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Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Greek tourism boon

Finally, the end of August has arrived. It was a long month in Crete for most of the residents, because it was very hot and very busy, with tourists weighing down the island. As the high summer season comes to an end (and the low season starts, which is at least two more months here in Crete), it's time to reflect on that great Greek success story of this past year: tourism.

Tourism in Greece has always been a major economic force, and this is unlikely to change in the future. Its role in the economy cannot be underestimated: Tourism composes 16.3% of the GDP of Greece, and it employs 1 million people, providing 20% of the jobs in Greece. So the tourism sector should not be treated lightly.

Breaking records
In the last two years, tourism to Greece has seen an unprecedented rise: more than 20 million visitors have passed through Greece so far this year, breaking all the Greek records from previous years, bringing in revenue of approximately €12 billion euro. At the same time, Greece has been struggling with economic depression in the last 6 years, and a very negative global image. 2013 was a landmark year for Greek tourism, with 18 million arrivals and 2 million cruise ship passengers making Greece their holiday destination. In 2014, revenue from tourism is expected to rise by 28% from the previous year, while arrivals to Greece had already risen by 26% until the end of March this year, and they continue to rise, with 4 months to go to the end of the year. So we really need to ask ourselves: What is it that has made Greece so popular in just the last two years? Why did tourists literally flock to Greece this year, probably making Greece the most popular summer destination? It's a question that interests me immensely, not least because I live in an area which is very touristic and the livelihood of most people invariably depends on tourism; but the welfare of my children's future also depends on this continuing success.

Stability amidst conflict
I think it's mainly got to do with stability - political stability, economic stability, stability in general. Up until 2012, the BBC and The Guardian, bastions of "impartial" news reporting, bombarded their news sites with a barrage of negative news items about Greece, culminating with the premise of the potential threats posed by Grexit (which is amusing in retrospect, given how Brexit surfaced this year). Since then, global media news reports about Greece have admittedly become quite subdued, with most economic analysts agreeing that there appears to be some kind of Grecovery taking place - quite the opposite from the doomsday predictions that were being smeared all over the web news up until just under two years ago.

We can't deny that stability has played a major role in Greece's rise in tourist arrivals, given the shocking state that her eastern and southern neighbours are in: the Arab world is embroiled in some kind of war. Arab spring broke out only a year after the Greek economic crisis, while the Ukraine Crimea crisis showed us just how far people were prepared to go to protect their sovereign rights. Iraq and Syria do not seem so far away from Greece. We've seen how Greece's neighbours express their anger over political decisions. Despite the fact that Greek politics deeply divided Greek society, Greeks didn't actively seek to exterminate each other. It is no coincidence that Greece is seen as a safe country in an area surrounded by turmoil. The internet has helped to spread the image of Greece as a safe and peace-loving nation.

If we simply stick to the premise that Greece is a safe country to travel in at a time when her part of the world is experiencing conflict, then this amounts to saying that Greece's success has rested on others' demise. Is this what has really happened? Do we really want to believe that people are coming to Greece because they can't go to other places? In other words, when stability returns in North Africa and the Middle East (and it will to a certain degree, as all crises do pass eventually), Greece will be forgotten and the true stars will shine. I find that impossible to believe. Given the rise in urban crime, notably in Athens, it can be concluded that there are safer places to go to than Greece. So there must be something else pulling people to our shores. What is that other thing? 

According to the Secretary-General for Tourism in Greece, Panos Livadas, who recently came to MAICh to give a talk to students, entitled Tourism as a Vehicle for Economic Development and Growth, the crisis provided the impetus for people to change tactics: since the beginning of 2013, there has been a shift to the use of the internet and all the new means of media in marketing Greece. So Greece has now adapted to current marketing trends, and is being marketed online through heavy use of social networks. Since was created, it has been visited by nearly 10 million people, and bureaucracy has now been decreased to a certain extent to allow the private sector to deal with tourism without too much state interference. Tourism has diversified, and there are plans to create an enriched and balanced all-year-round Greek tourism product.

An information-based world
At the same time, there has been a shift in the people who deal with tourism in Greece. Tourist businesses have learnt the value of competition, and have since become more competitive. Sometimes, it all boils down to the basics; for example, it has been noticed that more and more Greeks who deal with tourists... big breath.... smile more than they used to. (I remember the days when they did not, when you were more likely to get a hoity toity scowl ,so this tiny detail does actually mean a great change has taken place.) Not only that, but more and more of the 'right' people are involved in tourism: as the state has become more competitive to beat off our competitors, so have the people become more competitive in offering better services and setting good prices. Greece is now also making firm connections with the new markets, notably China - it's the first year there is a direct flight connecting Athens with a Chinese destination - and Brazil - a huge campaign took place during the Mundial event.

