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Monday, 31 August 2009

Beer (Μπύρα)

Banking magnate Uncle X , greatly admired by his nieces and nephews once removed, was visiting from London just recently. He had a wonderful idea for positively encouraging my children's mathematical skills, by teaching them how to play an entertaining game.

"OK, so here's how we play the game: one of us has to - we take it in turns, OK, everyone will get a chance to do this, but I'll start just to show you how to play it, OK? So, we think of a number between 0 and 100, and - no, don't say it out loud, it's supposed to be a secret, OK? So you think of a number, and you don't tell anyone, you just keep it in your head, and everyone else - you can't remember it? OK, you can use a mobile phone and write it on the display - you don't have a mobile phone, do you? Well, we can write it down, but... you can't let anyone see it. Oh, I know, how about a calculator, you must have one of those, right? OK, so you can punch your number into your calculator display and once you've done that, everyone else has to try to guess what number you were thinking of. No, it isn't too difficult, because when we guess - no, not yet, I haven't thought of my number yet, OK? We take it in turns to guess and - OK, OK, you can go first and your sister - well we can't both start first, can we, so let's just say the oldest starts first, OK? And when you take a guess, then - no, don't guess now, I haven't thought of my number yet, I'm STILL EXPLAINING THE GAME TO YOU, OK? OK. So. Are we ready? Good. So when you tell me your guess, I say 'higher' or 'lower', and the next person will know to guess a higher number or a lower number, OK?"

As I watched my children interacting with Uncle X, I marveled at his bachelor's patience with their incessant squeals and constant interruptions. Being a banker, he must love numbers, I thought, but where did he gain this intuition to interact with children in a mathematical way?

"Who do you play this game with?" I asked innocently, hoping to acquire some information about his love life; to my knowledge, he had not sired any offspring himself, so maybe his latest girlfriend was a single mother.

"It's a pub game," he replied.

falasarna sunset taverna

"A pub game?"

"Yeah, every time you answer incorrectly, you have to down a pint."

So that explains it, OK?

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Falasarna (Φαλάσαρνα)

The best preserved antiquities that lie in Crete are found mainly in the Iraklio prefecture, namely in the area of Knossos. But Crete also has some lesser known but highly significant archaeological areas which have slowly been discovered and are still undergoing excavation work to reveal their value in the ancient world. One of these sites is Falasarna (also spelt Falaserna, and with 'Ph' replacing the 'F') in the northwest of Crete.


Once you get to the coast where Falasarna is located, you've reached the end of the road: if you took a boat and travelled westwards in a straight line from this point, your next sighting of land would be Malta, the mere size of a pin-prick compared to Crete.


The beaches of Falasarna (sometimes spelt Phalasarna) are some of the cleanest on the island. They are crystal clear and very cool. Falasarna is located along a wide stretch of beach area running down the west coast of Crete, with different kinds of beaches to suit a variety of tastes, from rocky shallow pools, to wide stretches of (shadeless) fine sandy beaches. The most popular beaches are the ones with the beach umbrellas, with little elbow space between two adjunct tanning bodies. The coast with no umbrellas is usually too rocky for swimming, but perfect for taking a long cool dip in super-clear water. These less popular areas, mainly used by fishermen, are just as easy to access from the main road, and their islated atmosphere makes them very inviting.

falasarna falasarna
The wide stretch of sandy beach is always very crowded; further westwards, the beaches become very rocky and not suitable for swimming, but still perfect for a cooling dip.
falasarna
We came across this scene close to where we took our dip, probably used by anglers, as there are no eateries in this area.

Falasarna has just enough hotels and restaurants to sustain itself as a weekend resort for the locals during the hotter months of the year, and it's perfect for foreign tourists who come during the high season and want to holiday in an off-the-beaten-track coastal area. Falasarna is very quiet; it has no nightlife or shopping. A great number of Italians come here (as well as Elafonisi) every summer (mainly on camping holidays); it's cheaper for them to take a holiday by the sea in Crete than it is to do the same thing in their own country.

Falasarna has two main beach areas: the "Big Beach" (with fine sand) and the "Little Beach" (a rocky cove). Neither offer much shade, so you have to choose between hiring beach umbrellas and deckchairs (at 5-7 euro for a set of two chairs and one umbrella, I call that 'expensive'), or going for a swim and then leaving the beach area to sit at a shady cafe or restaurant. We chose the latter option. Luckily for us, it wasn't windy when we visited, which it usually is due to the west coast of Crete being severely exposed to the elements, whipping up the sand and throwing it hard onto the tanning bodies; the "Big Beach" is especially affected.

falasarna
We preferred an isolated inlet where fishermen often practice their hobby.
falasarna

In the summer, there is very little else to do in the area apart from this; it is simply too hot to walk among the archaeological ruins, situated close to the "Little Beach" area. They consist mainly of the ancient harbour of Falasarna, which is now located inland of today's water's edge, suggesting that the Cretan landscape has changed significantly since ancient times: the land level of Western Crete has risen, while Eastern Crete has sunk by a few inches.

falasarna
Below the taverna where we sat and ate our meal, there is a small church; the road on the right leads to the "Little Beach".

