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Taxi service
TAXI SERVICE, for all your holiday needs while you are travelling in Hania. If you're coming to Hania and you need a taxi, maybe we can help you out. For quotes and prompt service, drop me a line at: mverivaki hotmail com

Monday, 29 March 2010

Pulses (Όσπρια)

A brief break from my travel musings to concentrate on the food of the holy times ahead of us...

It's the start of Holy Week in the Christian Orthodox world, a time which necessitates the strictest fast (shellfish permitted), according to the church calendar. Pulses play a prominent role in this week's cooking regime, leading up to Easter Sunday.

The following popular Greek nursery rhyme seems so apt for the occasion, reproduced from bizeli.com, an infants' learning site. Coincidentally, 'μπιζέλι - bizeli' is the Cretan word for 'pea' ('αρακάς - arakas' is the generic Greek word for 'pea'), an influence of Venetian rule on the island.

pulses ospria beans

Το κουκί και το ρεβύθι (The broad bean and the garbanzo pulse)
εμαλώνανε στη βρύση (were arguing by the water source.)
και περνάει κι η φακί (Along comes the lentil)
και τα βάζει φυλακή (who locks them up in jail.)
και η φάβα τους φωνάζει (The yellow split pea was heard to shout:)
"Φακίιιιιιι, βγάλτα, δεν πειράζει" ("Hey you, lentil! Let them out!")

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Saturday, 27 March 2010

Snails (Xοχλιοί)

A brief break from my travel musings to concentrate on the food of the holy times ahead of us...

A favorite lenten meal in Crete consists of snails, boiled or fried, spiced up with vinegar and rosemary, as the following mantinada (Cretan form of poetry) attests:



"Ο Κρητικός στη ξενιτειά πόσα λεφτά δε δίδει
να βρει μπουμπουριστούς χοχλιούς να φάει με το ξύδι;"

Oh, how much would a Cretan pay if he could only track
some fried snails dressed in vinegar when in a foreign land?

Coincidentally, I saw many people at Le Chartier ordering the snail dish, the most expensive entree on the menu. The snail shells were huge, up to three (yes, that's 3!) times the size of the snail shells depicted here. I couldn't bring myself to order them, for similar reasons to the opinion expressed by the protagonist of this story...

(from 'The Roots of the Greeks: The Cretans', 2009, Pigasos Ekdotiki - Pegasus Publications, translated from the Greek)

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Thursday, 25 March 2010

Salt cod (Μπακαλιάρο)

A brief break from my travel musings to concentrate on the food of the holy times ahead of us...

It's a double holiday today: the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary and Greek Independence Day. As the 25th of March always falls during Lent, it is one of the days when the fast is broken with fish. The traditional meal for this day is salt cod:

bakaliaros

- bakaliaros (fried salt cod)
- skordalia (garlic dip)
- batsaria (boiled beetroot)

Coincidentally, this same meal is also the traditional meal for Palm Sunday which is coming up this weekend, so we'll get a double dose of this just before Easter, which this year is coming very early for us Greeks.

choucroute bakaliaros guacomople
A new combination in a similar style to the old tradition...

Never being a stickler for tradition, I decided to skip the beetroot and skordalia today, replacing them with cabbage from the garden, cooked like a choucroute in the tradition of Alsace (I have developed a fancy for French food), and avocado garlic dip (guacomole) instead of the skordalia - all good substitutions to cut down on costs by using our own home-grown stuff.

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Monday, 22 March 2010

Bouillon Chartier (Εστιατόριο Σαρτιέ, Παρίσι)

This post forms part of the series of our culinary adventures from our recent trip to Paris and London.

"We know the customers make the restaurant. Sounds, tastes, smells, sight, everything converges so you will not miss a thing of this fabulous banquet of the senses. But the story of Chartier is the one you tell." Alors, here is my story of "Le Chartier", my Chartier.

chartier restaurant paris

I had been informed that eating out in Paris was expensive. I felt a little put out by this: is it always going to be expensive to eat in Paris sitting down, feet tucked under a table? I wondered how I was going to stretch my Greek euros while I was there, in order to afford to eat good French food cooked in the French manner without the culinary 'haute cuisine' complexities and high prices of those Michelin-star restaurants that people often refer to when they talk about French food. And what about all that undercooked blood-pink meat the French are supposed to be fond of?

frisee lardons
My very first meal in Paris: frisee aux lardons and paupillotes de veau jardiniere. I fell in love with French food there and then.

After a few google searches, I managed to chance on the perfect post for people in my disposition. Here is what Parisien Salon had to say about eating out on the cheap in Paris:
"CHEAP EATS: I’d have to say Chartier. Yes, it’s true– “You get what you pay for.” But I can’t think of anywhere else you can get a square meal and a truly authentic slice of life in old Paris than Chartier. Stick with the classics and the house wine and you’ll be fine, but be sure to order the frisée salad with hot bacon, which costs less than a café crème on the St. Germain de Pres, and is one of the best in town. Service is predictably gruff, and if you’re looking for “Hi, my name is Jean-Pierre, and I’ll be your waiter tonight!” you’re not going to get that here. I did see a roach come out of our breadbasket once and I was with some out-of-towners who said that I should alert the waiter. Obviously it was their first time at Chartier. In spite of it all, I keep going back. But am not sure they would."
Well, maybe I'm just cheap. I decided to risk the roaches (they never surfaced). We were some of the ones that did return - three times to be exact, meaning that we ate, oops, sorry, dined a la carte at the Chartier four nights. In a row. I knew what to expect: "No silk, no crystal, no silverware, but the soul and the authenticity of a unique and timeless place." Its decor harks back to a former era, and is a vital part of the dining experience. I felt as though I had been transported to the 19th century, where men in tuxedos and top hats accompanied ladies sporting diamonds and fur coats. The little wooden drawers, the luggage racks and the small metal seats fixed to the dividing walls all recall times long gone. The windowless environment shuts off the outside world to the diners who enter a time warp when they spend that hour in their day at the restaurant. Those little details have made the Chartier a Parisian icon.

menu chartier restaurant paris
Some of the menu items seem to be standard entries, but there is something different being served every day. Note the date on the menu - a new card comes out daily.

