Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Askeletoura (Ασκελετούρα)

It's askeletoura time in Greece! In the same way, as the pomegranate, this bulbous plant is smashed jut before the new year on the ground before your front door, for good luck!

AskeletetouraDrimia maritima, is also known by the name of 'skilokromido', which literally means 'dog-onion'. This perennial plant grows up to 50-150cm when in flower, and has a very large bulb diameter of up to 18cm. The large leaves appear after flowering. Inflorescence is large with many white flowers with green or purple veins. It flowers from August to October; now, all we see of it is the leaves. It grows all over the place, especially in undisturbed plots of land which aren't normally cultivated. It's common all over Crete, and in the Mediterranean.

Some of my colleagues at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania run a Mediterranean Plant Conservation Unit. They have collected the following information on the traditional uses and folklore surrounding the askeletoura:

Protective properties were attributed to the askeletoura by the ancient Greeks. The askeletoura has served as a good luck charm since ancient timesand it was hung over the doors of houses. A ring dating back to the Minoan period, which was found in Mochlos, Sitia, Crete, clearly shows the bulb of the askeletouras hung above the stern of a ship, and  above the gate which is shown in front of the ship. Even Dioscorides praises this onion hanging over the door, and the great Pythagoras also followed this custom. This giant onion, which survives the summer drought to flower in autumn with its tall floral ears, symbolizes the power that people wanted to pass onto their lands and their homes. For the followers of Hippocrates, the askeletoura was one of the oldest medicinal plants. Athianios mentions it as 'myofonon' (meaning 'mouse poison'). Theophrastus wrote about it in "On Plant Histories". He mentions that it blooms three times a year, it has a high rate of germination in uncultivated fields, it grows and stays ageless, and it transmits its germination rate onto other plants that are growing closely to it. The ease with which it germinates and its agelessness were gifts endowed by Kallo, the fairy of beauty, who had sprinkled holy water over it as she came across it during her strolls in the moutnains and the valleys. This tradition also exists in Crete, which gives rise tot he saying that "the askeletoura never dies and will never disappear from the fields." In older times, people hung the askeletoura on the first of May on the doors of their homes to bring them luck, and on New Year's Day, they hung one in the doorway, for good luck. This New Year's custom continues to this day, but we also smash a the askeletoura (like the pomegranate) at the entrance of the house for good luck.

Cretan folk healing does not use the plant as an internal medicine. It uses it externally, in bandages of mashed bulbs, as a drug for the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism. The mashed bulbs were also used with flour as a poison against rodents. In September, the askeletoura blooms, bringing forth a long stick full of flowers. When watered, the askeletoura does not bloom; Greece can be very dry in September. Farmers carefully observed the flowering of the askeletoura. When the floral stem of the askeletouras was looking very bright and full of flowers, the barley yield would be good. In the year when it did produce a stem, farmers believed that the crop would be destroyed. In the area of ​​Rethymno, Crete, when the 'lantzouni' (as they called the stem) was full of flowers, they would understand that the winter would be heavy, while when it was half full, the winter would not be so cold. Children used the dried stems as a toy, making various objects with them. The askeletoura is also a very good bee plant, as it contains a lot of nectar. 

In this world full of prophecies of doom and gloom, it's reassuring to see the askeletoura continuing to grow undisturbed, despite the calamities that have befallen Earth, our only home. Its constant presence is a sign of great hope. 

Happy New Year!

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Thursday, 22 December 2016

Hosafi (Χοσάφι)

Here's an article I wrote last year for The Greek Vegan's Nisteia magazine

The Hellenic people, from which modern Greeks descend, were found throughout the ancient world, where they set up colonies due to their trading interests. The Hellenes settled in various regions east of modern-day Greece known as Asia Minor, areas which are now part of modern-day Turkey. But these places continue to be strongly linked to the spread and influence of Greek language and culture. Cappadocia in central Turkey is still known by its ancient name where many Greeks settled after Alexander the Great conquered the region, which had extended its borders by the time of the birth of Christ to include the coastal area of the Black Sea, named by the Greeks as Pontus Euxeinos ("the Hospitable Sea").


In 1922, the Exchange of Populations between Greece and Turkey forcibly repatriated approximately 1,000,000 Christian, Turkish-speaking Greeks from Asia Minor, their ancestors' homelands for many generations, to Greece. Greece was understandably unable to cope with such an increase in population and many of the refugees eventually left Greece for the New World. A great many made their permanent home in America and brought with them their language and proverbs, their myths and legends, their songs and music, and of course their foods, like this recipe for hosafi, offered as hospitality to guests.

Refugees form Asia Minor being houses in Athens at the National Theatre

Hosafi is a fruit compote still made in many parts of Greece and the Greek diaspora with significant numbers of descendants of refugees originating from the population exchange. The food customs of the Greek Pontian migrants were different from those of Greek people living in Greece. Apart from the use of what were then regarded as exotic spices in cooking, like cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg, the Asia Minor Greeks also brought urban culinary traditions to Greece, at a time when Greece was still very rural-based, and in these ways the population exchange instantly expanded and enriched Greek cuisine. 


Many of the recipes of the Asia Minor Greeks are of course based on the availability of ingredients in their former homelands. Hosafi, also known as housafi, cleverly embodies all these territorial and climatic limitations. It is made with fruits that are gathered in warm weather, dried during cool weather, and eaten in cold weather. Drying fresh products is one of the oldest methods of preserving known to man. Reconstituted with a little moisture, these products retain all their flavor and make nutritious meals. 

The simplicity of the dish - boiling together various dried fruits, sweetening them with sugar or honey and adding spices and/or wine for flavour - allowed it to be made any time of the year. The recipe’s ingredients are both meat and dairy free; hence hosafi was and still is made during lenten periods in the Greek Orthodox calendar, such as before Easter. But the different colors of the various fruit added to hosafi give it a rich appearance; it is this aspect that gives hosafi a place at the Christmas table, as a dessert served after the main meal. The leftover syrup from the making of hosafi is also very tasty as a between-meals palate cleanser; Greek Orthodox priests would imbibe it as a 'power drink', particularly useful when fasting rigorously for long periods. This is presumably where hosafi gets its name from: in Turkish, 'hoşaf', means 'stewed fruit', which comes from the Old Persian 'hoş ab', meaning 'pleasant water'. 

