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Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Good reads (Καλά διαβάσματα)

I'm tired of recipe books that show you how to cook something. When I buy a book related to food, I want it to tell me much more than how to make something to eat. Here are some food books I managed to read in the past year, which I highly recommend. They all go way beyond the idea of a collection of recipes, and in their own unique way, they all deal with the interaction between food and identity.

Pig in ProvenceA Pig in Provence by Georgeanne Brennan starts off with "A Personal History of Goat Cheese". The first thing that came to my mind was mizithra, the local soft white curd cheese made of goat (and sheep) milk. That particular chapter set the scene of the story of the author's personal relationship with France, French food, and in particular la cuisine provencale. As an American, Georgeanne, made and sold cheese in Provence, using milk produced by her own goats. At first, I could not work out the time period that the book was set in; it felt as if I were reading a book about 21st-century rural Crete. As I continued to read the book, I realised that Georgeanne was describing her life in Provence as she lived it over 30 years ago. My God, I thought, I live in the Greek Provence! Shh, I hushed myself, don't tell too many people, they'll all be clamouring to get in! Provence and Crete both share the Mediterranean climate, so it's no wonder their food and the way it is regarded by the locals bear many similarities.

Product DetailsForgotten Skills Cooking by Darina Allen is a collection of over 700 recipes based on Irish food. Although the landscape and climate are quite different to Crete, both are islands, which is of fundamental nature in the cuisines of both regions, due to their isolation. Self-sufficiency is the norm. Darina explains how use was made of all of nature's offerings in the past, and nothing was taken for granted. In modern Ireland, these skills have passed on to folklore due to modern global trends, but as I pored through the very informative recipes and advice, I realised how lucky I am to be living in a place in the world where foraging skills, game cooking and home cheese-making skills and poultry-raising come as second nature to many of the locals, no matter which level of society they work amongst (they could be civil servants who come home to feed chickens). At the same time, it occurred to me that I don't have enbough time to devote to these forgotten/not-forgotten skills because of my full-time job, but it represents a secret life that I am looking forward to being able to enjoy in later life.
 
97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman is more of a history book than a food book. It tells the stories of five 19th-century immigrant families (none of whose members are of any significance) to New York, who all lived at some point in their life in 97 Orchard Street, a tenement building (which is now a museum). But Jane's main interest in these families is the daily diet of these immigrants, who all left the very poor Old World - Germans, Italians, Russians, Irish and Eastern European Jews - to settle in the New World. The identity of these people was not associated with just language and religion: these early immigrants felt an attachment to the food of their homelands as a display of their identity. Each one of the ethnic groups dealt with had different ways of identifying with the food of their homeland, but ultimately, they were all aimed in the same direction, which was preserving their food identity. This got me thinking about Greek immigration and the food of the Greek diaspora, both in older and more modern times, especially as I read about the foraging of leafy greens by the Italians, the only ethnic group covered in the book that coveted leafy colourful vegetables more than meat/fish and root vegetables!

Food for Free by Richard Mabey is a nifty little book that fits into your pocket, just like your penknife, and both will be useful at the same time when you are foraging. The book contains photographs and easy-to-understand information on a number of commonly seen wild-growing species that we take for granted, but which can actually be used as plant food. It's not only vegetarians that will find this book useful - we all like variety in our meals, and plant-based food complements protein-based meals, providing both colour and nutrients. The plants included in this book are those growing in the UK, so it isn't immediately useful for those of living in the opposite extreme of the EU, but it does provide food for thought about the possibility of producing a similar book on Cretan 'free food'.

Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations (Official Wwii Info Reproductns)Eating for Victory (foreword written by Jill Norman) is a compilation of leaflets handed out to UK citizens by the Ministry of Food during and after World War II to combat food shortages, when less food was imported into the UK, which necessitated food rationing. The recipes contained in these leaflets taught people to waste nothing that could possibly be edible. Because the UK (unlike Greece) was highly industrialised even in those years, most people took it for granted that most of their food would come from a shop and not a garden, but this was suddenly not possible once imports were halted. Of course some of the ideas proposed in those leaflets are obsolete in our times (eg egg substitutes) due to the heavy industrialisation of our food industries, but in these very harsh economic times, some idea of frugal cooking proves useful. Most people will agree that we could all benefit from knowing how to use up leftovers in a creative way, how to replace sugar with naturally occurring sweeteners in other foodstuff and how to ensure the correct daily intake of vitamins from the foods we consume. The basic premise of these leaflets was how to make rationed food last until the next time a person was allowed to purchase them, and the recipes naturally describe 'from-scratch' meals, which are actually more expensive to make these days than mass-produced ready-prepared food, but the book also contains some interesting information about people's health in those days: despite the hardships they faced, the western world was actually generally healthier during the ration times than what it is now...

Down and Out in Paris and London (Penguin Modern Classics)
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell is not actually a book about food; it is a book about the lack of food, one of the basic measures of poverty. George Orwell lived among the desperate and poor urban underworld who were often hungry, because they simply did not have access to a decent meal. "Being hungry ... taught me the true value of food," he writes, as he learnt to subsist on stale bread and tea in Britain's poor houses. The paradox was that when he had money to buy food, it was usually because he was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Food inequality is dealt with at various levels in the narrative, and there are still aspects of George Orwell's 1920s experiences that relate to poverty and hunger as they are felt in our own modern times, because neither has been eradicated.

I still like to pick up these books and flick through them. I have my favorite parts in each one, and they all seem to hold some relevance to me no matter how often I read them. I hope I've tempted you to go out and search for these books in your local library or bookstore.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The world cooks Cretan (Ο κόσμος μαγειρεύει Κρητικά)

A few months ago, I organised a competition on my blog and (so far) 18 lucky readers have received a book prize. The book contains a collection of recipes that represent the islanders' daily cooking, as well as some more festive fare and some taverna choices that are regularly offered on the menu. I asked the lucky recipients if they could make something from the book and send me a photo. In this post, I showcase what I have been sent so far.

I've named the participants' photos after the country they live in, to show the range of countries covered by the prize. This tried to address one of the problems being faced presently in Greek tourism: Greece needs to become better known to a wider range of people (eg Russians, Chinese, Americans) than she so far is (ie English, Germans, Scandinavians), and she needs to become known for the alternatives she offers (eg agro-tourism, eco-tourism, gastro-tourism), rather than what she is generally known for (eg Acropolis, Santorini/Mykonos, moussaka). Cretan cuisine, meaning the gastronomy of the island of Crete, is now becoming more of a catchphrase, as can be assumed in the following excerpt: 
"Increased effort is made by local government, institutions, hoteliers and individuals to create a “Cretan food/diet” brand. Greek cuisine and more specifically Cretan cuisine offers more than just mousaka, tzatziki and souvlaki, and this is something guests begin to realize and will definitely see more of in the future. Of course, this would be in vain if the cuisine was not prefered, but it is being regarded as more and more desirable by visitors." (Unpublished M.Sc. thesis on the Cretan hotel industry, by Nikos Dimitrakakis, MAICh, in press)

Some more good news comes from the fact that Greece's tourism potential is growing in numbers: 

"International tourism arrivals at the country’s 13 main airports in theyear’s first seven months amounted to 6,458,612, against 5,874,144 in the same period last year. All airports posted an increase, except for Athens, which declined by 2.74 percent in the period."
It sounds like Athens has suffered from the socio-political unrest Greece is facing. But if only tourists knew when the best time to visit Athens was! I doubt that they have been informed correctly about this. August is when Athenians leave the city to go on holiday or to their village houses, because it's still high summer in Greece at this time and it coincides with a major religious festival (the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. Hence, at this time, the Athenian streets are empty to wander about and ponder over the ruins around the Acropolis, and the whole sacred rock. Generally speaking, tourists come to experience Athens, not Athenians (!) and tourist services in Athens are up and running during this month: strikes involving manpower on the streets are generally not organised at this time of year for similar reasons that the UK, oops sorry, I meant the English riots, don't succeed in torrential rain. If it's all a matter of climate, the idea of the principle behind such actions is seriously weakened...

