Thursday, 30 August 2012

August 27 – The song of retsina

(A taste of retsina)

Everybody knows the Greek wine retsina. Many love it, many hate it: yuk, what a turpentine taste! The haters have probably barely tasted the wine, or it was many years ago that they took a sip. For them there is good news: retsina has been adjusted for modern times, just as the cheap bulk wines are now making way for the upcoming quality wines of Greece, retsina now has a milder taste and drinking retsina is ‘in’ again!

Resinated wine is at least 2000 years old, created to preserve the wine for a longer time. The insides of the porous amphora were plastered with resin from pine trees (the Aleppo pine). This was the same material that they used to waterproof boats. Of course the taste of the resin got into the wine and so they said that this was a wine made with the tears of nymphs living in the woods.

Another story claims that when the Romans invaded Greece and started to seize the Greek’s precious wines, the Greeks added some resin to the wine. And so the Romans, not liking retsina, left the wine for the Greeks. It is also said that the Greeks did the same when the country was occupied by the Germans.

From the beginning of the last century up to the Seventies, Greece was very poor and masses of cheap wines, like retsina, were produced. When Melina Mercouri took exile from her country (1967 - 1974) during the colonels’ regime, she recorded music in France, like the record Delfini delfinaki with the song Melina Melinaki, a song about her grandfather:
J’étais comme une reine (I was like a queen)
Assise à ses côtés (seated besides him)
Parmi les hommes d’Athènes (between the men from Athens)
Qui fument le narguilé (who smoked the water pipe)
Et boivent le vin résiné (and drunk resinated wine)”.

So retsina is a wine well known in musical history, because not only Melina Mercouri sang about retsina. You can find more than one song about retsina on YouTube, some sounding like the musicians had already hit the bottle, but that may be because of the age of the recordings: Retsina mou retsina mou from Manolis Fotopoulis, and from Michalis Geliotis, or this oldie from1937, Me mia koukla retsina mou by Orestis Makris-Loudiana,!

The more modern retsina sing-song of Karsten Hagen Frank reminds of an evening with plenty of bottles of retsina on and under the table. We were not yet familiar with this song when, last week along with friends, we set up a table full of different kinds of retsina, in order to have a real wine tasting. Had we known the song, we probably would have ended the evening with this boozy song.

We started the evening with the beautiful bulbous bottle of Ambelisious (Αμπελησιοuς) from Thessaloniki, which had a strong but elusive taste of resin, which grew on the palet. We compared that one immediately with the retsina Malamatina (Μαλαματινα), also from Thessaloniki. This retsina is very well known and the most consumed on the island. I even found a Malamatina-song on YouTube, best to be listened after some glasses of retsina. However popular this retsina might be, our verdict about its honey-like taste was that it had an artificial, chemical taste.

Then it was the turn for the big bottle of Mirina (Μυρινα) which raised some problems. The men immediately declared that this was a sissy-retsina for the ladies! And indeed the ladies did love this slightly perfumed, airy retsina from the island of Limnos.

Next was an old-fashioned style retsina from the big wine company Kourtaki (Κουρτακι). This had a pretty strong resin taste; nobody liked this old, strong taste and the yellow liquor ended up in the bushes.

Poured into the glasses next was the retsina Michali Georgiadis (Μιχαλη Γεωργιαδις) from Thessaloniki. I like to drink this retsina, when it’s available in the restaurants, but my friends judged it as having a very light, flat taste, tinny on he tongue.

And then at the end there was the surprisingly sexy retsina with the difficult name Tsakpina (Τσακπινα) from Halkidiki, easy to recognize by its nice label: a blonde girl with a seductive face in the colours red, green and yellow (probably inspired by the Mini ouzo label). Even late this Tsakpina seduced us to the verdict of having a challenging, slightly sweet taste.

Our conclusion is that the ancient retsinas that tasted so strongly of resin are difficult to find nowadays. In the popular years of retsina, in Athens there were plenty of taverns that only sold this wine. A friend remembers such a place where a series of barrels were lined up in the tavern, marked with numbers, and you could choose from which number you would like to have a glass. Probably these numbers corresponded to the level of resin. The lower the number, the longer the wine was in the barrel and the more the taste of resin. If you wanted a drinkable retsina, you had to choose a number in the middle.