Image result for cappadocia clay pots
Clay pots used in traditional cooking, Cappadocia   

Cappadocia is a very mountainous area, which should make one wonder why early settlers chose to live there, rather than on lower ground which gives better access to food, water and transportation. In early civilizations, people felt safer in the mountains, as they were better protected against invaders. Hence, once the Hellenes converted to Christianity, they built their churches and monasteries safely within the confines of the rocky tops of the lunar-like landscape that makes up Cappadocia, while the people lived in the underground city of Anakou (known in modern Turkey as Derinkuyu), where they also kept their livestock and food stores. The region’s remoteness created a strong sense of spirituality within the community, which provides a great source of shared wealth for the Greeks with origins from the area. This idea gives a better understanding of why the Sumela Monastery, built within the cliffs of the Pontic Alps, still holds great significance for the Greeks whose ancestors lived in Asia Minor. The monastery is no longer in operation, but annual pilgrimages still take place.

Soumela Monastery

The Cappadocian Greeks in particular undoubtedly had to be very well prepared for food shortages during the colder months of the year, when fresh food would be harder to find at high altitudes where summers would be hot, winters cold and snowy, and rainfall sparse in this semi-arid region. A cellar full of supplies would be vital in such places during the winter, as access to more temperate zones would be difficult during snowfall, and a dish like hosafi, bringing the sunshine of summer days, would be a most welcome treat. 

Hosafi, by Kalofagas

The variety of the colours of the fruits in hosafi reminds me of the shiny balls on a Christmas tree, so having hosafi on the table would have once been seen as a comforting sight at this dark and climatically difficult period. We're all still searching for that sliver of light to get us through these darker times. May we all find it soon.

Season's Greetings!

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Thursday, 8 December 2016


Just another day in the life of a Mediterranean cabbie.

Last weekend, while I (ie my husband) was first at the Agious Apostolous taxi rank, I picked up a fare at Hrisi Akti, just a few metres away from the stand. Dusk was beginning to fall and there weren't many people at the beach. On seeing the taxi, the woman waved out to me. She sat in the back of the cab. I asked her where she was going to. She looked a little lost. She was tall and well groomed, Her clothing choices made her stand out as very well dressed. 

"Well, I don't really know where I am," she said, "but I walked out here from the lighthouse, where I'm staying, at a hotel close by there." 

"You walked out all the way from there?" I was very surprised to hear this. She said she wanted to get a bit of fresh air, and had lost track of the time. She would have walked along the coast, which is quite empty now that the tourist season is over. 

I asked her for the hotel name, which she seemed to remember. She was from (another Greek town) and she was staying in a high-end hotel in Hania for a week, on business. She said she liked the town very much, telling me about the how the Venetian port had made an impression on her. She was in a chatty mood, laughing a lot as she talked in a carefree sort of way. We talked so much about the town in that short ride to the hotel, that I didn't have any time to ask her about her line of business. When we arrived at the hotel, I gave her my business card, should she need another ride. That's how I picked up another fare from her, when she phoned me yesterday, to take her to the airport. 

When I arrived at the hotel, she was waiting at the lobby with her suitcases. She seemed to have a lot of luggage. I helped her with the cases and she sat in the front passenger seat. She was immaculately dressed, perfectly coiffed, and well made up. She had a decolletage you could dive into (husband's choice of words) and get lost in (again, not my wording). 

"So how did business go?" I asked her. She said Hania was good for trade, but not as good as Iraklio, where she was based last week. "My phone rang every half an hour here," she said, "but in Iraklio it rang every ten minutes. I made enough money to cover my expenses. Hania is more beautiful than Iraklio, but it doesn't bring in profits."

"It's a bigger town," I reminded her. And then I realised that I had not asked her what line of business she is in. "So what do you trade in?" 

"I trade in myself!" she exclaimed, with a ring of laughter in her voice, as she swept her hand in the air from head to toe. I suppose I could have guessed, but I don't see why I should have guessed. No one can really guess what anyone is doing these days because we are all doing so much. Our appearance as Greeks is very global, so the traditional way of regarding people by their appearance is pretty much gone. 

She explained that she conducts all her business online these days, and she is well connected with other people in the same trade. So through the internet, people will know where she is available and when. This is how the locals who needed her services would know where she was coming to Crete. She also said she never flies Ryanair because of their baggage restrictions, preferring Aegean Airlines. "I need to carry my makeup bag, laptop, day bag and travel documents. Ryanair would leave me in the cold if I tried to get all that through." I noticed how well dressed she was: everything she wore was a brand label, including her accessories. 

Our arrival at the airport signaled the end of a very interesting conversation, like many I have with strangers who introduce me to details of their life that are often very different from my own. I wished her a safe journey and expressed my hope that I will see her again. "Don't worry," she said, "I have your card." She didn't have a card, but she gave me details of her escort agency, including the website which listed all her services. She was a real professional. 

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Friday, 25 November 2016

Cheats' Haniotiko Boureki

I ran into a couple of girlfriends in the supermarket the other day. By friends, I mean real friends, not the ad hoc kind we make on facebook. 'Ελα ντε that they are also on facebook and we are friends there too, which explains how they knew what I had been cooking recently.

"What a great boureki you made!" said one girlfriend.
"I wish I'd thought of making it like that!" said the other girlfriend.

Boureki is a very common favorite family recipe in Hania. (See my basic recipe here: While I was trying to remember how I made the last one we ate, and why it seemed to impress my friends so much, it occurred to me that I 'faked' it a little, by using 'cheap' ingredients.

"Did the family like it?" said one girlfriend.
"Did they notice the difference?" said the other girlfriend.

My husband noticed something different ("I prefer it without the pastry, the way you usually make it"), but my kids actually preferred it to my usual boureki, because it had a crunchier texture. But the family still doesn't know about the substitutions I made to the basic recipe, and they didn't seem to realise that I had made any. I don't intend to tell them, either. The boureki just looked different.