I came to Paris with very little knowledge but the very basics of French cuisine. My likewise basic knowledge of the French language proved helpful in deciphering the menu card, which made me realise that although the Greek and French cuisine may differ from each other in many respects, they coincide in terms of the emphasis on the use made of fresh produce and the high quality of the ingredients. The meals at Chartier were of the unpretentious type: good solid home-style French food. I felt that I could re-create the recipes at home with the right ingredients. Many of the dishes on the menu (it changes daily) sounded very similar to Greek dishes, and it was easy to guess what I would be served (eg poulet fermier, cotes d'agneau, spaghetti bolognaise). This point was very important for travellers dining with children and/or fussy eaters with culturally inclined and acquired culinary tastes. I was more adventurous, ordering meals that I knew nothing about (steering clear of plats mentioning the words pieds, tetes and andouillettes - I do plenty of that at home, merci beaucoup).


Critics may say that I did not get a real taste of the Parisian food scene since I only frequented one restaurant, which represented a limited range of cooking styles. Click here to find out what I thought of the food.

The Chartier really is a good bargain for lunch or dinner if you want to try some carefully prepared classic French cuisine. I used Chartier's prices as a gauge when we considered eating out elsewhere, for example when we found ourselves close to the Centre Pompidou. The same entrees and plats were being served at the many eateries there, but their chalk menu boards showed higher prices. We were always lured back to our regular haunt, where the mood was slow-paced and we never felt rushed to eat our meal.

You may insist that you need to find yourself in the 9th arrondisement in order to visit it, but that's not a problem at all: the restaurant opens at 11.30am and works non-stop until 10pm every day. The waiters were generally very polite; the ones that weren't were still very efficient. The food costs the same at any time of the day, and you certainly don't have to stand to eat more cheaply (as many web pages informed me about eating out in Paris). The restaurant was visibly less busy between 2-5pm (we chose to eat Greek-time), and on Saturday night, as we exited the premises, a very large queue of diners had formed, all waiting to be seated. Despite their paper tablecloths and the waiters' scrawling your order over it (and then working out the bill on it when you were ready to leave), this was the only place on that night that we noticed doing a roaring trade (as we walked back to our hotel).

chartier restaurant paris
Because we always ate our main meal in the early afternoon, we never had to queue up like these people...

Chartier is located a few metres away from the Grands Boulevards metro station. A family of four can have an entree and plat, with half a litre of house wine and eau de robinet*, for no more than 50 euro. Take a look through my blog to see what we usually pay when we go to a tavern in Hania - you will be surprised to find that the prices are very similar. We never ordered dessert** after our meal, as this is generally not done in a Greek taverna anyway. But we never went without it: there was a patisserie in practically every street we walked on, and we always walked back to the hotel after our meal in order to deserve our sweet treat!

My photos of the Chartier do not really do this iconic Parisian restaurant justice. Click here for more photos, some of which are in black and white, and really suit the mood of the place.

*And no fizzy drinks for the kids - the French aren't into this themselves; "when in Rome, do as the Romans do", and you'll be all the more healthier for it.
** Not ordering dessert is not actually uncommon in Paris; many chalk boards outside brasseries gave a fixed price for a combination of an entree and a plat OR a plat and a dessert. This could be due to the economic crisis, or a healthier outlook on life, or (most likely) both.
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Friday, 19 March 2010

The traveller's breakfast (Πρωϊνό για τους ταξιδιώτες)

This post forms part of the series of our culinary adventures from our recent trip to Paris and London.

After searching the various online hotel booking sites and reading the reviews of the super-cheap hotels that I intended to book my family into, I did not expect much from the budget accommodation that we eventually checked into. What lured me to both my Paris and London hotels was the price on both counts, with the added bonus that breakfast was included in the price of the room. When travelling in cold countries with young children, it's really important for them to find a warm meal to start the day off. We stayed in one four-bedded room in each city for four nights. I'm running on Greek euro: it looks the same as the rest of Europe's euros, but Greeks are supposed to have some of the lowest salaries in the EU. I couldn't afford to spend much more than the cheapest hotels I found in each city: 100 euro per night (breakfast included) in Paris, and 68 pounds (approx. 76 euro) per night (breakfast included) in London.

supplies
I came prepared...

