Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Cheap and frugal (Φθηνό και οικονομικό)

The concept of frugal food recently gripped the food-related sections of the mass media. In the UK, scientists (not cooks or nutritionists!) recently resurrected the toast sandwich, which is supposedly a very cheap nutritious meal, providing you with enough calories to fortify yourself without it being too fattening (as long as you don't eat more than one of these), made with just three slices of bread - a slice of toasted bread, buttered and seasoned, tucked into two slices of untoasted bread. Apparently, it costs 7.5p and yields 300 calories - very cheap* and very filling - but wholly unappealing.

The whole concept has been borne out of the global economic climate. It's nothing new: bread (not necessarily with marg) is often what sustains the poor all over Europe, but should be viewed with caution, as George Orwell's experiences tell us, in Paris...:
You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones... You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs... Have you noticed how bread tastes when you have been hungry for a long time? Cold, wet, doughy—like putty almost. (George Orwell, 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London)

breakfast in paris breakfast in london
The budget traveller's hotel breakfast doesn't change much from London to Paris - except in the freshness and shape of the bread served. No need to tell you which photograph represents which city.

... and London:
... men... slightly underfed, but kept going by the tea-and-two-slices which the Londoner swallows every two hours... his cheeks had lanked and had that greyish, dirty in the grain look that comes of a bread and margarine diet... two years of bread and margarine had lowered his standards hopelessly. He had lived on this filthy imitation of food till his own mind and body were compounded of inferior stuff. It was malnutrition and not any native vice that had destroyed his manhood... Food, to him, had come to mean simply bread and margarine—the eternal tea-and-two-slices, which will cheat hunger for an hour or two... a ration which is probably not even meant to be sufficient... The result is that nearly every tramp is rotted by malnutrition; for proof of which one need only look at the men lining up outside any casual ward. (George Orwell, 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London)
bread slice
Freshly baked bread and olive oil make a hearty Greek snack any time of the day. My kids like this kind of snack in the evening. They toast thick country-style bread and pour olive oil over it, sprinkled with a little oregano and a little lemon juice. The bread is dense, crunchy on the outside, soft inside. This kind of bread meal probably won't be considered cheap in Northern European countries, where freshly baked bread is regarded as a 'gourmet', 'artisanal' product and olive oil is an expensive import. Pre-sliced bread is unsuitable for this kind of snack.

That Toast SandwichBread and oil are considered staples in Greece, but not in the same form as presented in the bread-and-marg meal: in Greece, spongey square mass-produced slices of bread are only considered edible in the form of a toasted sandwich filled with ham and cheese (at the very least). If this were ever to be presented to someone in Greece with the ham and cheese replaced by bread (and I wouldn't want to be the one to do it), the recipient would probably (and rightly) think of their host as completely lacking in social graces. Even the poorest Greeks right at this moment would laugh at the thought of such food being dubbed a meal. Moreover, Greeks do not resort to other commonly regarded cheap meals in the UK, such as tinned baked beans (~12p per 200g serving) or Chinese bowl noodles (~11p per packet). Again, these cost (much) more to buy in Greece, because, like the sliced-bread lunch, such convenience food has never been regarded as a real meal. (I bet many/most Greeks wouldn't know what to do with the tin/packet int he first place.) In the Greek price comparison sites, they aren't even listed, which shows that they aren't considered a common shopping item in Greece.

Above: Frugal meals in our house are very common because they make use of whatever is growing in the garden, which is what a lot of our meals are based on, supplemented by cheap store-bought carbohydrates like pasta and rice. Rice parcels can be made throughout the year with different seasonal leaves and herbs. Right: summer - zucchini flowers, vine leaves and tomatoes. Left: winter - squash flowers, wild-growing sorrel and chinese leaves from our garden (the seeds were a present from a friend). Nothing is truly 'free', but it can be considered as very economical.
Below: Lemon-cured olives collected from local trees, garden-fresh radishes and roasted peppers in olive oil, slow-roasted pork (the cheapest meat on the Greek market - Greeks generally eat less meat now) with freshly harvested potatoes from a friend's garden - a typical Sunday meat meal in our house. It is both frugal and sumptuous.

