Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Chez Maria (Ταβέρνα Μαρία)

The original title for this post was 'Austerity (Αυστηρότητα)': on second thoughts, I changed it to something more positive.

Recently, after spending part of my annual leave clearing out the house of unwanted/useless items (baby furnishings that had been tucked away out of view, children's clothes that my growing offspring don't fit into, toys that they have grown out of, books that I didn't want to keep/enjoy reading, and anything that looked like junk), which all went to charity services*, as well as finding my way round my new computer (after five years of trusted service, my old one died), I felt I deserved a break. I took off to the beach with the children, and planned on a taverna meal in the evening. I didn't let the economic crisis prevent me from putting this luxurious idea out of my mind. I didn't even care that our taxi had been out of service for over a week because our co-worker had crashed it (just what you need a few weeks into the tourist season at a time when business was only just picking up, after two rounds of cancelled flights due to volcanic ash, the enforcement of austerity measures and forced union strikes). I just felt like going out for a meal, and you can do that relatively cheaply in Hania.

stalos beach overlooking thodorou island
The sign above refers warns people not to remove the endemic plants that grow in the area.
stalos beach stalos beach

We are very lucky to live close to the sea. The coastlines in my area have even been designated blue flag beaches. Apart from the cost of running the car, going to the beach is free, and it is something you can do every day in the summer in Greece. The only drawback to my local blue-flag beaches is that they are located in areas that have grown along with tourism, so that they now look gaudy, unplanned and cheap. The area has developed randomly; businesses are situated next to private dwellings, with little respect for the landscape. This stretch of coastline has been commercialised in some parts. The better part of the beach area is overrun with umbrellas and deckchairs, with a small beach bar serving snack meals and cold drinks. Most of the area close to the main road has been left to its own devices. Apart from a rubbish bin, it bears few other signs of man-made development.

This beach never really gets busy. The people who frequent it seem to be mainly non-tourist foreign residents, people who have migrated to Hania in search of better living conditions and work. Amongst them there are also a few Greeks coming here for similar reasons to my own: they do not want to endure other people's consumerised 'noise', preferring to bring their own deckchairs and umbrellas, and some lunchbox meals and drinks prepared at home.

beach stalos beach
These clouds offered a short respite from the heat.
runaway clouds

The water was good on this particular day, warm and clear, with the blue flag guarantee. The waves gave it a more exciting feel; on our previous visits, it was so still that it felt like lake water. The beach is shallow enough to walk into it without fear for a few metres. After the heat of the average Greek summer's day, a trip to the beach is invigorating and refreshing. The bonus of going to the beach in the afternoon is that the sun's rays do not feel so harsh on your bare skin.

stalos beach
Can you see the effects of the Greek economic crisis? Click on the photograph to read the notes.

While watching the children playing on the sand after their frolics in the water, a more general image of the economic crisis came into view: closed businesses, for-rent signs, hotels that did not open up this year for lack of business. There is a good side to this slowing down of life in Hania. Suddenly, the town has suddenly become more bearable. The economic crisis has forced people to minimise their expenses. The rising petrol prices (1.60 per litre of unleaded) have made people reconsider the overuse of the car. Shops in the town are empty, quite a few businesses have closed down, tavernas don't do as much trade as they used to. The roads now look empty in the evening. People are staying put; the less one moves, the less one expends energy.

The people I was surrounded by were clearly making a conscious effort to minimise their expenses. They would probably be going home for dinner - not out. I suddenly had second thoughts about that cheap taverna meal I had promised myself in the evening, and decided against it. I could actually re-create it in my own home.

*** *** ***

On a warm summer evening, if you go out to a taverna in Crete, the mainstays of your meal will consist of some fried kalamari rings, fried potatoes, tzatziki, Greek salad and dakos. Apart from the kalamari (I had bought a packet to cook during Great Lent before Easter, but didn't get round to it), I also had some green-lipped NZ mussels (bought on a whim of kiwi nostalgia). There was also half a jar of freshly marinated gavros sitting in the fridge - this was the perfect moment to finish them off. There were drinks in the fridge and plenty of fresh bread in the bread box.

taverna maria
The food on my table are typical of a Greek summertime taverna meal.
fried calamari rings mussels in wine sauce
Fried calamari is easy to make, as long as you don't mind clearing up the mess afterwards. The mussels were the 'special of the day': they are usually not available in tavernas in Hania, because as my friend informs me, the Cretan waters have too many currents, and cannot be easily farmed here.
taverna maria
All the dishes are presented in the middle of the table and everyone takes their share from each plate. Unlike Asians, Greeks are sometimes less polite, so that not everyone gets their fair share of the dish. As you can see, by the time I got stuck into the kalamari, I ended up with the dregs...

As a price comparison, here is the probable cost of the same meal I cooked at a taverna, and the cost at home (not including the cook's payment), with the number of servings indicated. I used the prices I paid at the last taverna meal I had. Only the olive oil and seasonings are not taken into account in the home cost of these foods, because they are pantry staples and have minimal costs when bought in bulk.

ITEM                              TAVERNA                  HOME
2 kalamari rings              2 x 6.00 = 12.00           500g = 4.00
2 fried potatoes               2 x 2.00 = 4.00             home-grown garden produce
1 tzatziki                          2.00                              150g yoghurt = 0.50
1 Greek salad                  5.00 (with feta cheese) apart from the kumatos (3 x 0.50), it was made from garden produce
1 dakos                            3.00                              1.00 (I served six pieces)
1 mussels*                       not usually available    special product- cannot be compared to a taverna meal
1 gavros                           5.00                              200g = 1.80   
bread (cover charge)       4 x 0.30 = 1.20              0.50 (daily staple)   
2 beers                             2 x 2.50 = 5.00             2 x 1.92 = 3.84 (Bodington imported ale)
2 sodas                            2 x 1.20 = 2.40              2 x 0.44 = 0.88 (bottles refundable: 2 x 0.12 = -0.24)
TOTAL:                           approx. 40.00                approx. 15.00
* the mussels were not included in either of the totals          

The whole meal took me 90 minutes to prepare, while everyone else was showering after the beach and tackling gardening jobs. There were no special recipes involved; most of the time was spent letting the pan cook. We sat outdoors on our wide cool balcony, with a view to the motorway (not busy), a neighbour's party music (fair enough, it was a Saturday night - Voskopoulos and Zambetas στο δια πασόν!), and a fireworks display coming from the area of the Venetian port close to the town centre. As we sat down to eat, we watched the first ferry boat leave the ship harbour in Souda Bay; the second ferry boat left at the end of our meal.

city lights
Can you see the ferry boats? Click on the image to read the notes.

Dinner and a movie, I guess.

* I had forgotten a couple of bags full of baby things in the boot of the car, but couldn't be bothered driving back to the church, so I left them by a rubbish bin in a central city suburb in a quiet residential street where many economic migrants reside. Two hours later, after I had run my errands and come back to the car to go back home, I noticed that the bags had found another happy home. 

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