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Thursday, 20 January 2011

Expiry dates (Hμερομηνίες λήξης)

Disclaimer: don't try this at home, as the saying goes.

In western countries, a lot of food is binned once it passes its expiry date. To some, this is considered wasteful, while others think of the potential health risks involved, because that is the point of expiry dates - unless one considers the notion that the manufacturers of mass-produced industrialised food use the expiry dates on purpose, to get the consumer to consume (or simply buy) more. The problem is more acute in our own times, because of the countless issues consumers face concerning food safety, the most recent one being the high levels of dioxin found in eggs in Germany.

I decided to make a lasagne recently, something the children ask for when they have seen a Garfield film on TV. There was a box of pasta sheets lurking in a dark corner of the pantry which meant that I didn't need to go out in the cold damp weather we have been experiencing recently to buy some. The packet had a 'best before' date, showing that it was good to use up until nine months before I used it. After that date, it was supposed to be not so good to use it. I opened the box and looked at the pasta. No odour, no discolouring, no texture defect: the pasta sheets looked as good as they did the last time I had made lasagne, which, judging from my food photo collection, must have been about two years ago.

So I got out some mince from the deep freeze to defrost on the kitchen counter. I don't recall when I bought it; mince is nearly always bought fresh in Crete (unless one buys mince from LIDL, as I have yet to see frozen pre-packed mince elsewhere in Hania) and is freshly prepared from the cut the customer singles out. To the mince, I added a small can of mushrooms (the date on the can stated that they had 'expired' last month), two garden peppers (picked three weeks ago in early winter, the last of the crop - they were still firm and shiny), some onion and garlic (they never seem to be sold in Greece with expiry dates), our home-grown olive oil (which lasts about a year in our large plastic storage containers), salt and pepper (do you ever look at the expiry dates of such long-life products when they are used daily?), and my home-made tomato sauce, made in summertime. The jars were all topped with olive oil and a piece of plastic sheeting, before being tightly sealed. As I open them to use, I do the 'senses' test: listen to the pop of the lid, look at the sauce, and sniff it, but I dont usually taste it - the sauce is always heated/cooked with other ingredients for at least an hour, before eating.

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When assembling the lasagne, I used whatever cheeses I had in the fridge, all of which were locally bought soft white cheeses. Although local cheeses are sold in plastic bags, without an expiry date, well, the truth is that they do take on a rancid appearance (and a sour taste) when they go off, which is why I make sure to use them up as quickly as I buy them. I have never asked (or heard someone else ask) about the expiry dates of such cheeses; I have simply learnt to use them by experience. Cream sold in tetrapaks seems to always have a long shelf-life in the fridge; it lasts for ages. The pack I used was still within the expiry date, but I will be honest and tell you that I have used tetrapak cream past its expiry date (Greek yoghurt behaves in a similar manner). Lasagne sheets and tetrapak cream are often victims of under-use in our house - I rarely use them, unless I'm cooking creatively (ie not within the Cretan-Greek recipe genre).


One thing I remember from my schooldays is a phrase that was pumped into us by our teachers when instructing us about health and safety: "Heat kills germs", they'd tell us, and to this day, I remember the face of the teacher who told this to us the first time, a matriarchal figure who had grown up on a New Zealand farm before she came to live and work in the capital. The lasagne is cooked twice in a sense; the meat is cooked first in a pot, then it is assembled into a baking dish and cooked for another hour in the oven. It got a lot of heat before it entered our stomachs. The final verdict rests in the taste.

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