I had read that the rooms were small, so we took only two suitcases. I had also read that the breakfast was 'only tea/coffee and bread/butter' so I packed some paximadia and a few clementine oranges in our bags in case we got peckish. I had nightmares about the 'filthy' bathrooms and 'dirty' floors and bedding. One of the hotels had even managed to make it into the 'top most dirtiest' in the UK. I had been warned, so I came prepared. I couldn't afford to be fussy - I only wanted a warm bed for the night, a place to keep myself clean, and a bite to munch on in the morning, and we all know the saying that 'beggars can't be choosers'.

breakfast in paris
If I had to choose which one was better between the two, I'd say that in my breakfasts in Paris (above) were of higher quality with more atmosphere than those of London (below).
breakfast in london

To our pleasant surprise, the rooms in both hotels were always warm, the bathrooms were spacious (in contrast to the previous London hotel I stayed in), there was no mould or bed bugs as promised by other reviewers of the same hotels, and I would gladly stay again in either of them. The staff were also very polite, and responded to all our requests. The breakfasts were basically the same in both of them: juice, tea/coffee/milk, cornflakes, butter and jam to spread on your bread. The only difference was in the quality of the bread - in London, hotel bread is always a thin square sponge that is palatable when toasted, while in Paris, it's a crusty petit pain and/or a buttery croissant.

Hotel breakfasts are a part of the international cuisine: you know what to expect of them. Funnily enough, the French don't actually butter their baguettes, preferring them plain. We saw many people munching on them in Paris as they walked along the street in the afternoons, without any filling; far more healthy than the McDonalds packed meals people often seemed to be buying in London just as soon as they stepped on or off the tube. The weight difference between Parisians and Londoners was highly evident.

aegean air breakfast
Bacon and eggs, fresh fruit, a muesli bar, bread rolls with butter 'n jam, and a hot drink: Aegean Airlines' answer to the traditional English breakfast.

And since we had an early morning start on the first day of our travel, we also got a chance to experience the flying world's answer to breakfast - more international fare.

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Monday, 15 March 2010

Haiku (Χαϊκού)

Raising and educating children has never been easy. With the freedom of movement among EU nations, enabling its citizens to live and work in any of its 27 member states, people are now able to compare and contrast their own education system with the one their children are attending, but are not always able to make sense of it or see the benefits. I recently came across a Crete-UK forum discussion which highlighted this issue; the inspiration for the post came from my son's school homework.

"Dear Agony Aunt
," writes GoldenSyrup from the UK, "Is the certificate/diploma that students receive at the end of (Greek) school recognised in other countries? As the mother of a 7-year-old who has long school days and at least 2 hours of homework most nights, I am concerned that all this work will not result in anything other than a piece of paper that is only recognised in Greece. I have found out that if both parents are foreign (ie not Greek) then the child is considered to be 'foreign' even if he has been born and grew up here. This it seems has implications for university entrance..."

The seven-year-old is probably in 2nd-grade. The parents are probably both non-Greeks, living and/or working in Greece. They may not be able to read Greek fluently, and therefore cannot help their child with their homework. It isn't clear what the mother's concern is: is she worried that her child is learning something useless (non-transferable Greek-language skills), or is she worried that her child is being over-worked without any guarantee that this 'hard work' will be useful in the future?

Firstly, she has overlooked the fact that since both Greece and the UK are in the EU (well, so far, anyway, if you get my gist), then it is highly unlikely that there is no provision made for equating school qualifications between the countries. Oxford University, for example, states clearly what is accepted by them from Greek students*. Secondly, there is no such thing as a free lunch; her child is being occupied more productively in Greece than what would be the case for a child of this age in the UK.. Too much study and not enough play makes Jack a dull boy, you say. In a country like Greece (and especially in Crete), there's plenty of sunshine and free time for a seven-year-old to revel in - for a start, summer holidays last 12 whole weeks, not to mention all the other religious/national (and strike) holidays in between. In any case, if there were too much play and not enough study, then Jack would have all the leisure time he needs to collect plenty of ASBO's. Take your pick.

It's not just foreign mothers living in Greece who complain about the amount of homework their children have to do at school; it's also Greek parents. When the old-fashioned parrot-style rote learning system changed in Greece, which the parents of our youngsters' generation were used to themselves (and we all know how comfortable we feel with the status quo), everyone suddenly felt overwhelmed by the new syllabus. For a start the set books changed; instead of learning to count up to 20 in Grade 1 (!?!) children were expected to learn to count up to 100 (something which most kids were probably able to do in their kindergarten years anyway), and children are expected to be able to understand visual symbols very early on in their schooling, such as those employed by well known public companies like, for example: ΔΕΗ, ΟΤΕ, ΔΕ.ΔΙ.ΣΑ, all acronyms of state-owned enterprises, and therefore children see the bills coming into the house with their logos (Greece hasn't really begun a transition yet from a 'bills' culture to an online-payments one).

Here's an example of a how a Greek mother reacted to her child's homework. An Athenian radio announcer was disgusted that her child had to write the full names of the above-mentioned SOE's (I know the exercise she is talking about - it appears in the set books for Grade 2), complaining that her child could not differentiate between the different ways to spell the 'ee' sound in Greek (which is nothing compared to the number of ways to spell the 'ee' sound in English - wait till it starts learning that one!). She needn't have bothered to do that in the first place: she should have given her child a bill from one of those companies, and got them to copy the name of the SOE, or searched for it online, or better still, got her child to search for it online. This doesn't mean that the mother wasn't being a good teacher to her child - she is after all the mother, and not the teacher; maybe the teacher should have taken the time to explain to her class of children how to go about this exercise independently, without making mummy go crazy...

