Sunday, 4 May 2008

Xerotigana - Cretan wedding dessert (Ξεροτήγανα)

The tourist season was in full swing. Despite the sunny weather, the cold breeze whipped bare skin under the shade. While the locals were wearing long-sleeved T-shirts, the Northern Europeans - where so many of the tourists came from - were wandering around shirtless in their jandals (the women wore bikini tops). Some had already turned beetroot red, completely unaware that they were only an hour away from sunstroke. Ifigeneia stared at them as if they were aliens.

"Mama, aren't they crazy?" she asked her mother.

"Very much," Georgia replied, feeling satisfied that the flood of foreigners in her town did not greatly affect the culture in which she was raising her children. Had she been in New Zealand, Emmanuel and Ifigeneia would surely have gone with everyone else's flow. And Georgia herself wouldn't have been able to stop it because her children would tell her that they were Kiwis, even though their parents might call themselves Greek.

"They're eating ice-crea
m, mama. Is it summertime now?" Goergia was feeling like an ice-cream herself. Today was a good time for the first one for the summer season, even though Easter was only just over and spring hadn't finished. During the Easter festivities, she had suggested to her husband to buy some ice-cream for dessert, if of course there would be any space left after the lamb, the kalitsounia, the pie and all the other Easter food.

"Ice-cream, Georgia? Spring isn't even over yet, and you're thinking about ice-cream?" Her husband was very much dependent on the seasons, which dictated to him what he should eat, what he should wear, where he should go for a Sunday outing. The artichokes in the garden would be at their heaviest, harvest drooping with the weight, but Lambros would say: "It's too early for artichokes. Let them keep growing for a couple more weeks," in which time the artichokes would start blooming in purple thistles, their hearts too tough and fibrous to chew. In a September mini-heatwave, he'd carry a jacket in fear of a change of weather, even though climate change had already taken care of that. It could be a fine sunny day in the middle of winter - as so many were during the halcyon days in January - but he'd still want to drive up to the mountain plain of Omalos, because 'that's where everyone goes in the winter.' Georgia had been raised in a season-free country; all year round, one minute it rained, the next it hailed and then the sun shone through the clouds as if signalling that the worst was over - until a gale-force wind blew the roofs off the houses. Ice-cream was eaten anytime of the year. If Kiwis wait to eat one on a fine day, they might even miss out on having one in their own country altogether, as they'd be taking their holidays in Tonga or Tahiti when the sun finally did arrive in Aotearoa. And right now, Georgia felt like a Crazy Joe popsicle.

They were now nearing the Agora, where Georgia wanted to get some shopping done. She needed som
e malaka to make a meat pie with the leftover lamb from Easter. There was always too much leftover food at Easter; she had already frozen what she could, but it seemed pointless to freeze the lamb as it was - it would involve defrosting, making a pie crust, preparing the filling, and then cooking it. It was easier to freeze a pie in individual servings, ready to defrost and serve up on a busy day when she was at work once the schools opened again.

"Are we going to a park, mama?" It was always a problem entertaining the children when she had to cart them with her in town. Boredom was never a problem; they just wanted to stop at every toy shop windo
w and then go in and buy everything on display. Their faces dropped when they saw the Agora. "What are we going to do there?" asked Emmanuel.

"Well, I just need to bu
y some cheese, it won't take long."

"Can we go to the park afterwards?"

"We'll see," she replied, something the children were used to hearing from their mother, who was at that moment thinking about the traffic jam she'd have to encounter to get out of the town centre in the middle of the day. The Easter holidays always brought a flood of Greek tourists from the mainland who always
travelled with their private cars - usually SUVs - and drove in the same manic way as in their residential Athenian neighbourhoods. They stopped to let other cars pass at STOP signs, while ignoring them themselves. As they were coming into the town, a car with Athenian licence plates had stopped in the middle of a narrow road so that the driver could make a withdrawal from an ATM. He only got back into his car when the taxi driver who had queued behind him got out of his taxi and proceeded to enter his car, presumably to park it onto into someone's driveway, thereby unblocking the flow of traffic.

