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Saturday, 7 November 2009

Sardines (Σαρδέλες)

In Hania, we have two second-hand shops which are owned and operated by ex-patriate English women. Here, you can pick up anything from clothing to furniture; I shop here mainly for English-language books, mainly novels. British tourist residents (and other foreign nationals) often trade old novels here and it's a chance for me to pick up some book bargains at even much cheaper prices than what I'm paying at Amazon.co.uk at the moment with the euro being almost equivalent to the pound.

Newspapers tend to be too ephemereal and the internet has taken their place (much to the chagrin of the printing press), while bloggers are slowly replacing journalists, making printed material redundant to the point where it will slowly become obsolete. Apart from the internet, these two second-hand bookstores are the only places in my town where I can pick up English language reading material (the local libraries are small and do not contain English language material). Hotels also collect novels that tourists leave behind, but they often end up at the second-hand bookshops too.

During one of my recent visits to the bookshop, Nina Bawden's name caught my eye on one of the book covers in the sales box (books in here go for 40 euro-cents each). She is one of the children's authors I remember from my school years in New Zealand. I bought her book (The Runaway Summer, 1969, Puffin Books, reprinted 1986), in the hope that, after reading the story, I might entice my kids to read it too, once their English skills become a little more advanced (the sole purpose of buying children's fiction in English is to help raise my kids' language skills). When I finished reading The Runaway Summer, I realised that my children would need a lot more than good English language skills to understand many of the concepts mentioned in the story, like the problems faced by the native Indians in Africa after the Kenya/Uganda crisis in the 1960s, the indifference shown by parents who leave their children in the care of grandparents while they continue their separate lives, and what constitutes acceptable sandwich fillings. It's best for me to stick to Harry Potter in the original edition.

Mary, a confused child in search of adventure, lives out her dreams for a more dramatic life when she and her friend Simon assist Krishna, an illegal Indian immigrant from Kenya to escape the authorities. Mary oftenused the excuse of a picnic lunch taken from her grandparents' house to feed Krishna, while the more independent Simon, who came from a large family, preferred convenience foods (ie tinned goods) because his mother was more often pre-occupied with caring for her large brood, so he often camped out in the countryside away from home.

What amazed me was the amount of tinned sardines that the author kept mentioning in the standard picnic fare of the children. Mary often procured a variety of sandwiches from her grandfather's house, with varied fillings: tinned sardines, tomato, and beetroot. Apples and bananas once featured in the picnic basket, along with cold cooked chicken, Garibaldi biscuits, milk (in bottles, not cartons), and wedges of cheddar cheese. Simon bought tinned food - salmon, baked beans, peaches, soup, and the inevitable sardines. He also knew how to fry eggs and bake potatoes in a campfire. These children even ate sardines straight out of the tin, heated up in a billy can over a campfire.

sardine fillets
Filleting small sardines can be a bit fiddly; below: raw fresh sardines ready for preservation in oil and vinegar.
raw sardines in vinegar

Sardines are one of the more common fish in our own home; they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help maintain a healthy heart, making them one of the healthiest common fish in the diet. We sometimes have them tinned, like Mary and Simon, to accompany a meal like beans or stuffed vegetables with rice (a bad habit of my husband's when he thinks the meal is too 'bland'). But it's more likely that the sardines in our house have been freshly fished, and bought from the fishmonger. They are one of the cheapest fresh fish on the market - I bought some a couple of days ago at 7 euro a kilo. The traditional way in Crete to serve small sardines is to fry them. After being cleaned and gutted, they can be lightly floured and fried in olive oil.

sardines and koutsomoura
Sardines and koutsomoura ('crooked face'), a kind of red mullet: we often eat these with a plate of fresh boiled greens (vlita in the summer, stamnagathi in the winter). The seahorse was a gift from the fishmonger. I filleted most of the sardines, keeping a few to preserve in vinegar and olive oil, then placed the bowl in the fridge.
sardines fillets and koutsomoura grilled sardines
The sardines looked quite beautiful on the baking tray, and they were delicious after grilling.
grilled sardines

In an attempt to cook more healthfully, in keeping with Cretan culinary traditions, I recently tried a gourmet sardine recipe from a fellow blogger, which required a little more effort than the simple frying method. The sardines were less oily cooked in this way, and tasted superb when served with the accompanying parsley aioli. Traditional Cretan cuisine tends to be a bit heavy in its use of olive oil; this will have to change in the future, because of the effects of a more sendentary lifestyle and the abundance of junk food (and over-abundance of food in general) that seems to predominate in the Cretan lifestyle of today.