As a mother with children in primary school, I can understand the UK mother's (albeit misinformed) concern. She probably came from a more liberal educational background (like me), where children were not required to do a lot (or any) homework when they were as young as seven, where the theoretical importance of a playful youth (despite the higher incidence of social curses such as teenage pregnancy and binge-drinking) took priority over the three R's. But things are slowly changing from the parrot-learning days of the Greek education system, and even though it may sometimes seem that children are doing very repetitive exercises with little substance, the fact is that there is room for great creativity in the classroom within a structured programme. The main difference between the Greek education system and the Western one is that parents have a greater influence in their children's schooling in the former. Greek parents often act as guidance counsellors; these professionals are often missing from Greek schools due to mismanagement, lack of funds and other problems of Greek infrastructure. Greek parents, therefore, often take a great interest in their children's learning paths - they always want the best for their child, no matter how educated or rich they may be**.

One of the problems in the Greek education system is that it is very competitive. Children are encouraged to get straight A's from the day they enrol at primary school. It may sound like an impossible task to get very young pupils to learn to sit on a chair and hold a pencil in their hand for what seems like hours, conjugating verbs and declining nouns...,



... writing word families...,



... and doing sums...,



... among other activities, but this is what I have seen my kids doing for the last three years, since they started primary schools. Depending on their teacher, a child may have half an hour to two hours of homework on most nights. You must be thinking that this is too much, but you will probably not realise that a typical school day for a seven-year-old starts at 8.10am and finishes at 12.25pm, with two short breaks in the day. The homework they are doing is what they would have been doing in class, were the Greek school day longer.*** Children whose parents work and cannot pick them up at midday stay on at school at the all-day program, where they have an opportunity to complete their homework with the help of another (different) teacher, and they often go home with most of their homework assignments finished.

Some children are slower writers, others are slower thinkers; some children pick up the rules more quickly of being in a formal educational environment, while others need more time to acclimatise from the transition of kindergarten (no books or notebooks, not even a pencil case) to primary school (up to ten set books and half a dozen notebooks in the first three grades). But eventually, they realise what is expected of them. Some children show great skill at memorising facts and figures, while others don't. This is normal in most school environments all around the world. Where Greece differs from the Western system on this point is that Greek schools award academic achievement and very little else.

It's true that most of the homework exercises are based on rote learning, but my only real quibble is that most of the time, most teachers will only work with material in the set textbooks (Language, Mathematics, My Environment, each one issued with a coursebook and exercise book), and 'blindly' hand out photocopied material of the exercises covered in the day's lesson from the set books to be done as homework; these photocopies sometimes contain typos, which shows that the teacher is not reading them herself to check if they are do-able, before she hands them out to the pupils. Therefore, if you have learnt the material in the book and the photocopies, then you are considered an 'excellent' student. A student whose knowledge is beyond the book is classified as a genius, even though their knowledge may actually be bookish rather than showing any powers of reasoning or creativity. That's why a lot of Greek kids get classified as geniuses these days - it's easier to know (or find out about) things now than it was in the past. Greek parents rather than the state are usually responsible for that extra mile in their children's education.


When my son was 4 years old, his teacher showed the kindergarten class a small map of the world, and asked them where Crete was. My son was the only child in the class that peered deeply into the A4 size map, and found the pin-prick that represented his homeland. Five years later, my children's teachers are still amazed with their keen awareness of their global position. It is not the cost of the maps that prohibits these children from access to them in their own home: not many Greek children have the luxury of access to wall maps in their own house because Greeks generally don't like 'dirtying' their walls with sticky tape...

Young children learn mainly to 'write' what they 'say' (ie going from the spoken to the written form of Greek - which is relatively easy if Greek is spoken in the home), they become fluent readers at an early age (mainly because of the consistency between the Greek sounds and their written expression) and the set homework is generally not mentally demanding (it falls within the patterns of rote learning and repetition). This gives the creative parent a chance to extend their children's knowledge beyond the prescribed textbooks (the whole country is learning the same stuff at the same age) in any way they want. But it means that the parent has to take charge of their children's extra-curricular activities, something which most people in the US, UK, Australia and NZ do not have to do, because in those countries, it is taken for granted that the state organises and provides education. In Greece, once the school day is over, a parent directs their child's learning, and hence their child's future. It may sound unusual to parents who have been raised in the Western system of education, and it will be difficult for them to acclimatise to a new way of viewing the Greek education system.

GoldenSyrup's problem may derive from the idea that parents in the Western world have been indoctrinated to believe in being solely parents and not teachers of their children. In Greece, parents are expected by the school system itself to help their children in whatever way they can: personal help, private tuition (one-to-one lessons or in a group with other children), extra-curricular lessons (sports and the arts are barely covered within the Greek school system, given the tight timeframe - see above), audiovisual material, computers, etc. Some people have the knowledge, the money, the time to help their children in this way, while others don't. But these days, most parents have the confidence to demand these educational services from the state, which is a sure sign of progress from the days when people seemed to accept the status quo and felt comfortable in its staleness. Greece may not have reached the same educational standards as the west, but no one can accuse Greek parents of not trying. Evidence for this is the high number of enrolments in foreign universities (when a Greek school student doesn't make the grade in his own country, he will go abroad), even if it means coming back home as an unemployable over-qualified graduate.

