Please take note that I am not a food historian and have never claimed to be one either; my musings on food have an empirical basis, and followers of my blog will agree that my posts are highly descriptive accounts of the food scene on a Mediterranean island. And they may also agree that I "can cook".
When you last visited Greece, were you surprised to see the waiter come to your table and leave you a plate of loukoumades, or quince-topped yoghurt, or samali cake at the end of your meal, just when you had asked for the bill? Did you stop him just before he left and scold him, insisting that you hadn't ordered anything like that delicious-looking sweet he'd just left you? Don't worry, you're not the only one. Most tourists don't realise that this 'dessert' is a treat, on the house. A restauranteur friend of mine once told me that first-time visitors to Greece always felt uncomfortable about accepting something free, as if there was something unethical about accepting a gift from a stranger. Could it be the Trojan horse effect - beware of Greeks bearing gifts?
Yoghurt topped with honey or spoon sweets is a favorite after-dinner treat in many Greek tavernas.
In any case, dessert is an uncommon element of a Greek menu card. Most traditional tavernas and summer tourist eateries rarely have a dessert section* on their menu, not even something as common as ice-cream. Don't be surprised if you are served ice-cream at the end of the meal anyway; that's the kerasma, part of Greek hospitality. In Crete, apart from the above-mentioned sweets, another commonly served local treat is honey-topped kalitsounia (pasties filled with cheese).
This doesn't mean, of course, that Greeks don't eat sweets: far from it. The zaharoplasteio is as common as the souvlatzidiko in any neighbourhood, on the same par as the mini-market and the English-language frontistirio. The zaharoplasteio will serve you all sorts of sweet treats. Some of these sweets will be desserts traditionally associated with Greece, like baklava, galaktobureko and tsoureki. Then there will be some others called 'pas-tes', mini-cakes resembling Victoria sponge or puff pastry, filled with (usually fake) cream and topped with chocolate shavings, glace cherries and chopped almonds. These kinds of sweets, believe it or not, are never made in a Greek home. They are clearly a product of industrialisation, with little if any resemblance to Greek home-made sweets. If anything, they resemble a rich French torte in miniature.
If I am not mistaken, these are nevr made at home; their production, in any case, is highly industrialised.
Desserts in Greece, in the Western sense of 'appetiser-main-dessert' are not very common at all. Pudding is never viewed as an integral part of a meal. Very often, when guests are invited to someone's house for dinner, they are often served a cake before the meal, as a kerasma, an offering, a treat, as a way of greeting or thanking someone who has come to visit you. At the same time, a cake or some other sweet treat will be offered to a host as a present by their guest.
I recently celebrated my husband's nameday by cooking a few savoury dishes (pork and celery, chicken and mushrooms, and a simple cabbage salad), but I didn't make any dessert. I knew that my guests were bound to bring me some stodgy zaharoplasteio cakes, which would have to be consumed in some way. We try not to have too many of these lying around in our house, as they're overly tempting and irresistible, so I decided to serve them up at the end of the meal instead of making any sweets myself, in this way, getting rid of them more quickly. Zaharoplasteio cakes have no health aspects in them whatsoever, as they are all fatty, creamy, sweet. and most times, chocolatey.
I make this apple pie-cake often at home; it's a good way to use up bad apples...
Globalised Western sweets have been part and parcel of the Greek food scene for a long time, but this doesn't mean that they are replacing traditional Greek sweets. They appear side-by-side with Greek desserts, a harmonious representation of the two sides of Greece: the traditional 1960s postcard view, and the modern globalised member of the European Union. The non-Greek sweets are not recognised as part of the Greek cuisine in any standard way: they are simply a result of global trends in world cuisine and an interest on the part of the locals to be provided with a greater variety of food, such as those they may have tasted on one of their foreign trips, or something they tried at the house of a foreign friend.
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During one of his weekly TV programmes (Glikes Alchemies - Sweet Alchemy), Stelios Parliaros, a well known pastry chef in Greece, demonstrated how to make something called 'poutinga'. Actually, he made a bread and butter pudding, and called it poutinga, in the same way that most Britons and Americans would call any starchy or mily dessert. The word 'poutinga' comes from the word 'pudding': it is clearly a transliteration into Greek. The English word 'pudding' comes from a French word, if we are to believe Wikipedia**.
Stelios wasn't making a Greek dessert, nor did he claim to be making anything resembling a Greek recipe: slices of bread filled with orange-flavoured marmalade, placed in an oven dish to bake, after being doused with an egg, do not feature in Greek cooking. What was Stelios then doing with his demonstration of bread-and-butter pudding on Greek TV?