So there lies the answer: Greece has had a massive increase in tourism in the last two years because... tourists have access to more information about Greece than they ever did before and they can do their own research about Greece before deciding which destination to choose. And the information they are getting leads them to the assumption that Greece is not only safe, but it is also a very cool - and cheap! - place to go on holiday. So the answer to the question about why tourism has boomed lately in Greece was a simple one: people are better able to learn about Greece on their own.

Sustainable tourism
Another thing that Mr Livadas mentioned in his speech was the human scale of Greek tourism. This is also identified in the experiences that tourists to Greece have, and how they disseminate these experiences to others. Greece's growth in toursim is based on sustainable growth, something that can be repeated year after year, without destruction to the social fabric that Greek society is made of, and this is something that travellers want to hear, given that the modern world lays emphasis on the sustainability of the environment. In other words, don't expect Greece to create a Las Vegas style resort, or skyscraper hotels along the Greek coastlines. A lot has been said about the Greek coastline in recent times, but some things that are spreading like wildfire on the internet are not even conceivable; this rests on knowing what to believe and what not to believe on the internet, and Greece is getting better at disseminating information, and counter-reacting against negative reports.

There is of course one thing that few people can deny about Greece which attracts people to Greece as a tourism destination: Greece is a beautiful country, and Greece's beauty transcends the nature of recreation while on holiday. Greece's beauty allows Greece to serve many different segments of the tourist market. Greece offers a diverse tourist package to cater for the great variety of people that humankind manifests itself! And the vote of confidence in Greece couldn't have come at a better time for Greece than now.

Hospitality from the heart
According to Mr Livadas, what distinguishes Greece above all in the way that a Greek tourist product is presented is that Greek people offer hospitality to the tourist from the heart, not just as a product. So in Greece:

  • You can rely on the lady who said she will be waiting for you to let you into the remote hotel or villa, even when your boat or plane comes in in the wee hours of the morning. 
  • You can ask a Greek for information and they will give it to you gladly; they will not treat you like a full wallet, nor will they expect to be paid for the yielding of information. 
  • You will be remembered on your second visit by the people who you met on your first visit, and this is what will make you want to re-visit in the future. 
  • You will be invited impromptu to join into a stranger's family meal and you will be made to feel welcome - and you will probably admit that this would never take place in your homeland. 
  • You will receive food gifts from Greeks, plastics bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables thrust into your hands - and again, you will admit that this would not happen in many places anywhere else in the world.

If you have come to Crete on holiday, you must have experienced one or more of the above. It is little wonder that people who have visited Greece come back again. Greece offers a variety of landscapes to explore, it is a safe destination for families, it never gets boring, it is impressive, and above all, it is the Greek people who make your stay memorable. Greece creates that feeling in you that makes an impressionable mark on you. Greece is that thing. You leave Greece with the feeling that you have made friends here.

Cheap flights, not cheap people
A lot has also been said about cheap tourists, and cheap forms of tourism. For example, people believe that Ryanair and Easyjet, both cheap seasonal flights airlines, bring 'poor' tourists who don't spend much money in the destination. It is also believed that all-inclusive tourism doesn't leave much money either. Both these beliefs are myths; here in Hania, we have evidence to the contrary. For a start, it should be noted that only about 30% of tourists  to Greece come with all-inclusive packages than have been pre-paid in their country of origin, so they are a significantly smaller portion of Greece's tourist numbers.

For the last four years, an annual survey on tourism, organised by MAICh in conjunction with the Hania Hoteliers' Association, takes place in Hania, spanning 4000 respondents per summer season. The findings over the years give solid information about the kind of tourists that come here, and what they expect in terms of services. Scandinavians form half the tourist arrivals in Hania; in fact, they are the ones that are more likely to book an all-inclusive package. Because Crete has mild weather, the tourist season is extended here compared to the rest of Greece. Those who visit Crete earlier (ie April-May) or later (ie September-October) in the season are more likely to be high income earners in their country, with a high educational level, and a greater interest in the history and nature of the area. They are also more likely to return to Crete for another holiday here, even within the same season.

