the form of the infamous κινέζικαThe difference in quality between κινέζικα and Primark is huge: κινέζικα are heavily laced with polyester which makes the clothes and your body stink while Primark clothing uses comfortable cotton; κινέζικα are badly made and often shapeless whereas Primark's range comes in regular European cuts; κινέζικα are based on fashionless, garish, gawdy, insipid designs unlike Primark's functional fashion for all ages, shapes and sizes; and κινέζικα are NOT as cheap as Primark. Even the labels at κινέζικα are fake (they often say "Made in Italy"). Against Primark, I would cite the low quality of the sewing at the seams - sometimes they tear in children's clothing, which I then sew up myself. But this is a small price to pay for cheap clothing that will last a long time. Especially in Greece these days, we care much more about the relationship between price and quality rather than the ethical nature of what we are eating or wearing.

I'm not suggesting that what goes over your body should not be given the same attention as what goes into your body. That's why I (try to) avoid κινέζικα as they are not environmentally friendly. Greek-made clothes still cost too much during a crisis period. We like to try clothes on before buying, making online clothing purchases uncomfortable. Even Hania's Marks and Spencers branch, with its comfortable fashion for all shapes and sizes, is relatively expensive - why spend more when you can spend much less on the perfect fit? High prices for anything are unethical in times of crisis, but this certaily hasn't brought down the price of quality goods - it's pushed it up even higher.

Protesters against Primark's use of Bangladeshi workers claim that these people are being abused by big profiteers. It's not who makes my clothes that I find outrageous in the world of fashion: I believe the problem lies in the way fashion is viewed by the citizens of the first world. Fashion is very much like a takeaway. It's a temporary on-the-spot solution to a problem. We aren't happy wearing comfortable clothes - they have to be brand-labelled and cut in the latest style. What is fashionable one year is unfashionable the next - or is it?

Last year in April, I bought a light sleeveless summer floral dress from Primark, costing just 12 pounds. The same dress quality could not be found anywhere near my hometown. This dress is most appropriately worn in my climate, not the one it was being sold in. In fact, there would not have been any occasion to wear this dress in England because of the extremely bad weather the UK experienced last year. The last time I had bought some (Made-in-India) cotton dresses in Hania, they cost 20 euro each, bought from a tourist shop. I am sure they could have been sold more cheaply. Not only that, but they they were not the best fits, and the material was not the best quality either, but I made do with them because there really was little choice available. After a couple of years of being constantly washed throughout the summer season, they are now on their last legs. But the Primark dress continues to do its job, despite being worn and washed quite a few times.
So, which is which?
Last weekend, I went in search of a new functional cotton dress to replace my dead ones, so I can have two dresses that I can wear interchangeably throughout the summer to the office. Sounds boring, but it's quite practical: in a Greek summer, clothes need to be refreshed in a light wash, and they dry fast outdoors. Marks and Spencer was my first choice (there is good reason for this). To my surprise, I found exactly the same dress pattern there as I did in Primark last year! But not at the same price of course - the M&S one cost 45 euro. But those two dresses are exactly the same, only in a different colour.

A quick internet search revealed the craziness of the fashion world: last year's Primark dress is now selling this year on eBay at various prices (all in pounds): 23.99 (5.99 P&P), 17.508.00 and 2.00 (on auction). Some of those dresses still have the price tag on them! (I haven't found the Marks and Spencers version on eBay yet.) They are being used as an investment, like property. It's just another case of first-world bubble wealth being built on third-world manpower. The people making this cheap fashion have no idea of how their labour is being exploited. They are doing this work to keep food ont heir table and send their kids to school; they have no idea of who the final-end customers of their products are - people who try to create an image surrounding these clothes based on thin air.

The truth of the matter is that no cheap fashion is really ethical. Worse still, all our rubbish is floggable.

©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.

The jeans genie
I wear jeans throughout the year except in the hot months when it gets too sticky. I alternate between two cheaply bought pairs throughout the season. While one pair is being worn, the other is being washed. Eventually, the denim wears thin at the usual places (bum and crotch). Jeans have a functional nature for me; I buy them for comfort, not fashion, and we can wear jeans in most contexts in Crete.