The whole issue could be phrased as a 'man' problem:
"My husband's always complaining that I don't buy mizithra much these days," said one girlfriend.
"When I refuse to mizithra, he goes out and buys it himself - and in bulk! Can you imagine what kind of money he's spending?" said the other girlfriend.

This will probably all sound like not so big a deal to most of my readers, but clearly for me and my girlfriends, it is. We can now draw some conclusions - among the three of us, despite our different age, socio-economic class, occupation and education, the three of us have many shared traits:
1. our families are quintessentially Greek, and their behavioural trends are more or less similar,
2. our husbands have fixed notions of what traditional Greek dishes are supposed to be made of, how they are supposed to look, what they are supposed to taste like,
3. our cooking habits are very similar,
4. we place a similar importance on ensuring that our families eat home-cooked healthy food,
5. our financial situations have changed over the last few years towards the worse.

It is this last point in particular that was really the basis of the conversation. We all know how to make a boureki, but it didn't occur to all of us how we can make it cheaply, without causing a domestic argument over the kitchen table. Differences in taste are immediately spotted by well trained eaters. Some are more open to variations, while others are not. (Look how well trained my family are, for instance: ) So you need to use all your powers of deceptiveness if you want to fool them.

It occurs to me that Cretan mizithra is difficult to find both in other parts of Greece and the rest of the world. So my latest version of the recipe for Haniotiko Boureki should prove very useful. Here are some useful tips on faking it:
- when you buy cheap ingredients, make sure to hide them in the fridge where your fussier members of the family can't see them,
- if some family members have a tendency to search the darker corners of the fridge (mine doesn't), then you should take off the packaging material and leave no label visible, repackaging the items in plain plastic bags,
- prepare meals when no one's looking,
- if anyone comments about how the meal feels/tastes/looks different to what it usually looks like, fake it even more by saying that you made it the same way that you usually do, by saying something like: "maybe the zucchini tastes different because it's out of season" (which it almost is at the moment), or "hm, the potatoes must be old" (they don't have a due by date, do they?). Just don't mention the substitutes (cheese in my boureki's case).
- if anyone insists that the boureki was made in a different way even though you say it wasn't, ask them to cook the next meal: you just provide them with the ingredients. This last one always works for me.

All over the western world, everybody's living standards are falling. So in effect, everyone is in crisis these days. Some of us are simply better at coping, like me an' my girlfriends. Just ask them.

I don't have much time these days for blog writing because I am incredibly busy at work (which basically means I am not unemployed, which is a good thing these days). I put up long posts on my facebook profile instead. Come and join me there if you like: 

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Tuesday, 8 November 2016

People waiting!

All quotes and film excerpts come from "America America" (1963), by Elia Kazan, a Greek-American director, producer, writer and actor.
(Watch it here:

America is having her day today. Following the rage, through the media that has overtaken the whole world concerning the US elections, I can't help feeling a little heartened that Greece is not alone in having to make a bad choice about who to elect democratically to rule the country. The US elections have been revealing to the world the Emperor who wasn't wearing any clothes. Our world is very transparent now, and we are suddenly realising that politics is about grabbing hold of power by giving people just enough of what they want so that they feel that politicians really care about them. But they are lying. Politicians really don't care about you, they just care about holding onto power, as has clearly emerged with the ruling party in Greece. The UK is also another great example: by charging along with its agenda, with complete disregard for the country's judicial system, the Conservative party is making even non-conservatives believe in them, in their own attempt to hold power. It's all a case of giving everyone just a little bit of what they want, at just the right time. But it has come at a price:
"... the day came, here in Anatolia, as every place where there is oppression, people began to question, there were bursts of violence, sudden and reckless, people began to wonder, and some to search for another homeland.

These words set the opening scene in Elia Kazan's "America America" (1963), set in 1896, in the cave dwellings of Cappadocia, in what is now modern Turkey. The United States has changed in many ways since the time period that the film was set in, but 120 years later, we find that the oppressed, like all those around the world, are again questioning, and this is accompanied by violence, while people are wondering not so much about a new homeland - we have discovered all the earthly ones - but what our homelands have become.
I'm going away... far away... to America! ... Hear me! You are my last hope.
If the world has turned full circle and everything that can be discovered has been discovered, then we have no more work to do here any longer. The working class is over - throughout the developed world, it has morphed into an employed class and an unemployed class. For perhaps the first time in a century, a lot of people are looking to the past instead of the future, in order to try to find a way out of this deadlock, and be 'great' again..
Τ’ αστέρι του βοριά θα φέρει η ξαστεριά - The clear skies will bring the star of the north
μα πριν φανεί μέσα από το πέλαγο πανί - but before it appears through the ocean, like a sheet, 
θα γίνω κύμα και φωτιά να σ’ αγκαλιάσω ξενιτιά - I'll turn into waves and fire to embrace a foreign land
Κι εσύ χαμένη μου Πατρίδα μακρινή - And you, my wasted distant homeland
θα γίνεις χάδι και πληγή σαν ξημερώσει σ’ άλλη γη - You will become a caress to the wound, as dawn rises in another land.
Can we really go back in time and let history be our guide to the future?
I don't want to be my father! I don't want to be your father! I don't want a good family life! A good family life? All those good people stay here and live in this shame! The church goers that give to the poor - they live in this shame! Respectable ones, polite ones with good manners! But I am going! No matter how! No matter! No matter! I am going!
But people have always found new solutions for all the problems that arise in the present time - as long as we have our health.
As of tomorrow, I will get one of those top hats that the Americans wear.
It's the bottom line; if you don't have that, you have nothing.
I have been beaten, robbed, shot, left for dead. I have eaten the sultan's garbage, and driven the dogs off to get at it. I became a hamal... but now I am here. Do you imagine anyone will be able to keep me out?
But you also need to have hope, and a lot more patience.
He saved himself... America America! He saved himself.