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It sounds like Mary and Simon had sensible eating habits when they were away from home. Just for the record, the food in the respective homes of the children in Nina Bawden's 1960s story sounded a lot more enticing:
- rice pudding
- apple pie, oozing pale slippery juices at the edges, served with yellow cream
- roast pork, blonde meat with crisp brown crackling
- roast potatoes and vegetables
And when they dined out, the food often sounded decidedly 'foreign'. Apart from roast chicken with peas and curls of crisp bacon, they also had shrimp cocktail as an entree, and lemon sorbet ice for dessert.

It is interesting to read in Dominic Sandbrook's Never Had It So Good, that up until a few years before this children's novel was published, British restaurant food was apparently viewed as of very low standard. He quotes all sorts of sources, using phrases like "a spoonful of greens boiled to rags", "waxy ice-cream", "gastronomic rape", among others. 'Foreign food' had already been making an impact in the 50s, when Elisabeth David (the Julia Child of Britain?) published A Book of Mediterranean Food and always of course in the large metropolitan areas, the upper classes and in hotel dining rooms, which is where Simon and Mary were eating shrimp cocktail and lemon sorbet by the sea.

Pret-a-manger food had already appeared when The Runaway Summer was written, but apart from an ice lolly and a Crunchie bar, there was no other mention of ready-to-eat food, as the modern press leads us to believe, that it predominates in the modern lives of the British. The storyline of the book wasn't exactly the most memorable, but it does point out one very important fact: the British DID in fact cook most of their meals until relatively recently, using locally available ingredients, until globalisation and Tescoland rid them of this necessity, by providing them with year-round supplies of non-seasonal produce at reduced prices, and boxed frozen pre-cooked meals.

The recipes in this book, all in pamphlet form, published by the UK Ministry of Food of the 1940s, bear no resemblance to the food that the British eat nowadays.

An observation by Jill Norman in Eating for Victory gives us an idea about how sensibly British people ate when they found themselves facing hard times:
"During the war, although there were privations and shortages, people generally had a good diet... People at all levels of society took nutrition seriously and fed their families sensibly with the rations, vegetables and fruit that was available, and with less sugar and few sweet snacks there was less tooth decay."

She also mentions food writer Irene Veal's Recipes of the 1940s, where she wrote in the preface:
"Never before have the British people been so wisely fed or British women so sensibly interested in cooking."

A friend of mine from Britain told me a little bit about his youth in the days of rationing:
"We kept rabbits. These did not have to be registered and they were fed from the fields. All other livestock had to be registered individually with the local government and were marked to show that. Then food supplements could be bought and vets used to check the animals' health. The owner was not allowed to slaughter the animal themselves. Large fines were imposed for unregistered animals. Food grown for your own consumption obviously could not and was not registered and much bartering was carried out to get something you did not have or wanted. If you had chickens an average of eggs was expected at the market. In all I think we were better off. But I was a child at the time; if you were in the city you could not even find an egg, only powdered egg from USA. My parents did not let me go hungry, I don't know if they went without to feed the children but I expect so. Vegetables were seasonal, potatoes stored in earth and straw clamps, vegetables like beetroot etc were bottled and preserved, onions were pickled, meat was smoked, you name it we did it. Food sweets, clothes, shoes, cosmetics, fuel, petrol, diesel, building materials, alcohol, tools, as many things as possible, they were rationed."

Crete, and Greece as a whole, are now showing evidence of bad eating habits too. Most Cretans still eat foods within the Mediterranean diet spectrum, but they also live relatively unhealthy lifestyles (eg little exercise and sedentary work). Furthermore, their Mediterranean diet is also being supplemented with newly developed habits, such as eating meat in greater quantities than the Mediterranean diet average intake level, eating more sweets than ever before, and drinking non-traditional alcoholic beverages (eg whiskey instead of the traditional raki/tsikoudia, or Nescafe instead of mountain tea/Greek coffee). The consumption of greens is still high, but young people in Crete are now being raised on a more western diet than ever before, probably due to the change in lifestyle and the influence of globalisation.

Most people in post-war Britain showed a sensible approach to cooking, feeding and eating. Perhaps the idea of 'sensible' needs to be re-considered in much of what we eat today, wherever we may be. I'm still not convinced that cocoa-dusted venison, chocolate-lychee-and-pink-peppercorn-mousse-crystal-ball dessert and moussed vegetables fit into this category (but I know that not everyone will agree with me).

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