I know my size and fit at Primark, so I can go directly to their jeans counter and find exactly what I want very fast. Most of the men who shop there seem to do that - they go directly to the assistants' station, ask to try on a shirt in their size, then go to the display shelves to pick up the size that suited them. What a shame they don't do online sales (and even if they did, they probably don't sell to Greece) - this doesn't surprise me, since they are doing very well with physical stores; they sell so cheaply that not even the bad weather cited by UK financial analysts as a deterrent to shopping stops people (mainly women) from pouring into their stores (it was snowing when I last went, but the store was full). Shopping online for clothes only works when you buy standard items, as long as you are aware of any changes in body size, making women's fashion not really the best thing to buy online.

Last year, I bought two pairs of jeans from Primark in the style of bootcut and boyfriend, so I knew straight away what to choose; it's the best way to go shopping if you don't really like shopping for clothes. You can get out of the shop more quickly, before the fashion victims who come in trawling pushchairs and howling babies.

I didn't manage to wear the bootcut this year, only the boyfriend, which I alternated with an older pair of jeans. When the boyfriend jeans began to look a little tatty, I waited till my London mini-break to replace it. I went to the closest Primark within walking distance to where we were staying. The store was empty - we had gone early on purpose; when Primark starts to fill up (and it did, despite the snow, like all cheap fashion stores do), you can't get to a dressing room easily.
Cheap clothing stores have streamlined clothes shopping; I don't have to waste time finding functional clothes.
This time, I found lots of plain bootcut jeans on the racks, but no plain boyfriend jeans. I couldn't be tempted into buying one with lots of fashionable tears in it - it felt a little teeny-bopperish, despite being available in large sizes. I chose a bootcut pair, just as I had picked through the last rack of jeans, when I came across a plain boyfriend pair, what seemed to be the last one of its kind int he store - and it was in my size! I took both to the dressing room to try them on. Perfect fits again; the boyfriend jeans in particular had a soft feel to them and felt like a second skin. Should I buy them both, I wondered. I only needed one pair...

"Oh, what the hell, they're only 10 pounds each," my generous husband said, "buy them both".

Clothing isn't the same as food. You can buy the clothes you need once or twice a year to replace old worn out clothes; but you cannot buy food just once or twice a year, except if you plan to survive on canned and dry goods. Even if you did intend to eat just that, you would still need to spend a lot more money than the 100 or so euros you need to buy shoes and clothes to last you at least a year, and possibly even longer if you take care of them.

So I took them to the counter, together with my husband's choices of 2 pairs of jeans (8 pounds each) and 2 shirts (4 pounds each). The assistant passed everything through, except the boyfriend jeans. The price tag seemed to be missing. She called someone to find the missing barcode, but had no luck. So she called the manager (this was now getting very technical), who checked the jeans inside out before pulling her aside so we couldn't see their faces when he whispered something to her.

"Sorry about that," she said when she returned to the counter, "but we can't sell this pair of jeans to you." I asked for an explanation - the story is bound to be an interesting one - and she was very kind to give it to me: the jeans had not only been worn before ("see the fluff balls on the inside pocket?"), but they had even been washed ("the inside pockets should be white, not pale blue"), which explained the perfect fit that I had felt when trying them on. The previous owner had obviously got tired of them and felt like something new; she probably switched the labels very carefully. You'd need some technical knowledge to go that far without being caught by the scrutinising eyes of the assistant at the entrance to the changing room to do that - unless it was an inside job. And all that fuss for a pair of 10-pound jeans, when you already owned a pair!

I felt kind of relieved that I didn't end up buying the second pair of jeans after all, since I didn't need it in the first place. If Primark were a pizza parlour, and a mistake had been made with an order, they would have given it away to the customer, so itdid make me wonder what happened to that pair of unsellable jeans. Possibly, it went to charity. Even though it sometimes feels like I'm wearing a McDonalds burger, I'm sticking to Primark clothing for the time being. At least I know I'm wearing cotton, in a similar way to knowing what I am eating. It isn't always ethical, but I'll let Primark figure out how to deal ethically with the poorest of the poor that it employs to make their products.

©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.

Happy Shoes
My husband only noticed the only pair of shoes I had carried with me (the ones I was wearing) on our trip to London when we were on the plane.