In some ways, our different worlds all seem alike now.
In some ways, it's not different here... But let me tell you one thing. You have a new chance here. For everyone that is able to get here, there is a fresh start. So get ready, you're all coming
But we continue to believe that we differ immensely form one another, and that there really is some kind of light at the end of the tunnel which will lead to utopia.
Come on, you! Let's go, you! People waiting!
We're all waiting, but we really don't know what we are waiting for.
I think you and I, all of us, have some sort of stake in the United States. If it fails, the failure will be that of us all. Of mankind itself. It will cost us all. . . . I think of the United States as a country which is an arena and in that arena there is a drama being played out. . . . . I have seen that the struggle is the struggle of free men. (Ciment, Michel (ed.) Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey, Bloomsbury Publ. U.K. (1988) p. 231; from Wikipedia)

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Thursday, 27 October 2016


Starbucks - its not just about the coffee.

This is my first time at Starbucks in Hania. Apart from Starbucks, the only other international branded food outlet we have is Dominos pizza. Perhaps this is the reason why I never tried Starbucks before: because I am a snob. I'm into my small and local and I shy away from the large and international. Besides, I've heard and read all the bad stories about Starbucks on the news and social media: they serve standard coffee, it is expensive, the company doesnt pay taxes, etc. I decided to try it out for myself today.

Starbucks Hania

I choose the cappuccino. Safe choice. That caramel brownie also looks tempting. And so does the last outdoor free table. I sit al fresco under a dull grey sky that looks like it's going to rain (the weather forecast was only joking - we haven't seen real rain since March), and a stagnant humid feeling - summer may be over, but the warm weather is still with us. 

Starbucks cappuccino and caramel brownie  

The Venetian port is crawling with young Americans. LA long vowels, NY nasals, Southern drawls. Baseball caps and capri shorts, crew cuts and shaved faces, very white faces and very black faces. Both males and females. And for the males, icky-looking socks pulled up to the mid-shin height, with trainers. It was kind of difficult to find any news on the web about what these Americans were doing here. The USS WASP LHD-1 ( is in town ( no less than nine days, taking a break from its 'six-month tour of the Middle East' (as Wikipedia claims), purely for the pleasure of the crew, and presumably on the President's orders. Hania is nice for breaks. That's probably why the rain is holding out - to make the 1000+ crew members' holiday as pleasurable as possible. 

"We promise the perfect drink. If your drink is not like you want it, we'll make it again."

I'm about to take a sip of my coffee when I overhear the American man sitting behind me all alone talking to what sounds like his family: 
"How are you all?... I can't wait to come home... I know, I know, I miss you too, honey... Love you..."
It sounded just like an American movie. But it wasn't a movie, it was being played out right behind me. My heart broke at that point. he hadn't seen his family since... June, if I'm correct. 

Still no rain: apparently, priests in the Orthodox Church of Greece have begun chanting incantations. 

If only the President - both present and future - could hear that man. I wish him a safe journey home to his loved ones, and hopefully soon.
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Friday, 7 October 2016

Bargains galore

We recently decided that we need new sofas. Our old ones have been with us since we got married, and they have been through all the phases of of our children's childhood, which includes being peed on, vomited all over, and being used as a trampoline. I remember my son in particular, sprinting up to the sofa, crouching to do a little jump, turning his body in mid-air as he performed his somersault and landing -PFAFFFFFF!- onto the sofa. At the time I was worried he might hurt himself. Over time, I realised that he was hurting my bum, as it sank into the underside of the sofa. Now is a good time to change the sofas, we decided, since the kids are almost no longer kids, and these phases are over for the time being. We did think about adding some more padding to our old sofas, but we also felt that it was time for a new look in our house. 

We like to lie on our sofas and watch TV movies as a family, and the sofas in that state are really no good for that. Not only that, but we also discovered during the summer that it would be nice if we could invest in some sofa beds because we had a lot of friends and family staying over at our house. At one point, there were ten of us staying in the house, using three bathrooms. Everyone slept on beds, not the sofas. By investing in sofa-beds, we could even airbnb our house. OK, that's a joke. But, really, you never know: There was a huge surge in tourism this year, at least in Crete, as we felt it here. We keep breaking records in that sector, and the way the world is going, no one really can make predictions for what could be happening next year. 

So here we are, wondering where our next sofa is going to come from. We had some ideas about where we could go. The easiest solution was to go first to the furniture store near our house. It's Friday night, and we enter a very quiet store. As soon as we entered, the owners turned on the lights for us. We explained what we wanted. 

- Alas, the owner said. I sold the last sofa bed a month ago. It was a shop sample. But I've ordered a new sample. It'll be here some time in mid-November. 

Mid-November! We wondered how difficult it was going to be to find something we wanted without resorting to the internet. Sofas, among many other things, are try-before-you-buy items. 

- I used to have half a dozen of these sofa beds in my storage area, the owner continued. But now with the crisis, people don't buy things like they used to. We'll be lucky if we can sell something like that now once or twice a year. That's why we don't store them any longer. People are really hard up these days; mark my words, yo will see many shops closing down before the year is out. 

The owner's saga wasn't really helping us achieve our aim. Out of interest, we asked how much the sofa bed would cost. We probably looked like zombies when we heard the price: €1600. It was made in Italy. 
We left the store feeling quite dejected. 

We then went to another store, where we had bought our children's computer desks a few years ago when we renovated their rooms. Now this store was quite different from the other one. It was crowded with stock, people were coming and going, and it was hard to find an assistant, because they were all busy with prospective customers. When it was finally our turn to be served, the young woman showed about half a dozen sofa beds of various kinds and sizes, and at varying price levels, half of which were made in Greece. Among those sofa bed models, we saw some that were just what we were looking for, and they were all really well priced: the ones we liked cost up to €400 each! We asked how long it would take to have them made up and delivered to us. 

- We've got a dozen in stock in the basic colours. We can deliver them tomorrow if you like. 

What a change form the other store! We took measurements, checked colours and decided on a weekend delivery when we would all be home.

