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Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Leek and potato potage (Σούπα με πατάτες και πράσα)

My cooking tends somewhat to the traditional side of Cretan cooking, rather than the more modern New Zealand approach to food. I was never this drab; I could never have imagined myself as being this drab. My other half hasn't noticed how I feel; it's all Greek to him. But winter life is getting us both down. He hates being cooped up at home. I hate having to face his morose expression, due in part to his mother's declining health, and to another part, to the heavy winter Crete has been experiencing recently.

My favourite season in New Zealand was actually the winter. It was a time of staying indoors, an activity I indulged in, being cosy and warm, drinking Maggi Cup-A-Soup, and poetry readings. My last Kiwi winter was spent writing a book about immigrant Greeks (it's still in press). In the Med, winter denotes the kind of deadness that is instantly revived the minute the sun's rays come into view. Cretans were not made for bad weather. Their houses are not insulated, their sewers overflow, tomatos stop growing. Life here revolves around the sun and hot weather, whether or not it is a sign of global warming and climate change. We haven't had any sun in Hania for the last eight days, and the temperature has dropped to 6 degrees Celsius. The sky looms above you with a big black cloud, the wind whips through you and freezes your breath; the sun is trying to peek through all of this, without much luck.

Crete has always had a cold winter, in a matter of speaking. This year is no exception; our mountains are all covered in snow, and some people even had to be air-lifted to safety just a few days ago from the Lefka Ori (the White Mountain range of Hania). Admittedly, they were families with young children, who wanted to show the kids the snow - they went on a day-trip with their car, without being prepared for snowy conditions; no chains on the tyres, and the car was probably a sedan. Happy-go-luckies. Despite this, winter is Crete has always been a very mild affair compared to where my fellow bloggers live. Laurie tried to show me the little lake she has in front of her house; all I saw was whitewash. Peter claims he's tired of winter, even though he's a born-and-bred Torontan. Rhona provides revealing photographs of daily life in the snow. It doesn't sound as if climate change has affected areas that were traditionally snowed in. They're still snowed it. So I mustn't complain now that in Hania we haven't seen the sun for so many days; this kind of weather is right up my alley. I thrive on cold weather - it sharpens my mental powers. The baking sun only serves to numb them into a kind of hibernation until the humid autumn passes. No wonder Northern Europeans see us as lazy frappé-go-lucky half-wits who seem to have a bee in their bonnet about the word 'Macedonia'. They spend only two weeks in this climate. I'm sure they'd be just as sunstruck if they had to spend all their lives here. This cold winter provides a glimmer of hope that climate change has not affected us as seriously as the experts would have us believe.

Whoever is really worried about climate change is more than welcome to take steps against it: go ahead and eat locally, I say to the British, whose food supplies need to be air-freighted into the country to meet their stringent quality standards, and extravagant unseasonal fetishes. And since we're talking about eating locally, why not take your holidays locally too, instead of flying out of Heathrow and warming up the London climate? How does Blackpool and Brighton sound to you? I'll bet they both beat Paleohora any day, don't they? Concern over climate change is a way of passing the buck for some people. Maybe Londoners will be able to go swimming in the Thames soon, with all that extra sunshine they've been enjoying recently, from what I've noticed in the webcams. Instead of lowering their house heating, they worry about the plight of turtles and start putting them into the refrigerator to stop them from coming out of hibernation, as if that were a priority in keeping the balance of the ecosystem.

I love other people's food. The trouble is, in this town, other people's food is the same as mine. I recently taught a group of 45-year-old unemployed women basic English for the service sector, and we invariably ended up talking about food. I asked them what each one had cooked for today's meal: I wasn't surprised when they told me that they were having one of the following dishes: horta, biftekia, gigandes, fakes, fasolakia, fasolada, with sausages, omeletta. All these meals are easy to prepare from the evening before or after a busy day (the women were involved in a training program which took place all morning for three consecutive months). What's more, these foods are all a part of the Mediterranean diet that they were themselves brought up on - just look at the preponderance of beans and pulses. I came out feeling very positive, that I was a normal cook churning out the same good food that all good housewives and cooks were making on a daily basis in Hania. No one incidentally cooked meat during the week (apart from the biftekia and sausages which were probably used as an accompaniment to horta or beans); meat is still reserved by traditional cooks for the end of the week, more likely for health reasons these days, rather than the reason given by people in the past, that meat was reserved for special occasions, there wasn't enough available, that there was no means of preserving it (no electricity or modern appliances).

To break the routine, and maybe the ice in the weather, I thought I'd take a creative stance today. Having read about what the young vibrant Ioanna cooks in her kitchen (as opposed to my own perceived staleness), I thought I'd indulge in a Gordon Ramsay creation from the bold UK chef who seems to have a penchant for naming his culinary creations in some European language other than English, and mixing meat and fish in the same dish. Whereas I have stagnated in my cooking ventures, reading Ioanna's webpage has revived my craving for something foreign, from a completely different world to the one I'm living in. I thought I'd try a potage de leeks et potatos. Je ne sais pas what my other half is going to think about this soup; il y a some leftover moussaka for anybody who ne veux pas to try this very un-Grecque concoction. I'm game.






For the
sake of convenience, the recipe is repeated here. The franglais are my own mutations to the original.
500gr leeks, the pale and light green part only, chopped (pas un favourit de mon homme)
500gr potatoes
1 large onion
100ml white wine (j'ai seulement red)
1.5 lt stock (stock a la Knorr)
30gr butter
2 tbsp olive oil
200ml cream or a mixture of milk and cream) (pas something dans la cuisine Cretan)
1 bouquet garni comprising of: celery, thyme, parsley and 2 bay leaves (Je n'ai pas fait this since before I was married)
(Et ou est le salt and pepper??)

In a large pan sweat the leeks, onions and potatoes (I take it they are also chopped small??) together with the butter and oil, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and wait until it evaporates a little bit. Add the stock and boucket garni and simmer until the potato is soft. Remove the bouquet garni and liquify in the blender until smooth. Add the cream and bring to a gentle simmer for a couple of minutes. Serve warm with loads of freshly ground pepper (voila le pepper, mais il n'ya pas de salt) and a nice slice of bread. (Je add le salt).

While I'm cooking the soup, I feel slightly dizzy. I wonder, could it be the wine wafting through my nostrils that has made me drunk enough to feel as though the earth is moving? I look up, and find the lightbulbs moving. No, I was not experiencing a kitchen love affair on St Valentine's Day. I just felt the final tremors of an earthquake which was felt somewhere in the Peloponese. In any case, the smell of the suop is intoxicating, and vigorously refreshing. I loved it. Perfect with a slice of feta and some thick crusty bread. Vive la France! We all loved this soup, and the proof is in the child enjoying it.

This post is dedicated to Christine, my best taster.

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MORE SOUPS:
Chicken stock
Poached fish soup
Fennel soup
Avgolemono
Lentil soup
Bean soup
Black-eyed bean soup
French onion soup
Fish soup
Pumpkin soup