One of the most important findings to come out of the survey was a direct result of Ryanair's appearance in Hania. Ryanair uses Hania airport as a travel hub for their flights, meaning that Ryanair flies in and out of Hania to approximately 25 European destinations. Ryanair passengers were particularly targeted as the group of interest due to the nature of the airline they were using; Ryanair is known to be a 'cheap' airline. It was discovered that people using Ryanair to get to the island come from all income levels, refuting the myth that cheap seasonal charter flights bring cheap tourists. Not only that, but those who use those cheap flights are also more likely to organise their own hotel bookings, so they are more likely to be independent travellers rather than package tourists. More than 75% of those surveyed find the prices of tourist services in Hania to be very satisfactory, breaking down another myth, that tourist prices in Greece are over-priced. Generally speaking, tourists in Hania are very satisfied with the level of services catering for them. Among their complaints is the road network - they are unhappy with the state of some roads, and the lack of signage. On a positive note, they find public transport services, including both buses and taxis, to be at a high level.

The package tourist
The Greek tourist package has undergone massive changes from the early days of mass tourism to Greece. In this article, the writer remembers a time in the 1970s when the owner-operators of village kafeneia (which acted more than just as cafes: they were also the local grocers, the receptacle for post mail, and the local men's meeting point) had no idea what to charge the odd European or two who passed through their village, for what seemed to the tourists like a three-course meal, because they (the kafeneio owners) were used to serving food out of love, and not for money. The writer concludes that tourism in Crete and Greece in general has gone from «value without money» to «value for money».

As for those all-inclusive tourists - the ones that book their holiday in their own country and come to stay in a resort hotel which offers them in-house meals so that they don't need to go out and spend money at restaurants - they are highly visible in Hania because... they wear a coloured paper/plastic bracelet, a bit like those bracelets that you wear when you are hospitalized (NB: we don't wear such a bracelet in Greek hospitals). Many people have the impression that they don't spend much money in the destination because most of their expenses have been pre-paid in their own country.   

The classic sign of the all-inclusive package tourist is the 'βραχιολάκι', meaning 'bracelet' (the package toursits wear one throughout their stay, to distinguish them as paying guests and not freeloaders at resorts); all -inclusive toursits are regarded as cheap tourists whose money spent on their holiday doesn't go into Greek pockets - seriously?

My own observations make me find this difficult to believe. This photo was taken at my local beach which tourists generally don't visit because they don't know about it (it's a local's secret). It may look like they are spending money on cheap supplies, eg water, ice cream, beer, crisps, sandwiches, etc, but as I observed this particular family for about an hour, I noticed just how much they had actually spent at one little cafe at the beach. I wondered if they would do this every day on their holiday for their 5-member family (parents and 3 kids). To be honest, I am not well off enough to do this myself every time I go to the sea. But this family - I think they were Scandinavian (not German or British for sure) - would do this every time they went to the beach or sat by the hotel pool. I estimated that they had easily spent 15-20 euro on the afternoon that I saw them. I have not counted the little girl's dress, which is made of batik coloured cotton, and has a meander running around it - even if it wasn't made in Greece (I suspect India), it was bought here, not before she came to Crete! So this family was definitely pumping money into the Greek economy. Even if they pay for their holiday before arriving in Greece, everything they buy outside of the resort goes into the Greek economy, and staff at the resorts are paid salaries. It may be presumed that the beach cafe owner was not ringing up the takings on the till, so that he can cheat the taxman - but I know for a fact that this particular cafe runs up all the orders, and we are always called back to pick up the receipt when we forget to wait for it to be issued! People who make these assumptions are generally believing their own myths. Tourists are spending money for sure, and my workplace has proven this for Crete.

And here is a close-up of the activity going on in the sea while we were at the beach on the day that the Scandinavian family was there - three mini-cruise boats (I was playing with the settings of the camera, hence the pop-art and dramatic scene look of each photo) were packed with tourists sailing round the harbour. It's not locals going on these trips - it's tourists, and mainly non-Greeks tourists.

Spending power
All tourists are the same in one respect: it all depends on the size of your wallet, what you feel you can afford, and how much money you are willing to spend in order to have the kind of time you want to have. During July and August, the tavernas in the old Venetian harbour of Hania were all doing very good business from what I noticed every time I was in the area. Some were full to the brim, others were mainly full at the front tables (ie near the seafront), but all of them were doing some trade (none remained empty). Tavernas are not necessarily preferred by family tourists (it's not just Greeks minding the pennies), as they will add to the cost of a holiday. Family folk will go to the local supermarket and make up their extra meals in this way by buying bread, ham, cheese, tomatoes, crisps, beer, wine, etc. And if they really do want to try a taverna meal outside the resort, there are deals for that too, all devised by local restaurant owners who are thinking up of ways to get those small spenders into their stores. But they are still spending money in the country! Coincidentally, when we travel to London, we do something similar; we stay with friends, we bring some of our own food, we don't go out to restaurants every day we're on holiday - we know what we can afford. 