*** *** ***

The difference between the two stores could be stated on a simple level as 'cheap shop' and 'expensive shop'. But there is also the question of 'image': the former offers 'Italian design', while the latter offers 'well-priced quality'. I will admit that marketing strategies don't really help struggling Greek businesses in Greece in general, because people don't have much money to spare: they don't have much disposal income. But if the small Greek businesses want to survive, they need to find a way to diversify so to speak. They may have to drop the 'luxury' image that they may once have had, because people nowadays prefer to sacrifice image for comfort. They may also need to change location, because some places simply don't spin money. The same barely surviving business just might do well in another area by selling similar products that people can afford rather than high-end products. 

In Athens, Ermou St once again has become a shopping destination. Even in Hania, shopping locations have really changed over the crisis period. We now have an established 'high street'. It started off with 'big names like Zara, Bershka and Pull and Bear opening in the same area, presumably all franchises are operated by one business, under different names. Sounds multi-corporate? Yes, but it's had an incredible effect on the local business life. Z, B and P&B brought in other lesser known names like Jennyfer (French), Stradivarius (Spanish) and only just recently, Pink Woman (Greek). And it is helping small local-brand stores in the following way: the small shops (eg one-euro stores, traditional cheese suppliers etc, frozen food warehouses, major coffee supplies stores, etc) began extending their shopping hours, and opening on afternoons when shops in Greece were traditionally closed (eg Monday and Wednesday afternoons) because the big shops were bringing in the customers. So now, we have all-day shopping in Hania, despite the cries of shopkeepers about low trade, falling profits and poor consumers. What's more, even foreigners use our high street. It's really quite interesting watching tourists shop at our big brand outlets - they must have the same shops in their own countries, so we wonder what they like about them: perhaps our stores are cheaper, perhaps also our stores stock designs that theirs don't. 

In a recent survey, it was noted that Greeks spend on average €1419 per month (per household, I think), compared to about €1460 per month the previous year: that sounds quite healthy if you consider that we are supposed to be earning low salary/wages. We spend on food (20,7%) housing (13,3%) και transportation (12,8%), the lowest on education (3,3%), where we used to spend 11% in 2014. 11 out of 12 sectors show a decrease in spending, with the lowest being 1.1% in holidays and 'culture'. The only category that shows a rise is health (1,2%), probably due to people not trusting the state system. The holidays sector stats are very interesting: another survey shows that there has been a 75% increase in Greeks buying online holiday packages: we're becoming so European in our ways!!!

Apart from travel tickets, I rarely shop from the internet these days. Nearly everything I need is available at a local store in my small Mediterranean island town. I hunt down bargains, I always prefer credit card payments to cash, and I've even worked out where to get souvlaki by credit card. Both Greek consumers and business people have woken up so to speak. In the meantime, we are so looking forward to getting those sofas delivered. 

I'd like to show you some photos of the high street, so I'll update this post in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, here are some nice photos of what the Venetian harbour looked like yesterday, when I had an hour to kill between finishing work and picking up the kids from their afternoon activities. 

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Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Man on the Bench

Last Friday evening was very humid. The temperature reading in the car showed 28C at 7pm. Sweat poured down my back as I trudged through the town, laden with my shopping: chickpea flour, my new sunglasses, a 10-pack of school notebooks, school diaries for the kids, and I hadn't quite finished yet. It was getting dark, and my clothes were sticking to my skin. I felt the need to rest a minute or two, so I sat down on the bench pictured below.

There was a man sitting on the bench on the opposite side from me. He paid no attention to me. We were both, in effect, resting on the bench. I laid my shopping bags around me, and opened my handbag to take out my cellphone. The Man on the Bench was smoking. A closed bottle of water and an open can of coca-cola were set on the bench next to him. There was also a transparent plastic bag near him, sealed at the top, whose contents looked like plastic cutlery, two slices of bread and a single-use white plastic pot with a lid, whose contents were probably food from a soup kitchen. He was, perhaps, wearing a few too many items of clothing for the weather at that moment.

I don't know if he was homeless. He might have been. Homeless people are highly visible in Greek cities from my own experiences, but because of the good weather in the summer, they can make do with less stuff, they can sit virtually anywhere without worrying too much about being moved on by the authorities, and they act in a way that I would call 'normal', ie they don't look too different from non-homeless people. So in many cases, you won't realise that they are homeless.

Both the Man on the Bench and I were fully aware of each other, but we carried on with our own business, not bothering each other. I felt like giving him some money... but he wasn't asking for it. What right did I have to treat him like a homeless beggar? I sat on the bench for just enough time to get back my energy. As I picked up my bags and stood up to leave, the Man on the Bench spoke:

- Can you spare 50 cents? he asked me. Of course I could! I put down my shopping bags, opened my handbag, found my purse, and got out some my small change.

- Here you are, I said. He smiled and said thank you. I had just picked up my shopping bags and was turning to leave when I heard him speak again:

- May God look after you and your family.

I thanked him for that, and went off onto my next chore.

The homeless of Hania, numbering about 25-40 people, mainly men, are provided with shelter in children's summer camp facilities during the winter. Last winter, a bus picked them up from the shelter, took them into the town, where the homeless like to socialise, and a bus was arranged at a pickup stop to take them back at night. Some of the homeless don't like this setup and they prefer to sleep on benches; no one can force them to go to the shelter if they don't want to. Unlike what I have heard about the homeless in the US and other European cities, the homeless of Greece are not hidden away from society during the day. Because homeless people suffer from other problems (eg alcoholism), they don't all get through life easily, like Thomas Deligiannis, a well known homeless man in Hania, who died earlier this month.

It's not quite winter yet, which is why the Man on the Bench came to my mind today, when we had our first torrential downpour since February, coming somewhat unexpectedly. I hope he's OK.

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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Walkies with my aunty (Βόλτες με την θεία)

My Kiwi aunt who is somewhat advanced in years has come to her homeland on a short visit. She asked me to help her do some shopping. I picked her up yesterday and drove her into town, parking the car on the outskirts of the city, on a street which marks the break between the residential and commercial parts of the town.

- How much do you pay to park here?

I wasn't surprised to hear Thia ask this question. Where she lives, she has to buy parking space to park her own car outside her own home. Imagine her surprise when I told her it was free! I helped her to get out of the car, and we began walking towards the shops. Although she walks very slowly and with a stick, her steps are very firm and she doesn't get tired.