The "good news" about the rise in tourist arrivals in Greece in this critical period for the country is attributed to other countries' "bad news" (eg the North African unrest), but this fails to take into account Greece's own wrongdoings (eg 'scheduled' strikes, riots and civil unrest), which shows how easily people forget incidental problems which probably won't happen again (they are bound to be replaced by new ones). Greece is constantly being warned that her actions are detrimental to her future tourism, at the same time that Greece is often described as a destination you must see before you die. It's obvious that Greece can't rest on her laurels, but there is potential to exploit this situation, among many of Greece's other noteworthy points. In the words of one of Greece's most eminent poets, tourists, take heed:
"When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, 
pray that the road is long, 
full of adventure, full of discovery... 
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you. 
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, 
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean. 
Constantinos Cavafy, "Ithaka", 1911 

*** *** ***
Crete is slowly becoming a gastro-travel destination. As Greek food blogger Ioanna writes: 
"[Cretan cuisine] is one of the most imaginative cuisines Greece has to offer, as Crete is a large island with great terrain diversity and is blessed with very fertile soil. The only problem with Cretan recipes is the fact that they use distinctive local ingredients and are very hard to replicate outside of Crete, even in Athens, where there are several shops selling produce from the island. There are, however, clever ways to substitute the ingredients successfully. so that you will get as close a result to the original as possible." 
The lack of local Cretan ingredients did not stop my readers from creating a beautiful array of authentically inspired dishes that any islander (and mainland Greek) would recognise and immediately take to. 

darren's spanokopitaNorthern Ireland was the first person to send me his contribution. He made a Greek rather than Cretan classic: spanakopita. Greens are a very important component of Cretan cookery, as we learnt from Eleni Tourlouki (view from the 43rd minute) at the First Symposium on Greek Gastronomy, who presented research showing that, despite dietary changes attributed to global trends (eg increased consumption of fast food), greens and vegetables, together with olive oil, still dominate in Cretan cuisine, by forming the basic food in the daily Cretan diet.

kiki's eggpant with cheese I particularly liked Greece's contribution, because it came at a time when I was inundated with aubergines from the garden, and I simply needed a gentle reminder of more interesting (and artistic ways) of using eggplant. This eggplant dish also uses a lot of fresh tomato (easily replaced by canned tomato, although admittedly, not the same thing!), another vegetable which we were blessed to have in plethora this year in the garden. The eggplant was stuffed with feta cheese, a good substitute when locally produced soft creamy Cretan mizithra is unavailable near you. In fact, mizithra is rarely available outside Cete because it doesn't store very well - except in the deep freeze, believe it or not, when it is freshly frozen in small packets, ie it's important to defrost as much as you will use in a short space of time. Many Cretans buy their mizithra from their favorite supplier (even straight from the farmer) and freeze it in small bags. This is handy because although mizithra is made all year round, the best tasting mizithra is made in spring and summer, which is only natural, as sheep stop producing milk in colder months (just like chickens stop laying eggs in winter).  


liz's papoutsakia
liz's mavromatikaEngland also used eggplant to cook from the book. Her contribution combines aubergine with minced meat, another signature Greek dish. Papoutsakia are named after their shape - they look like 'little shoes', and these particular little shoes remind me of tsarouhia with their stems still attached! England prepared more than one recipe from the book: she also made yemista (another Greek dish - not pictured), and mavromatika (dry black-eyed beans), accompanied by bread. Such a combination - beans and bread, complemented by cheese - often makes a complete winter meal in Crete.  