"Are you nuts?" he said. "The rain will soak through the soles!"

I knew it wouldn't, but I also knew that the shoes I was wearing looked inappropriate for the wet-weather walking we intended to do in London. My shoes were bought at a κινέζικα store in Hania. They reminded me of the style I used to like wearing when I was very young, a style known among my girlfriends as Happy Shoes. They were definitely Chinese in origin, as they looked similar to the ones that Chinese women worre during Mao Tse Tsung's rule. I wore these shoes with the specific intention of leaving them behind after I bought a new pair of decent walking shoes in London. My happy Shoes were rather old and slightly worn in the inside sole, but I wasn't quite ready to discard them.

I came across the shoes I wanted quite by accident, while my husband was trying on some clothes in Primark, except that they weren't for sale. They were being worn by the shop assistant who was guarding the fitting rooms. How do you ask a Brit where they got their shoes from? I wondered. I decided to memorise the shoe and see if I could find anything similar in the shop windows we passed: sporty-style, thick rubber sole, criss-cross straps on the top, round toe... For someone who knows little about fashion, I really had no idea where ot look first. So I finally plucked up the courage to ask the shop assistant about them.

Happy Shoes are very cheap, they go with almost everything, and they are still being sold in Greece.
On my visit to Primark, I was wearing the black pair with the rose design.
"Oh, these are Skechers," she explained, "I bought them online." The name was not familiar to me, but as soon as I heard that they had a name, I realised that we were talking about a brand. Brands scare me: they sell an image more than a functional product.

"I love your shoes too," the girls said. "I used to wear them when I was at school. Did you get your shoes from the internet?" I was surprised to hear this about my super cheap Happy Shoes. I thought no one would remember this style of shoes in modern life. It sounded like a cheap joke about my cheap shoes! I explained to her the kind of store I bought them from, as such stores do not exist in London. Κινέζικα exist in Greece as an outcome of the crisis, although they were establishing themselves before the crisis broke out. In my opinion, they were a sign of impending disaster; their way of working, their main customers, and the fact that Chinese migrants were coming to Greece not to establish themselves in the food industry as they do in Northern Europe, but to sell cheap throwaway trash were all signals to the build-up of the crisis. Sometimes, it's the only place where people can afford to shop from. They are garish gaudy stores in most cases, although I have seen a slight improvement lately, as people become more perceptive and develop the ability to see through sham deals. But they still sell relatively cheaply, and the κινέζικα in Hania continue to do a good trade, even with our tourists.

The young lady told me that the Happy Shoes style was her favorite  when she was young (she still was, actually), and seeing mine bought back nice memories. No wonder I liked her shoes - the designs of both the Skechers she was wearing and my Happy Shoes were very similar (but hers looked more comfortable, and certainly more appropriate for walking around in wet and snowy London).

Naturally, after hearing this, I took my Happy Shoes back home with me. They are old, but they are still wearable. I reckon I can make one more trip to London with them before I toss them away, and start wearing my new Happy Shoes, which I'm afraid to say are more conventional looking than my old ones - they were being sold at the supermarket, according to their own standards. They are not the same as my original pair - they basically don't have the sentimental appeal that my old Happy Shoes have - but they do the same job: cheap functional shoes for cold weather, with a sole thick enough to prevent water passing through them.

©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, 25 July 2013


For such a simple country lifestyle centred around an office job, routine chores, home cooking, a garden, and now that it's summer, an hour or two spent at the beach every now and then, my daily life has suddenly become - but probably always has been, as I now realise how subconsciously unaware of the reality of my life I may have been - too complex to note everything down that is of interest to write about in a post. Sadly, I am quite a few posts behind in my life (for a long-time experienced blogger, this is a novelty for me), and if it weren't for my habit of taking photos that remind me of a moment when a picture could say 1000 words, I would probably forget them all with the passing of time. For this reason, I don't want to dwell too much on the past - there are records of that which can be used for historical purposes; I would prefer to deal with the future time from where I find myself at this moment.
This amazing urban garden conceals a story of great personal effort.
I will admit to one thing about my writing, and that is that I rarely rely on sources other than my own personal experiences and photos. My photos are here and there, clicked, stored, re-stored, uploaded and blogged about, so at the moment, I do not have any fear of losing my memories. Apart from mainstream Greek/English newspapers and the occasional article from my Facebook newsfeed (I don't actually 'do' Twitter), I read little else on the web. I do not regret admitting that I do not read other blogs: I would be too easily influenced by other bloggers' work, which would mar the originality of my own work. So the inspiration for my posts comes from within me as much as possible. I like that - it's what gives my work some edge.

