Friday, 27 May 2011

Cretan cuisine (Κρητική κουζίνα)

Here's what a book reviewer writes about why she likes Greek food:
"If you love [Greek food], it is surely because you have been lucky enough to eat in a Greek home, where ingredients are fresh that day, where the eggs are from the hens at the end of the garden, where the tomatoes and the courgettes were still warm from the sun when they went into the pan, and the cheese is from the nanny goat chewing thoughtfully under the fig tree."
This writer is talking about Cretan cuisine. In fact, I think she's summarised what I like about my local food and the way I myself like to cook. When I think about the way I prepare our meals and the food I eat at the cheap tavernas we choose to go to, I feel that I am eating similar meals in both places. 

One of the simple thrills in the daily life of a Cretan cook is to be complemented on their cooking. When people tell me how good a meal that I've cooked tastes, I always remind them that the quality of the ingredients are just as important as the cook's skill. Although our food contains many staples that are now prepared industrially (like pasta and bread) or grown en masse (rice and potatoes), many fresh seasonal local products are often incorporated into it, as well as food that we have preserved from the more bountiful months in the year. I think that's why my cooking seems to have a special taste to it that non-Cretans in particular immediately detect. It can't be the special technique I use when I cook - I don't use any, apart from the skills learnt from doing something over and over again (ie experience).

Due to the advantageous aspects of the geographical position of the island, mainly the climate and the richness of the soil, the food of the first people to live on the island was based mainly on fresh, local, seasonal food. Horta (wild greens) have always formed a part of the Cretan cuisine, while the cultivation of olive trees provides the basis of our main cooking fat. The rich taste and scent of the food grown on the island is often ascribed to its freshness and seasonality, combined with the scents and aromas that people associate with Crete, from the many aromatic herbs that grow wild in the countryside, where the majority of the population still reside. The many laborious tasks required to maintain agricultural land also ensure that economic migrants also move to the countryside rather than look for work only in the urban areas of the island, which generally helps to maintain a balance in the declining rural population.

Cretan Cookery: Mum's 200 RecipesThis book contains 200 recipes that are commonly cooked in Cretan homes. On average, each recipe contains just 6.6 ingredients (excluding water, salt and pepper), which I should know, because I counted them all! The most ingredients (12-13) were found in recipes that required baking (eg pies) or the use of a lot of herbs (eg stuffed vegetables). The recipes all use raw ingredients , apart from just a handful that use pasta, filo pastry and breadcrumbs (which were produced from other raw material, mainly flour). No recipes in the book use tinned goods (apart from tomato paste). The meat and vegetables are usually fresh, although they may be substituted with frozen ones. The fresh ingredients are mixed with common household staples such as olive oil, rice, sugar, salt and pepper, among others, to make the finished dishes. Nothing could be more simple...

The island's move away from farming to tourism and other urban jobs was inevitable; primary goods in the food culture of Crete are now being cultivated or raised industrially. Globalisation aside, Cretan cuisine remains relatively true to its origins, while locals are deeply conservative when it comes to food. The evolving nature of any cuisine means that change is inevitable as times move on; in Cretan cuisine, it is mainly based on health concerns, such as the use of fewer fats and lipids, and the creative use of the wider range of fruits and vegetables now available. Due to the plentiful opportunities for self-production and the popularity of daily street markets, Crete also displays a markedly different food retail environment compared to other parts of Greece.

I cook a lot according to the season, according to locally available items, and according to what's present in our garden, which manages to provide us with fresh ingredients year-round. Some seasons are more bountiful than others, but there is always something growing there, even in the dearth of winter (aromatic herbs), and the sparseness of spring (artichokes and vine leaves), just before the earth is about to be tilled and the summer garden planted. This may sound limiting to most cooks, but if you have a good knowledge of the local food products available, then you can easily replace ingredients called for in a recipe with local items. Sometimes it takes a certain amount of experience to do this: like me, you will learn as you go.

A good way to illustrate the simplicity of Cretan cuisine is by the fact that local recipes do not use many ingredients for each meal. In fact, if you remove the water, salt and pepper from a recipe, the ingredients list for any Cretan recipe is bound to be a single-figure digit! The recipes that call for the most ingredients are usually those that use herbs (eg stuffed vegetables) or a more complex cooking process (eg pies), but if you don't have all the herbs available at your disposal as stated in a recipe, you will still be able to make it!

As a token gesture of my appreciation to my readers (who upped my blog hits during the Easter period to more than 20,000 in one month), I would like to offer you the chance to be in the draw to win Cretan Cookery: Mum's 200 Recipes, a book filled with Cretan recipes, inspired by both the creativity and tradition that shapes Cretan cuisine. The recipes are similar to the ones on my own blog, but the new photos and the slightly different approach to the recipe descriptions are bound to inspire you to look at Cretan cuisine in a different light. All the recipes are able to be made outside the island (or even the country as a whole), by substituting ingredients found more commonly in your local markets (or freezers), which will also help to reduce the costs of your food. And you know where to ask if you need any help...

Fresh produce from Crete, especially her wild greens and cheeses, isn't very well known in other parts of the world, but that never stopped my own immigrant mother in New Zealand from cooking for her family in the way that she had been brought up to eat. And if you follow the modern culinary trends, you will realise that one of the more popular cooking fads of the day is based on locavorism, making use of the resources around you, something that Cretan cuisine has always done.

Cretan cuisine is not the same as Greek cooking in general. If it were, then you would be able to equate it with generic taverna foods and foreign-based Greek restaurants. If you've had the pleasure to be served a Cretan meal in someone's home, you will know how far apart home and restaurant cooking styles are. This book will give you a chance to experience this in your own home without having to go in search of a Cretan restaurant.

I chose this book prize (which is published in a range of 'tourist' languages, including English) because of its title: Cretan Cookery: Mum's 200 Recipes. I hope one day that my own children will also find such a book useful, even if they don't want to cook in the same way as their mother on a daily basis. Chances are that they will not, but like every Greek, wherever they may find themselves, every now and then (and especially during cultural or religious festive periods), they will nostalgically recall their family's food and try to recreate a meal that their mother made just for old times' sake.

If you would like to be in the draw to win this book, just leave a comment on this post (or on my facebook page), and let your friends know about it if you think they may be interested. I will keep this post up for the next two weeks (which will give me a bit of rest from blogging), after which I will randomly select a comment using PS: If you can't comment on the post for some reason, then feel free to send me an email: mverivaki at hotmail dot com.

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