An idea suddenly struck her. "Would you like something to eat or drink while we're in the Agora?" Snacking out was always a spiritual enhancer for Georgia, even if it was only a coffee or a pastry, as long as she was sitting at a cafe and she could people-watch.

"Nah, I wanna go to the park," said Ifigeneia.

"OK, if you're feeling hungry, don't ask me to buy anything for you, because I won't." Georgia was sure that there was no way the children would pass up an opportunity to sit at a cafe and be served a snack. I
t's too tempting to pass by a food stall in the Agora and not feel hungry, even if you weren't hungry when you entered. And as Ifigeneia and Emmanuel entered the Agora, they came across a range of bread and pastry products, which filled their eye, as much as they would fill their stomachs.

Let's buy the cheese first," Georgia told them, trying to lure them away from the buying from the first shop they found, "and maybe we might find a place to sit down and have these."

The cheese store was on the other side of the cross-shaped market. As they walked past the central part of the Agora, Georgia noticed a few kafeneia serving the traditional Greek coffee, with a few old men sitting quietly at one of the tables. Hardly any were speaking, not even to each other. They looked lonely; the kafeneio was a way to see people coming and going all day long. They might have seen some acquaintances passing by, and would greet them as if they were visitors in their own house.

"Antonis, hronia polla, did you have a good time at the village
?"... "Emeis, kala persame, isiha pragmata... we're fine, everybody's well, ... hairetismata to your family, bye for now."

They could sit in the Agora all day long until it closed at 3pm. Maybe they'd go home a little earlier for lunch, take a siesta, and then go to their afternoon haunt, like Georgia's uncles, who each supported a different kafeneio in their village in the morning, and a different one in the afternoon, meeting up only for lunch.

The cheesemaker recognised her as one of his regular customers. "Kalimera madam," he greeted her smilingly, in th
at special way that all Greek shop owners greet their regulars.

Georgia thought it ap
propriate to use the seasonal greeting of 'Hronia Polla', one of those generic greetings that you can say almost any time (except at a wedding or funeral). "Some tiromalama, please," she asked him, adding "is it fresh?" although she knew it was.

The shop owner turned to his young assistant. "Fere ena fresko malaka."

"Mama, why did he say he was going to bring a malaka?" asked Emmanuel. The shop owner laughed with Georgia.

"Etsi to lene, call malaka by its name," he answered to the little boy.

"What?" asked Emmanuel. Confusion reigned.

After paying for the cheese, the trio took to one of the other sides of the cross and came across a modern cafe with a wide variety of pastries on display: kalitsounia, crepes, spanakopita, bougatsa, cheese pie, donuts, egg pastry avgokalamara, and the largest xerotigana (E1.20 each) Georgia had ever seen. She pointed to them: "Shall we sit here? You can have anything you like from the display." She stood in front of the donuts so they could only see the healthier snacks.

The children were glad to have a seat after all the walking around. "Can I have a xerotigano?" Ifigeneia could not be fooled when it came to food. She seemed to prefer only local cuisine, even though Georgia cooked everything from Indian curry to Kiwi kai. Despite her pre-school age, she had a very refined definition of what good food meant. Emmanuel was happy with a hamburger - as long as it contained no tomato, pickle or mustard. Ifigeneia knew a good pastry when she saw one, and those xerotigana looked perfect: tightly-packed rounds of thinly-spread pastry, fried and dipped in honey syrup. Georgia wasn't surprised when Emmanuel said he'd have what Ifigeneia was having.

A busty chubby peroxide blonde, her
tight pink lycra crossover top hiding very little of her cleavage, was clearing one of the tables. She smiled softly at them. Her bra wasn't her size; either that, or she was purposely wearing it extra-tight. One boob was sitting higher up than the other. A piece of thick denim just covering her buttocks was wrapped tightly round her midriff, flabby tummy hanging exposed over it. Her thick footless lime green tights and high-heeled brown mules made her look more like someone who'd just come from Minoos St. The colours of her clothes suited the spring season well; if anyone would look just at her face and not the clown's clothing she was wearing, they would have said she was beautiful, but it wouldn't have been easy not to gape at her from the neck down. She looked a scream.

