Sunday, 27 June 2010

Fish (Ψάρι)

I live away from the town centre, away from the main cluster of suppliers of primary food products, so I don't get a chance to buy and cook as much fish as I would like. Frozen fish is readily available (and easy to store), but fresh fish does not compare with frozen, and not all varieties of fresh fish are actually frozen. Frozen fish is sold pre-packaged and ready to cook, unlike fresh fish, which is always sold whole, guts and all. This is what I like about fresh fish - you get to know all its parts, and there is a sense of transparency in your purchase.

Frozen fish is OK when you can't get fresh fish

Some of the food practices of the locals may seem strange to me; and in a similar vein, some of mine will probably seem strange to them. I can't understand why they laugh when I tell them I sometimes buy fresh fish from the market and freeze it, for example, like we do with lamb and goat. "It's available fresh every day," they remind me, "and you're freezing it to use another day?" I do this every now and then because of the demands involved in combining work and daily cooking, in the same way that I often cook the main meal of the day in the evening of the night before, and I always cook enough to last two days. There is also another reason which is just as important to me: I find it inexcusable to drive into town just to buy fresh fish, as an attempt to reduce unnecessary driving, not just to lower my expenses but to try to live more greenly. So every now and then, when I come across fish that looks really fresh, I buy enough to freeze some for another day that I want to cook it.

Large shrimp is generally difficult (or too expensive) to buy fresh - this shrimp was bought frozen. Τhe langoustines (below) were tasty but rather overpriced for what I was served.
nikos taverna ayia varvara egaleo athens

Fresh fish is plentiful all over Crete; no surprise, Crete is an island. It's available from the many small fishmongers' businesses that we have in the town, as well as in some large supermarkets which have a fresh fish counter, albeit with a limited range of species, most of which have been raised in fish farms. There are also a number of fish stalls in the main market in Hania, the Agora. The wide range of the many fresh fish species available daily is one thing that our tourists often remark on. I am so used to this that I sometimes take it for granted. When buying fresh fish, there is only one thing that I do not take for granted, and that is the price.

A typical fish stall in the Agora (above) and in a shop in the town (below).

fishmongers hania

When I buy fresh fish, I am usually in town for another reason, such as banking, special purchases and bureaucracy purposes (the latter being one of the biggest time wasters in daily Greek life). After parking my car, the first shops that I come across as I enter the main centre are the fishmongers'. There are two in particular that are located on opposite sides of the main square in the town. They are my first browsing point. We do not eat a lot of fish in my house, yet fish is what I really crave for as a main meal. I had got into the habit of choosing the fish I wanted to buy and asking the fishmonger to clean it for me, and after paying for it, he would pop it into freezer so that I could go about my urban chores and pick up my fish after my last port of call before returning to the car park.

agora market
The Agora not only sells fresh fish; you can have a cheap fish meal at one of the mayeiria (eateries) there too.

On one particular day, the variety I wanted (galeos, a kind of shark) was not available. It is usually sold in sliced slabs, like salmon, and ranges in the 10 euro price range. It's expensive, but not as expensive as other varieties, like bakaliaraki (European hake) which is my favorite, and can be sold for anything between 13 and 25 euro a kilo. I was about to turn away.

grilled sardines
Filleted sardines - cheap and delicious; and if y9ou know they are very fresh, you can place them in a bowl of olive oil and vinegar, and leave them in the fridge: they then taste just like canned sardines!
raw sardines in vinegar

"But I've got something even better today," the fishmonger tried to tempt me. "Why don't you buy some peskandritsa instead?" I'd never heard of peskandritsa (a kind of monkfish) before, and looking at it, I decided that I had never seen an uglier fish in my life. Its head looked like a shark's, as it lay open, gaping at me, with its all its mangled interior staring out at the world, while its torso going down towards its tail looked like a glistening ice-cream cone, with its conical shape. It looked rather large. Its ugliness was counterbalanced by the fleshy white fullness of its meat. Its outward appearance gave the impression that it had just been fished; it looked very fresh.

This fish was being raffled off in the Agora by a peddler.

"How do you cook that?" Always a good question to ask: Greeks love their small fish fried, their large fish barbecued, and white meaty fish cooked for a soup.

 koutsomoura fried
This variety of red mullet goes by the name of 'koutsomoura' which means 'crooked face'. It's very tasty, but watch our for the bones; it's a more expensive species of small fish.

"Oh, this will make more than one meal," the fishmonger explained, with a big smile on his face. "The top part makes a delicious base for a psarosoupa, while the body," he continued, "can be sliced into fillets and fried or cooked in the oven." I realised that I would have to buy the whole fish, and not just the part I wanted, because he wouldn't be able to sell only a part of it; each part of this fish had a different purpose for a meal.

Salt cod (bakaliaro) is a storable alternative when you feel like having fish but don't have easy access to fresh stuff. Bakaliaro is eaten on special occasions during the Greek Orthodox fasting periods.

"I've never seen it before," I said, stalling time while trying to think about whether I should invest in some. I thought it could be a good idea: we'd have two very different fish meals in the same week.

petalidea beetroot skordalia egaleo mussles saganaki egaleo
Shellfish like these ones are not sold frequently - I usually go out for a meal to enjoy them; these particular ones were served at a restaurant in Athens.

"Oh, you'll love it, it's so fresh," the fishmonger continued, " and you'll probably some back to me" - as I always did, because it pays to know your fresh produce suppliers in Greece - "and tell me that it was the best fish you've ever tasted." They may say that about everything, but this time, the appearance of the fish matched the fishmonger's description. 