Through typed Skype messages, my kids cooked their first omelette on their own.
I generally don't do any research on myself: who is reading me, who is quoting me, who is interested in me. This worries many writers, but I have a feeling that these worries are mainly market-oriented. Since I have nothing to sell, I do not need to worry about who is copying me. I attribute this to a declining interest on my part in perpetuating any myths or creating any glorification about myself. We've seen this happen too often to people who suddenly find themselves in the midst of the public eye, and their careers fall as sharply as they rose. As a mother and family-minded person, this is quite frankly the last thing I need in our lives.

OMG & 3LOL - souvlaki bar near the Venetian harbour
So it was a pleasant surprise to be interviewed by the BBC4 radio Food Programme which has prepared a show on Frugal Food, to be aired this weekend. The frugal life is suddenly arousing some interest among the wider public. I was informed that I was the only non-British food blogger to be interviewed, as a kind of exception was made given that I was living in a country that is going though severe economic austerity. From a recent article in the Food section of the Guardian, I also notice that one of the food bloggers (Jack Munroe) whose writing did actually interest me enough to follow her blog was also interviewed for the same show, which gives me some satisfaction, as if I have carved some kind of niche for myself.  Both our blogs are seen as controversial for the simple reason that we, from different ends of Europe (Greece vs England), living in different environments (rural vs urban), are telling the world that we can do it. By showcasing frugality, we become the butt of all prejudiced jokes: people consider us misguided and untruthful, judging from the comments on the mainstream media whenever Jack Munroe's frugal lifestyle come up in the news. Damn us then: I've decided that there is no point preaching to the unconverted. For this reason, I support private individual cases rather than public collective efforts, where I have more control over how I can help.

My turn to speak at the Symposium
While I was at Amari for the 2nd Symposium on Greek Gastronomy on Food, Identity and Memories in Greece and the Diaspora, I was in for another surprise. When I arrived, I was told that two people had been looking for me since the previous day - the first day of the Symposium - as I could only attend one day. (What a shame, since I missed out on the discussion about Greek cuisine as a part of cosmopolitan cuisine in food compaigns of Lidl supermarkets in Poland, which falls within my interests.) The two people who were seeking me out were speaking in the session scheduled right after my own. Their papers dealt with diaspora identity issues. I had spoken about Greek Cuisine, Greek identity and the economic crisis just before these two people, who referenced me in their own presentations.
Poster presentation of Greek cuisine food campaigns by LIDL supermarkets in Poland (Magdalena Serafin)
Marina Fraggou dealt with Gastronomic identity as expressed in the arts (novels and films) in the Greek diaspora. Through very interesting journeys in different lands where Greeks have migrated and congregated both in past and present times, she showed how the food of the diaspora can differ as much as the range of immigrants (for trade, for a better life, or as victims) that the Greeks represent. She finished off with a slide showcasing my blog's motto: Linking Greek food with Greek identity: you eat what you are (or who you want to be). Right after her presentation, Gail Pittaway - who just happened to be a teacher at my high school at the same time that I was a student there! - talked about the Greek food writers of New Zealand in A Greek culinary Odyssey to New Zealand, the furthest shore. She used my previous work, written in New Zealand, Stories of Greek Journeys (referenced in Wikipedia). Neither researcher realised that I would be at the Symposium, so it was a surprise for them to meet me, as it was for me to hear that I was being referenced in this way.
The Agricultural August exhibition is set to start tomorrow.
All in all, it has been a very busy month of July this year, and it is not over yet - there is still a week to go, which signals the beginning of the Agricultural August festivities in Hania, an event that my institute takes part in annually and concerns all the staff. This was the first year that this event has gone abroad (it was in Germany last week).
Lentil stew is one of the most frugal but also the most enjoyable Greek meals you can cook - every Greek has a favorite φακές recipe, usually based on the way their mothers made it in their home. 
August is already weighing heavily on me, as I think of our regular line-up of Cretan diaspora visitors and friends. 2013 may be viewed as a horrible year for Greece, but my successes cannot be viewed as random snatch-and-grab chances for a moment of 15 minutes worth of fame. There must have been something about 2013 that made it a good year too - perhaps those who think that it was a bad year are the kind of people who always see the glass half empty rather than half full: the middle is a hard slog.