A man was at the till. "Stella!" he bellowed, and the blonde turned to look at him. "Bring some water to the children." His voice was gruff, unpleasant. He was wearing a black shirt, hanging over his trousers. It was probably more comfortable than trying to smooth it over his huge stomach and tucking it into his trousers.

"Can I have a cup of coffee with that please?" No response. Georgia repeated herself.

"What KIND of coffee dja want?" Under normal circumstances, Georgia would have upped and gone elsewhere, but after living in Hania for so long, she knew that she would get the same kind of treatment at another place, maybe worse. In Hania, shop owners open and close their shops as they please. Like lambs to the slaughter, customers return to the same shops, simply because they were recommended by an acquaintance, while the store owners obviously profit enough to be able to enjoy more relaxed opening hours. They don't need to change their attitude towards customers; the store owner is always right.

So she gaped at his face, as if she was staring right through his head, and replied in a low timid voice: "Cappuccino, please," knowing that he wouldn't hear her, and hoping to grate on his nerves until he finally took the time (there were no other customers) to listen to her in the interested way Georgia had been brought up to expect from a shop owner, the way she used to show interest in the customers' orders in her parents' fish and chip shop in Wellington. After repeating her order two times, the shop owner decided she was British and that's why she spoke so softly; so he forgave her and cocked his head to one side to hear her better. No matter how Greek her face looked, her accent always gave her foreign-ness away.

Some tourists were approaching the cafe; they were Dutch: a middle-aged man, a slightly younger woman, and two spotty pale-faced teenage boys, wearing Hawaiian floral bermudas and T-shirts. The was man carrying a guide book as if it were a bible (with GRIEKENLAND on the cover) , a chunky camera dangling off his neck. They were looking at the pastry display, pointing mostly at the xerotigana
with a perplexed look. They stole glances at the children eating theirs, who seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. Georgia smiled at them.

She decided to speak to them. "That's a traditional Cretan wedding dessert." It took them a few seconds to realise that she was talking to them. "We always have it at weddings. It's a pastry dipped in syrup."

The couple looked surprised with her offer of information, although she wasn't sure if they had understood her. They smiled and thanked her in that way that Northern Europeans have of saying 'thank you', as if someone had just offered them a service free of charge, and should be rewarded in some way. In any case, their confused looks had gone. They decided to take a seat. As they passed her table, Georgia almost fell off her chair. One of the boys was wearing a black t-shirt with a bullet-ridden ZONIANA signpost. She wondered whether they supported the abolition of the law stating that marijuana was a Class A drug. They were well versed in Cretan current affairs.

While the children ate their xerotigana, she sipped on her coffee slowly, as a cousin had once instructed her to do when she first arrived in Greece ("if you drink it too quickly, what are you going to do the rest of the time we're sitting here?" she had explained to her), letting it go tepid and undrinkable, while she watched the tourists walk up and down the main aisles of the Agora.

The Dutch family ordered xerotigana and ice-cream. "Stella!" roared the man at the till again. Stella produced the ubiquitous glasses of water, as if they were a sign that the shop owner was not the grouchy ruffian that he pretended to be. Georgia watched them breaking off bits of pastry; no sooner had they nipped a bit off and eaten it than another bit was broken off, until they had got to the tightest part of the pastry, which they ate more slowly.

"You speak very good English," the black-shirted shop owner broke into her daydream. "Are you Greek?" Georgia hated that question; it always carried a class distinction, a kind of segregation that she had slowly become accustomed to dealing with over the years.

"Yes, I am Greek," she replied, stressing the 'am' a little more than the other words, "but I was born έξω (= outside of Greece)." She could have told him where, but she knew that that would be the second question.