- Is this where (an old friend of hers) lived?

Thia's friend, who had also migrated to NZ from Crete, had died many years ago, but she still remembers them, as she does all the older members of the Greek community of Wellington who have come and gone. The community is now but a shadow of its former self, as members pass away and their children move away and/or intermarry, so that their Greek identity fades off as it is stirred around in the melting pot. Her friend was a widow who had repatriated to the homeland and lived her last few years close to the town where she was born. I decided to detour at this point and took my aunt via another road to the town, where she could see her friend's home. We then continued on to the town centre. Thia chuckled as she looked through the window of a haidresser's salon.

- A lady's getting her hair done, while a dog's sleeping at the entrance, on a shaggy rug!

That sight must have looked like a bad hair day to Thia. It looked normal to me. If we hadn't diverted, I could have shown her the pet salon that opened up recently. We had just passed the green (KTEL) bus station.

- Is this where you take the bus to Galatas?

She was thinking of the blue buses. I explained the difference between the blue and green buses: blue is for the suburbs, green takes you to the villages.

- Ah! The cars!

In her days of living in Crete, the buses were initially known as 'cars' - there were so few wheeled vehicles on the road back then, and very few people owned a private car.

Thia remembers her hometown of Hania when it looked more like this.

We crossed the road at the traffic lights, and continued walking towards the main shops.

- We bought some tupperware together from somewhere here, the last time I came, didn't we?

Despite being advanced in years, Thia doesn't seem to suffer from forgetfulness. She knows how important it is to keep finding ways to remember trivia. We continued walking until she found her first stop: the jeweler's, not just any jeweler's, but the same one she had bought from before. Like she had done for all her grandchildren, she wanted to buy something for the latest arrival, a pendant with a religious figure on it. [A cross is inappropriate from a grandmother since it will be bought by the future godparent of a child.] We entered the store and looked around. The owner came out to help us.

- I want something 'good' and it has to be 'cheap'.

Perhaps Thia was remembering a different time when money was more plentiful. All over the world, our choices have become severely limited. She eventually downsized her original idea, settling on a cheaper version of what she initially asked for. We left the store via Stivanadika, the street that sells a lot of locally made leather products, which was close to where she would make her next purchase.

Modern Hania looks like more like this these days
(The music, a song about Hania sung by Grigoris Bithokotsis, was composed by Mikis Theodorakis, in honour of his origins)

- Mmmmm, nice things here...

She later told me that leather products are very expensive in NZ. Here, hundreds of leather items sell every year, bought mainly by our summer tourists, and the cost of such items is quite reasonable. In the winter, most of the leather shops close throughout the whole off-season. We came out of the alley onto a pedestrian zone, where the smell of freshly ground coffee from the Archontakis shop wafted through the whole street. If Thia could carry more weight in her suitcase, she would have bought some, but she says she can get good Greek-style coffee back in NZ too. She wanted to buy things she could not get so easily, mainly religious paraphernalia, which is rather expensive to buy in NZ. Karvounakia (little charcoals) and livani (incense) are used to remember the dead at their graves. There are many shops that sell these items on the Katola road, near the coffee store. They look very old fashioned but they are highly used by the locals. Many of them are connected with undertaker businesses.

- Have we got time for a walk through the Agora?

For Thia, there is always time. I am treated like a daughter by all my mother's siblings. We walked a few more metres up the road to the Agora, and as we entered, I noticed Thia being amazed by how many varieties of paximadi (rusks and crispbreads) were being sold. She wanted to buy something to take to her brothers' house where she was staying.

- Choose something that doesn't have sugar in it.

She knows the rules for old age: less fat and sugar keep the doctors at bay. We settled on old-fashioned kavroumakia (small swirls of dried out bread) that go well with some sharp cheese and Greek-style coffee. She insisted on buying some for me too. I wondered if she was tired - at that point, we had been walking for more than 2 hours together, which is quite a long time for an old person. We began to walk back to the car.

- That shop's closed, isn't it?

There aren't a lot of closed shops these days in Hania. You could say that deflation and market correction have helped cheap businesses to open up, selling mainly food, as well as modern services like nail clinics and vape goods. The shops that are closed don't stick out so much, since they are few in number now. However, what Thia was pointing to was not actually a closed shop. Its window was covered in the store's colours, a bit like a betting shop in the UK, so you couldn't see what was going on inside. I explained to Thia that this shop is actually open, but you have to press a button to enter . I pointed out the bell. It also had an OPEN sign on it ('ANOIKTO'). It's one of those shops that proliferated when the crisis hit: ΕΝΕΧΥΡΟΔΑΝΕΙΣΤΗΡΙΟ*. No one really wants to go into one of those shops, nor does anyone want to be seen going in there.

- Is the car close by here?

I knew she was getting tired. But I knew just the right place to make her forget about her physical state. We passed by a florist, who I waved to, and she came rushing out to greet me. I then explained to Thia who this person was: her first cousin's daughter (making me and the florist second cousins). Thia's face lit up when they talked about the old times in the mountain village where they were all born, and Thia told our cousin to send lots of good wishes to her mother who is still living in the mountains. As we headed for the car, my aunt was surprised to town cemetery looming ahead.

- Is this Agios Loukas? It was all so different in my time...

In her days, Agios Loukas was completely isolated from the rest of the town. Now, the graves blend in with the neighbouring houses. The road is lined with marble workers and florists.

Thia in London - for a little old Greek lady, she's well travelled.

And that's the end of our little walk through the town. As I forgot my phone in the car, I couldn't take any photos. So I hope my descriptions do the job well enough!

* pawnbroker's

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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Cretan gastronomy

Sneak preview of what I'll be discussing soon, in good company (more details later).

Crete is the largest island of Greece, with a permanent population of 600,000. At 8500 sq. km., it is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. Blessed by the gods, unique in the world, thanks to the generous gifts of nature and history, its mild climate, fertile soils and strategic location have bestowed on Crete the gift of year-round agricultural activities with an age-old pastoral culture. Its majestic canyons, caves and plateaus cohabit fields and plains covered in thousands of olive trees, endless vineyards and the richest flora of Europe, all contained within 1000 kilometers of coastline.