Another way I could observe how full the town was with tourists this year was when I was standing at the traffic lights in the town centre, waiting to cross the road. Because our roads are generally rather narrow, there were times I literally could not see the traffic lights. I felt like I was in London waiting at the underground, and not being able to jump into the first train to arrive because it filled up too quickly. There are the stories my cabbie husband tells me: he spent most of July and half of August at the airport - they are the best cab fares in Hania. According to my husband, there were days when the taxi drivers weren't able to keep up with the demand for taxis at the airport! And here's another observation which struck me as a little strange: I was at Bershka with my daughter in the first week of this year's summer sales, and the store, together with its neighbours Pull and Bear, Zara and Stradivarius were full of tourists - they must be finding our high street shop prices lower than theirs! The town was constantly congested with cars and people: we know a rental car when we see one, and we know the behaviour of the drivers (a little reticent, they feel uncomfortable driving on our busy narrow roads) - and foreign tourists drive differently from Greek tourists in Hania (who come from the mainland - they drive like Athenians). 

Confidence boosters

If Germans are choosing to take their holidays in Greece after all the negative press about Greece in Germany, that's a promising sign. When a major German tourism firm is willing to invest in Greek tourism, then I'd say the real reason why people are coming here is because Greece is seen as a relatively nice and cheap and safe place to take a holiday in. (Ask the increasing numbers of Israeli tourists about this one.) If this means that some touristsn want to stay in all-inclusive resorts, then that's what we have to give these people in order to get them here: Northern Europeans like to arrange their travel through an agent like these tourist companies. Generally speaking, they like pre-arranged holidays, they want to know who to blame when things don't go right, and they want to know what they can expect in advance. It may sound like it takes away the romance in travel, but then again, if that's what a segment of the market wants, that's what we have to give them. What's more, there is enough variety in Greece to cater for the demands of a wide variety of tourists. I would never want to stay at an all-inclusive here or abroad, but that's me and my tastes - we aren't all the same. Thankfully, there is a great variety of tourism types to choose from in Greece - we are all catered for in some way. 

Tourism is the number-one driving force of the Greek economy at present. The economic scale of tourism cannot be compared to the novel ideas arising from the highly acclaimed private tech start-ups that are often touted as the key to economic development in Greece; they require a lot of investment and can be lucrative ventures for their creators, but they rarely employ many people, therefore limiting their wider economic impact. A big step forward in Greek tourism is to offer all-year round tourism. The biggest problem in this respect is trying to convince airlines to keep flying in the 'off-season', ie between November and March, so that the purpose-built tourism infrastructure (namely hotel complexes) can continue working throughout the year. Ryanair has come to the rescue as a first step to solving this problem: for the first time, the toursim season will be extended by a month this year in Hania, as Ryanair will continue flying from Hania to London twice a week in November. This is possibly a trial run for something bigger. Ryanair has complained of the high taxes imposed on winter flights, at a time when there are generally no tourists, and the Greek state could therefore lower the costs for airlines using the airport (ie drop the 12-euro tax per passenger). Sure, this can be done: but Ryanair must have sniffed something good happening in Greece, otherwise it wouldn't be doing us this favour, would it?! And look at one of The Guardian's recent pieces on Greece - towards the end of the high summer season, they are admitting that Greece looks to be back on track after all. Even Google is onto Greece: this week, it launches a program (piloted in Crete) to help Greek tourism grow online

Final words: image is everything
So it's all looking good: as long as we can maintain a good image and just as importantly, focus on keeping on track, we can't be doing that bad. Certainly, many problems did surface even in this record-breaking year: we still need to address very basic issues such as road safety, road construction and rubbish disposal allowing tourists to throw away their rubbish in an environmentally friendly way which is something they are already used to doing in their own countries (eg giving them the opportunity to separate their trash at the beach, which is not being done now). While there is definitely room for improvement in all sectors (notably in the lack of tourism education), we can't avoid the inevitable either: there will always be a crisis around the corner that will hit us just when we least expect it. One way or another, you will face a crisis and you will not be able to predict its form (unless it is a self-created crisis - Greeks learnt the hard way); you won't be prepared for it, but in order not to destroy your credibility, you need to react to it in some way that shows you are handling it well. But all crises pass, and the world continues to grow and develop after such events. Even though such events dampen our confidence levels, we can't let the culture of mediocrity hamper our development. Why should we pave the road to others' success when we can be part of the success story ourselves?