*** *** ***

My 3rd-grader recently asked me to help him with some of his homework. The topic covered in this case was, of all things, haiku. From this, it can be concluded that the topics covered by the set books in the Greek education system are reasonably global, up-to-date and interesting, so a knowledgeable parent can easily find an activity to supplement the child's knowledge using the set books as a base. The textbook had a chapter on haiku-writing (in Greek, of course!). It gave examples of haiku poetry and explained what a haiku was. According to my child, the haiku idea was discussed in class, and the pupils were then asked to write a haiku themselves as a homework exercise.

haiku homework

My son was having trouble finding a starting point for his haiku, so I told him to look at the sky. (One easy way to get young children to write creatively is to show them a photo/picture.) I told him that I would tell him something about it in 17 syllables, the typical length of a haiku:

Σκοτεινιάζει τώρα, τα άσπρα σύννεφα γίνονται πιο μαύρα
(It is getting darker, the ice-white clouds, are now becoming blacker)

"Can I write that?" he asked me.

"Of course not," I said. "That was my haiku." And a very uninteresting one at that, but that was something my son couldn't judge at the time. "You have to write one on your own," I told him. In fact, I would have liked him to copy my haiku, so that his homework would be over and done with as quickly as possible; I wondered how many of his parents' classmates had done this anyway. Most parents in our village school had probably not heard of the concept of haiku in the first place, but they would have been able to follow the instructions given in the book and 'helped' their child to write one. (I found out later that quite a few did in fact do this!)

As a starting point, I showed him some family photos on the computer, and let him choose one on which to base his own haiku. He liked this photo.

pizza at time out hania
Long hot summer night, under the sky in the shade, short sleeves and meals out.

He came up with the following 17-syllable 3-line verse:

Πίτα στογγυλή, ζαμπόν και τυρί, με πιπεριά στο ψωμί
A big round pizza, pink ham and bright cheese, with some pepper on the bread

I left it to the teacher to judge the haiku; my job was to get my son to do his homework ,and I can say that I succeeded in that direction. He had incorporated the idea of rhyming verse in his haiku, which is a form of poetry he is more familiar with in his own language. The main thing is that he had done his homework on his own, and that it was finished as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Every parent can provide some kind of brain food for their children. We all do what we can to prepare our kids for the big wide world - just think that these angelic faces will be doing their military service or studying in the army in a decade's time. Because my children are being raised in a bilingual environment (like GoldenSyrup's), they are more observant of the multi-cultural world around them; they are better able to fit the pieces of the global puzzle together, so that they can assimilate circumstances more quickly. Having learnt things from two different perspectives, they will be better able to cope with the big wide world around them. There are no skills that are learnt in vain.

*Oxford is one of the most competitive universities in the UK, which is why it also expects UK A-levels together the Greek high school leaving certificate, but this is not the general case.
**I am not talking about parents who are drug addicts, alcoholics or suffer from mental illness; in any case, such people need professional help to manage their condition - once they do this, they may be even better parents than those who do not suffer from such social problems.

*** Greek teachers often complain about their low pay, but it must also be said that they work far fewer hours than their British counterparts, with less accountability. The present government recently announced plans for many changes in the Greek education system, but they'll have to re-train the teachers first to stop thinking in rote-book style...


*** *** ***

You're reading this while I am on an educational family trip abroad. You may wonder about the correctness of my action in taking the children out of school during term time. I was a bit worried about it too. At the beginning of the week, I approached one of the teachers and told her that we would be away for a few days on holiday. Her reaction was not what I expected (Oh, how lovely! or maybe I'm sure you'll have a great time! or even Hmm, Isn't it cold there now?) - no, she asked me whether I would like the next two week's learning program (my daughter is in grade 2, just for the record) so that when my daughter comes back from holidaying in big cities, where her senses will be mesmerised by novelties, she won't have any gaps in her knowledge; I rest my case...

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Monday, 8 March 2010

Tea-time (Διάλειμμα)

Morning and afternoon work breaks were once a more social occasion. Everyone faithfully went to the staff room where they saw and greeted people from other departments, spoke in civilised tones about (possibly) the weather and other non-controversial topics, and were served hot tea or coffee by the tea lady, who was always revered for her contribution to office cheer. Tea was generally the hot liquid of choice during a work break in 20th century New Zealand, up until the 1980s, when people began to show a preference for coffee, which was usually the instant kind.

paramount cafe
Immigrant Greeks in Courtenay Place, Wellington, outside the Paramount Cafeteria
(Photo sourced from
Aki Antipas)


All office and factory kitchens, hotels and motels, were also equipped with a zip water heater above the sink unit (you can see a small photo of the old style that I was familiar with when I was living there), which was switched on by pulling a long white cord. It then began heating up the water to boiling, making a slightly terrifying whistling sound with a very high pitch, until it finally switched itself off and the sound died down. At any time of the working day, a hot cup of tea or coffee (which extended to a cup of hot instant soup or a bowl of freshly prepared noodles; some of my fellow university students swore by a simple cup of hot water - I kid you not) was never far away, giving a comfortable cosy homely feeling to the Kiwi work environment.


Greek immigrant men working at the (now defunct) Prestige factory, manufacturers of nylon yarn, Pirie St, Wellington, New Zealand, late 1960s. Times are very different now - you can't smoke indoors during your break, milk comes in cartons and tea is generally brewed in your own mug via a tea bag, not in a teapot with loose tea leaves. Incidentally, these men had probably never tried black tea before in their homeland; New Zealand was the first time they drank black tea with milk and sugar.
And here's a photo of their work environment (that's my dad), where they returned after smoko was over: the nylon factory was steamy and noisy 24 hours a day.


It was around about the mid-1980s when the tea lady started disappearing, as did the communal staff dining room. If there was no communal kitchen in the office, people started buying their 'cuppa' at all times of the day, either from a vending machine or from a takeaway bar, until the arrival of the trendy cafe bar, which eventually became brand-labelled ot the likes of Starbucks (or Coffeeright, which are commonly found all over Greece).

pensioners
The traditional style kafeneion is slowly disappearing in Hania. This group of old men is sitting in the modern surroundings of a Grigoris snack bar chain store.

