Thursday, 22 March 2012

Almost Greek

Last week the weather was so cold that Lepetimnos was again dusted with a snowcoat; while this week mother nature organized another spring attack, with temperatures going above 20˚C. As much as I like to see a white Lepetimnos, I do hope that this time spring will win because - like many others - I’ve had enough of the cold.

While the weather is messing around, I rattle with pans and ladles behind the stove and the computer. As I have already mentioned, I am writing a cookbook. Well, writing is not the correct word, because it is already written. I am now to finalize it.

I am a cook who opens her refrigerator, sees what’s there and starts cooking. Cookbooks do give me ideas, but it’s my provisions that determine what and how things will be served on a plate. And I am in the luxurious position of not only having to check my cupboards for stock, but also of being able to see what the fields surrounding my house have to offer.

My favourite kitchen accessories are the wok and a wooden ladle: which can be a problem, as last winter my wok needed to be thrown away and I couldn’t find a new one on the island. Someone brought me a cheap one from IKEA near Athens, but already, after just a few weeks, the inside has started to flake. The wok now waits outside for a new home somewhere in the garden.

There is a cooking shop in Mytilini and another in Kalloni, but neither had a big wok in stock (I have to wait until the end of March), so now I am making do with a small one; and although its of very good quality, the spinach does not fit in it . I will manage as always and I am now cooking mostly with conventional pans, which is in a way better, because my cookbook is not about wok cooking.

I had originally thought of making it a crisis cookbook. You can turn lots of simple ingredients into lovely dishes and Greek nature is full of free ingredients. I am not a person who runs immediately to the shop, when missing an ingredient mentioned in a recipe: I prefer to replace that ingredient. But I do sometimes like to add a dash of cream or cognac and those are not exactly crisis ingredients.

This winter I discovered the woodstove and its oven. Since the stove has been burning, my electric oven is not used anymore. Baking, making stews, warming up — it all happens on the wood stove, that’s a considerable economy.

But it’s not good for the cookbook, because the woodstove does not work the same as an electric oven in which you can regulate the temperature and time exactly. I did find an alarm clock that helps me to take the bread out on time from the oven, but it does not tell me the temperatures.

So what I did last month was check all the recipes for amounts, cooking and frying temperatures and times. I am a cook who never checks amounts and just splashes some oil in a pan nor sprinkle salt and herbs over a dish with a spoon. I cut from the vegetables what I need and cook what I gathered on the fields without having it weighed.

I have already written that I have given up cooking Greek dishes. That is the same as making a French vinaigrette, which demands a certain flourish, and that I still cannot master. Greeks have a kind of Greek flourish of cooking: even though lots of recipes are very simple, I don’t get the same results, even when it’s the simple preparation of a white cabbage that simply boiled and served with some olive oil and lemon. So I am not going to pretend that I know how to cook Greek.

I cook ‘Almost Greek’, which will be the title of the book, make with Greek ingredients I make my own recipes. Well, that’s not the right word, because until last summer I was never into making recipes, just having fun with cooking. So it was quite some work to get all those dishes, which were never the same, written out into recipes.

This work is now done and I have a colourful range of recipes that can be made with all those delicious Greek ingredients — like orange mousse, feta cream, squid salad, sauce of wild asparagus and shrimps, fig fingers, tomato sorbet, Aegean rice, sardine salad, watermelon cocktail, almond cake, quince liqueur, spicy mushrooms and olive bread — only some of the 92 recipes.

I do know that most ingredients are not typically Greek, but more South European or even global, like most vegetables. But by combining them with Greek yoghurt, feta or Metaxa: that does give the recipe something Greek. And truth is that it’s this country (and especially Lesvos) that has inspired me to create these dishes.

I do hope that this cookbook will be an inspiration for all ex-pats living in Greece (or elsewhere in the South of Europe), for the tourists who love Greece, for the people who have never been to Greece but who like the Mediterranean kitchen and for Greeks who just want to eat something different. The book will be published in three languages: Dutch, English and German.

I’m not good at making dishes look like they come out of a magazine –which is a whole artform in itself – so I have chosen to have the book illustrated with drawings. A friend and well-known Dutch illustrator Sylvia Weve (who worked amongst others for the Volkskrant) made the drawings, and was constantly hungry while doing them. I hope to present the book sometime in May.