Falasarna is not difficult to access, but public transport is very infrequent and limited. It is also a starkly hot environment with very few trees providing shade near the beach area. There are plenty of rooms available as well as a few cafes, restaurants and well-stocked mini-markets (in fact, I was surprised with how much construction work had taken place since the last time I visited Falasarna, nine years ago). There is no nightlife, making the place perfect for people who want to enjoy a peaceful atmosphere where they can get away from urban life in its entirety.

falasarna
Greenhouses operate right throughout the winter. The lower flat lands skirting the coast are covered in olive trees.
falasarna falasarna

You may be wondering what the locals do from the end of the tourist season to the beginning of the next one (economic crisis in tow). The photographs speak for themselves: Falasarna is even busier then than it is in the summer. The greenhouses spoil the magnificent views which offer stunning sunsets all year round. It is amazing that so much can grow in a place that, on first sight, resembles an arid lunar landscape.

It is also amazing that the beaches are still so clean; there must be a fair amount of fertiliser run-off from the soil eventually trickling down into the sea via irrigation channels and leaching - the greenhouses have been built right along the coastline. Falasarna is among the many pockets of arid-looking villages that have been given a new lease of life with this kind of business activity. These areas are usually located by the sea and have year-round work seasonal work available: in the summer, there is the tourist trade, while in the winter, there is greenhouse agriculture and olive oil production, supplying the whole country with fresh produce.

falasarna falasarna
The sandy dry landscape resembles desert conditions.

We had a meal at the Sunset taverna, one of the oldest in the "Little Beach" region. This was probably a good idea. When it comes to eating out in remote resort areas, you never know how good the taverna is going to be: if it's catering mainly for tourists (as most do in these places), the food offered may not be high quality and it will reflect tourists' choices rather than the traditions of the local cuisine. If a taverna endures the test of time and it is still being run by a family (as Sunset was), it is bound to be doing something good: look what we ordered, and what we paid for it.

falasarna sunset taverna falasarna sunset taverna
A cold jug of water always awaits the summer holidaymaker at a Greek taverna, along with the cicada choir.
falasarna sunset taverna
Beef stew, tzatziki, chicken and okra; the souvlaki needed to be cooked a little longer. The beer was served icy cold - perfect.
falasarna sunset taverna falasarna sunset taverna

For the four of us, we ordered a portion of souvlaki (three kebabs), braised okra, chicken cooked on the spit, beef in lemon-tomato sauce, tzatziki, a side order of fried potatoes, 2 large tap beers and 2 lemonades. Total cost of meal: 36 euro (you are reading that correctly).

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Salata Zonianon (Σαλάτα Ζονιανών)

- Hello?
- Oh, how ya doing?
- Nothing much, how about you?
- Yeah, it's really hot here too.
- No, I haven't seen anyone lately, have you?
- Oh, not much really, you know, we just go to the beach, the fields, you know, just the usual stuff.
- Oh, we also went to a taverna the other day, too. Saw cousin George there.
- Yeah, he was there with all the family, they all looked well and happy.
- Well, he told me that he cut the hoses off the taps to our fields.
- No, I don't mean his fields, I mean our fields, you know, the ones our forefathers' ones.
- To stop the fields from being irrigated.
- 'Cos someone's growing some horta up there.
- Green horta. Highly sought after on the market; they fetch a much higher price than olives and oranges.
- Yeah, that's right, salata Zonianon.
- No, I'm not sure, I wouldn't know, but I take it he's probably not lying.
- Well, I don't know if they need to be watered, I've never tried growing the stuff myself! In any case, the place is full of stones, you remember that, so it's completely stoned there, I guess...
- I don't find it funny, either, I'm not laughing!
- I don't know who's doing this, and I don't think I'm going to find out easily.
- Of course I haven't been up there, neither of us know the way!
- With you, when Mum died.
- No, I wouldn't be able to recognise it. Have you ever seen the stuff yourself?!
- See, there you go. In any case, we won't be able to get a good glimpse of it now, cos it's all dried up apparently.
- George told me, who else?
- Absolutely nothing. I don't want my car blown up. Anyway, it's over, I suppose. Maybe they don't want to be seen reconnecting the hose pipes.
- No, that's about it, nothing else. Nothing much happens round here. How are the kids?

