Saturday, 6 November 2010

Blueberry muffins (Κεκάκια με φρούτα του δάσου)

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." These famous words of Dr Johnson appeared in the Let's Go Europe edition that I bought just before I left New Zealand to do the big OE. Dr Johnson's statement doesn't seem to include women; he is often regarded as a misogynist, but this has been refuted in more modern times, as illustrated by one of his lesser known quotes: "A country gentleman should bring his lady to visit London as soon as he can, that they may have agreeable topics for conversation when they are by themselves." In any case, there always seem to have been more women living in London than men since the seventeenth century at least.

Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: "I walked on Waterloo Bridge," "I rendezvoused at Charring Cross," "Piccadilly Circus is my playground," to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world..., to write a casual letter home beginning: "Last night in Trafalgar Square..." (Sam Selvon, 1956, The Lonely Londoners)

The best holidays that I've taken with my family have been in London; my children have seen the marbles Elgin stole more times than the ones he left behind at the Acropolis. The people that make up this magnetic city come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Migration to London is the theme of my favorite book, Small Island by Andrea Levy, which signalled a turning point in my life: after I read it, I was convinced that I could write similar stories to the one I was reading, which is how I started writing this blog. The stories I like to tell are the ones that connect my family to their mother's complicated past. They were not lucky enough to have the opportunity to get to know their New Zealand-linked grandparents. Because my tangible links to my birthplace are quite limited, I hope that these stories will leave behind a legacy for my children, which will explain many of the things that they might not have understood about their upbringing.

If you haven't read Small Island yet and you enjoy reading about migration experiences, then read it soon, and try to see the BBC television adaptation of the novel; I find it difficult to choose between the book and the film, as both are excellent in their own right.

Above right: Braving the cold under the Statue of Eros at Picadilly Circus. Left: A wizard and a witch making their way to Hogwarts from Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station. Below: Despite the cloudy sky above Trafalgar Square, it was warm enough to take off our coats and run around freely.

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As a youngster, I always had a fascination with the UK. My interest in cooking, as opposed to helping my mother in the kitchen, developed from my avid following of a TV cooking show that I used to watch in NZ. It was presented by none other than the UK's very own Delia Smith, whose style came off to my younger self as very 'sensible'.

It may sound surprising that, after being raised on Greek food for most of my life up till then, I would turn to Delia to show me how to cook. The truth is that my mother did not teach me how to cook. Being a very busy woman all her life, when she cooked the family meals, she didn't like to be pestered in the kitchen. She would ask her children to help her in the kitchen when she needed help; it is these moments that flash in my mind when I am cooking for my own family. Cooking was something my own mother regarded more as instinctive rather than taught, unlike Delia, who was doing exactly the opposite. What I liked about Delia's style was the way she explained everything, literally everything that she did in the kitchen, something that my mother, an experienced home cook, didn't do for me. For example, I'd ask my mother for her recipe for, say, a cake; she'd tell me what ingredients I needed, and that's it: 

"Do you just mix everything altogether, Mum?" I'd ask her.  

"No, of course not!" she'd answer.

That's why I liked Delia. Delia wouldn't have expected me to know what to do with a plain list of ingredients. She would give more precise instructions, something more like this:

"First, put on a clean apron, take a medium-sized bowl out of your cupboard - this one will do (holding it up for her audience to look at) - then crack the eggs, ONE at a time, over the bowl, and drop them in, taking care not to drop any eggshell with it..." Experienced cooks often forget that amateurs need to be told everything

I was so enthralled by Delia that I bought Delia Smith's One is Fun! when it first came out after the TV show was screened. Apart from the classic Edmonds Cookbook, every Kiwi's cooking bible for the absolute beginner (few New Zealanders do not own their own copy), this is one of my most well-thumbed books. I'd come home from my classes at university and cook something for myself while my parents were still at work. Then I'd clean up the kitchen, leaving no trace of my passing. The kitchen was still very much my mother's domain, and her cooking dominated. (Left: My edition of Delia's Complete Cookery Course Vol 1-3).