Because of all the cooking I’ve been unable to regularly write a weekly column. My thoughts were only about food. I do hope that at the beginning of the summer I can write again on a regular basis about things other than cooking.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Market revolution


Some days ago Bruno Tersago, a Belgium blogger living in Piraeus, wrote about the Potato Movement (only in Dutch). It was about farmers who could not sell their potatoes because they were said to be polluted. The farmers took their potatoes to Athens and distributed them for free. Farmers from another part of Greece were having the same problem and also took their potatoes to the capital. They sold them for cost. Many people welcomed this opportunity for cheaper produce because normally most brokers triple the prices.

It seems a new revolution: farmers coming to the cities to sell their own products. Which is what usually is done at a markets. However, a market stall will cost you and not everybody has money lying ready in their kitchen drawer.

I remember visiting markets in Chania (Crete) and in Athens and I am sure there must be others in Greece. But on Lesvos, the third biggest island of Greece, there are none. Why? It might be because most of the people here have their own little gardens where they grow their own vegetables, whilst one of their neighbours will have sheep and goats and most families on the island have olive trees for their daily consummation of olive oil.

It is also said that the shopkeepers oppose a farmer’s market: they are afraid of loss of income. Like the shopkeepers of Kalloni are opposing a bypass because they fear than no-one will come into their city for shopping. Meanwhile, most travellers to the north frequently get stuck in traffic jams in Kalloni.

All those shopkeepers should be sent abroad to take a look at foreign markets. In the South of France, the local markets, where you’ll find the most delicious local products, attract lots of people who also go into the local shops because not everything is available on the market stalls.

Here on Lesvos you could say that we have a mobile market. A few vegetable growers sell their products from their pick-ups. There are also some men selling fish from their cars. And there are gypsies and Chinese people travelling around selling chairs, clothes, knifes, tools, poultry and so on. They are like the peddlers of the Middle Ages. When you see those poultry vans, you believe yourself to be in another time. The poultry is kept in tiny cages and should be forbidden, especially in the soaring summer heat, when it’s pure animal cruelty.

Those other driving ‘marketcars’ are okay, but where are they when you need them. Years ago I went hunting for the mobile fish seller, but after chasing him with blazing horn for ages and to no-result, it’s no longer fun.

And then there are the tourists who ask frequently where the island markets are. The Dutch love to visit markets abroad to see all the local products. You can send them to the cooperative shops, but they don’t carry all products, especially no fresh vegetables.

Here in Molyvos they tried to organise a market, without any result. Last week I discussed this phenomenon with friends who work in the tourist industry and they told me that one of the most popular excursions on Las Palmas (Gran Canarian) is the one to a faraway local market.

So that’s it: don’t plan a market too close — but faraway! Lafionas for example is a picturesque village above Petra, where you could organize a market. You could make it into an attractive excursion where tourists, once up in the village, can also take the Alexander walk, an easy walk around a mountaintop with splendid views over the region.

If the sub-municipality of Petra doesn’t approve of a market in Lafionas then you make a market in Vatoussa, one of the most beautiful villages of the island, and which has a large parking lot. Or in Andissa, where they say that they have the most beautiful square. They wouldn’t object to having the most cozy market of the island. Because a market brings lots of life and where there’s life, there’s business.

Yesterday in Skamnioudi I tasted a one-day-old feta, and I nearly ate a kilo, it was that delicious. I get honey in Karini, but I am sure you also can find the same good quality elsewhere on the island. Lisvori makes a very special bread, like the bread from the wood stove in Megalochori which also is famous. The region around Mandamados is famous for its cheese, Agios Dimitrios (close to Agiasos) is known for its in sugar preserved vegetables and fruit (gliko toe koetalio) and the womens’ cooperative of Anamotia makes delicious cakes. It will take you days to buy all your favourite products here on the island.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have all those different cheeses from the island gathered in one market, along with all the different products of the many womens’ cooperatives, or to see all the honeys on a row, or all the olive oils, all the wines, all the horta and so on . . .

During the Ottoman Empire Greeks were known as being smart and good business people. Where did that business spirit go? Huge national and international enterprises have made Greece poor. So change the laws and the bureaucratic systems so that small entrepreneurs can build up Greece again with honest commerce and old-fashioned mercantilism.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Friday, 2 March 2012

February 28 – Archipelagos

(Molyvos at the Aegean)

Every day I walk along the sea, even when it rains or storms. One day I walked even while snowflakes were whirling down.

