Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Marmaritsakis mayirio (Μαγειρείο Μαρμαριτσάκης)

I don't find myself going into the town so often these days, because my daily business takes me to other places in the wider area of Hania. When I recently found myself on one of those rare occasions in the centre, I decided to have a meal at a place I often tell you about, but have never dined at myself.

marmaritsakis restaurant
The original sign for the Marmaritsakis mayirio, establiched in 1950 by Mr Stamatis Marmaritsakis Snr. In place of a telephone number, because not everyone had a telephone in those days, addresses were used instead.

The Agora contains a few μαγειρεία (mayiria), places where you can have a home-cooked meal at a very cheap price. The food served in them is similar to taverna meals, with less emphasis on grilled meat. Mayiria are usually open for lunch rather than dinner, and never on Sundays, as the song says. These are the reasons that make it hard for me to go out for a meal of this type, since I would generally go out at the weekend, and during the week, I cook similar meals to that of mayiria at home for my own family.

mr marmaritsakis
Mr Stavros Marmaritsakis has been working in the Agora for 61 years, from the time his father started the business. Over those years, he has seen many people passing by his shop. "There's a lot of sadness in the world," he told me, "but there's also a lot of good. Even when things are bad, they eventually get better."

The opening hours and food choices at the mayiria mark these places out as a kind of worker's diner, a place where you can get a home-cooked meal, or something nourishing if you are a labourer who starts work early in the morning. They are open from quite early, and the first meal they serve in the day is usually offal soup, known all over Greece as πατσά (patsa). Meals in mayiria are always a sit-down affair - there is no rush to eat your lunch here; it's not a place where you just 'grab a bite to eat'.

mr marmaritsakis in his youth
Mr Stavros in his youth.

The typical customer of a mayirio in Hania these days is usually male, men in their late 30s or older. They may come on their own, or in a small παρέα (parea), in groups of 2-4. Women come in to mayiria too, but not as often as men. This is not surprising, since most women cook the same food at home as the mayiria. This kind of eaterie is frequented by a great variety of people: those who don't cook for themselves or have no one to cook for them, outdoor workers whose job involves heavy duties, out-of-towners who won't have time to cook a meal when they get back home (many people come into the town of Hania from villages, for all sorts of 'urban' jobs ranging from doctor's appointments to banking to shopping), and people who find themselves in town and feel like eating some thing homely.

marmaritsakis kefalaki marmaritsakis kefalaki
Mr Stamatis Marmaritsakis Jnr now works in the mayirio with his father. Here he is preparing roast lamb's head.
marmaritsakis kefalaki
The truth is that mayiria are not often frequented by the younger generation. There are special reasons for this, but the decline of the mayirio is not included among them. It's more a question of what young people are more likely to be doing during the opening hours of a mayirio. At the moment, Greece has a high rate of unemployment (urban centres are sufferng by as much 22%), consisting mainly of young people aged 25 or under, hence this age group is less likely to be going out for a meal during those hours. People leave their home environment and begin living independently after the age of 25 in Greece. It's part of the Greel way of life in Greece to remain at the family home until at least the age of 25. These days, the leaving age of unmarried children is probably higher; the economic crisis doesn't give them much choice.

 broad beans and artichokes in dill sauce, with dolmadakia
Simple food in a simple environment

The meals served in the mayiria are most likely what the younger generation is eating at home in any case. And when people land jobs in this day and age, they are more likely to start working on a 'global' basis, which usually means that there is no leisurely lunch break (or siesta, for that matter). Following similar trends in the west, Greeks are likely to bring or buy a sandwich kind of lunch - maybe a piece of pie or a 'wrap' like a souvlaki - something to keep them going until they go home much later in the day to eat their main meal in the late afternoon (which in Greece refers to any part of the day after 3pm and ends at about 6-7pm depending on when the sun goes down). In the recent past of Greece, the typical office worker's day used to stop at about 3 o'clock, which is why the main meal of the day was often 'lunch' and took place between 1-4pm. That has now changed too; most office workers finish work at 4pm or later.

For these reasons, the mayirio's customers are changing, but there is no sign that these places are becoming obsolete. The food they serve is usually of a very high quality, at a very good price (the same meal served at a taverna would cost twice as much as at a mayirio), just the kind of thing you'd expect a caring home-based mama to make on an everyday basis. Although the number of mayiria around town has decreased over the years, they will not disappear altogether due to the increased interest in healthier meal options out of the home.

marmaritsakis soups marmaritsakis meal selection
The kitchen of the mayirio: soup pots (the largest contains patsa) and roasting tins.
marmaritsakis kitchen

The mayiria are also serving more than the function of providing good healthy tasty meals at cheap prices. Their food is timeless - the mayiria are unknowingly acting as the guardians of traditional Greek cuisine, by serving well-known Greek dishes that everyone can recognise instantly. Everyone needs to eat, and more and more people are becoming more and more conscious of what they are eating. The mayiria don't serve 'specialities' in the way that a taverna might claim: the food at mayiria is standard fare, recognisable to all Greeks. Because many mayiria are located close to a central market, they also have access to the freshest ingredients, which is especially necessary if they intend to serve Greece's infamous offal soup, patsa, made of tripe, intestines and various other unmentionables, and 'delicacies' like lamb's head.

broad beans and artichokes in dill sauce, with dolmadakia
Dolmadakia and agginarokoukia - 6 euro; on the day I visited Marmaritsakis mayirio, the menu choices also included: eggplant imam baldi, soutzoukakia, yemista, beef kokkinisto, fasolada, intestines soup, youvarlakia, boiled meat, gigandes, kefalaki (lambs head - a specialty of the house), horta, beets, fava, and bakaliaro.

When people ask me about where they can get a good meal if they lead very busy lives and work long hours away from home, I always direct them to a mayirio. Souvlaki is a great Greek food too, but it is regarded by Greeks as ξηροφαγεία - 'dry food', something more πρόχειρο (roughly made). After a while of eating too many souvlakia, the body will probably crave what is known in Greek as λαδερά, 'oily', or 'wet' food, the kind of meal served on a plate, not in the hand. You can bet that all meals served at mayiria in the Agora will contain plenty of runny oily sauces, and you'll think you were eating your meal in a homey environment. What's more, it won't burn holes in your pocket.

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