Delia's recipes didn't adapt well to my mother's cooking routine. From my parents' point of view, there was a distinct lack of olive oil in the dishes, and it all looked, smelt and tasted so wrong to my parents: currants in the rice, sweets made from bread, moussaka made with lentils instead of mince. They were all unheard-of food combinations in my mother's Cretan kitchen. I didn't have the confidence to share my food in those days; the lack of interest in other people's food on the part of my parents did not help.  

cake shop greenwich london
A delightful tantalising display of sweets in a Greenwich cake shop: I can name every single one of these cakes, as they are very similar to what was displayed in Wellington cake shops in my youth.

Another reason why I was fascinated by Delia was probably the fact that, through her, I found out about what most of my classmates were eating in their homes. Since my mother's cooking could generally be summed up as Greek, I was left with a huge gap in my experience of the food my schoolfriends and colleagues ate, a gap which Delia filled for me. In those days, people still ate according to traditional norms, and Sunday lunch would still consist of things like Yorkshire pudding, jacket potatoes and pot roast. These are the names of dishes that I remember people around me mentioning, none of which we ever had at home, since I had nowhere to try them myself. Delia may be an English cook, but her early recipes are familiar to any old-fashioned (or should I just say old?) Kiwi. Through Delia's cookbooks, I also learnt how to make all my favorite non-Greek sweets, some of which we also ate at home (albeit store-bought ones), because it's very difficult to say no to sweets, whatever their origin: instead of koulourakia, I still prefer gingernuts; as a change from a Greek pita with filo pastry, I like to make buttery pie crusts for a quiche filling; instead of syrup-drenched Greek sweets, I would much rather have a slice of currant loaf (which I dare not make lest I eat it all myself, as no one else in the house likes this kind of cake). One Delia recipe that I began making in Greece since I came to live here (and never made in New Zealand) is orange marmalade, a good way to use up the harvest from our 500 trees.

Foreign food presents from friends and readers
presents from the UK golden syrup

Despite what is often said about British cuisine (which often reflects people's eating habits rather their ability to cook), some of the greatest comfort foods have their origin in the UK: English breakfast, fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, the Sunday roast, cream tea and trifle are but a few irresistibles the world over. London is also one of the best places on the planet where anyone can sample the food of nearly all the cuisines of the world. And I won't forget what one of my readers once told me: "The worst Chinese take-away in England compares to the best Chinese restaurant I've ever been to in Greece and at a third of the price."

We always travel with our kids; they'd never forgive us if they found out that we were having so much fun without them. Here we are at the IMAX 3D-cinema, Science Museum, London.

One of the sweets that we couldn't get enough of during our visits to London were muffins. Things are getting better in Greece, with good muffins becoming more and more available, but not in my favorite flavour: blueberry muffins. I haven't seen blueberries available here yet, but even when they do arrive (and they surely will), they are bound to be ridiculously priced, like the imported fresh blackberries (from Mexico) that have made it onto shelves of high-end supermarkets (and I really can't imagine who on earth is buying Mexican blackberries at the price they are being sold).

A friend from abroad recently bought me some blueberries as a present when he came to Crete on a visit. I immediately set about making them into some excellent muffins. When I presented them to my children, they bit into them without any hesitation, at least until my son realised that these cupcakes had something in them that looked like chocolate, but it most definitely wasn't chocolate.

blueberry muffins ala elise

"Are these sultanas, Mum?"
"No, of course not. You know I know you don't like sultanas."
"So what are these black things?"
"They're chocolate drops."
"They don't look like chocolate drops."
"They English* chocolate drops. X_____ bought them when he visited us, remember?"
"Oh, OK... But next time, Mum, can you make these with Greek chocolate, not English chocolate?"

My son's tastebuds are highly culturally attuned.

*The blueberries were purchased in London; they were grown in Poland.

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