Cheap coffee makers also come in handy, which generally allows for a greater variety of hot treats in the work environment.


office environment food
The office coffee maker at my workplace is also where you'll find some bread, crackers and other treats cooked up by the chef, as well as being the unspoken gossip centre.

And these days, office workers are more likely to stay at their desk, their eyes on their computer screen, with their tea or coffee next to the keyboard, unless they are smokers, which means a mandatory walk outdoors to enjoy their cigarette in the fresh air.

tea
A modern tea house in Hania - the menu card in the background listed a wide range of exotic teas, which are served in this way.

And when it's smoko-time, everything stops for tea, doesn't it?

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Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Evidence (Απόδειξη)

By now, all my Greek readers, both in Greece and around the world, will know about the economic crisis that has affected the country, and I mean Greece, the very country that "single-handedly managed to de-stabilise the whole European Union" and throw into question the tenacity of such a concept. Most of them will also be familiar with the new austerity measures that the Greek government intends to introduce concerning the collection of receipts from every purchase and transaction that Greek tax payers make, in order to claim the full tax rebate and not be required to pay more tax in penalties, if they cannot prove to the taxman where their annual income has gone. Today, the government announced new belt-tightening measures aimed to stop Greece from bankrupting, while the brussel sprouts approved of the austerity plan, thereby diverting a Euro-disaster.


For the first two months of 2010, our valid tax-deductible receipts (ie electricity, water, landline, mobile phones, basketball lessons are not included) total less than 2,500 euro; this sum doesn't include petrol, newspapers and other purchases we have made at businesses that were not issuing receipts at the time. The amount sounds quite high, until you realise that it counts for two income earners in the house: that's less than 600 euro for each one of us. On top of that, it includes all purchases and bills paid on behalf of our live-in grandmother.
We're not big spenders, George, we're big savers.

Re-reading my past blog posts (even I do that from time to time to remember what I was cooking at this time last year), I notice that I am constantly talking about healthy cost-saving ways to feed one's family with mainly local produce and the odd treat every now and then. But such advice does not seem to fit in with the new measures (which are constantly being revised) announced by the Greek government, aimed at fighting tax evasion, given that my income falls just outside what is considered the low income earners' group, which means that I am obliged to spend more than a 'poor' person. Here exactly lies the problem: I am not a spender. Last week, for example, after doing the week's regular family/food shopping on Wednesday, I did not need to take out my purse or credit card on Thursday, and I would have also spent no money on Friday, if my family wasn't tempted into a 10-euro souvlaki meal as an end-of-week treat.