Holland also used the book more than once to create a meal. Holland is a vegetarian, so the book provided her with novel ideas for preparing meals that she is generally used to eating. But Holland  went one step further: she did not necessarily follow the instructions in the recipes - instead, she followed the concepts of Cretan cuisine. Cretan cooking lays emphasis on fresh produce cooked/prepared with olive oil. Holland's meals look quite simple, as they can be made up on the spot, depending on what ingredients one has at their disposal: fresh vegetable produce and greens picked fresh from her garden may be eaten raw, or cooked lightly, eg par-boiling and steaming. Neither technique is particularly Cretan, but no one would realise this from Holland's photos: a Cretan would instantly recognise horta swimming in olive oil as classically Cretan, even if s/he doesn't recognise the actual species used. That's very important when cooking outside the island - snow peas may not be part of the Cretan diet, but that's the direction Cretan cooking would take if the cuisine is transplanted into a Northern European country!

stella's greens  stella's eggplant roll ups  stella's hot salads
Holland also made eggplant rolls in tomato sauce (similar to Greece's contribution above, but without the cheese stuffing) which she serves with bulgur, and briam (aka tourlou-tourlou, a roast vegetable medley. But the dish that fascinated me the most was one that Holland didn't mention as coming from the book, as I was browsing her online photo collection. One of her 'creations' consisted of roast potatoes and boiled (?) zucchni, topped with some soft goat cheese and a light dressing of olive oil - Holland's very own version of boureki from Hania! Now that's what I call a good student of the Organically Cooked school!

stella's briam stella's boureki
carol's halva Finally, Canada's contribution reminds us that life is not all about savoury dishes: we also need to make our life more interesting with sweets! Like spanakopita, halva is a Greek (rather than Cretan) dish, and is still being made by home cooks and zaharoplasteia. During fasting periods, it's especially common, although it can also be made using milk which means it isn't lenten. At any rate, a semolina-based halva, the way Greeks make it, is a welcome afternoon snack (it can be made in individual dishes like ramekins), or a light dessert to round off a meal. It also goes really well with ice-cream, like a pudding.

Isn't the internet great, for being able to reach out in so many ways, to so many people, from so many places?

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Mother's food (Η κουζίνα της μαμάς)

Growing up in New Zealand, my home food was essentially Greek – except during the Easter period, when it was essentially Cretan. When I found myself among other Greek-Kiwis, they would be comparing the souvla, kokoretsi and mayiritsa that they ate on Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday (Catholic – or Calendar Easter – was only viewed as a public and not religious holiday among the Greek-New Zealand). That was quite a different meal to the one I ate on that same day, which consisted of kreatotourta, kalitsounia and gardoumakia, all Cretan Easter specialities. We were all diaspora Greeks, and even though our language and food were essentially the same, the dialect of each one of these collective elements of our Greek identity was quite different.

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In the traditional family setting, ‘Mother’ is usually the first person we associate with food. It is insignificant whether she is a good cook or not – she plays the most basic role in the food identity of a person, because she is most likely the first person to bring food to us, our first point of reference in our nutrition. The role of the mother can be played by other actors: sometimes, it is actually the father who does most of the cooking in a family, while other times, it is a grandmother - or even a servant, as in the case of wealthy families in the US/UK in the 19th century. Our first contact with food in this traditional setting will involve that one person. "Mother’s food" will form an integral part of our food memories, regardless of how we feel about it. The cuisine is not important at this stage, nor is the quality of the food; in the case of the immigrant, there is a strong bond with food from the homeland, as this excerpt attests:
97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement"... the foods of home, no matter how meagre, could haunt the immigrant - especially at life's most critical moments... a dying Irish seamstress... [in] New York... in the 1860s... [was] abandoned by her husband, lived with her two children in a tenement on the west side of Manhattan... She has no more fears or anxieties, she is not even troubled about her little one... We asked her about her food. She said she could not relish many things, and she often thought if she could only get some of the good old plain things she ate in Ireland at her brother's farm she should feel so much better. I told her we would get her some good genuine oatmeal cake from an Irish friend. Her face lighted up at once, and she seemed cheered by the promise." (97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman, 2010)

Growing up in New Zealand, before I reached my teenage years, I did not eat horta, even though they were a very integral part of my mother's food. To me, horta were a source of embarrassment. Horta were not available at the vegetable market; no one ever mentioned them at school, apart from only a few other Greek children (and usually as a common source of chagrin). The wild-growing grasses (notably dandelion) that my mother collected in the green belt zones of Wellington's rolling hills and parks looked like something sheep would eat. For some reason, they did not fit in with the notion of 'food', as I had formed it, in the context of mainstream New Zealand, despite my immigrant upbringing and the frequency with which horta were served in our house.