If you don't visit your fields very often, you really don't know what might be going on there. You could even be blamed inadvertently for what might be going on there without your knowledge or approval. No photo today - but I would love to have seen it.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Cook the Books: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones (Μαγειρεύοντας τα Βιβλία)

This post is part of the Cook the Books blog event running until August 28, 2009. Read Nicole Mones' The Last Chinese Chef and cook something inspired by the book. Post your inspiration on your blog and link to Cook the Books.)

WARNING
: contains spoiler - if you don't want to know about the story till you read it yourself, don't read the post!!

I will never forget the first time my family ate at a Chinese restaurant. We were staying at the Hilton Hotel in Singapore, en route to New Zealand. We wanted a taste of authentic cuisine; although there were a variety of eateries available on Orchard Road, the one that grabbed my attention was a place close to a bus stop, which was located underground. All we could see from the street level were local people walking up and down the steps that led to this cellar-like room. My husband thought I was mad to want to go down those steps, when there were many places at ground level that we could choose from.

"Can't you see, Maria," he tried to warn me, "only Chinese people are walking in and out of that place!"

That's exactly why I wanted to go there. Although we found ourselves in the midst of the tourist zone, it seemed that only locals were entering this place. We walked down the steps straight into a dark steamy room full of very quiet people (as opposed to my Greek family's rowdy nature), none of whom resembled us in our European looks. There were two kitchens, each one cooking different kinds of food. On one side of the room, there were cooked fowls of all sizes on display under incandescent lights, while the other side seemed to be filled with cauldrons of steaming rice and noodles.

I knew I had chosen the right place to eat something close to an 'authentic' Chinese meal, but there was only one big problem: I had absolutely no idea how to ask for it. We finally ordered by pointing (knowing how rude it might appear) to dishes other people were eating at the nearby tables. My efforts managed to procure a bowl of a very clear consomme-type soup which was filled with noodles, shrimps and vegetables; we also managed to get some fried chicken (or was it duck?) and another plate with plain white rice, which I flavoured with the soup for my children.

"Pilafi and makaronia," I said to them.

"Mmm," they replied, waving their chopsticks in the air.

"What does this bowl contain?" my husband asked. In the centre of the table, there was a bowl of warm water with lemon slices floating in it. He was about to pick up a spoon and try it when I stopped him just in time; I suddenly realised that it was for dipping your fingers into to clean them after enjoying a finger licking good meal. Some kinds of food are simply not meant for knives and forks.

The second time we ate as a family at a Chinese restaurant was none less than at Wong Kei's in London. The children were a little older so they were harder to fool; up to that point in their life, they had been eating only what their mother cooked, namely Greek food. Our Londoner host ordered egg pancakes ('oh, look,' I said to them, as I explained the food, 'pita bread!') and crispy fried duck ('mmm, doesn't that chicken look good!'), which we were instructed to fill the pancake with ('wow, this souvlaki yiro tastes wonderful!'). A 'children's menu' is completely unnecessary when children are raised to eat the same food as their parents in an appropriate setting.

*** *** ***

All our early experiences of Chinese cuisine were based upon the idea of toying with food: you see one thing but it may not be what you expect.
Good food should be able to be enjoyed by all, regardless of the ethnicity of the cuisine or the diners' age. The Last Chinese Chef is supposedly about authentic Chinese food and the way it is enjoyed in China. But the author Nicole Mones has surpassed the country border with her food writings in this book, since many of the ideas expressed throughout this novel can also be applied to other non-Western cultures and the way they view food, as opposed to the Western idea of what constitutes a good meal. The Cretan cuisine is based on many of the ideals of Chinese cuisine, as discussed by Nicole in The Last Chinese Chef, from the way animal carcasses are regarded, to the possibilities of taste combinations, and most especially to the way eating is a kind of cultural bonding experience, something that is never done alone or in secret.

Despite the abundance of Asian restaurants all over the world outside China, authentic Chinese cooking is rarely found in them. The truth, unfortunately, sometimes hurts much more than fiction; finding the authentic tastes and flavours of international cuisine is not always easy. In The Last Chinese Chef, Nicole Mones relates the grievances felt by great Chinese chefs cooking in America at the way their food is viewed by their customers:

"... a great dinner always managed to acknowledge civilisation on levels beyond the obvious. The Western people did not understand this... When it came to the food of China, they had their own version, a limited number of dishes that always had to be made the same way with the sauces they would recognise from other restaurants.... Liang Yeh said he had met other chefs who'd tried to offer real Chinese dishes in their menus too, but each said the foreigners wouldn't order them, and each, in time, gave up... discriminating diners demanded real food, but these diners were always Chinese, never American."

