Monday, 6 October 2008

Poor man's fruit (Το φρούτο του φτωχού)

Bread and water - basic food: "Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips." Epicurus (341?-270 BC). Thankfully, in Crete, by the early 19th century, most people could add something more substantial to this simple fare: olive oil.

In the good old days when all Cretans ate a Mediterranean diet based on seasonal availability, and poverty reigned, meaning that everyone had to at least source their food in some way to keep themselves fed in order to survive (as well as doing a heap of other chores), when someone did not want to eat the main meal that a Cretan mama had cooked for her (usually much larger than the current average of less than 1.5 children per) family, they ate psomi me ladi, bread dipped in oil, the meal of choice for the poorest farming communities - and only if there was enough bread in the house. My husband's grandmother had told him of times when her children (including his father) 'stole' a slice of the bread she had cooked for that day, and she would chase after them to get it back if she could, so that she could offer it to accompany lunch or dinner. (The children would clamber up trees to escape their mother's wrath.)

Despite its humble looks and origins, psomi me ladi sustained the Greek people for many years. The famine that killed thousands in Athens during WWII did not affect the Cretans in the same way. In the capital city of Athens, people had no access to bread and oil. They had money, but could not buy anything with it because there was no food available during the Nazi occupation. This was not exactly the case in Crete. I remember my father saying that bread and oil were always available in his village, since most people produced their own oil and as long as the Germans weren't taking their livestock, they could trade some chickens and eggs for flour. If they got hungry, it's because there wasn't enough food to go round because the families were large. In his case, his father had been killed on the first day of the Battle of Crete, and his mother had a hard time scraping up enough food for her five children.

My late father-in-law came from a family of ten children. If he were alive today, here's what he would probably be telling his grandchildren about dinner time in his home in Fournes:

"I was brought up in a family with ten children. At that dining-table at home one lax moment and half my dinner could be gone to my neighbour. I learned to eat quickly while defending my plate with a protective arm." (Small Island by Andrea Levy)

But even Gilbert
becomes a fussy eater when he is confronted with tasteless food:
"But with this English food I sat back, chewed slowly and will ed my compatriots to thieve. I had not yet seen a war zone but if the enemy had been frying up some fish and dumpling, who knows which way I would point my gun?"
(Small Island by Andrea Levy)

They may not always have had shoes to wear, they may not have had pencils and paper to go to school with (my mother had a piece of broken slate and chalk), but they always had something to eat that would give them energy. If they had psomi me ladi, they had the energy needed to work in the fields, under the hot sun, dig up the soil, plant trees, and gather crops. Fruit and vegetables were always available according to the season, but that's not what kept people active:

"No one carried a pound of superfluous flesh, in spite of the vast quantities of starchy food. They expended every ounce they ate in work... Vegetables and fruit were eaten because they were good for you, but it was the bread, potatoes, meat and floury puddings which staved off exhaustion." (The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough)

My mother's village, located at the foothills of the high peaks of Lefka Ori, could only grow crops that didn't require irrigation. Tomatoes were grown without ever being watered, save one single time when they were planted. These tomatoes grew right throughout the summer. At the end of their growing period, they were cut in bunches and hung onto the rafters of the roof in the stone cottages. These tomatoes just as they were, slightly shriveling but not drying completely, right throughout the winter. The villagers were never without tomatoes all year round, despite not having refrigerators. They had one more ingredient to add to their basic bread and oil.

My green-finger uncles insist that this method of preserving tomatoes has ceased to exist; times have changed, there is more pollution in the soil, air and water, and plants are not grown in the way they traditionally were grown, using only natural fertilisation and no chemical additives. Not only do tomatos not keep well using this system; in Crete, they no longer grow without irrigation.

tomato sauce and sourdough breadtomato bread olive oil

I still tell my fussy eaters that they can have some bread and oil if they don't want to eat what I've cooked. For example, today, we're having fish soup, not a popular choice with everyone. If they want something else, they'll have to learn to cook it themselves, which the children still can't do because they are too short to reach the cooker. Although their father is taller than me, which means he can reach the cooker easily, when it's his turn to cook, this is in fact what he makes for the children: a slab of slightly toasted sourdough bread, coated in oil and freshly grated tomato. (I know what my son will be cooking when he is tall enough to stir a pot and use the gas cooker: plain boiled pasta. )

september harvest
(late September harvest)

Psomi me ladi
can be dressed up with that most humble-looking red fruit, a basic food item for many Cretans: freshly grated tomato. Here's a slightly sharp-tasting sauce that combines tomato and olive oil with some herbs and spices, to make a great dip for thickly sliced sourdough bread.

tomato dip

1 large tomato, grated
1-2 cloves of garlic, according to taste
olive oil
oregano seasoning
Drain the grated tomato of its excess liquids. Add the salt to the grated tomato, and let stand in a fine sieve until more liquids drain away. Chop the garlic finely and add this with the oregano to the strained tomato in a small wide bowl. Drizzle some olive oil over the tomato. Use this dip with slices of fresh sourdough bread (optionally toasted), as a snack or a light meal, accompanied by some cheese. Heaven...

This is my entry for Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Susan from The Well Seasoned Cook.

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