Stelios has trained as a Constantinople-born internationally skilled pastry chef, in Paris at the Ecole Le Notre, the Escoffier School of confectionery at the Ritz Hotel, at the Valrhona School in Lyon and, finally, at the renowned Fauchon. He has also published his works on Mediterranean, chocolate and world cuisine (but not Greek cuisine). His Greek TV show is simply a way of introducing Greeks to a broad range of desserts that are not commonly known in the country. Some version of a bread and butter pudding has appeared in a Greek cookbook by Diane Kochilas, who calls it 'poutinga' and claims it is made in a place the British call 'Corfu' (they ruled it at one time in the 1800s), which the Greeks call 'Kerkira'. Wherever conquerors invade, they bring with them customs from their own culture, including their food and culinary traditions. The British ruled Kerkira in the early to mid 19th century, and left behind their love of cricket (a game played nowhere else in Greece except Kerkira, and maybe among the Pakistani economic immigrants to Greece), and gingerbeer, something still made only in Kerkira (in Greece, that is) and sometimes available in Athens, but always labelled as a 'product of Kerkira'. Such remnants, culinary or otherwise, are still considered oddities in Greek culture; they have never been considered part of the standard traditions of Greece. Their influence is minimal in the rest of the country; they are highly localised elements, reminiscent of a former time.
Here's a delicious dessert for the summer when plums - probably an introduced fruit to Greece - abound in Crete. My plum crumble was inspired by my NZ upbringing. I used a Waitrose recipe on the internet.
Who is likely to try making bread and butter pudding such as those presented by Diane in her book and Stelios in his TV show? Probably very few Greeks (and any person for that matter) would be making Diane's version of this dessert, since her focus in including such a recipe in her book is to describe Greek cuisine and the influences on it. Greeks are more likely to try Stelios' version of bread and butter pudding, simply because it is more accessible (TV-watching has always had a broader appeal and wider audience than book-reading in Greece). It is even more likely that anyone wishing to try making bread and butter pudding in Greece (most likely a young modern urbanite) will look up an internet recipe and compare techniques, in the same way that a British housewife might try making Haniotiko boureki in her home in Shropshire, Nottingham or London, which she probably tried as a tourist in Hania. Their efforts are highly unlikely to influence the cuisines of their respective countries, just because they (and maybe many others like them) enjoyed making or eating a foreign dish and wished to recreate this dish in their own home.
Adam Balic wonders whether there could be "any historical influence of the British on Greek cuisine, given how important the British were for Greek independence (this is a fallacy to which even Adam later admits) and the number of British in Greece" (tourists, Grand Tour, Naval bases, trade). Certainly, there are English products on our supermarket shelves: Marmite, Cadbury's chocolates, bottled sauces and tinned baked beans, among a host of other oddities for the average Greek. These products are clearly being directed towards the ex-patriate British residents, not the locals. That does not mean that a Greek would NOT think of buying such a product. Many young Greeks have studied abroad (specifically in the UK), many Greek residents were born in Commonwealth countries (like myself), and many, many Greeks are now travelling for pleasure. They will remember the tastes of these foreign products, since it is highly unlikely that they did not try something foreign while they were abroad, and may buy them for nostalgic reasons, or simply to try a wider range of foreign products, simply to see what they are like. However, these products will remain just what they were when they first entered the market: foreign. They will be sold under that name too, as the Greek LIDL supermarkets recently did when they introduced a range of products that they called "traditional British cuisine" (two weeks later, they also introduced an Asian range).
It is not a politically correct way of thinking among modern educated people to knock other people's habits, food or otherwise, but people's attitudes about race did influence their attitudes of other people's food heavily in the past. When my husband saw LIDL's recent advertising leaflet British food products, his first reaction (without any motivation from me) was: "Do the British have a cuisine in the first place?" I forgive my husband for making such a comment; he is not a food blogger, just a food eater. His only experiences of what the British eat are a couple of trips to London (we ate a lot at Wong Kei's there), and what he sees British tourist residents in Hania filling up their supermarket trolleys with: wine bottles and pet food take up the greater share.
Adam has also seen one recipe for a curried rice dish from Ithaca (an island in the Ionian sea, at one time under British rule), which is said to be due to the British. Could the British have influenced Greek cuisine then? Yes, of course they could have, in just the same way that the British have been influenced by Greek cuisine, so that tzatziki and taramosalata are now standard products on supermarket shelves, and by any other cuisine in fact. Remember how chicken tikka masala and chop suey came to be?
