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Thursday, 8 May 2008

Lunch at MAICh (Κολατσιό στο MAIX)

How does this lunch menu sound to you?

1. Roast vegetable medley (potatoes, aubergine, courgette, onions, peppers) in a tomato sauce topped with feta cheese
2. Choice of any salad from the following: carrot and lettuce, tomato and cucumber (with olives), dilitani pasta with tuna, potato and egg salad with tomato
3. Home-made bread
4. Cream cupcake



This is what was on offer today at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania. The students at this graduate and research centre come from all over the Mediterranean and Europe, as well as Turkey and the Middle East. Only a few students are Greek, although the staff are mainly Greek. The students are all graduates from their own country and they come here to further their studies on agronomic issues (sustainable agriculture and biotechnology among them). Not only do the students study at the campus; they also live in the dormitories and eat at the institute's restaurant free of charge - these programmes are sponsored by the European Union and the Ministry of Agriculture. The campus offers conference facilities, too. I teach English here, and today I have a class with my groups.

I don't normally come during the lunch hour - the standard Mediterranean time of 1 o'clock - but I find that whenever I do have lunch at the MAICh restaurant, I am usually quite satisfied. Most of the foreign students with a Mediterranean background studying at MAICh are already used to the food; the cuisine of their own country is very similar to the Greek cuisine, despite each country's borders. However, there are admittedly many ways to serve up Mediterranean ingredients, and Greek cuisine is unique, especially if it's specialised even further into Cretan cuisine (and in Hania, it's probably been refined down to typically Haniotika tastes). The standard of the food at MAICh cannot be compared in any way with the low-quality school meals that Jamie Oliver was complaining about.

The food cooked and served at MAICh always contains large amounts of vegetables and salads (I've been working there for 13 years, so I should know). This is the most positive aspect of the menu. The variety of salads is immense; only someone who is totally against raw green and red vegetables would have a problem finding something to eat here. There is always a cooked (main) meal served along with the salads. The main meal at lunch does not usually contain meat - that is reserved for the evening meal. (I have no idea what the evening meal is like.)

I wasn't carrying my camera, so I couldn't snap a few shots of what was being offered today (the photo shows a bifteki meal - in the form of a hamburger), but I didn't really need to take any photos. Today's meals looked pretty much what you would expect them to look like if you were living in the Mediterranean. In fact, they looked exactly as you would have seen them served elsewhere in our town. Let's take the lettuce salad: Greeks don't tear lettuce, they shred it. Now let's take the tomato salad: Greeks never slice whole tomatoes in rounds for a salad; they cut them in chunks. Today's vegetable medley was briam, a well-known Greek dish, cooked in the traditional way. Peter's briam doesn't look too different from the one served here today. The menu was very typical of the Cretan diet: cooked vegetables, raw salads, pasta and tuna for the extra ravenous, some bread (made on the premises) to mop up the sauces, and a cupcake as a treat, although there should have been some fruit available for the weight or health conscious. Local oranges would have been an appropriate choice.

I can say that they were well-cooked, presentable and very Mediterranean. The cook focuses on using local products: the fresh produce are mainly locally grown, and he uses local cheeses in the main meals. The menu is non-Greek on an extremely rare basis; the main non-Greek meal that springs to my mind which I've had in the past there is stir-fry, but even that contained local vegetables, served on a bed of rice rather than noodles. In fact, most of the food on my website's list of recipes is served up for lunch on a regular basis: makaronada, fasolada, hortopita, boureki, yemista, soya-based souvlaki, pastitsio and biftekia, even spinach pastitsio. This gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing that what I cook on a daily basis is what everyone in my town is eating too.

I don't think the students have any reason to complain about their daily meals. Even breakfast is very Mediterranean in the sense that salad, cheese and olives are also served alongside the tradtional cornflakes and marmalade toasts. Instead, they should complain about the lack of heating, hot water and toilet paper, simple problems that often cause great misery to everyone, not just students living far away from their families.

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