After a few days of spring – it was such beautiful weather we had lunch outside – winter started a new offensive and now the Siberian wind is back and blows without mercy over the island. It has spoiled lots of fun; yesterday this attack came with rain and in the mountains even with snow and a few of the carnival parades were cancelled. In Molyvos the festivity was removed indoors, but the schoolchildren, who had been preparing for weeks, were unable to show their dances.

The last days of the carnival before Lent and Clean Monday (Kathara Deftera) were, as I said, warm and for several days lots of people were able to put aside their sorrows over the crisis and have been celebrating. And, even on that icy cold Kathara Deftera, restaurants for once were booming.

The highest mountain here in the North of Lesvos, Lepetimnos, still had some white snowy spots but now has been redecorated with a new white blanket. In Turkey too some mountain tops are snow white, glistening against a fresh blue sky, just like the sea, which is coloured blue and white, its white crests, like fiery horses, rushing towards the coast.

One of the twelve Titans in Greek mythology was Oceanus, master over all the oceans and seas. When the Greeks began to understand more about where the world oceans were, he became the master of all faraway oceans and Poseidon got to rule over the Mediterranean sea, of which the Aegean Sea is part.

This part of the Mediteranean used to be called Master sea or
archipelagos (arkhi in old Greek means Chief and pelagos sea). The modern word for a group of islands, archipelago, comes probably from archipelagos, because the Aegean Sea has plenty of islands.

They are hundreds and the Greeks islands (Turkey has only three islands left in the Aegean) are divided in seven groups: the North Aegean islands to which Lesbos belongs, the Sporades, Euboea (Evvia), the Saronic islands, the Cyclades, the Dodecanesos and Crete.

There are different stories about how the Aegean Sea finally got its name: the sea might be named after the ancient Greek town of Aegea (nowadays Aigio which is in the north of the Peleponessus), it could have been named after Aegea, a queen of the Amazones who drowned in the Aegean sea, or it could have been named after king Aegeus. This Greek ruler was told by an oracle that his son would cause his death. That is why he had a son in secret, Theseus. The boy was brought up far away from Athens. Theseus would only be allowed to come to Athens when he was able to lift a heavy rock, beneath which were hidden a pair of sandals and a sword. This happened when Theseus was 16 years old and so he went to Athens where his father recognized him. Like a real Greek hero this young man had many adventures and he also wanted to defeat the Minotaurus on Crete. There he met Adriadne, the daughter of king Minos. She helped him with a wire to escape the labyrinth where he killed the monster. He then set back to Athens taking his love with him. At Naxos they stopped to have a party, where Dionysos kidnapped Ariadne. This confounded Theseus so much that he completely forgot what he had agreed with his father: that should he survive his adventure – he would return to Athens with white sails. Aegeus saw his son’s ships arriving with black sails, and thinking Theseus was dead, he threw himself into the sea. And that is why this sea was called the Aegean.

The Aegean Sea is still full of history. Whole towns have disappeared into its waves and the extended bottom still hides plenty of treasures and ship wrecks. The Aegean Sea is still said not to be trusted because of sudden storms that can make problems for seafarers or can mean a watery grave for unstable ships. The sister ship of the Titanic, the Brittanic perished on November 21, 1916 in the Aegean, as did the SS Heraklion on December 8 in 1966, the MS Express Samina on September 26 in 2000, the Sea Diamond on April 5 in 2007. And even two weeks ago a large luxurious yacht disappeared in its waves: bye bye Yogi!

The various sea creatures that are fished out of the Aegean and end up on our plates are a gift from this turbulent world that gives and takes. Lent has started and the fishermen are out because, according the Orthodox Church, for the coming six weeks you are not allowed to eat products from animals with red blood, nor from fish with bones. So its not the favourite time for molluscs and shellfish: for they are, along with vegetables, the chosen food these days,

Some days ago it was so warm and the sea so invitingly calm and transparent blue that, for a split second, I thought I would have a swim. But now during these icy cold and stormy days its not even funny to walk along the shore. The water gets stowed into high waves and the horses of Poseidon blow their foam over your head. You cannot believe that in just six weeks the summer season will start: it will then be Easter and not long after that the first bathers will arrive to stick their toes into the now wild and cold water – that on a hot summer day would be such a blessing.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012