The photos are all random shots from this month so far.

©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, 24 July 2013

Amari - a Cretan Odyssey (Αμάρι)

The 2nd Symposium of Greek Gastronomy took place in the mountain hamlet of Amari, in the prefecture of Rethimno. I had heard so much about the Amari Valley, that it was one of the most beautiful and most unique areas in the whole of Crete; I live in what I would characterise as a beautiful area myself, so I felt that the opportunity given to me to go to Amari was a purposeful one - Amari is a place that would never have crossed my mind to visit unless there was a good reason to go there.

It looked quite easy on the map to get to Amari, although there seemed to be a number of roads that left to Amari. I chose what seemed like the shortest route. I never carry paper maps with me these days when I am driving through the island, since Google's maps are readily accessible on a mobile phone. Phone signals are usually quite strong, and most roads are well signposted.

The Google directions stated that the approximate time needed for this 92km drive was 1h and 38 minutes - it takes me just 5-10 minutes more to drive 138km to Iraklio (albeit on a straight road). Having never been to Amari before, I couldn't argue. I began my journey just before 7am on Sunday morning on the National Road, which is a clean wide motorway basically running the length of the island. 

At the point where I was supposed to turn off the motorway (just past the town of Rethimno), I found myself in what looked like a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam during the rush hour. Alas, there were roadworks, resulting in all sorts of diversions, which means that everything had been turned topsy turvy: the road lost its clean tidy look, it became precariously narrow, it stopped looking familiar, and worst of all, the signage was either seriously lacking, or it had been replaced by temporary signs which pointed to what looked like snail-like pathways leading off into dark unexplored territory.
As I was trying to keep my wits about me, and looking out for these temp signs, I suddenly saw the classic Greek blue road sign with the yellow writing, that I had been looking out for: AMARI--> But I was too late: I had practically driven right past the sign. So I just turned off at the next road which was unmarked and hoped that I would eventually find the right road. SO close and so far away...

The unknown path led me to what sounded like Platanias, a suburb near the town of Rethimno, where a taxi driver was dusting down his cab. Taxi drivers know everything most things, so I stopped in the middle of the road and got some directions, which sounded like turn left, Prasies, keep going, pass the gas stations, Prasies, go over the bridge, turn here, Prasies, then there Prasies, and don't worry, Prasies, it's all signposted, the last of which I did not believe. Yes, there were signs all over the place, but none mentioned Amari. For such a prominently displayed sign at the motorway exit, how on earth did Amari disappear from the map?
Very old stone wall - xerolithia - on the road to Amari
Prasies turned out to bear some significance after all, since there was indeed a sign directing people to Prasies, so I just turned into it. At any rate, there was no sign directing anyone to Amari, only to Prasies. It seemed like you would only be allowed to go to Amari if you went first to Prasies, as if you had to pay some kind of dues.

I remembered the name of the village Prasies from another drive through the prefecture of Rethimno. I had actually been close to Amari in the not too distant past. When the Fragma (an artificial lake) opened, we visited the area during the spring. It was one of the widest most empty spaces that I had ever visited in Crete. Very beautiful... yes, but very unique? No, not really, I had seen many places like this in other parts of Greece (as well as Hania, which is about to get its own artificial lake soon, in the Vatolakkos area). There was only one taverna in the area, where we sat after our visit.