UPDATE: Ryanair certainly knows a good thing when it sees it; more destinations from Hania come next season.

©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, 22 August 2014

The Mediterranean Diet as a lifestyle (Η Μεσογειακή Δίαιτα ως τρόπος ζωής)

Here is an article I wrote that has just been published as a leaflet, for distribution at the second Mediterranean Diet Fair, which is being held next month at Tavira (Portugal) between the 5th and 7th of September, 2014. The leaflet is being produced by the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (my workplace) since it has been charged with the responsibility of the Coordination Point for the Mediterranean Diet until April 2015. You're getting a sneak preview of it. 
The Mediterranean Diet,
as inscribed by UNESCO
in the List of Intangible Heritage
Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania

The Mediterranean Diet

When talking about the Mediterranean Diet, emphasis is often placed on the actual food consumed by people who live in Mediterranean countries. This emphasis is perhaps misdirected: the Mediterranean Diet should be seen as a lifestyle, not a diet in its literal sense:

The Mediterranean Diet – derived from the Greek word díaita, way of life – is the set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions, ranging from the landscape to the table, which in the Mediterranean basin concerns the crops, harvesting, picking, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly sharing and consuming the cuisine. It is at the table that the spoken word plays a major role in describing, transmitting, enjoying and celebrating the element.” (UNESCO)

Therefore, safeguarding the Mediterranean Diet in modern times is not based on the safeguarding of specific recipes; it stems from the rapid breakdown of a changing social fabric which once helped to safeguard the continuity of a lifestyle passed on from one generation to another, making it difficult to pass on this knowledge to future generations. Without a community base, there would be no ‘Mediterranean diet’; it would simply be called 'Mediterranean food'. The food of the Mediterranean is also found in other parts of the world, and can easily be copied, but this is not true about the lifestyle - it is actually the way of life (δίαιτα) that UNESCO wants to protect as Intangible Heritage under the general title of the Mediterranean Diet. 


The origins of the phrase "Mediterranean Diet" are founded in Ancel Keys' well known 1960s study about the food habits of various Mediterranean people, which took place not too long after the devastation caused by World War II when many European countries were still underdeveloped, people lived on the farm, and there were many food shortages. Their food habits, which constitute the Mediterranean Diet, were regarded as healthy due to the low incidences of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and high cholesterol. Additionally, high life-expectancy rates existed among populations who consumed a traditional Mediterranean diet. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet gained much recognition and worldwide interest since the period after the original study, as a model for healthful eating.

Seen in the old town of Hania, outside a taverna.

Ancel Keys' Mediterranean Diet pyramid is based on the healthy eating and lifestyle habits of the people living in southern Italy and the Greek islands, notably Crete, in the early 1960s.

Photo: Bread, olive oil and wine constituted the triptych of the Greek diet for many centuries, just as they do today.

A modern Greek meal is like taking a trip through Greece's history. Food names, cooking methods and basic ingredients have changed little over time. Bread, olive oil and wine have constituted the triptych of the Greek diet for many centuries, just as they do today. The first cookbook was written by the Greek food gourmet, Archestratos in 330 BC, which suggests that food and cooking has always been of great importance and significance in Greek society, which remains true even today.

The Mediterranean Diet as a lifestyle

Food events in the Mediterranean are an integral part of the Mediterranean people’s socialization; they are a perfect display of the Mediterranean lifestyle. They invariably involve a group of people who all play their own role in ensuring that a seasonal food event takes place according to plan. From the soil to the plate, each stage in the process is followed. Omitting any stage can sometimes be the cause of misunderstanding, although it is possible to alter a stage to suit the conditions. The alterations to such seasonal activities are how traditions are formed over time in each of the individual communities involved. The Mediterranean Diet is, therefore, not limited to terrain or particular food products: it is a shared understanding of the continuity of traditional values associated with eating patterns. Every different Mediterranean country has its own rituals and traditions associated with food, so there is no single diet. It is a coincidence that similar food items are often used, although they are combined in different ways according to many factors, such as one's locality, religion, available seasonal produce, customs, etc.