The only thing I can think of that resembles pudding in Greek food is a custard that can be prepared from a sachet of powdered ingredients (what is known in Greece as 'Krema Giotis'). It is often made up for children as a quick food solution; presumably their mothers don't cook much at home because they are working and don't have the time to do so, or they simply hate cooking and find convenience foods a saviour. This pudding is also used to fill spongey cakes (of the type made in zaharoplasteia - see above), and it may also be given to elderly people who can’t chew their food any longer. This is hardly influential on the cuisine of a country. It should be seen as part of the globalised culinary trends found everywhere, used mainly in the context of convenience rather than a change in direction of the traditional food. And who doesn't want mod cons in their kitchen? That doesn't mean that Greeks were influenced by the British to have them. These came much much later (post 1950s) for the average greek than they did for Western Europe, when Greece started pulling herself together as a country. When Britain was influencing the rest of the world (pre-1900), the state of Greece was less than half the size of what it is known as today.
What a boon 2-minute noodles are for working mums like myself...
For some more evidence of whether the British could have influenced Greek cuisine, check out what I have got stocked in my kitchen cupboards and refrigerator. The only thing that comes to mind here are the cans of golden syrup, presents from friends and family abroad (well, how else am I to make gingernut biscuits, as I remember them in NZ)? I may not be able to see it myself, but someone could point out the British influence, if indeed there is any.
Mummy: "Yum, yum"; Daddy: "Yuck, yuck"; the children: "Yiati kaine?" (Why do our tongues burn?) Gingernuts haven't made much of an impact in my house yet. On the other hand, afghans are always a hit with the children.
Unlike the Greek language, which stands alone in the linguistic communities of the world, Greek cuisine has been heavily influenced by another culture. But don't look west of Greece to find who influenced her cuisine the most; try the east side. Our closest neighbours from that direction managed to leave an indelible mark in our cooking trends that Tselementes tried to wipe out once the Ottoman yoke had been broken, by introducing bechamel sauces in our moussaka and pastitsio. Once again, the Greeks looked to France to break away from their past, not Britain. France was viewed admirably in many ways by the Greeks, as anyone can tell by watching 1050s-60s black and white Greek movies. French rather than English was considered the foreign language worthy of learning as late as the 1970s, and there are many parallels that can be drawn in the French and Greek cultures (see my previous chicken and mushrooms post). Had Greece not been conquered by the Ottomans, the country would have been closer to the West than the East, as her previous conquerors (Venetians, Genoans) hailed from there.
All this discussion makes me wonder just what could have happened to Greek cuisine, had the British been our more recent conquerors, and not the Ottomans. Maybe we would be using more water in our food rather than olive oil. Maybe our food would taste more like the food Gilbert, a Jamaican soldier in WWII Britain, describes:
"I was not ready, I was not trained to eat food that was prepared in a pan of boiling water, the sole purpose of which was to rid it of taste and texture. How the English built empires when their armies marched on nothing but mush should be one of the wonders of the world. I thought it would be combat that would make me regret having volunteered, not boiled-up vegetables - grey and limp on the plate like they had been eaten once before. Why the English come to cook everything by this method? Lucky they kept that boiling business as their national secret and did not insist that the people of their colonies stop frying and spicing up their food." (Read the next - equally funny - paragraph, also related to food). In: Small Island by Andrea Levy.
And what would we be eating for 'pudding'? Well, surely we'd be filling our baklavas with currants instead of chopped walnuts, and accompanying them with a cuppa Twinings tea instead of Turkish coffee...
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For an idea of who or what is influencing Greek culinary trends these days, try the Greek food blogging scene. Among the many good blogs written, I am singling out Kalofagas, a Greek-Canadian, while FoodJunkie lives in the city of her birth, Athens, because I follow their blogs; they are written in English, but there are countless other Greek-language food blogs that you can find catalogued in the above-mentioned ones. There's also an internationally renowned Greek chef in New York, Michael Psilakis, who is changing people's perceptions about Greek cuisine. Then read about what John Apostolakis at MAICh is doing in Crete, and visit a restaurant in Crete that is breaking away from old Greek favorites, adding a modern twist to locally-grown ingredients. One must never forget the way Greek immigrants modified their food according to locally available ingredients in foreign lands: Laurie's recent post discusses the use of gazelle in making Greek pilafi, while Kalisasorexi recently featured spanako-quesadillas. The latter two remind me very much of my parents, who both sought the Mediterranean food spectrum in their food in New Zealand. My own blog isn't a very good example of modern trends in Greek cuisine, if you ask me; something to do with my upbringing, and the man I married.
People's attitudes play a big role in the way they view other people's food, as Rachel Laudan also points out. Thankfully, globalisation has allowed more and more people access to the kind of food they want to enjoy, or at least the kind of food that suits their lifestyle.
*Dessert menus probably do exist in more formal restaurants, the type that run according to global trends, but they are not very common, and are usually found in large urban centres where people follow a more globalised lifestyle.
**The internet is the main source of information for most people these days, esp. those who do not have access to well-stocked libraries and online scientific journal subscriptions.
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