My 'own' fishmonger, packing bakaliaraki (European hake) for me. This section of the fish stall shows the cheaper varieties of fish.

"Which one do you want?" The fishmonger was trying to close the deal. I pointed to the smallest one. I couldn't see a price tag anywhere, which is actually unusual, as most fish is usually clearly labelled in all the town's fisheries.

gavros and horta
A typical fish meal in my house includes horta as a salad.

"Would you like me to prepare it for you?" he asked. He was moving too fast. I had no idea how much I was going to pay for this fish. I am in the 'economy' class in everything I buy, whether it's clothes, shoes, entertainment and holidays. This doesn't mean that I buy only cheap food. Quite the opposite: we buy expensive local produce at the best quality that we can afford. This is typical for most Greeks who live in villages. Being regionalists, they will look for the best local produce at the best price. Take graviera cheese for example: it's never cheaper than 11 euro a kilo. We prefer goat over lamb meat, the latter always being cheaper than the former (lamb costs about 8 euro/kilo while goat is 10). We hardly every buy frozen chickens: a whole free-range chicken costs at least 20 euro each. We don't skimp on fresh produce, but we like to know what we're paying, because life has always been expensive in Crete, even though it doesn't look like that to our tourists, whose average salaries are much higher than ours.

agora market
One of the more unusual fish I tried recently: skate wings (σαλάχι - bottom left hand corner); I once had the, should I call it pleasure? of seeing a skate caught at Kalamaki Beach, a blue-flag beach near my house.

I asked about the price of the peskandritsa. The fishmonger picked it up and weighed it. "Let's see, he said, that's just over two kilos, so that's 52 euro, so..." Did I hear right? I wondered. "... Just give me 50 euro," he continued.

small bream
Bream - φαγκρί

50 euro! Just 50 euro! I don't carry much more than that on a daily basis in my purse! I couldn't afford to pay 50 euro for fish on that day, nor on any other day for that matter. And even though this happened a long time ago, my price range is still much lower than 50 euro for the price of one fish, and my purse still doesn't carry much more than that in cash. Needless to say, I didn't eat fish on that day.

*** *** ***

Fresh fish can be bought for anything between 5 and 30 (and much much more) euro a kilo, depending on the size, variety and season. The prices (everything is sold by the kilo) of fresh fish range from 5-7 euro for the very small fish, like maritha, gavros, sardela and atherina* (all different kinds of sardine and anchovy), which are highly popular, mainly due to the price, but also because they are very tasty and easy to cook, to the medium range of fillets like galeos (shark), salahi (skate) and salmon at 10-15 euro a kilo, to a massive 25-30 euro for larger species, like barbounia (red mullet) and bakaliaraki (European hake). Shellfish are also well represented, but not the very big varieties: you'll see lots of baby-sized shrimp, octopus and squid, and maybe some mussels, but not crabs and lobsters. Oysters and scallops are only seen on Clean Monday.

gavros mediterranean anchovy
Gavros and other small sardines and anchovies) are cheap and highly popular all over Greece. Sea urchins on the other hand, are not well known as a sea food all over Greece - and they aren't exactly cheap either.
sea urchin

Fish tavernas (psarotavernes - ψαροταβέρνες) are a great place to sample a variety of fish. The price you spend all depends on the species you choose. Frozen fish is cheaper than fresh fish. The larger the fish, the more expensive per kilo it costs; shellfish is usually more expensive than fish. The range of fish available is wide, but it is still limited in terms of the species available: for instance, I can't find oysters (except on Clean Monday) - oysters, along with paua fritters, are two kinds of seafood that miss very much since I left New Zealand.

The range and size of the seafood pictured above is considered very exotic for us - it is found in Portugal, and by the looks of the price tags, it isn't cheap there, either.

But one thing is certain: fresh fish is available on a daily basis, and the fishmonger is a lively part of our daily world. And even if you are not a great fish fan, the theatrics of the fishmonger's daily routine will be one of the things that will stay in your mind after a trip to any Greek island. The way he picks up the slippery fish and places them in a paper cone, the constant pouring of buckets of water over his wares, the gumboots he wears in all kinds of weather including the sweltering conditions of our hot summers, none of this gives any clue to the dangers faced by fishermen out at sea to bring that fresh produce to our plates.

ravdoucha waves on the rocks
Octopus and calamari are the most popular taverna choices.
ravdoucha waves on the rocks

The economic crisis is probably not going to help the fisherman to maintain his previous standard of living, but maybe it will help us all to be able to afford to eat more fish, as the prices of many products once considered luxury items have actually reduced (cars, for example, are cheaper).

bbq kalamaki hania chania
Our friend George loves to put on a good show at his house by the sea.
For a more romantic feel to your holiday, you can eat your choice of fish and any other Greek delicacy at a cheap taverna by the sea, where you won't know if the people at the table sitting next to you are package holidaymakers, or locals or millionaires; they will have come to the same place that you did for the same reasons, and chosen their meal from the same menu card that you did. And even if you are not a millionaire, you will feel like one, as you sit by the sea, enjoying your meal without anyone hurrying you away, with the waves lapping the shore close to your feet, under the warmth of the Mediterranean summer's evening sky.
evening meal by the beach

Whatever the outcome of the mess my country is in, at least I know I don't have to go away on holiday to eat a little fish by the sea. I can do it close to home.

*these small varieties of fish are available even more cheaply in the mainland; in Athens, gavros can be bought for 4 euro a kilo

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