In his book Sour Sweet, Timothy Mo also alludes to the 'fake' Chinese food that Chen and Lily, Chinese immigrants to London and owners of a Chinese takeaway, serve to their customers:

"The food they sold, certainly wholesome, nutritious, colourful, even tasty in its way... bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine. They served from a stereotyped menu, similar to countless other establishments in the UK. The food was, if nothing else... successful... "Sweet and sour pork" was their staple, naturally: batter musket balls encasing a tiny core of meat, laced with a scarlet sauce that had an interesting effect on the urine of the consumer the next day. Chen knew because he tried some and almost fainted with shock the morning after, fearing some frightful internal haemorrhaging... "Spare ribs" (whatever they were) also seemed popular. So were spring rolls, basically a Northerner's snack, which Lily parsimoniously filled with beansprouts. All to be packed in the rectangular silver boxes, food coffins, to be removed and consumed statutorily off-premises. the only authentic dish they served was rice, the boiled kind; the fried rice they sold with peas and ham bore no resemblance to the chowfaan Lily cooked for themselves..."

In Bad Food Britain, Joanna Blythman further points out that in areas of the UK where there is a large immigrant Chinese community, the Chinese people will be given a menu card written in the Chinese language, while the non-Chinese customers get the English language one: the menu cards list different dishes.

This is more or less the situation in tourist towns in Greece. Similar stories have been recounted to me by friends who live and work in seaside resort towns on the south coast of Crete: tourists want to eat Greek food the way they themselves prefer it rather than the way it is cooked and served by the locals for themselves. Here's my friend's story (taken from a post I wrote last year about moussaka):

"I was well versed in the Greek cuisine, having worked elsewhere in the restaurant trade for many years. Coming to Paleohora, I realised that what the mild-mannered English and German tourists wanted when they came to Paleohora in the summer was to savour what they thought of as the authentic Greek lifestyle: the slow-paced ignorant locals, the alluring sun and sea, along with authentic Greek peasant cuisine (if those two words can go together). So my wife and I decided to serve only traditional food in the restaurant.

"I found a wine merchant who supplied me with the best marouva (a local variety of wine) you could find in the area, a more expensive variety than others available on the market at the time. The tourists would order it, but they wouldn't drink it, and I'd be chucking away gallons of it sitting undrunk in their glasses. I realised that they were used to classifying wines into reds and whites, something totally foreign in the Cretan wine sector. As soon as I bought in second grade varieties, which could only be distinguished by their colour, the tourists started ordering a second carafe. 'Very good local wine,' they'd say to me, and I'd just answer back, 'Yes, I made it myself from my own grapevines,' and of course they believed me!

"Then there was the salad oil. We used only local olive oil in all our food, and Paleohora olives make some of the best grade of olive oil in the whole country, not just Crete. But Northern Europeans aren't used to mopping up sauces and oil from their plate with freshly baked bread - they were used to sliced bread anyway - so the oil would just remain in the salad bowl, uneaten, wasted. I stopped buying the best grade, and found a cheaper alternative. It too went to waste in any food that required olive oil as a dressing. So I stopped dressing the salads, and just left a small bottle on the table. I watched the tourists pouring a couple of drops of oil over their salad, and I realised that they simply weren't used to using oil any kind - as much as we are. Olive oil only started to be sold relatively recently in their supermarkets; they used to buy it as an exotic highly priced item from pharmacies in their own country.

"We cooked all the traditional Greek foods: pastitsio with spicy mince and creamy sauce, yemista doused in tomato and olive oil, boureki with staka butter, moussaka with fried potato and aubergine slices. In the beginning, I couldn't understand why most people left most of their meal on their plate. Were the servings too large? Was there something wrong with the food? I realised after a couple of seasons that those tourists had been seeing pictures of Greek food in books, and they knew what to expect, but what they didn't know was that it would be so heavy on their stomach. I dry-cooked the mince in the pastitsio; they licked their plate. I stopped dousing olive oil over the yemista and just cooked them in water; they loved them. I stopped adding staka to the boureki: 'yum yum', they kept telling me. I didn't bother frying the aubergine and potato slices in the moussaka; 'mmm, delicious,' they exclaimed, and I'd tell them that the recipe was a very old one from my mother-in-law. That's the kind of bullshit they wanted to hear because it made their holiday take on an exotic appeal. They had no idea what authentic Greek food was; when they were served it, their stomachs couldn't take it."


These days, tourists (and locals alike) are more likely to seek out 'authentic' restaurants, where the cooking reflects what the locals are eating, with the genuine flavours of the area rather than a globalised cuisine to suit all tastes, all part of the more politically correct and sensitised move towards ecotourism, the latest fad in travelling. Having said this, the opposite extreme is also making its presence felt: the hamburger lifestyle has invaded the lives of the younger generation of Cretans, and has already done enough damage (similar to the effect of Western civilisation on the 'little emperor' syndrome in China).