Nowadays consumers only like just a whiff of resin in the wine, a retsina not lying too long in a barrel; although nowadays the resin is put directly into the pulp when the wine ferments – so this whole barrel-number system no longer exists. But retsina is still popular, proved by this entertaining little movie about a bottle of retsina (sorry, again a bottle of Malamatina).

However, Malamatina is ‘out’, because in our retsina test it ended on the fourth place. The one we liked best was the Ambelísious, followed in second place by the swinging retsina Tsakpina. The ladies that night were in majority so in third place was the sultry Mirina. Michali Georgiadis ended as fifth (for me it should have ended as fourth) and the Kourtaki was judged as the worst retsina of that event.

Of course there are many more retsinas to taste in Greece. But most wineries will all have adjusted the taste to modern times: mild retsinas that can be drunk in the Greek heat, almost like an alcoholic lemonade. So tasty they are worth a song.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

August 20: Fig and Fire

(A ripe red purple fig)

Sometimes I suspect time of secretly passing more quickly in Greece: before you know it summer is over. All village festivities, like the Sardine Festival in Kalloni and the Celebration of Teoktisti in Molyvos are over and even the highlight of the Greek summer, Maria Assumption has just been celebrated. These days are characterized by the shouting, pushing, illegal parking, making noise in-the-middle-of-the-night-home-coming, holiday-celebrating Greeks from the big cities and although they cause a festive atmosphere, there are people who hope that the quiet days will quickly return.

And that is what it does and as a bonus last week the long lasting heat also got chased away by a real thunderstorm with a refreshing downpour. Now there is a cool northern wind blowing, that has caused the temperature of the seawater to drop by many degrees.

August 15 also means that the figs start ripening, a festive event celebrated in silence: everywhere you see people savouring figs they have just picked. The first pots of marmalade appear and I myself have made a row of pots of Oriental fig marmalade (for the recipe, see: Almost Greek). Yesterday a friend passed by bringing bags full of figs, so I saw no other solution than to spend the day in the kitchen over a pan cooking figs.

Which was not bad at all because for two days now I have been following the Dutch music festival Lowlands, partly broadcasted live through YouTube. The music often made me dance in front of the stove. Isn’t it a miracle that from Greece you can enjoy the music that is performed so far away? Although my happiness soon diminished because of something happening closer to the island.

People in the south of Lesvos had to have seen it: dark clouds drifting above the neighbouring island of Chios because an enormous wildfire was raging through its south. Villages had to be evacuated, people who fled from the flames became stranded on a beach surrounded by the fire, other inhabitants had to fight hard to preserve their goods and an army of fire fighters, soldiers and volunteers are still trying to stop the fire with an extensive fleet of fire trucks, planes and helicopters.

The strong wind from the north made the fire mighty and swift, a tough adversary for all people struggling with the flames. Today (Monday August 20) the fire is ongoing and the wind still going strong, causing such high waves at sea that the planes fighting the fires could not take water and had to fly up and down to Lesvos to the more quiet waters of the Gulf of Kalloni (or Gera).

The fire is still raging around Anavatos, one of the locations of the James Bond-film For your eyes only. Anavatos was built on a steep mountain, with a near invisible access road so that the inhabitants were protected from the pirates. Flames however are licking this road and it is a miracle that the fire has not found the village yet. The few remaining inhabitants of Anavatos make their living from their olive fields, grow peanuts and raisins and have bees in the fields below. I guess there will be nothing left there and it is estimated that 60% of the beehives of the island are destroyed, a damage that will need tens of years to be restored.

At the south of the conflagration flames are threatening lovely villages such as Pirgi and Olympi, villages of the mastic region. On Chios for centuries now mastic trees have been cultivated to harvest mastic, one of the specialities of the island. It is a national disaster that huge parts of this unique area have been destroyed by the fire.

I regularly spent holidays in this mastic area where I used to pick lots of blue figs. There are many kinds of figs and I have no idea which tree provides which variety. On Chios you mainly find blue figs but on Lesvos they are green, which I thought to be very odd because I believed that ripe figs should be blue. Now I know better and I even know a few trees with blue figs on Lesvos, also a tree with purple red figs and one with nearly black figs and one with figs as big as an apple. I don’t think that there is a lot of difference in taste. As long as you pick them at the right time when they are soft and juicy, they all taste divine.