Crete is believed to be the cradle of European civilization, and in modern times, the gastronomic traditions of Crete have given rise to what is known as the Mediterranean Diet, with extra-virgin olive oil at its base. For this reason, Cretan cuisine is regarded as one of the healthiest cuisines of the modern world. To this day, Cretan people proudly continue the agricultural and culinary traditions of their ancestors, with a high reliance on grains, grapes and olives, which is what gives us the most famous ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet, extra-virgin olive oil.

The history of Crete is backed up by nearly 8000 years of continuous population of the island. The Minoan civilisation, developed in Crete from 2500 BC to 1100 BC, is regarded as the most significant civilization that first flourished in Europe, attested by the presence of the palace of Knossos. During the period of classical antiquity, Crete was still on the fringes of the Greek world. It did not take part in the Persian wars or the Peloponnesian War. In the Hellenistic, the Roman and the Byzantine periods, Crete remained relatively untouched. This all changed when it was occupied by the Venetians in 1204, when it became an important trading post in the Venetian Republic. Crete maintained its importance in this way for four centuries until it passed into Ottoman occupation 1669. When the Ottoman Empire fell, Crete was declared an autonomous state in 1895, until it was unified with Greece in 1913. In the 20th century, Crete was plagued by post-war circumstances, with poverty and emigration. But the 21st century finds the island in a very different situation, mainly due to the spread of mass tourism. In the summer period alone, Crete hosts over three million visitors a year. If it weren't for tourism, Crete can be said to be relatively independent in its food supply.

Crete is intensively cultivated by the local population, which is engaged in the primary sector, producing mainly extra virgin olive oil, grapes, wine, vegetables and cheese, with a smaller proportion of meat products. Crete also hosts the highest number of PDO and PGI products in Greece. Crete's land-based agricultural traditions provide the impetus for the daily cooking habits of the Cretan people. Cretan food is based on fresh local seasonal produce. The abundance and ease with which a seed grows into a fruit or vegetable on the island provide the source of inspiration for Cretan gastronomy, all based on the the simple olive fruit, with aromatic plants added to dishes to strengthen their flavour. It produces olives and olive oil, grapes and wine, orange and other citrus, many fruits in general, wine and spirits, a wide variety of fresh and hard cheeses, cured meats of all sorts, fresh and dried bread products, thyme flavoured honey, wild greens and aromatic plants, and all manner of vegetables.

The Cretan diet, which is now known worldwide, attracted the interest of the scientific community in 1948, when the Rockefeller Foundation conducted surveys in Crete. The island's culinary traditions were regarded as a model of the Mediterranean cuisine, which was recognized by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Olive oil is actually the biggest secret of the Cretan diet and longevity of Cretans. Around 85 per cent of the olive oil produced in Crete is extra virgin quality. At 35 litres per person per year, Cretan olive oil consumption is the highest in the world. Many families own olive trees that not only meet their daily needs but provide a supplementary income. The island has 40 million olive trees — that’s an average of 70 trees per person. Olive tree cultivation is believed to have been pioneered 5,000 years ago by the Minoans who used it in their diet, as a cleanser, a scent and an ointment. The high quality crop is attributed to the island’s soil and climate — hot dry summers, cool autumns and rainy winters.

The Cretan earth is a botanical paradise with over 1700 species of plants, of which 159 are endemic. The Cretan kitchen uses herbs, especially oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, cumin and fennel, and Cretans still like to brew malotira, a plant gathered from the mountain tops, to make mountain tea), together with other aromatic tisanes like dictamus, sage, marjoram and chamomile. These plants are not only eaten by the people, but also by the animals raised on the island for food purposes, which gives rise to their exceptional flavour. And many Cretans still maintain a tradition of pastoral life from prehistoric times to the present day. Cheese is often served with fresh fruit, it is offered as an appetizer and it is even presented as a dessert wrapped in pastry and topped with honey. Pastry products also form a significant part of the Cretan diet.

Cretans eat less fish than perhaps would be considered normal for an island people. Cretans are more likely to worship snails which they cook in various ways, boiled, fried and stewed. Lamb is roasted in the oven or stewed with vegetables. Meat is often boiled and eaten with rice flavoured in its stock, known as pilafi, which constitutes the main meal of a traditional Cretan wedding. Of the dozens of unique recipes of the island, the most typical local dishes are characterised mainly by wild greens and vegetables. The most well known dish of Crete which has been adopted by the whole of Greece is the dakos, which consists of dried bread slices, also known as rusks, topped by grated tomato, fresh cheese and oregano.

Crete is also believed to have the highest cheese consumption in the world. Dairy products of the island form the basis of many traditional Cretan dishes. Cheese is consumed in Crete at all hours of the day, as an accompaniment, starter, main snack, or even as a dessert. Despite the modernisation of milk production techniques, the traditional form of farming is still based on the experience of many centuries. Nowadays, milk is pasteurized, culture is added, and he milk is heated at specific temperatures to make cheese.

The Cretan diet is all about eating everything that this land produces — organic vegetables and fruit packed full of nutrients, as well as liberal quantities of olive oil, wheat and herbs. Cretan delicacies will delight your taste buds. Cretans linger for hours over freshly-cooked meals. Lunch often extende into dinner. One day, It’s a way of life that is starting to change as youngsters move away from villages to the towns and cities. But Cretans still maintain a passion for their local food and it is this enthusiasm that we want to share with our guests to the island.

So I wish you all bon appetit! As the Greeks say, Kali Orexi!

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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Athens 2016: Aigina

An Athens holiday is not compete without a bit of Greek island hopping. The island of Aigina is the closest to the capital, making the island one of the most popular island-hopping destinations on a Greek holiday as well as a favorite weekend outing for Athenians all year round, some of whom own holiday homes here. I did a bit of island hopping in my early Greek days, but living so far away from the mainland - on an island for that matter - has somewhat curtailed such experiences. I decided to try an island experience during my recent trip to Athens to get away from the heat of the concrete.