But from here on, I will be facing many difficulties to sustain my hitherto spartan lifestyle, given what I am expected to do as a bona fide Greek citizen. Like all Greek tax-payers, I will have to make some adjustments in my life to ensure that I do not end up giving most of my income to the government to mis-spend, like it usually does. Here are some things to think about if you want to find ways to spend your money in a tax-deductible manner, and acquire more receipts, so as to claim the full tax rebate when you file your tax return in 2011, and pay no penalty tax:
  1. Don't grow your own vegetables, buy them (receipts for food items are valid tax-deductible rebates), just like all the MPs in the Greek parliament - none of them has ever claimed to do gardening in their spare time, and they don't seem to feel the need to get back in touch with soil, so why bother yourself? red lettuceThe cost of these lettuces may sound minimal, but we make a meal of such salads and other garden produce on a daily basis - if you add it all up, I probably save about 100 euro a month by growing my own vegetables and relying on farmer relatives and neighbours for eggs and other fresh produce.
  2. By not growing your own veges, you won't be doing much gardening, therefore, you will be able to keep your clothes clean for longer periods, and will not need to use the washing machine as often as before - this is a good thing because you won't be using so much water or electricity; yep, you guessed it, neither water nor electricity bills are included in the list of valid tax-rebate receipts, so put your money where your mouth is, in other purchases and utilities which ARE valid.
  3. Don't eat at home; eat out at restaurants instead, as it will cost you more than cooking at home, so your receipts will have larger amounts written on them. In any case, you don't write yourself a receipt for the food you cooked, and as previously stated, electricity bills are not included in tax-deductible receipts. doner kebab thessalonikiIt isn't often that we indulge in souvlaki in my house, even though it is cheap: a takeaway meal for my whole family supplemented by side orders (a salad and and some chips) costs only 10-12 euro; maybe I should be doing this more often instead of cooking Greek staples like fasolada and makaronada - when you add up all the expenses (ingredients, electricity, chef's wages), it costs just as much as a store-bought souvlaki meal.
  4. By eating out more often, you will eventually have to start throwing out the food you did buy, which could actually be viewed as a sign of modernity, as it's commonly practiced in countries which are associated with progress, like Britain, where people generally throw away a lot of food - instead of setting trends, we could be following them. dog food I shouldn't really complain about the rare and few occasions when I do throw away food: scraps and inedible leftovers, that is, which our dog always gets.
  5. If you haven't started smoking yet, then do so - the purchase of cigarettes and tobacco is a tax-deductible expense (even though most kiosks which are the main cigarette outlets in Greece don't have a cash register installed in them yet). You may prefer to be saving for that piece of artwork you recently saw, but remember, that's not tax-deductible - it will be considered a luxury, and your right to afford such a luxury will be judged according to your income, whereas everyone has the right to smoke.
  6. Drink more alcohol and sodas than you usually do - your water bill will be lower, (water bills do not count in your permissible tax-rebate receipts), but you will more quickly tally up the amount required in receipts if you buy bottled/canned/cartoned drinks. wine I'm still drinking the barrelled home-brew that my late father made a few years before he dies (the latter event being 6 years ago) - does that make me cheap?
  7. If you used to buy cheap shoes and clothes, now is your chance to buy expensive footwear and clothing, so make sure you don't wait for the sales and buy everything at full price - unlike the purchase of a piece of art (considered a 'luxury item', whether cheap or expensive), or investing in your children's future by sending them to non-publicly funded English lessons at a frontistirio (private language school; again, considered to be a luxury), expensive clothing is a permissible expense; copy the example of the Anna Diamantopoulou*, the Greek Minister of Education, who was recently reported as buying a pair of boots with a 12cm heel for 680 euro: she won't take long to fulfil her spending duties to the state at that rate, will she? Or is it simply a case of the rich being allowed to afford more? Maybe she was just trying to prove that Greeks must learn to live within the pocket range, and not aspire to more than their worth on paper... These boots seem SO cheap in retrospect (20 euro in the sales); the bright side is, I can now justifiably buy a few more pairs of shoes to make my expenses look higher.
  8. Get your hair done more often - hairdressers' receipts are permissible tax-deductible expenses; now you are fully justified going for weekly sets, monthly dyes and bi-monthly trims: just think how good you will look, and how quickly your receipts will tally up.
  9. Next time you think about walking or taking the bus to save money, just think how much tax you will save by taking a cab - yes, you heard right: cab fares - unlike transport expenses by bus, plane or train - are permissible tax-deductible expenses. taxi My husband's cab is fully equipped with a receipt printer; you may wish to use his services on your next holiday in Hania.
  10. Don't wait until a DVD comes out - go and see it the cinema: their receipts are tax-deductible (although cinema cashiers never issue receipts - they issue some kind of official-looking paper which is then torn at the entrance of the theatre to stop you re-using it); it will cost a family of four at least 28 euro (not including pop-corn and drinks). If you do decide to wait until the DVD is released, then buy it from a multi-media store at full price instead of ordering it online at a cheaper price.
  11. Stop taking holidays overseas - take holidays in Greece only (the receipt from a hotel is valid), and make sure you use ships AND/OR your own car, because tolls and garage station receipts for petrol are permissible tax-deductible receipts (even though most garage stations have not installed cash registers to issue them). good morning from pireas harbour More of this to look forward to for my family, I guess.
  12. If you have been thinking about investing in the property market because money in Greece is starting to appear worthless, don't do this because it property investments will son start to be taxed.
  13. Likewise, don't save your money in the bank either, because bank accounts will be subject to taxation - maybe it's time to re-consider the space under the mattress.
  14. Don't even think of taking your money abroad - you will pay a huge price to get it legally back into the country.
In a nutshell, if you have been living off the smell of an oily rag for a long time and have scrimped and saved most of your life for that 'rainy day', you should now start sucking at the rag so that you can re-oil it - in this way, you will need to buy more olive oil; receipts for this are included in the list of permissible expenses.

neoellinas
The aspiring image of a νεοέλληνα (young Greek): modern, rich, beautiful, fashionable, popular, living in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world, the wholly unsustainable throwaway culture of an elite dream society. The Germans have just told us to start learning to live off less; provocative glamorous images such as the one above (from the newspaper ΘΕΜΑ page 13, 21/2/2010) of a rich couple, apparently head over heels in love with each other (on and off for the last three years) and living the high society Athenian lifestyle, do not make it easy for us to believe this. Click on the image to see the notes.

If you decide that you cannot start smoking, drinking, buying expensive clothing, going out to restaurants, giving up gardening, taking cabs, and keeping your money under a mattress at this stage in your life, then you may consider leaving your job - your taxable income will thereby be lower and you won't have to collect so many receipts to prove your means of living.

So far, no one has mentioned a carbon-footprint exemption being included as a reward for living a 'green lifestyle'; to continue to live frugally within your means, you will probably need to emigrate to another country where the freedom to choose how you spend (and save) your money is not controlled by the state.

Hey, George , if you're reading this, how well do you know your people? Try reading my previous post, and see how the other half live.

*Just for the record, Anna claims that she did not eventually end up buying that pair of boots, but will not own up to what she did in fact buy from that very expensive shoe shop in Athens that she was spotted in (and spied on), suffice it to say that she claimed she found good bargains there during the sales there...

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Monday, 1 March 2010

French fries (Πατάτες τηγανιτές)

I'm now down to counting the days before I get to the Ministry of Food exhibition. On the opening night of the exhibition, one of the invited guests, a VIP in the older age group, recalled eating a lot of potatoes during the period when food rationing was enforced in Britain, during the second world war.

Have you ever seen the potato plant? From the soil to the table...

"Digging for victory? Never 'eard of it," said my uncle, when I told him about the little trip we were going to take, and what we intended to do when we went there. "We dug to eat, not to conquer; still do, in fact." Even now, he continues to dig, because that's what he's done most of his life, and old habits die hard. As a retired senior citizen, Uncle can enjoy his hobby full time, but this work was never just a hobby. After a few years working in New Zealand, he returned to the village, bought a pick-up truck and set up a business with his brother. They ran the village μπακαλομανάβικο (bakalomanaviko - a combination of μπακάλι 'grocer' and μανάβι 'greengrocer') for two decades "until everyone started going to the supermarket and no one bought anything from the small shops any more," he tells me. They sold everything a typical village shop sold with one difference - they did not buy everything from wholesalers: they grew large quantities of fresh produce on their own land and sold it. You cannot get more local. These small shops still exist in the village, but in a new form: they are more likely to sell sweets, savoury snacks and newspapers rather than fresh produce.