*** *** ***

This discussion leads one to the conclusion that authentic ethnic cuisine is hard to find commercially, and this just might be the case for Chinese cuisine in the little summer resort town that I live in, in the middle of the Mediterranean, even though there are two (or is it three?) 'Chinese' restaurants in the town (one of which is called 'Suki Yaki'; no more need be said on the topic). But this is not the case at all, judging by Nicole's website recipes, specially written up for Cook the Books participants. Authentic Chinese cooking uses the same kind of locally grown or foraged produce that local Cretan food uses. Moreover, due to the sharp rise in the numbers of resident foreigners in Hania, Asian bottled sauces and fresh root ginger are now being stocked at most supermarkets all over the town; had I been making trying to cook authentic Chinese dishes in my Mediterranean kitchen a few years ago, it wouldn't have been possible to find ingredients like oyster sauce and chili paste.

Two ingredients that Nicole tells us are used in rustic Chinese cuisine are highly prized in Cretan cuisine, namely squash flowers and snails. Tavernas all over the island serve them, but few tourists know about them or even how to ask for them: locals ask for squash flowers in the same taverna that the tourists are eating the classic stuffed vine leaves cooked in the same way, while only the locals will ask for snails.

kolokithoanthous pumpkin zucchini flowers snail feeding
Anthous and Hohlious; zucchini and pumpkin flowers are classically stuffed with rice or cheese, and fried, braised or roasted, while the snails are boiled and served in an aromatic sauce or stewed with vegetables. In summer, squash flowers are readily available; we even have access to our neighbour's glut of these delightful flowers for our cooking needs.
dolmadakia courgette zuchcini flower

I decided to make some stuffed squash flowers with Chinese flavours. Nicole gives a very simple recipe that can be easily replicated in my Mediterranean kitchen. Instead of pork mince, I used finely chopped leftover chicken meat, with some onions and garlic mixed into it, which I marinated in oyster sauce and soya sauce and steamed bain-marie style on the stove top in a covered pot. I could also have replicated the snails recipe that Nicole gives, but decided against it; snails are difficult to source in great quantities, and when they are available, they are cooked according to traditional recipes that have evolved on the island over many centuries. My husband would not be amused at all if I told him that I changed the recipes 'slightly' for the 'hohlious' he so laboriously foraged from our citrus orchards!

pumpkin flowers stuffed with asian flavoured chicken pumpkin flowers stuffed with asian flavoured chicken
My experiments in Asian cuisine do not look very Chinese; only if one can smell the food will they realise that this is Asian cuisine - otherwise, it looks very Cretan.
asian marinade meat wrapped in vine leaves asian marinade meat wrapped in vine leaves

Nicole also describes a recipe using spare ribs and lotus leaves. Spare ribs as the Americans and Chinese know them do not exist in Crete - meat cuts are different, so are animal husbandry techniques. Pork ribs are always sold as part of a steak, while beef ribs are never seen, even though Crete is one of those places where the dead animal is seen in all its glory before it becomes meat.

easter lamb 2009

When I found an overlooked and forlorn lone goat chop in my deep freeze, I decided to use it in a Chinese cuisine experiment: I marinated it in the remaining mixture for the stuffed zucchini flowers, and then wrapped it up in vine leaves, in place of lotus leaves (which again don't exist in the Greek market). The vine leaves perfumed the meat in the same way that a lotus leaf does. It is clear that there are similarities in the rustic cuisines among different cultures of the world which rely heavily on foraging of local products. Lamb or goat meat wrapped in vine leaves , slow roasted in the oven or over a spit, is also a classic Greek dish for special occasions. Although oven roasting and baking are not really part of authentic Chinese cuisine, I added this meat cut to a baking tray of stuffed aubergines, to save cooking time and cleaning up.

asian flavoured stuffed vegetables
I presented the cooked goat chop and pumpkin flowers with the stuffed vegetables, Asian flavours disguised as a classic-looking Greek dish: You see one thing, but you taste another.

Speaking of aubergines, there is a glut of them in the garden at the moment, so I used them to make the country eggplant dish from Yangshuo, as Nicole again described. When ingredients are easily sourced, cooking authentic rustic food from any culture becomes as simple as 1-2-3. You can also improvise by using the utensils you have on hand in your own kitchen; as I don't own a wok, I simply used my heaviest shallowest frying pan. As Nicole points out, eggplant needs a lot of oil to cook through; don't skimp on this, because you will only end up making an inedible dish. Aubergine needs a lot of oil, and in Crete, we have plenty of olive oil and use copious amounts in most of our food; even the Chinese are acquiring a taste for it!

yangshuo rustic eggplant made with locally available products in crete
My Yangshuo eggplant dish looked like the Greek version of ratatouille (tourlou tourlou), but had a heavenly Chinese aromatic taste! Zucchini could also be added to it. I served this on a bed of organic Chinese noodles (available from the organic food coop, GAIA).