I divide the figs in four portions: one part lies in the sun to dry, another part I will use to make ice cream from figs and blackberries, another part I will turn into fig chutney and with the fourth part I will make some more pots of Oriental fig marmalade. While I stir a teaspoon of mastic through the marmalade, with pain in the heart I think back to this gorgeous mastic area, where the crickets were loudly singing, hidden in very ancient olive and mastic trees and trees full of blue figs. It has now probably turned into a blackened, dead silent eerie landscape. I cry for you, Chios!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Trendy Greece

(A field of Salicornia at the Bay of Kalloni)

There are fashion trends, there are the newest games, there may be computer trends and there are food trends. There even are people whose job it is to write about food trends, like the Dutch Marjan Ippel: Talkin’ food.

Now Greece would appear to be a country with plenty of ancient culture, dusty taverns and a timeless blue sea, but when you take a look at the new food trends, Greek food fits into plenty of these food hypes. If you go for holidays around the Greek Aegean, you can boast that you have been eating according to these latest trends.

It is, for example, fashionable to eat what the region provides (Region Focused). Going to a Chinese or Greek restaurant (when not in China or Greece) is not done anymore. For Greek food you must travel all the way to Greece. But when you are there, you will find a trendy food paradise; for example, here on the island of Lesvos. it is hard to find products not coming from the island (well, I must confess, slowly slowly supermarkets nowadays sell more and more foreign products). Most restaurants cook with local products and prefer even to cook with home-grown vegetables and fruit.

Then there is Social Dining, in Holland trendy with online free markets: getting food from your neighbour or other local chefs who like to cook and share their food for little money. Greeks may not yet be so accustomed in sharing online, but sharing food is a Greek tradition: the more people join the dinner, the better. And then Greek men regularly – some of them even daily – visit the neighbouring tavern for a bite with the ouzo, where (mostly) women prepare food for a day, served on tiny dishes with the drinks: Mama’s Greek pot!

Tapas is another trend. Greeks do not serve Spanish tapas, because those are made in Spain (and it is not done anymore to eat tapas in another country). But it is easy to put up a table only set with Greek tapas, called mezès: little dishes with small portions of food like tzatziki, salted fish, cheese, salads, vegetables and whatever you want. When tapas are fashionable, Greek mèzes are also part of that trend.

Another trend is to eat the entire product: Trash Cooking. Most Greeks will not realize that they have been doing trash cooking as long as they have been behind the stove: nothing gets thrown away, everything gets served. The entire lamb is eaten: not only the legs and cutlets but also the heart, kidneys, liver, brains, eyes, tongue and balls (a delicacy when drinking ouzo). The green leaves from the beetroots are also cooked and eaten, just as beans are cooked and served in their pods.

Direct trade is another trend known to the Greeks: buying your food straight from the farmer. At Easter farmers are busy slaughtering their animals and during the entire year farmers sell their vegetables and fruit from their open cars.

Greek food is also very Low Fidelity: it uses only very basic food. Greek dishes are seldom primped-up with expensive frills like caviar or truffles, nor is it seasoned with cream or alcohol. The products are served just cooked, baked or fried and only seasoned with fresh spices.

Paleo- or Primalvega & Urbanibalisme are trends mostly for countries that have lost contact with nature: this is cooking as was done in primal times and getting food from urban areas. Well, Greeks no longer cook like in ancient times, but plenty of their methods of cooking (like using a wood stove, grilling an entire lamb or making syrup from fruit in a huge kettle on an open fire) are rituals centuries old. By the way, cooking on open fires (Primal Fire) is another trend that in Greece is more like a tradition. And yes, city or not, Greeks do get their food everywhere: in sea in front of their houses, from the garden at the back of the house and maybe even from the City parks. When a Greek townsman can afford a garden, he will not grow flowers but vegetables.

Then there is the Umami-effect. I have to admit that I did not know umami, but it seems to be one of our five basic tastes: there used to be salty, sweet, sour and bitter and now you also have umami. Umami has the ability to balance sweet and salty tastes and encourages salivation. I have no idea how it tastes but it is in many products like fish, shellfish, fermented meat, mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, spinach, cheese and sauces made of fish or soya beans.