Uncle enjoys his greens more than anything else. He never sits down to eat without a salad. If he is too busy to cook a meal - like during the olive picking season - then a salad will constitute the main meal of the day. "They're not to everyone's liking, but I've always liked my greens," he proudly admits, "and they're not always green," he reminded me. In the summer, he grows row upon row of tomatoes, while in the winter, there are lots of potato patches. Everything is used in some way: it may be eaten, preserved, frozen, or fed to the chickens, rabbit and sheep that he keeps on the farm - yes, even animals want their fresh veggies! A small quantity of what he grows is also sold to the small shops in the area for further selling to consumers when there is demand. But a lot of what Uncle grows is for his own home. He doesn't mind if it doesn't all get eaten - this is his hobby.

calabrese fennel kohlrabi

His growing interests have developed to a different level from what he used to grow for his business and personal needs. Now he grows things that aren't known or ever grown or even sold in the local shops: finnochio (fennel bulb) is imported from Italy, while kohlrabi and brocoflower (calabrese) are never even seen on the market. If he wasn't growing them, I would never have seen or tasted these vegetables myself, especially in the Mediterranean island where I live where these vegetables are still considered very exotic. Some of his starter plants and seeds are bought (like potatos), but he also saves seeds from one year to the next; some of his seeds have been used in the family for the last thirty years, as heirloom varieties. He is also given seeds by friends who have travelled and bring back seed with them for their own gardens.

He grows a variety of chili peppers, but he doesn't use them himself. "They're very pretty to look at, those pepper plants, with their different shapes and colours and sizes." The only flowers he keeps are some some rose bushes by the path leading to the entrance to the house, but that's mainly for sentimental reasons - his mother had planted them fifty years ago. Aside from the plants, there are also a few chickens and rabbits, and a couple of sheep for the family meat. Thirty years ago, he kept sheep and goats for milking and making curd cheese; he doesn't do this any more, because it's not easy to maintain animals in what was once a rural area which is now becoming increasingly more urban, making it difficult to find grazing ground.

I spotted a small crate on the ground filled with what looked like baby potatoes. "Are these for animal feed, Uncle?" The potatoes looked small and dark, with hairy roots sprouting out of them.

dutch mana potatoes

"Oh, they're not for eating, those ones, they're potato seed," he explained, "these are μάνες (literally 'mothers'), from Holland, a good variety, it's always important to plant a good variety of potatoes," he advises me, "for a good crop and a large yield."

Just across from the crate, near the water tap where the soil is separated from the cemented yard lay some tired looking stalky fronds. Into this small patch of ground, measuring no more than two-by-two meters, he had buried into the earth some of last season's golf-ball sized potato crops, "just for a laugh," he joked, "to see what would sprout out of them." Whenever he feels like some french fries, he digs up a few for a meal.



Just digging...

"Shall we fry some up now, for the young 'uns?"

"Yes," I said, "and for the older ones, too." There can't be many people who don't like freshly prepared french fries, made from real potato, and cooked in olive oil. He dug up a few of the potatoes - "don't use the μάνα, and always look out for rotten one!" - washed them in a bucket by the tap, scraped the skin off - "that's what fresh potatoes are like, you don't need to peel them" - and cut them into chips using a potato chip cutter. Must get one of those, I thought.

french fries

During this time, the children had been having the time of their lives: chasing chickens in the coop, collecting bits of stones and sticks in the garden: burying olive pips in the earth and then watering them by filling up water bottle: "they're going to grow into a tree, aren't they, Mum?" They were now hungry. We moved into the kitchen, where Uncle had just set a pan with olive oil on the gas cooker.

"Open the fridge," he beckoned to them as he poured the chips into the pan. "Take out the cheese, oh, and would you like to try some good feta?" He brought out a loaf of bread and sliced it, then he found some walnuts in a jar and put a few on a plate. There were some rusks and a plate of olives already on the table. He poured some olive oil over a slice of feta cheese. "Want some wine to go with that?" he asked them jokingly.




From the farm to the table (and then some)...

Uncle was a war baby; he was only a few months old in the year of the Battle of Crete. Although he did not live through the roughest years of the period of time that was marked in Athens by the Greek famine, life for him as a young schoolchild was never a picnic. Living in a mountainous village for the first two decades of his life, he has always been used to hard work. The good thing now is that, although hard work is still needed, there are many good tools and equipment available to make life easier. He told me that the garden will be ploughed soon (by machine) in preparation for the summer garden.

fried potatoes

"If you want to pick some spinach, there's plenty for the taking, it's only going to get mulched next week," he informed me. So off I went into the garden and picked not just spinach, but a fennel bulb to cook with cuttlefish, some celery for bean stew, red lettuce for a salad, chili peppers for a more adventurous (and admittedly slightly off the Mediterranean track) meal, and finally a bag full of lemons from the tree. Luckily I had two crates in the boot ready to receive my stash.

transportation

When I had finished my harvesting, the chips were done and the children were eating. "These ones taste better than the ones we make at home, Mum." I wonder why...

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