My husband - a stickler for traditional Greek food - liked my Asian flavoured souvlaki (made with chunks of chicken) most of all; they have a very Mediterranean look to them, but he just couldn't work out the flavours, which is all in line with the toying of one's mind and the artistry involved in authentic Chinese cooking: "You see one thing, you taste another."

bottled asian sauces
I'm not a fan of filling my house with bottled sauces that we hardly ever use, but I imagine that these particular tastes will blend well into my Mediterranean kitchen; the dishes I cooked for this month's Cook the Books event have made economical use of them.
asian flavoured chicken souvlaki

The essence of the cooking and eating customs as presented in the The Last Chinese Chef purvey the idea to the reader that cooking is an art, taste combinations should be balanced and the finished meal should be enjoyed in company. I decided to cook a common-looking Greek meal in our house using Chinese flavours, something that I knew the whole family would enjoy, introducing, in a subtle way, the flavours of a foreign culture into our house, whose food customs are not at all as foreign as they sound.

Thanks to Joy in Philadelphia who managed to secure a copy of the book for me.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Fruit and vegetable marble cake (Kέϊκ υγειας)

Remember those multi-coloured cakes that looked pretty but tasted bland? Here's a marble cake that will be remembered not just for its appearance, but also for its taste. It's based on my 2009 version of my improved chocolate-zucchini cake.


marble cake

In a large bowl, mix together 2 eggs, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1 vial vanilla powder, 2/3 cup olive oil , 1 ripe banana mashed and the juice of 1 medium orange.

Pour out half the mixture into another bowl. To the second bowl, add 1/2 teaspoon of instant coffee powder, 3 tablespoons cocoa powder and 1 cup of grated strained zucchini. Mix well.

marble cake

Add 1-1/2 cups plain flour to each mixture, enough to make a thick batter in each bowl, the consistency of sludgy mud. Pour spoonfuls into a prepared baking tin or a bundt (I grease mine with margarine), and cook till done.

You can also be more adventurous with the colours by dividing the initial batter into three equal parts, and adding some grenadine to one of the bowls to colour it pink. Whether you make it bi- or tri-coloured, you can't find a more healthy cake than this one.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Roses chocolates (Σοκολάτες Τριαντάφυλλα)

For a Greek chocolate story, try ION .

Roses chocolates. There was always a box of these lying around in our house. It was my favorite chocolate; in fact, I never ate any other kind, and I'm still not a chocolate bar kind of person. But I can never tire of Roses chocolates. Who could ever tire of Roses chocolates, with their colourful wrappers, the different shapes, the explanatory leaflet listing all the unique flavours. You could never confuse one with another: each chocolate had its own unique coloured wrapper, making them look like precious jewels sitting in a window display.

It was always a delight to find the queen's face imprinted on the plastic lining of the box, lying under the dairy milk chocolate with the purple wrapper. The sturdy box they came in was highly sought after; we all fought over who would get to keep it once all the chocolates had been eaten. I had one for storing photographs, letters and gifts from my penpals, and another one for my stamp collection, an almost forgotten hobby in our times with the demise of snail mail.

We each had our own favorite Roses flavour. Mine was the toffee fudge which turned soft and chewy when it had been in your mouth long enough. My sister liked the minty one, my mother preferred the hazelnut, while my father wanted the barrel shaped one that tasted of alcohol. And we had second favorites too, because there were only two of each flavour, but they were all delicious, and no one could resist them, even if their favorite flavour had run out.

Roses chocolates were expensive. We never bought them ourselves, yet two boxes were always to be found in the cupboard of the living room wall unit in our house. They had all been brought to us as presents on my father's nameday, wrapped in Christmas paper printed with the words "Season's Greetings" and decorated with pine trees covered in snow, even though summer was only just beginning.

We weren't really allowed to eat them ourselves. They were for serving guests as they arrived to our house to join us on Christmas Day. It has always been customary to carry a small gift to namedays, usually a home-made sweet, the only affordable custom of the time in my parents' Greek villages. As immigrants, they maintained this custom, so that wherever we were visiting, my mother would make a pavlova, a karidopita. We never bought store-made cakes and sweets into our home; Mum made everything. If she didn't have time to make something, then Mum would take out one of the wrapped boxes of Roses chocolates from the cupboard, in lieu of a home-made Greek sweet, the same ones her guests had brought to our house when they were visiting us. A large cluster of namedays are celebrated from October onwards, so the Christmas wrapping paper wasn't seen as inappropriate; in any case, New Zealanders are always being reminded to send off their Christmas cards early. Sometimes Mum would ask us to change the wrapping paper, like for instance on St George's Day which was always after Easter, because it would've been obvious that we were recycling our presents, even though everyone did it anyway.

roses chocolates
The explanatory leaflet is now more eco-friendly...