Approaching the lake district, I noticed that the sole taverna where we had eaten was now also a 'zoo', a 'bird park' and a 'children's multi-space area'. Wherever there is a sight worth seeing in Greece, a taverna or cafe or bar or shop - any kind of money spinner - sprouts up out of nowhere, and some of those business seeds had been sown in the area. The taverna did not remind me of the traditional low-key eaterie we had visited over two years ago, and of course, it looked overly garish, as most hyped-up businesses in the middle of nowhere usually do; this is the only way that the locals know about how to get noticed.
One of the sprouting cafes I passed on my most recent trip through the Amari valley.
But who on earth would notice this place anyway, I wondered, as there were hardly any cars on the road from the moment I left the Rethimno area. Western Crete is known for its relatively high levels of sun-sea-sand tourism, but agro-tourism - while highly popular - is still struggling to work out its customer base. For people to come off the beaten track and get onto one which isn't very well signposted would be asking too much for the average tourist - they would need to be enticed here in more conventional ways. Passing trade here could only be described as a miracle waiting to happen: most of those businesses were built for exactly that, a snatch and grab chance to make a quick buck, and then, it's over.

While I was thinking that I was in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do or see except gorges, mountains and fields, the road narrowed suddenly, as a sign indicated just before I arrived here. I caught sight of a bridge of some sort. But what a bridge! It was built by the Venetians, and looked just like it belonged somewhere in the Italian countryside. Could I be in Tuscany right now, and not Crete? There was hardly any place to park on the edge of the road (you would still be in the middle of it), so I just carried on driving and didn't look back, just in case my curiosity turned me into a pillar of salt. I could feel myself running late already.
Part of the meal we had at the Fragma taverna in spring 2011.
The sight of that taverna (despite having morphed into a kids' zone) gave me a false sense of security, as I felt that I was on familiar territory, and I could feel Amari within my reach. But no sooner had I passed the taverna, that I came across a fork in the road that confused the living daylight out of me. And again, no signs. I felt lost, in the middle of nowhere, with no signs of any human being in sight, only a huge flock of sheep, some of the dumbest creatures I have come across in a long time. On hearing the car approaching, they looked up and stared at me before looking in front of them to see where all the other sheep were going. Then they followed them silently, each slow one by the other slow one, until, after what seemed like a lifetime, they had all moved off the road and let me pass.
A hotel in the middle of nowhere, swimming pool included!
I was going to stop anyway, to decide which road I would take, when along came a pick-up truck from the left tine of the fork which looked rather narrow, was down hill and led to what seemed like something dark and hidden. I was on the right tine. The driver of the truck gave me a long hard stare, which I later realised was common among the older locals in the area. They see more animals on most days than they do humans, so my appearance at that moment was somewhat of an oddity. He could tell I wasn't from his parts. Before I was about to ask him which road to take, he bet me to it and  asked me where I wanted to go. "Down here," he indicated to the road he had just sprouted from, "for the Fragma." In my misfortune of not really knowing where I was going, I was lucky to find this critter; for sure, I would have taken the other road which was wider and brighter, with a view of the open sky.
To arrive up here, you come from a road on much lower ground, a sign that you are entering a valley area.
As I made my way along the dark and windy roads, I wondered where the lake, which was built in a former valley, would appear. After what seemed like perpetual darkness on unnamed territory, I found myself driving onto an unkempt narrow road, which abruptly became just wide enough for one car to pass. Interestingly, that was signposted. What I was just about to pass over was a steep stretch of road, at the top of which appeared a dazzlingly blue shiny lake. It was the one place I felt like stopping at throughout the journey so far. Who wouldn't be tempted to stop here, lured by the sapphire colour of the waters. I continued driving, in search of my final destination, because I could not afford to lose time on the road. The Symposium started at 9am, and I was speaking at 10.30 - it was already 8.15 when I arrived at the lake.
The lake is directly in front of this sign - Amari is only 11 kilometres away from this point.
The driving was not so difficult now since there was only one road to take, with the lake beside me. I remembered the map: Amari can't be far away now, I thought to myself. Just keep on the road and drive directly, without turning off the the road... it must be somewhere here, despite the lack of signage. And all of a sudden, once again, I had a deja vu moment as I came across a junction which I remembered as the place where we had stopped the car to enjoy the lake views. I remembered this crossroad from the sign - but Amari was not listed and there was absolutely nothing in the area that would be able to tell me which road to take.