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I don't quite remember how I started eating horta, although I do have a clear image of myself sitting at the kitchen table of our house before we renovated it, eating horta for the first time, while my parents looked on. I was surprised by their fresh taste, their cathartic lemony tang and their oily goodness oozing down my throat as their slightly crunchy stems yielded a nutty flavour. I also recall that my parents did not have a look of surprise on their face as they watched their first-born enjoying her first wild greens. In fact, it was quite the opposite; the message I got from my mother's face was something like: 'Επιτέλος, έβαλες μυαλό' (finally, you have come to your senses).

gardoumia

The food my mother cooked at home resembled as much as possible the food that she had eaten when she herself was growing up - the only exception being that tehre was a greater amount of meat on our plates in New Zealand than there ever would have been in Crete. Living in a foreign country did not stop my parents from preparing Greek/Cretan food. Mother would make her own mizithra from cow's milk (via bottles, recalling the fresh milk deliveries of the past), she foraged wild greens from the local parks, she used the whole lamb (innards included, which were never displayed in butchers’ windows) that Father bought from a farmer to make the Cretan Easter specialties, and they both shopped at the Italian grocer's for Spanish olive oil, Kalamata olives and freshly ground Greek coffee. On the rare occasions that they visited their homeland, they returned with loukoumia in their suitcases and Greek vlita (amaranth) seeds in their coat pockets (one way to avoid customs back in those days). Greek food imports to New Zealand were limited, but the majority of Mother’s food was prepared using whatever resources were available.

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It was when I moved permanently to Crete that I realised the significance of horta in my mother's family cooking. It was also at this time that I discovered the importance my mother attached to snails as food, which she prepared on a regular basis in New Zealand. That was probably the only "mother's food" that I never tried. Now that I cook and eat them myself, I realise what a terrible mistake I made in my misguided youth. By the time I realised this, it was too late to try my mother's snails, because by that time, she had already died. By denying myself the opportunity to enjoy my mother's food, I had denied myself a part of my own identity.

*** *** ***

All the above photographs (except the gardoumakia) were taken in the village of Karanou, Hania, during the First Symposium on Greek Gastronomy, which took place in July of this year. They depict meals cooked on a daily basis by the women of this village, to be eaten in the family home. The meals are all frugal in nature and environmentally friendly, making use of the locally-grown wild and garden greens, and the environmentally friendly approach of the head-to-tail use of animals used as food. The meals do not always look appetising, and they may also look 'poor' with their use of primitive ingredients (which are now being used in the creative cuisine of the affluent) and their lack of sophisticated cooking techniques (despite the fact that they require more cooking skills than, say, preparing a fancy raw salad). But such dishes represent the food of the Cretan people, and they have sustained them for the last two centuries at least. I'll bet many a Cretan woman will remember the first time she cooked each one of these meals (in the same way I do), and how her eaters - especially her children - felt after she had nourished them with it.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I like shwimpth! (Μου αλέθουν οι γαλίδεθ!)

ramni haniaI recently went to the 40-day memorial service of the mother of a friend. It was held in a mountain village of Hania close to Lefka Ori (Λευκά Όρη - the White Mountains) where she was born and lived all her life, until, in later years, she was looked after by her children in the town. The 40-day memorial service for a dearly departed is considered the most important, especially if you didn't attend their funeral which would have been announced without much warning. After the church service, it is customary to sit at a nearby cafe for coffee and finger food, in meal eaten as a celebration of an entire life. If you are a very close relative/friend of the deceased, you will also be expected to stay for a meal, given at the deceased's family home. The memorial service took place during the fasting period leading up to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (August 15th), which meant that all the meals served had to be lenten, ie meat, eggs, cheese or fish (except shellfish) were forbidden.