These chocolate boxes made their way from one Greek house to another all over Mt Victoria, Hataitai, Kilbirnie and Miramar, the Greek suburbs of Wellington. This was convenient because the boxes didn't need to travel very far; it was easier to take care of the wrapping paper so that it suffered less wear and tear. They had probably started off on a display shelf in Woolworths, above the pick'n'mix counter where you could choose your favorite Roses flavour and buy it in bulk. Whenever I saw those chocolates piled high in the transparent glass containers, my mouth would water; I often wished I could choose my own flavour of Roses chocolates, buy a humungus bag full, take them home and stash them away in a secret drawer so that I could eat them whenever I wanted.

As the guests arrived, they would greet us with the customary Χρόνια Πολλά! (hronia polla - "may you have many years of life to celebrate!"), and they'd pass on a cake or wrapped box of chocolates (or some china ornament) to us. We in turn thanked them, and then the kisses on both cheeks would start, everyone's faces becoming slightly damper. The guests were led into the lounge, the only room in the house that was used only two or three times a year for celebrations like this one (which explains why it hardly ever needed dusting or tidying up). They'd take a seat in the plush velvet armchairs spread with anti-macassars and my mother would pour liqueur into a small stem glass for the women and a shot of whisky on the rocks in a glass tumbler for the men, all served on a silver tray with a crochet doily lining it. I would follow behind her with the open box of Roses chocolates. The box would then be closed and returned to the cupboard, ready to be taken out when the next guest arrived.

I recall one occasion when there was no open box of chocolates. Concealing my movements, I took one of the wrapped boxes from the cupboard (just in case someone recognised the wrapping paper as their own) and went to the kitchen to open it, just as the guests had seated themselves. Mum was serving them their drinks and I followed en suite with the chocolates. The box was the old-style shoe-box type; this was about the time when Cadbury had changed the packaging of Roses chocolates and began selling them in soft blue flexible cardboard boxes which opened from a side flap, with a piece of cellophane on the front so that the chocolates could be seen. But these boxes could never replace the majestic look of the old boxes, especially since the chocolates were all mixed together, rather than sitting in their own little space, serving as a kind of throne; the newer box wasn't made to be kept, either.


roses chocolates
Roses wrappers are not as charming as they once were, and they never carried warning signs like "Contains nuts or soya products" like they do now.

After serving the guests, I took one myself, a treat we allowed ourselves only when the box of chocolates was being opened for the first time. I took the wrapper off the strawberry-flavoured heart-shaped wrapper, which was overly sticky. I bit into the chocolate; that, too, was a soft sticky mess. I suddenly realised to my horror that these chocolates must have been bought years ago, and had been doing the rounds of the Greek households for a long time, ending up in the back-most corner of our wall unit, waiting patiently to be used. As I furtively left the room, taking the box of chocolates with me, to chuck out the remaining ones and puke up what I had swallowed, I suddenly noticed a trail of ants that were marching to and fro, from the wall unit to a corner of the room which I could not ascertain, as they were keeping themselves well camouflaged on the red and yellow floral carpet, and their trail was disappearing under the heavy velvet sofas. Oh, fuck, I thought. Whether anyone got sick or had caught wind of what was going on with the chocolates, I never found out.
The liqueur must have countered the effects.

*** *** ***

Roses chocolates were unheard of in Greece at the time of my arrival. I went completely off chocolates in Greece - nothing came close to my favorite ones. I had to learn to accept so many other more essential novelties in my new surroundings (like diposing used toilet paper in a trash can next to the WC). Learning how to enjoy new brands of chocolate was a long lengthy process similar to evolution; it came towards the end of the process, a skill mainly acquired after I became a mother.

The only time I saw boxes of Roses chocolates in Greece was in the advertisements of English magazines which I'd treat myself to every now and then, read while lying on the beach or in the middle of the day when the sun was so hot it had heated up the cement that Greek houses are all made of, making them unbearably hot, too hot to even sleep, as you'd only end up waking in the pool of sweat that your bedsheets would become. It was also in Greece that I learned to store chocolates in the fridge. They always melted if they were left anywhere else. In New Zealand, butter needed half a day just to soften outside the fridge, let alone melt (apparently, there's no butter conditioner in Kiwi refrigerators any longer, making butter another obsolete Kiwi food item, much like whitebait fritters).