Many of the lifestyle events involved in the Mediterranean Diet are one-off occasions. They cannot be repeated due to their seasonal nature, and therefore their results will be lost for the year if they are not conducted accordingly. When things don't go to plan, there is always a Plan B to follow, so that the ritual's offering will not go wasted. The Mediterranean lifestyle revolves around the same seasonal activities that, at any given moment, are being done by different people at exactly the same time, and this is what is so special about the Mediterranean Diet: this is in fact the Intangible Heritage that UNESCO wants to protect under its label. It is not just the food, but the way of life that the food revolves around which needs to be protected.

The Mediterranean Diet in food security

In modern times, there is a great need to protect the Mediterranean Diet, due to the fact that it is now under threat from the forces of the globalisation and internationalisation of lifestyles. These movements cannot be prevented, nor is it desirable to stop them from taking place. But they are the main reason why the farming populations of Mediterranean countries are gradually being reduced, hence the reason why the Mediterranean people are losing contact with the land as they become more urbanised. These events are also accompanied by an increasingly homogenized and globalised food production system that disconnects food from its natural landscape.

It should therefore be seen as a vital goal to promote the Mediterranean Diet in its place of origin (i.e. in the countries of the Mediterranean basin) in the framework of a lifestyle. Our lives are becoming interconnected, and we are merging in many ways, but there are some things that will keep us distinct, and they are to be treasured, for that is where our sense of uniqueness comes from. The aim of the Mediterranean Diet newsletter, in conjunction with the Mediterranean Diet website, is to initiate discussion into how to maintain and preserve this unique identity.

In the process of being editeds

Intangible Heritage - UNESCO

Upon the completion of negotiation rounds headed by the Ministry of Rural Development and Food of the Hellenic Republic, Greece has been assigned the coordinating role of the Network of the seven Member Countries subscribed to the Mediterranean Diet in UNESCO's representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, from 1 May 2014 to 30 April 2015. At an intergovernmental meeting held in Agros, Cyprus, on 28-29 April 2014, which was attended by the National Committee of UNESCO, the proposal of the Ministry of Rural Development and Food of the Hellenic Republic to undertake the coordination of the Network was adopted. November 16 has been set as the Flagship Day to celebrate the Mediterranean Diet.

This effort of the Greek government and specifically the Ministries of Rural Development & Food, and Culture & Sport, regarding the need for a coordination tool, was launched in 2011, immediately after the recognition by UNESCO of the Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage, following the submission of a portfolio to the UNESCO Committee. On the Greek side, Koroni in Messinia was chosen as the flagship of the Community, an area rich in agricultural products such as olive oil, olives, wine, raisins, figs, a large variety of vegetables, herbs and aromatic plants. The Member Countries and Emblematic Communities of the Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage are Koroni (Greece), Brač and Hvar (Croatia), Agros (Cyprus),  Cilento (Italy), Chefchaouen (Morocco), Tavira  (Portugal) and Soria (Spain).

The Ministry has assigned, as the coordination point, the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh/CIHEAM), which has the necessary scientific and research expertise to undertake joint actions and initiatives, both to preserve and disseminate the values of the Mediterranean Diet.

If the Mediterranean Diet is seen as just a pyramid of a suggested diet regime, then we are only looking at the food and not the lifestyle. The significance of the Mediterranean Diet includes so much more than just the food.

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

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Simbetherio - Mixed marriage stew (Συμπεθεριό)

The moment to rid ourselves of the aging zucchini plants came: the plants had overgrown leaves, the zucchini was sprouting but not growing, it was shrivelling up as soon as it sprouted.. Before I dug them out from the root, I snipped off the most tender part off the plant, which makes a tasty summer stew.
The meaning of 'simbetherio' comes from the relationship of the parents-in-law of the two members of a marriage; the families become related to each other through marriage (they are 'simbetheroi' to each other). The simbetherio dish uses the extended family members of various similar species, cooked in the same pot. The term is usually given to summer-autumn dishes, and not winter meal.

Simbetherio (συμπεθεριό) is the Cretan term for this dish, but it is also known as tourlou-tourlou (= mix-mix, from Turkish). It is really a stovetop briam, a Greek-style ratatouille. In my simbetherio, I used whatever vegetables had been grown in our garden: together with the zucchini tops, I added peppers, onions, tomatoes and eggplant. 
For seasonings, I added some salt, pepper, purslane leaves (known here as glistrida or antrakla) and two sprigs of fresh basil leaves. I could also have added vlita (amaranth) and some stifno (black nightshade), as both grow in our garden, but the pot was already full of sweeter greens and veges, so I left them out. 
Simbetherio is a really simple dish to prepare, and it reminds me of the end of summer, which we often look forward to in Crete, because it's always too hot at this time of year. It hasn't rained since early June, and we're completely parched here, especially since a drought has been declared in the region. 
The most frugal dishes I cook are often the tastiest, because the recipes are based on cheaply produced garden produce.