Only an hour or so away by ferry from Athens' main port in Pireas, Aigina can also be reached more quickly by hovercraft, small but very fast catamaran-style boats, lessening the travel time considerably. The island is only about 20km wide and 30km long, with a permanent population of 14,000. It overlooks the Peloponnese and Salamina island where the Battle of Salamis took place.

 The marina in the town of Aigina town, the synonymous port on the island, overlooking the Peloponnese    

A view from the town beach of Aigina, overlooking the small island of Agistri with a permanent population of about 1000 people.

Historically, Aigina is known for many things: an important marine power with greater significance than Athens before it went into decline, the first known mint in the western world leading to the hypothesis that Aigina introduced coins to Europe, the ancient ruins of Aphea which consist of a well preserved Parthenon-like temple, and in modern times, the first saint of the Greek Orthodox church - St Nektarios, who founded a monastery on the island - to be photographed. But if you ask today's Greeks what they know about Aigina, they will all unanimously tell you about the thriving pistachio industry on the island: about 10,000 tonnes of pistachio are produced there every year.

Pistachio tree on Aigina, overlooking the island of Salamina in the background

Beach at Ayia Marina, a coastal village in eastern Aigina

The ruins of the Temple of Aphaia, built in the Doric style

The reasons concerning how such a high-end product came to be the main crop on such a small Greek island are a lesson in sustainability. The island was never really self-sufficient, and this is still an issue in modern times. Aegina relies on the mainland for most of her supplies, including her water needs. Towards the end of the 19th century, the pistachio pioneer Nikolaos Peroglou realised that the nut was a low-demand crop, which survived easily on bad soil, meaning that it would yield a high price with few costs. Peroglou gave away pistachio saplings as presents which people planted in their gardens, usually among their grapevines and olive trees, the more traditional crops of Greece.

Looking out towards Salamina island, from the northeast of Aigina

The misery of WWII saw Aigina suffering the greatest percentage of death by starvation in the whole country, surpassing Athens. After the war, the island's grapevines were attacked by the fatal phylloxera blight. Local farmers often replaced each dying vine with a pistachio sapling so that they could continue to trade in a product. This basically led to the rise in pistachio cultivation on the island. Aigina pistachio has enjoyed PDO status for the last two decades.

Pistachio products in sale in a stall near the port of Aigina

Visiting the island from Athens, the visitor will see the importance of the pistachio from the first instance as they stop onto the island's main port, also called Aegina. Pistachio producers set up stalls there, selling a multitude of products which all contain pistachio: salted and unsalted pistachios, with or without the shell, pistachio sweets and savouries, crackers and pastes, ice-cream and liqueurs. Pistachio trees are also seen in the gardens of the local people's homes.

Olive trees in Aigina produce olive oil mainly for personal home - the island imports nearly everything, with production concentrated in the pistachio industry

Aigina is mountainous but it is also very green, with pine forests, olive groves and pistachio orchards.

Approaching Aigina by ferry boat felt like I was visiting a miniature version of Crete. In the north, the island is very green and evenly inhabited. The port area constitutes the main town, which resembles the average small Greek coastal town - a seaport with a marina, faced by cafes and restaurants, and surrounded by narrow alleys full of small shops. The south is mainly mountainous, barren and not inhabited. The main problem Aigina faces is the lack of water sources on the island - all water is transported to the island from the mainland. Without enough water, you cannot sustain life, so most of Aigina's food needs will come from the mainland too. Being the closest island to Athens, the high number of annual visitors adds to the burden. It was only last month that the much discussed pipeline on the seabed for water supply from Athens to Aigina was finally agreed upon, which will be operating in three years' time. So the water supply problem may soon be resolved.

Walking from the Aphaia temple to the beach at Ayia Marina on the northeast, you pass through a road that is lined with tavernas, rooms for rent, and other tourist facilities. They are nearly all closed and from the appearance of the buildings, it is likely that they have not operated for a long time, a sure sign of how the various Greek crises of the last few years have affected Aigina's business sector. It has now become too expensive for the average Athenian to take a short carefree jaunt to the island on a regular basis. Most foreign tourists visit for the day, and they may be on the island for a very short period if they are doing the highly popular one-day cruise (where they also visit other islands near Aigina, notably Poros and Hydra). Aigina is small enough to drive through it in the space of one whole day - cars can be taken on the ferry boats to facilitate visitors to this end. During the summer, ferry boats arrive from and leave for Athens on a regular basis throughout the day, so you can get there very early and leave quite late just before evening sets in.. If it weren't for the uncomfortably hot early July weather we expoerienced this year, we might have stayed longer ourselves. We caught a late afternoon boat back to Athens, and arrived home before evening set in.

*** *** ***
Pistachio is harvested in summer when the shell splits open. The nut is then used in its raw state or roasted with lemon juice (and salt, optionally), to preserve it in a chemical-free way. In Greece, pistachio is commonly eaten as a nut, nearly always served in its shell, as a side dish to some fiery alcohol. having to open the shells and remove them from their casing is a way to lengthen the time it takes to eat the pistachio! In cooking, pistachio is used in pastry sweets, giving baklava-style desserts their characteristic green colour. It is often sprinkled as a crumbed topping on cakes and biscuits. Pistachios are also added to honey, chocolate and, notably in the Mediterranean, Turkish delight. Pistachios keep well for a long time in an airtight container. Apart from shelling and crushing, they do not require much more processing to make them ready for consumption.

Pistachio cream on melba toast, pistachio crackers and pistachio nuts

Pistachios keep well for a long time in an airtight container. Apart from shelling and crushing, they do not require much more processing to make them ready for consumption. Pistachio paste, a gluten-free vegan condiment, is easy to make at home with a food processor. It makes a tasty topping on bread and can be used as a creamy filling or topping in cakes and biscuits. Just whizz a cup (or two) of shelled pistachio nuts with a teaspoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of butter, and a teaspoon of honey. Keep whizzing until you get the desired consistency - the more you whizz, the creamier it becomes. For a more interesting texture, add some finely crushed pistachio to the cream, for a mixed consistency. Place the spread in a jar and keep it in the fridge; it will keep for more than a month - if it doesn't get eaten sooner!

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