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Above: The informal meal at the cafe. Below: The meal for the close friends and relatives.
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This is where I met Manouso, a lively 4-year-old, who sat next to me during the meal. Here are his thoughts on food.

What are you going to have, Manouso?
Θέλω θαλάτα - αλά μόνο αγγουλάκι, δε θέλω ντομάτα - κι' ένα κολοκυθάκι -- α, βάλε μου και ντολμαδάκια!
I want thalad - but only cucumber, I don't want tomato - and thome thoucchini, oh and give me thome dolmadakia.

How about some fries, would you like some of those?
Πατάτεθ! Θέλω και πατάτεθ!
Potatoeth! I want thome potatoeth too.

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Would you like to try some shrimp too? 
Γαλίδεθ! Μου αλέθουν οι γαλίδεθ!
Thwimpth! Thwimpth are weely good!

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And what are you going to drink? Would you like some wine?
Θέλω νελό. Δε πίνω κλαθί. Θα πιω κλαθί όταν μεγαλώθω.
I want some water. I don't dwink wine. I'm going to dwink wine when I gwow up.

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(Manouso suddenly noticed that some of the bottles were open and didn't have a cap on the top, so he called out to his uncle Spiro.) 
Ε! Θπίλο! Κλείθε το κλαθί! Θπίλο, Κλείθε το κλαθί, για να μη μπούνε μύγες θτο μπουκάλι!
Hey! Thpilo! Clothe the wine! Thpilo, clothe the wine, coth the flies will get inthide the bottle!

Manouso, you aren't eating your food.
Τώγω το φαγητό μου! Εγώ τώγω θιγά-θιγά!
Yeth, I am! I eat thlowly!

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Do you like chips or shrimps more?
Mου αλέθουν οι πατάτεθ αλλά οι γαλίδεθ μου αλέθουν πιο πολύ!
I like potatoeth, but I like shwimpth even more!

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(Manouso again notices that the bottles on the table aren't capped.) 
Ε, Θπίλο! Κλείθε το κλαθί, Θπίλο! Κλείθε το κλαθί, για να μη μπούνε μύγες θτο μπουκάλι! 
Hey, Thpilo! Clothe the wine, Thpilo! Clothe the wine, tho the flies don't get inthide the bottle!
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You've almost finished your plate, Manouso! Bravo!
Όταν τώμε, δε μιλάμε, και το πιάτο μαθ κοιτάμε!*
When we're eating, we don't spake, and our eyes stay on our plate!

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Would you like a snail, Manouso? (The snails took longer to cook than the rest of the meal, and came out quite a while after the other dishes.)
Δε θέλω τιποτ' άλλο. Τέλειωθα το πιάτο μου!
I don't want anything elthe. I've finithed my plate!

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When Manousos had finished eating his meal, he went off to play with the other children present at the gathering, and didn't come back to the table until he saw the watermelon being served, which constituted 'detherrt'.
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 *** *** ***
Part of child-raising involves teaching your child to eat the meal it is offered, which in Crete is often prepared and served with loving attention. Teaching your child to eat a home-cooked meal will aid in teaching a child discipline in its later life.


There are nations who wait for the state to impose law and order, not only in society but also in people's daily life. Greeks would never bother waiting for the state to do this, as they are already used to the extremely slow pace with which the state moves and takes action. With a child, you cannot afford to wait until someone fixes up your problems. You have to take action yourself before it's too late; it needn't take a riot to get that wake-up call. No matter what the reasons are for the breakdown of discipline in your own child's life, you have to accept some of the blame.