Well, if you  are having a record-breaking year for tourism in your country, and your hometwon just happens to be one of the most popular summer resort towns for domestic tourism, that means that more and more people need to have showers 2-3 times a day to cool themselves down in the blazing heat, more sheets and towels need to be washed, and more tomatoes need to be grown - and washed! - for making 'Greek' salad. 

This photo was used in the local press today to illustrate the problem of water shortages in Hania.

No wonder there is a drought right now, things will right themselves when the summer tourist season is over. There are talks right now of extending the tourist season by one month each end - ie, to include the whole of March and November - which is great news of course in economic terms, but just how prepared are we for this? Just for the record, there is plenty of water available in the region, but it was planned to be used in dire cases of water shortages. I personally don't classify this case as dire; this is simply a case of άρπα-κόλλα - it could have been prevented if there was any serious planning taking into consideration, given the early forecasting of the record-breaking tourist figures for this year.

Bonus photo: simbetherio, cooked by Ntounias last weekend.

©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, 12 August 2014

Plutus - Aristophanes (Πλούτος του Αρσιτοφάνη)

Remember them?

Plutus (Aristophanes), 8/8/2014, at the outdoor theatre in Hania, with Stathis Psaltis (left) and Kostas Voutsas (right).

If you grew up in the 60s-70s among the diaspora, you'll remember watching slap-stick comedian Kostas Voutsas (right) in his youth on the big screen in your local cinema when your local Greek community group hired the venue to watch a film.

A blast from the past: Κάτι να κάιει (Something hot), probably the most successful film Kostas Voutsas ever made, starring a wide collection of famous Greeks of the stage. As for the band members, can you pick out a former Minister of Culture's husband? (Watch the whole film here.)

Another comedian, Stathis Psaltis made his name in the 80s. His style of humour perhaps reflects the 'new' Greece that had just entered the EU: Pslatis could be described as Greece's Benny Hill - most of the time, he played a highly sexed unattractive funnyman who ended up getting all the girls.

Psaltis was well-known for his now outdated roles as a 'kamaki '- girl-chaser. You can watch the whole film here. The late Bruno was one of the most well-known kamaki, which was even the subject of a documentary

The theatrical production of Plutus by the South-Aegean Theatre Company was done very well. It had been playing since last year in various outdoor theatres around the country (during the summer period, naturally).

Here, you can get a glimpse of the very high quality acting and the wonderful brightly coloured costumes that were also used in the performance I saw, as recorded last year.

This year, to take it a little further, Psaltis and Voutsas, along with Anna Fonsou (another 'old' actor) were chosen to star in it, so as to attract a wider audience. Unfortunately for the theatrical group, the old actors performed according to old and outdated norms, which kind of ruined the generally high quality of the performance - it's the first time I've seen people leave the theatre during a performance. Every sentence uttered by Voutsas and Psaltis contained one of 'malaka', 'malakia', 'malakies', 'gamo', and 'gamisi'; it seems that the audience did not come to hear this at all. Then again, what else does one expect of such big-screen old-timers, whose main theatre roles have always been part of the επιθεώρηση* production type?

I would have walked out early too, but I stayed just for the kids to get a chance to see the actors up close. We had a bit of a chat about what we saw, what we liked, and what we didn't like after the show, the main talk centering around a photo I took with the actors.

As for Anna Fonsou, she turned down her role after all, because she was not happy about the money she would be receiving for her performance. One would think that all these old actors would have been renumerated well enough over the years, and saved some of their hard-earned savings, but this is not always the case in Greece. In fact, I question how Kostas Voutsas was moving around Greece playing at different venues all over the country int he very hot weather, at his age (83). Anna Fonsou also recognised this problem a decade earlier, and has worked very hard to set up a fund for unemployed Greek actors who run into financial difficulties in their older age when they are past their prime. It was a shame that we did not get to see her, but hopefully it was for a good cause.