The word umami (it means something like delicious taste) comes from a Japanese professor who in 1908 identified it for the first time and decennia later this taste was officially added to the already existing four tastes. Even though the name is Japanese, umami is found everywhere, like in Greece especially in summertime when you may get bored by all the ripe and shiny red tomatoes or when you try to cool down with a glass of ouzo (is there umami in ouzo?) while eating lots of sardines and cheese, both products with umami.

Yesterday I collected some samphire (Salicornia), dressed it with a mustard-cream sauce. I do not know if Salicornia contains umami, but this lovely dish certainly accords with other trends: Tapas, Region Focused and Social Dining (the neighbours also got a bite) and had I not dressed it up it would also have been Low Fidelity. So Greek food it hot! And I do predict the newest trend: Crisis Dining, having dinners in countries that are in crisis. Trendy Greece will be on top of that list.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Ice cold

(Water ice cream. Photo: from internet)

Different countries define ‘heat wave’ differently and in some of the larger countries this varies from region to region. In the Netherlands warm days are said to form a heat wave when on 5 consecutive days temperatures are 25 ºC or higher. A Greek heat wave is a lot hotter: 3 consecutive days with temperatures at 36.5 ºC or higher. For weeks here in Greece the mercury has barely fallen below 30 ºC and there are days when the mercury tries to climb over the 40 ºC. But officially it is not a heat wave, but a prolonged period of heat with separate heat waves.

This hot period started in the middle of June, long before the Dog Days started on July 20th and if measuring it according to Dutch definitions of a heat wave, this was one endless mega-heat wave (although the Dutch definition is only for Holland). The Dog Days are the hottest period of the summer, with the most heat waves and will last officially until August 20. So we still have some hot weeks to go!

According to the Hellenic National Meteorological Service summers are warming up, plagued by more and more heat waves.
If this doesn’t make you happy, you’d better think about other things like lovely cooling ice.

Centuries ago the summers were not that hot, but they were still pretty warm. There were no refrigerators then to keep a drink cool or to preserve food. How did they do it before refrigerators were introduced to households in the twentieth Century?

In ancient times they didn’t have cool boxes but ice houses, although I presume that those were only for a happy few of the rich and mighty. Ice houses were mostly round shaped buildings above a cellar where ice was stored in order not to melt in the summer. In Iranian texts from around 1700 BC there are descriptions of such buildings and around 300 BC Alexander the Great had made deep wells where snow was stored.

Well, I’d love to have such a well on our land. Just imagine, we could have a snowball fight in the middle of the summer. That would be really cool! I could also do with benches made out of those big blocks of ice, which formed a flourishing trade in the 19th century. Frederic Tudor, also called the Ice King of Boston, made a fortune by storing blocks of ice and later transporting them all over the world, to the Caribbean, to South America, India, China and Australia.

Blocks of ice were hacked out of frozen lakes in the winter and transported to the icehouses. Henry David Thoreau, who lived for three years in the woods at Walden Pond (Massachusetts, US) described in his book Walden, how each winter the Ice Men of Tudor came to take ice from ‘his’ pond, which would end up in faraway countries like India.

At the beginning of the beautiful movie America, America (1963, Elia Kazan) two men are seen to hack ice blocks out of a glacier on a mountain in Anatolia (Turkey). With horse and carriage the blocks were removed to the villages where they were sold and used to preserve or cool food and – who knows – just to eat it as a cooling treat.

When the refrigerator was introduced worldwide this ice commerce lost its profitability. Since then however the ice industry found other outlets. When the refrigerator was introduced it was the water-ice creams that melted the hearts of children. Now this industry has grown so big that children no longer know which ice cream will be the best. In earlier times your choice was as simple as choosing a red or a yellow coloured one. Nowadays they make ice cream from everything, even from hamburgers, garlic, salmon, whatever you want. Ice cream maker Heladaria Coromoto in Venezuela even sells 860 different flavours!

I am not such an Ice Queen and I only make ice from the fruit that comes off the tree in our garden which I combine with yoghurt or cream to make a delicious ice cream. And to be honest I am not waiting to turn a tsatsiki or a fava into a cool dish. Although I must admit that I once made a lovely fig ice cream and that I was not disappointed at all experimenting with tomato ice cream. The Tomato Sorbet with Garlick Sauce even made it in my cookbook Almost Greek and is a delicious dish served in between a meal.

If this heat continues any longer who knows if I will be crazy enough to try out some souvlaki-ice cream, some aubergine-ice cream or even some sardine-ice cream!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012