Frugal food means different things to different people, according to where they live and what their situation is. Urban dwellers' meal choices could theoretically be the ones containing the most variety because of the choices made available to the masses, but to have such variety on their table, they need to pay for it: they are in that difficult position of, generally speaking, needing to buy all their food needs, so their idea of frugal food is no doubt ruled by the contents of their wallets. Discount supermarkets are preferred to the corner store, with people using the street market (in Greece this is known as 'laiki' - λαϊκή) more often. In rural areas, frugal meal choices often combine great variety with high quality, depending on what's growing in the garden, the trees and the fields. There is an element of truth when they say "Το φαγητό είναι το λιγότερo"** in conjunction with the crisis. Their only restriction is that they must produce it themselves - for rural people, this comes naturally.

Despite Asian fare being considered the cheapest kind of restaurant meal in other European countries, in Greece, this kind of meal costs much more than a cheap taverna meal. But with the abundance of fresh ingredients available to the rural Cretan, even international cuisine can become standard fare at a miminum cost. Left: onion bhaji, garden-fresh sauteed chinese leaves (the seeds were a treasured present from a friend) with Greek cured meat (lountza - a kind of Greek bacon: a little goes a long way), and eggplant fried rice. Right: boiled rice, stir-fry chicken with black beans, and sauteed chinese leaves. Frugal daily meals consist of some kind of bean dish twice a week - but it's only cooked once: the second time we eat it, it will be a leftover from the same cooking session. Frugal meals mean being economical from many aspects: money, energy and time all count. 
pulses ospria beans

Greeks now earn less money and are required to pay more special taxes, often with little warning given, under the threat of having the power disconnected if they don't cough up. What we often took for granted has now come under heavy scrutiny. In the past, fruit fell off the trees and onto the ground - this rarely happens now (it's harvested before it falls). The four most oft-discussed topics we hear being talked about concern what heating fuel we use (this one tops the list), which system heats our water supply (ie do we have solar panels, and is our water heater connected to the central heating system), what's growing in our garden these days and whether the latest tax bill has come yet. 

 Heating fuel has now become very expensive, so most people in Hania are now investing in fireplaces or indoor wood-burning ovens/heaters. This is our pile of firewood - the heater will be purchased soon.

We also hear stories about food insecurity, as they apply to other people: Άλλοι πεινάνε - καλά είμαστε εδώ***. This pretty much sums up city life for me: it was never really sustainable. Frugality is nothing new to most rural dwellers. They've been living in crisis mode most of their lives, well before the global economic crisis even hit the news. They've never thought of any part of their income as 'disposable' - to them, that part was always called 'savings'.

A meal out is definitely out for now (pun not intended) - when we eat 'out', it's usually a cheap and tasty souvlaki every now and then: YA! near the Hania town hall sells them at 2 euro per pork gyro and 2.20 euro for chicken, beef or kebab.

Πενία τέχνας κατεργάζεται: "the need for survival (ie hunger) creates ways of survival", the Greek form of the proverb 'make, do and mend'.

*The same meal in Hania costs about 18 euro-cents (twice the price of its British variant): LIDL sliced bread costs E1.19/20 slices and E1.59/28 slices (the same bread could possibly be bought more cheaply from another supermarket).
**"Food is the least of our worries." 
***"Others are hungry - we're fine here." 

*** *** *** 

bread based skorthalia dipbakaliarosStale bread is never thrown out in our house (and probably not in other Greeks' houses now, either). Apart from warming it up (it softens this way) and spreading it with oil or butter, it is used in the mixture for biftekia (meat patties) and skordalia, a garlicky dip. The crusts are removed from stale slices of traditional bakery bread (it can be made with stale mass-produced bread too), which are soaked just a little so as to soften them and make them easy to blend with garlic, salt, vinegar and oil. I used a mixed-grain bread to make mine (pictured, above right), and left the crusts for dipping. This cheap and frugal bread dish is simple to make, and forms a staple part of a lenten meal, especially on Palm Sunday. The dip can also be made with boiled potato (pictured, above left) when there's no stale bread at hand. 

It may sound like the Greeks are eating bread with bread in this way - but again, skorthalia is never served on its own: in fact, it's traditionally accompanied by boiled beetroot and fried fish. It's all a matter of identity, not just a case of a more refined cuisine: you eat what you are.

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