*επιθεώρηση (e-pi-the-O-ri-si) = review, "a special type of Greek theater, purely Greek. A kind of mixed entertainment with dancing, music, satire that combines prose and monologue, dialogue and song. A kind of theatre that, without political and social commitments, monitors the latest developments and sets alight with humour the ills of the day" (

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Thursday, 7 August 2014

The happy immigrants of London (Οι χαρούμενοι μετανάστες του Λονδίνου)

I just read a very interesting article written in Greek by Eirini Dermitzaki, a director and writer born in 1982, in Sitia, which is located in Eastern Crete. She studied Acting and Filmmaking. She currently lives in London. You can find out more about Eirini on her website. I thought it summarised the situation of London's immigrant workers very well. With Eirini's permission, I have translated it here.

multicultural london 

"We are the happy immigrants. With tremendous joy, we wake up in the morning. We love the alarm clock that lets us wake up at six. We love the soiled carpet as we step on it to go to the bathroom. That carpet has been stepped on by other good immigrants like us from all over the world. Then we pour water on our face, one shot of ice, one shot of heat. It is said that English taps are deliberately constructed in this way. A different one for the cold water, a different one for the hot, so we can easily get used to the changes.

"We migrant workers are such worthy people, that we stack ourselves on the train every morning to get to work. There, we meet others like ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you wear a nurse’s uniform, overalls or a suit, because we are all the same and we are so much in love with each other that we don’t mind getting stuck all over each other, so if anyone ever fainted from fatigue or sleeplessness, we will catch him in time. To pass the time on the train we talk on our cell phones or play with our tablets. It is very significant to be engaged in this way because we don’t need to make the effort to think.

Eirini Dermitzaki exhibited her work last year at the Slate Gallery in London.
"We drink coffee before we get to work. A beautiful Fairtrade coffee from African plantations. We love coffee because it was created with loving care by the hands of other immigrants. All of us, of course, are dreaming of the day when we will all drink only tea.

"At work, time passes pleasantly whether our boss is British or an immigrant. Because both of them hide in us the hope that one day we too will become masters of immigrants, or better still, of the English. During the break we are pleased to be sitting side by side with immigrants. Our colleagues Ahmed, Pedro and Sonja smile cordially. We are all pleased that we are all immigrants with all our equal rights, and we feel like healthy members of society, and we are grateful that we are not like the others, unemployed migrants, or even worse, undocumented illegals.

"Once our work is done for the day, we drink our beer in the neighbouring pub to celebrate that we worked today. We laugh and drink and shout out loud, so that we forget what we really wanted to talk about.

"We immigrants, before going home, stop at the supermarket. We no longer look for products from our country on the shelves, because packaged food in plastic wrap is very cheap and we eat it all. We do not care if the vegetables are tasteless and the meat smells like carrion, because we feel safe when we carry our full bags home. At the exit, we greet our friend, our immigrant neighbour, who is carrying his own shopping bags, and feels the same pride that we do, that he can feed himself and his family.

"Back home, we share the living room with other immigrants. The kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator shelves, and the toilet paper. To have a bath, or to do our laundry, we arrange shifts. And it's very important that everything is in order and organized. Our house is like a small state. With rules and boundaries. With limits. We immigrants like that kind of stuff. It fills us with feelings of security that people who speak other languages or believe in another God can observe the same laws.

"The days pass, and so do the months, we get paid, we take our leave, we pay the bills, the rent. Everything is expensive and many times we do not have many enough money but we do not worry. The bank takes care of us immigrants with a bunch of loans and credit cards. At night we lie in our beds and we do not feel our legs from fatigue. Others do not feel their back or their head. Others do not feel any emotions. No thoughts before we sleep, because we do not miss our country at all. We feel fortunate that we are immigrants and we know that those who stayed behind are jealous of us. But we do not think about them. Because that is how we immigrants are. Since we became immigrants, we have forgotten who we were before that. So we sleep soundly like birds, and this is very important. It’s beautiful to sleep so deeply. You don’t even remember what dreams you saw. Anyway, what can one do with one’s dreams? We immigrants have a tomorrow. A next day, the same as yesterday, awaits us."

Immigration is not all it's cracked up to be.

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Saturday, 2 August 2014


Despite the introduction of hefty property taxes in Greece, there are still many houses in my town that lie vacant and derelict.

These houses look as though they once enjoyed a splendid past, probably as family homes of rich people. They are large houses, located in the centre of town, very close to the main shopping streets.

The houses I've photographed in this post lie north of the area where the Zara fashion stores complex is located in Hania.

My husband who has lived here all his life says that many of the buildings we passed on our recent walk have been like this since he can remember. They''ve not changed much over time.

But I really do wonder what will happen now that property taxes have been introduced. Will they eventually be sold or claimed by the state? Or will they continue to fascinate passersby, as we imagine what may lie behind those doors that have not opened in years?

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