Just as I was wondering if I should continue along the lakeside, or take the road leading away from the lake, into the mountains, another car pulled up out of nowhere, laden with people. A papou was driving, with a yiayia next to him who was holding a toddler on her lap. The were two more children in the back seat, along with two young adults.
I think this is Amari village, viewed from the opposite hillside
"Where would you like to go to, young lady?" the papou asked me. "Pantanassa?" Pantanassa is a monastery, in a most fitting location. They were dressed in their Sunday best, so they were obviously going for the Sunday service.

"I want to go to Amari," I told them. The papou explained that I could take either road to get there, as if all roads here lead to Rome. The lakeside road was in a bad condition but it was the shorter of the two routes (9km away), while the higher road was longer (11km) but in a better condition.

"If you want, you can follow us," he said. "We're going to Panatanassa, and you can continue on to Apostoloi." No mention was made of Amari! But I felt safer this way, so naturally I followed him. The road would up and down again, as I drove through what felt like a gorge running through the mountains. Just before the church, I passed what looked like the entrance (or was it the exit?) to the famous St Antonios gorge, a place lush in greenery, with a cave in its midst which has been turned into a church. More temptations for me, that I would have to leave for a next time, although I could not imagine when that next time would come for me.

Amari village, view from the school
Just before the family turned off for Pantanassa, they showed me the road for Amari. "Would you like to come to the church before you go to Amari?" the yiayia asked me. "It's very beautiful. You can light a candle and kiss the icon before you continue to Amari." Not being particularly religious, I found it easy to say not to that one.

I couldn't be far away now, only perhaps another 4, 5, 6 or so kilometres... And still no sign of a sign for Amari, only for Apostoloi. And no wonder: when I reached Apostoloi, I found a village buzzing with life. The cafes were full of people enjoying the cool mountain air on this hot day in July - in fact, the whole area felt cool. Tucked away in the middle of the mountains and gorges and fields and narrow roads, in the midst of olive groves and grapevines, I found myself wanting to stop at the cafe and find out how long these people had been living here. There were people of all ages, including young children, both men and women. So have you felt the effects of the economic crisis? How often do you leave the village? What do you cook on a daily basis? Do you know how to get to Rethimno? This isolated community could not possibly have seen any homelessness, poverty or hunger near them, nor do they look as though they are about to migrate at any point in the near future. They've been here for pretty much ever, and that is the way it will probably stay.
Amari vilage, the kafeneio
Only five or so kilometres to go, and I encounter another fork on the road! To take the right fork this time, I turned back to the village I had just passed and asked someone, as it was unlikely that anyone would appear from here on to lead me to Amari. They directed me to take the lower road for the village Sxoli Asomaton, which would lead me to Amari. And still no sign whatsoever. I suppose no one needed a sign at this point to got to Amari. Who would come here anyway, except someone who already knows the place?  On my part, I was beginning to get tired of all this chasing up Amari. What will I find there once I get there?
Amari village, the school
And finally, a sign: AMARI--> 2 So I was only two kilometres away... I entered the village just before 9am, where I found myself directly in front of the village square. There was enough space for me to conveniently park my car. On the left was the former village school, a well-maintained building which also had a kitchen attached to it, a symbol of the importance of the village in former times. All roads led eventually to Amari. I later found out that most of my colleagues ended up arriving 2 1/2 hours after they started from Hania because they got much more lost than myself - for me to make it in less than 2 hours meant that I had done very well!

I had an old-fashioned biral (a fizzy drink popular in Crete, tasting kind of like Coca-Cola), made form Mt Ida water. Mt Ida is better know to us as Psiloritis, where it is said that Zeus, the king of the gods was born.
On that day, I did not get further than that village square. I had found Amari, and for me, that was enough for the time being. While I sorted out the business I had to attend to in Amari, my mind was on the return journey; I thought I had an idea of the temptations it had to offer, but I was wrong. On leaving the village, I relaised I had taken a different exit. A tiny tanned man was standing on the roadside, showing his crooked teeth, and wearing clothes that looked as though they were very old but had never been dirtied enough to need washing.

"Am I going OK for Rethmino?" I asked him.

"Sure," he said "you'll reach the village of Spili in a quarter of an hour from here."

Spili? I had visited that years ago, but I had not passed it this time round! My Odysseyan journey would not finish until I had arrived home. The next time I go to Amari, I will make sure to take a different route.

©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.