"Which country?" He still carried an inquisitive look.

"New Zealand."

"Hey, we're neighbours then. I was born in Australia, but my family left when I was very young. I don't remember hardly anything." Georgia couldn't explain to him that she remembered practically everything; she wouldn't know where to begin: the wooden houses, the wide streets, the dust-less environment, the green hills with their moving clouds of sheep...

His eyes took on a glassy haze, his voice softer than when he yelling to Stella. "I've always wanted to visit the house I was born in. I want to show it to my children. Don't you ever want to go back there?"

"To live there? No... My children were born here," she continued, "we live here now." The shop owner nodded in assent, showing recognition of the dilemma of being the tennis ball, batted between two countries, never gathering any moss, always wondering which side of the fence was greener.

"Kala einai ki'edo," he said, and Georgia smiled. It's just fine here, she thought to herself.

It was time to leave. Picking up the heavy bags of cheese, she got up to leave when the children had finished their dessert. "Now let's go to the park," Ifigeneia said. Georgia couldn't bear the thought of chasing children while carrying a block of malaka.

"Hey, shall we go to the supermarket instead?" Cries of protest came out of their mouths. "I'll buy you an ice-cream afterwards," she said, knowing that what she said was stupid - they'd just had a sweet pastry. "And we can eat it at the park near our house," she added as an afterthought.

"Yaaaaaaaaaaay!" they both cried.

The traffic on the road out of town was horrific. The queue stretched from the town centre out to the Nea Hora junction. It took Georgia half an hour to drive those four kilometres. The trip to the supermarket was to be a quick one: orzo pasta rice ('make sure it's Misko') and lavender-scented chlorine bleach ('in a white bottle') for her bedridden sudoku-solving mother-in-law. The last time she had bought her some orzo rice, she'd bought another brand. "It's not the one I wanted," scowled the old lady, as if it was her last god-given right to be permitted to choose the brand of orzo rice of her preference, and Georgia was simply being inconsiderate towards the needs of senior citizens. So Georgia simply put the pasta in her bag and pretended to make away with it, promising she'll buy Misko the next day, prompting her mother-in-law to snap: "Well, where are you going with it? I may as well have some to use, now that you've bought it!" When she returned the next day with a Misko packet, the old woman simply said: "Why did you bother to buy another packet? I'm not going to be eating kritharaki all this month!"

While the children were running up and down the aisles, bumping into other people's trolleys, and filling up her own one wit KINDER sweets, chocolate milk and coloured yoghurts, she looked for the lavender-scented chlorine bleach on the shelves, which contained every other fragrance but lavender. It became clear to Georgia that her mother-in-law must have seen it advertised on television, and the last bottle she bought could have been quite a while ago, when lavender-scented chlorine bleach was fragrance of the month, while this month, the 'in' fragrance was pine forest - the shelves were stacked with the stuff, outdoing even plain chlorine bleach. She wondered what fragrance was a hit 50 years ago when her mother-in-law had just moved from the manure-laid village paths to the town of Hania as a newly-wed - knowing that it was highly unlikely that fragrant chlorine bleach actually existed back then.

The shopping done, they all climbed back into the car. "Pagoto?" the children asked together. She stopped at a corner store to buy them an ice-cream. They chose whatever gleamed to their eye - shiny smartie candies in a plastic tube with what looked like a toilet roll made of speckled ice-cream stuck onto it. Perfect, thought Georgia; they would stop at the local park to
eat it, like an 'out-of-season' tourist', they wouldn't like it because it would be sickly sweet, they'd probably throw it away, they'd forget about the ice-cream while playing in the park, their appetite wouldn't be harmed, and they'll still lunch altogether with dad, as if nothing ever happened.

This post is dedicated to Dimitra, who would have liked to be sharing that coffee with Georgia. And if you want to see how xerotigana (which could loosely be translated as "dry fries"), the traditional Cretan wedding pastry dessert, also handed out at baptisms and other occasions of a celebratory nature, are made, come back to this page in about 20 years time...

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