Sunday, 19 July 2009

Submarine (Υποβρύχιο)

Supermarkets are clever at manipulating their customers' preferences. Products that are popular (usually through advertising) are placed on the shelves where the customer's eyes usually fall first, ensuring their continued popularity. The less accessible shelves are for products that aren't frequently in demand (eg tinned baked beans in Greece)...

baked beans
It was much easier for me to take this photograph than it was to take down a can; note that the cheapest tin of baked beans (the Greek canning company's) was practically inaccessible to height-deprived people like myself. Baked beans are only bought by tourists in Greece.

...while the lower shelves are often used for products that are still in demand, but people are being swayed to buy an alternative item (eg bars of soap, slowly becoming obsolete due to the rise in popularity of liquid soap).

cakes of soap vs liquid soap
The shelves are filled with liquid soap products, while there was only one - yes, just one - with the traditional cakes of soap, which were all placed by my feet, below the liquid soap for hands (not the shower) and the toothpastes.

The demise of bars of soap in favour of the trendier liquid soap is only to be expected. Such evidence should be viewed as an inevitable consequence of progress. And so it is with foodstuff relegated to the bottom shelf; this could be viewed as a sign that they are bordering the obsolete.

This idea for the following discussion came to me after Allison received her book prize from my quiz. She thanked me for the book, as well as for the stamps that were placed by the post office clerk on the envelope, which included one depicting a dessert glass filled with water, with a teaspoon of a white gluey mixture dunked in it. This white blob is eaten like a popsicle, licked off the spoon and continually dunked into the ice-cold water. This is what is referred to in Greece as a 'submarine', although back in the good old days, we used to call it 'vanila' because of the flavouring we preferred: the creamy white paste is made with sugar and flavoured with vanilla or mastic. I've also seen pink and green vanilas floating around over the years (presumably flavoured with cherry and pistachio, respectively).

greek stamp featuring submarine sweet and b&w film star
I still collect stamps, although they're much harder to come by these days. The stamp on the right depicts a mastic-flavoured submarine. The stamp on the right shows Dino Iliopoulos, a famous Greek comedian from the black and white era.

Growing up in New Zealand, we had this sweet regularly. It was one of the things Greeks often brought back with them (along with vlita seeds and Parthenon souvenirs) in their suitcases after a visit to the homeland, to give away as presents to other ex-patriot Greek immigrants. But my children still haven't even tried it, and they were born and live in Greece! This should not sound too surprising: sugary desserts are no longer fashionable among the health conscious food world, and there are so many other sweets and desserts cheaply available nowadays in Greece (including ice-cream which was once considered a luxury), so that the submarine is becoming almost obsolete. I would never ask for it now myself, as I am well-informed about obesity, dental problems and hyperactivity; what a shame, because now I know too much and cannot enjoy what I once did (although I must also admit that I find it too sweet for my liking in my older age).

mastic vanilla spoon sweet
I finally found old-fashioned vanila on the bottom shelf, below the tinned fruit and other Greek spoon sweets, near the pasteli and loukoumi.

Allison's message prompted me to go and look for some vanila, which I remember was always packed in a glass with a lid sealed by a piece of sellotape printed with the advertiser's name. It took me a while to find it, mainly because I couldn't categorise it according to the product allocation of the supermarket shelves. It wasn't a breakfast cereal or a biscuit, nor was it a kind of spread or syrup. After a lengthy search I found it on the bottom shelf, below the preserved cherries in syrup and other classic Greek spoon sweets, along with other less popular (but once highly revered) traditional Greek sweets: loukoumi, also known as Turkish delight (superseded by chocolates) and pastelli (now replaced by Mars Bars and other wafer biscuit bars covered in chocolate).

mastic vanilla spoon sweet
I chose to buy this jar of vanila (1.70 euro for 400g) because of its classic packaging: a (plastic) glass, sellotape seal over its lid advertising the manufacturer, and very old-fashioned labelling; not even the telephone number of the (local) manufacturer has been updated! Vanila is also sold in more modern packaging, but nothing beats this one for nostalgia.

Reviving the submarine tradition in my house creates a dilemma. There is no shortage of sweets in my kitchen at the moment, what with ice-cream, zucchini chocolate cake and watermelon (the best summer 'sweet' of all) at the height of its season. I felt as if I were behaving unnecessarily old-fashioned, acting in an obsolete manner, about something that is itself becoming obsolete. But I was deeply mistaken in my belief that it couldn't become a favorite hot weather treat, even in our own 'organically cooked' household. Both the children enjoyed their submarine, and my husband recounted his memories of this treat: it was the first thing he and his hunting friends asked for in the cafe at Lakkous after they had spent three days and two nights hunting in the Omalos plateau - their tired bodies were in need of sugar to regain their strength.

submarine ipvrihio vanila
Submarine - Υποβρύχιο (ipovrihio)

Allison's message revived a memory from my youth that had been stored away in the attic of my mind, a memory I had never bothered to access for a long long time. It was in the same drawer (or was it a floppy disk?) where I kept my memories of old black and white Greek films and images of my grandparents. This prompts me to wonder what culinary memories my own children will lock away in their own minds when they are my age, and whether I'll be around to prompt their nostalgia for them.

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