Each reminder of Roses chocolates flooded my mind with memories of that wall unit and the boxes of gift-wrapped chocolate boxes. But it would be a long, long time before I would find myself holding another box of Roses chocolates - over a decade in fact, when I returned to New Zealand for a visit with my family. We hadn't bought much spending money, as it had cost me and my husband an arm and a leg to make that trip, travelling from the Mediterranean winter to the Kiwi summer (don't forget your brolly), with two kids in tow. So I contented myself with the sight of the chocolates on the shelves at the New World supermarket and Whitcoulls bookshops, and decided to buy myself a box as a souvenir, to take back home with us and serve in that old-fashioned manner with a drink on a silver tray to our guests who would come to greet us on our return and see our photographs.

roses chocolates
The 'Dorothy' purse or handbag

I put them in the fridge and avoided the temptation of opening the box until we finally had some company. Not even my husband had tried one yet, and when he eventually did, he couldn't understand what the fuss was all about over my preferred chocolate brand. He didn't like their overly sweet colourful fillings, preferring something far more simple, like the Greek ION Amigdalou. The glossy foil wrappers made choosing which chocolate to take difficult, since they didn't give away the flavour they were hiding. The flavour combinations were simply too exotic for his liking: mint is still associated only with chewing gum and cough lollies in Greece. The children spat them out in disgust; these chocolates were clearly an acquired taste, too adult-ish for their liking.

roses chocolates
Desecration or enjoyment?

The last straw came when I served them to my guests. I let them each choose a chocolate and left the box on the coffee table while I busied myself in the kitchen making coffee and filling up glasses of water. When I came back into the lounge, I found half a dozen unwrapped chocolates on the table that had all been bitten into and had then been discarded. How denigrating; my Greek friends had no idea how sacrilegiously they had behaved.

*** *** ***

Roses chocolates is an English invention that has been enjoyed for years in New Zealand, being the chocolate of choice to celebrate an anniversary or as a thank-you present. I'm older and wiser to know now that in my house, only I can enjoy Roses chocolates in my house, therefore, I deserve the whole box to myself. When they come into my house, I hide them, somewhere at the back of the fridge (mum's territory), coming into view only when I use the tomato paste which they are hiding behind. I must remember to limit myself - they need to last a long time; they don't come into my house easily. With each bite I savour of a Roses chocolate, I bring back memories of a life I can never go back to, and an upbringing I cannot relate to my children in a comprehensible way. They need to see it for themselves, and maybe read this story to understand their mother's poignant gaze whenever she sees a picture of a box of Roses.

A big thanks to Stella for the Roses chocolates.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Agricultural August (ΑΓΡΟΤΙΚΟΣ ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΟΣ)

Agricultural August is a well-organised annual event taking place for the last 11 years in Hania. It is organised to promote and support the agricultural activities and lifestyle of the region.

agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009
The stalls were set up alongside the marina area of the Venetian port, below the old Venetian shipyards, locally known as the 'Neoria'.

Agricultural August is staged by the beautiful old Venetian harbour which attracts many visitors at this time of year, enabling both locals and tourists alike to partake in the activities presented through the event, mainly in the form of food stalls, along with a few samples of local art such as woodwork and weaving and some commercial businesses like bookshops and natural products suppliers.

agricultural august hania 2009
Cretan cookbooks, ovens and clay pots, and dolls in traditional costumes
agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009
The face of a traditional Cretan male carved in a watermelon.
face of traditional cretan man carved in a watermelon

Cretan music is heard throughout the night via a central sound system, and there are also dancing displays on most nights while the event is running.

agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009
Traditional Cretan produce comprises home-made food made from the natural resources available on the island.
agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009

Its earthy atmosphere and ambient environment gives everyone, especially foreigners, an opportunity to experience genuine Cretan hospitality, which in any case, is never hard to find in Crete: people are down-to-earth and like to make foreigners feel at home, by providing them with food and a friendly smile.

agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009
Traditional Cretan pies and pasties - kalitsounia - containing locally made cheese are also a popular snack food. These ones have been made by local women's cooperatives.
agricultural august hania 2009
Equipment used in the art of local cheesemaking.
agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009

We attended the event on its second night (it ran from 31 July to 9 August), and found it very impressive. The harbour was packed with people (being a Saturday night), and there was plenty of eating and drinking going on.

agricultural august hania 2009
A traditional village kafeneion was running in one of the old Venetian buildings, often used as an exhibition centre.
agricultural august hania 2009 agricultural august hania 2009
Local faces - the men seem to fit into the 'una fatsa, una ratsa' group.
agricultural august hania 2009

People came as family groups, instilling the custom of eating and drinking in company. A lot of promotional material was also given away on that night, most of it having to do with food. My only complaint about the event was that the authorities responsible did not promote this year's event through the official website (leaving last year's material on it), which shows a certain level of undesirable apathy in a high-profile event of cultural and political significance.

earino taverna cafe bar koum kapi hania poikilia - mixed meat grill
Sometimes, the setting, the environment and view are worth so much more than the food.
koum kapi

After having our fill of kalitsounia, honey, wine and tsikoudia samples, we made our way to Koum Kapi where we enjoyed a bit of junk food al fresco on a warm summer's evening. A pleasant time was guaranteed for all.

Cost of 3 souvlakia (skewered meat), a small mixed grill, 2 tap beers and 2 lemonades: 29 euro.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.