This post is based on a recent discussion on the blogosphere about the use of blood in food.
My upbringing was not based in the countryside or the mountains, even though both my parents were born and raised in such environments (my father in the countryside, my mother in the mountains); my links with these worlds have been lost in the migration and settlement patterns of my more recent ancestors. Despite my present residence in a rural environment, it is anything but rural - noisy cars speed past my house every day, nearly all my neighbours live in modern newly built houses, and nearly all the residents of this rural suburb, apart from retired folk and the remaining few housewives, commute daily to the town centre for work. Although it has a rural outlook, my suburb could be described better as an 'urban village'.
It therefore goes without saying that my food stories, based mainly on my own experiences, will have an element of modernity in them, even when I try to relate them to my past: my parents' first thirty years of their life in Crete, my first twenty-five in New Zealand, and the last two decades of my life in Athens and Crete. My cooking techniques and culinary adventures are nearly all based on lower ground, household settings and commonly found, easily accessible ingredients. We grow most of our fruit and vegetables, but there are some ingredients which we do not have access to, which are always bought, like meat: we have never raised our own meat, an integral part of my weekend cooking regime.
This is the reason why there will inevitably be a gap in my knowledge of Cretan cooking. It is simply not possible to experience the whole range of Cretan cuisine (and indeed any other cuisine in the world) if one does not venture any further than the known 'tourist' track, a path which more often than not, is only opened up to visitors and strangers by invitation. In Crete, some of our food history is found within the closed rural mountain communities, which were the traditional residences of the oppressed people of the island: when the enemy came, one way to avoid the invader was to run off into the mountains. It's an honour to be accepted into the homes of the members of such communities, which involves its own difficulties, as these people are used to being isolated from mainstream society and generally view strangers, whatever their motives, in a suspicious manner.
Just last weekend, on a cold wet day in Hania, I left my comfortable warm house and drove up the mountainside, landing in a completely rural setting, a few kilometres away from the last village (Fournes), before the road becomes steeper and the mountains start to rise, one and a half stops short of the Omalos plain, where the Samaria Gorge begins. I'm in the kitchens of the Botanical Park of Crete. This restaurant is run by a family who has always lived in this remote mountain setting. When their olive trees burnt to the ground in a forest fire a few years ago, the four children of the owners - only their generation has received secondary and tertiary education, both in Greece and abroad - decided not to re-plant the land with olive trees, which was their parents' main livelihood at the time. Instead, they explored alternative avenues that would use the land sustainably, as well as bring in some kind of profit. Their modern education and inherent love for their land resulted in the creation of a botanical park hosting a range of exotic (for Crete) trees, shrubs and low-lying herbs, and a restaurant that uses the harvests from the botanical garden, with the aim of developing a modern twist to traditional Cretan food. They also serve lesser known (to the general public) meals steeped in the rural traditions that their family was raised on.
To understand what rural isolation means, try to picture yourself living in a hilly environment, among thirty other families, without electricity (it first operated in 1973 in this particular village), no local shop to buy anything, and a steep dirt road that leads to the closest village with a general store (but you don't have a motorised vehicle to get there; you can choose to walk or ride on a donkey - if it is not in use by another family member at the time). You eat you have, what you forage, what you store and what you grow, whether it be flora or fauna. You don't cook according to recipes in cookbooks (you've probably never seen one in your life); culinary creativity becomes a means of survival. And above all, you do not waste; never, ever, ever.
And that is the basis of the pig in the Cretan kitchen. The pig was a sign of affluence. If your family could afford to raise a pig, then you were considered well-off. Certainly you wouldn't be going hungry; the pig (most households would own one or two) needed to be fed and it needed its own space. If you could afford to raise a pig, then you probably lived on a large land-holding and could buy the extra feed needed. Often associated with filth, the pig has always been an important farm animal in Greek rural life. It was significant, not solely as a food source; the pig in rural communities was the garbage disposal unit, the source of preservable meat for colder weather, and a motive for large gatherings of villagers when it was slaughtered. The pig had an environmentally friendly role: it ate all the leftovers of the farming family's meals. Each family would take their turn to slaughter theirs in the colder seasons; it is no wonder that pork is the meat associated with a Greek Christmas, since this was about the time that the pig was ready to be done away with.
For more information about the photos in the slideshow, click here.
In the days before refrigeration, once a pig was killed, the meat was shared out among the extended family and the village neighbourhood, while every single part of the pig was cooked in various ways, ranging from soup and sausages to rendered cooking fat and pork preserves. The most perishable parts of the animal (blood, intestines, offal) were cooked or prepared first, followed by the least perishable. The owner kept what his family would eat, while the rest was preserved or distributed among the other villagers. This was a trade in kind; the following week, it would be someone else's turn to slaughter their pig, and the same process would be repeated. All parts of the animal were used; even the skin, which became crackling preserved in fat, to be added to soups or stews in less abundant times, and the urethra, washed meticulously, was blown up and made into a children's ball, one of the few children's toys of the time.
After the slaughter, which was a man's job, the women would then begin to help in the food preparation. The first meal to be served in this particular community was ξυδάτο (xithato, xidato), finely cubed bits of pork cut from the softest part of the pig's body (the neck - it was also the fattiest part), cooked in pig's blood and vinegar (hence its name - in Greek, vinegar is called ξύδι: xithi/xidi). The villagers would all gather together to eat this meal, and the event was usually accompanied by singing. Xidato was more of a meze, an appetiser so to speak, as it is rather heavy on the stomach. The use of animal blood in Greek food is not commonly known nowadays, but the tradition of making xidato still survives among the older generations in pockets of rural Greek communities, although every different region has their own special blood recipe. The advent of refrigerators and the urban drift have diminished the need to cook the whole animal; hence, it is becoming less common, an understandable consequence of the conveniences of modern living. At the same time, alternative agro-tourist sites like the Botanical Park of Crete have revived interest in the history of the food of a race of people whose survival depended on their skilful use of all that nature had to offer them.
The idea of including blood in one's food does sound off-putting; this is the reason that most people are put off by the idea of eating this kind of food. But one man's garbage is another man's treasure, and the idea of blood in food is based on antiquity: the Greek gods are said to have used it in their food, giving a sense of power to the mortals that ate it. People who cook rabbit or hare in its own blood (this practice continues up to the present time in Crete) claim that the stewed meat comes out tastier.
The knowledge of such old-fashioned food customs may be dying out with the westernisation (globalisation) of Greek life, but this hasn't quite happened yet in Crete, which has always been known as the bastion of Greek traditional life, the place which will hold out last. There is a general worldwide interest in the revival of forgotten customs for the greater good of cultural diversity; Crete is one of the places in the world where food history is more traceable since the traditions of the old world have not quite yet been replaced with the newer trends - they are often found side-by-side.
For more strange Cretan food, try roast sheep's head, lamb intestines, and stewed snails.
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