*Greek proverb, often learnt at school.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The identity factor behind a riot (Θέμα ταυτότητας)

Riots: we're used to them in Greece. They usually occur in one specific place, they affect only the immediate area, and people work their way around them. The only time they spread to other urban areas around the country (ie they weren't centralised in Athens) was when Alexis Grigoropoulos, the 15-year-old boy who was somewhere he probably shouldn't have been, was killed by a police officer on December 6, 2008. The scenario sounds similar to what happened in the United Kingdom recently. But it's not similar at all. Here's why:

UK: Skirmishes between citizens and the police usually involve black people - the problem starts off as a racial incident.
GR: Skirmishes between citizens and the police usually involve Greek people - the problem starts off as an anti-social incident.

254677_10150332519665067_139760680066_9922016_5647267_nUK: Damage mainly occurred on private property. Shops selling consumer goods in all price ranges were targeted: eg clothes, cellphones, chocolates, beer, etc. This shows how consumer-minded people have become in such countries. (On the one hand, I feel sorry for them because the consumeristic world they are forced to live in is trashy; on the other, it looks like something is missing from their life - they have no true concept of natural, unadulterated, pure, real, genuine.)
GR: Damage occurs on public (ie state) property, including banks (symbols of financial power) and multi-national companies (eg the iconic McDonalds on Syntagma Square was razed to the ground).

UK: People were quick to label the rioting looters as 'scum', before they call them 'disenfranchised youth'.
GR: People are quick to lay the blame on the government. It's rare for rioters (rather than looters) to be blamed for their actions. No one denounces the vandals' actions, laying all the fault and responsibility on the government instead.

UK: People are proud of their homes and their property - and their area, shown by the promptness of the clean-up measures instigated by citizens themselves, as well as the vigilante sessions they organised (more evidence of their highly consumeristic society - they're protecting their "things").
GR: People are proud of their homes and their property - but not their area. No citizen has ever started a clean-up operation; everything is left to the state (which explains why things are slow to happen, and why it costs so much of tax-payers' money). There is no community spirit to summon pride in the area.

UK: The rioters found an excuse to make their main purpose looting.
GR: The rioters found an excuse to destroy those they felt responsible for the misery cast on society as a whole.

262930_10150332013575067_139760680066_9916553_1220041_nTo sum up: "Your identity is defined by what you are seen to be consuming" (claim by a French reporter speaking about the UK riots - thanks to a reader). "In the context of looting, it's about taking what you can. As well as mobile phones and clothes, there were plenty stealing petty things like sweets and cans of beer."

In other words, "You are what you eat".

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The 2011 Greek cabbies' strike (Απεργία ταξί)

UPDATE: The strike ended on Friday, 5th August, 3pm. 

 My husband is in the third week of strike action taken by his professional group, the Greek cabbies. During this period, he was on airport duty almost daily, directing tourists to the buses that would take them into the town, ensuring that the strike was not broken (cabbies were only allowed to accept work without money), and making sure that freelancing moonlighters were not hijacking the trade (a good number were caught making a quick buck). This strike action is unprecedented in that it is the longest lasting strike in the history of the Greek taxi drivers' profession. During this time, some tourists questioned him about the strike and what he thought of the chaos it caused. 

Isn't a bad time for you to be striking?
Yes, it is. As a cabbie working in a Greek summer resort town, I make money in the summer, so these three weeks, which have come at the busiest time in the year for me, have cost me a similar amount of money as I would have made in January and February put together. But this strike couldn't have been delayed. since the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport (MIT) decided to announce the changes now, in the middle of the season, so we've had to go on strike at this time.

What exactly are you striking for?
The present MIT (Yianis Ragousis) overturned a decision by the former MIT (Dimitris Repas), and the changes he has decided to bring about in the profession of the Greek cabbie would in effect spell the death knell for most cabbies. Repas deregulated the Greek taxi industry a year ago, but he placed a ceiling on the number of cabs each area will have. His idea was that the Greek taxi industry will follow other European states' laws on the number of taxi licences issued in an area, which is usually about 1 cab per 1000 inhabitants. After the cabinet was reshuffled, Ragousis took his place and overturned Repas' decision by allowing free reign on the number of licences issued in an area, with no cap, completely disregarding his predecessor and other European states' laws already in force. If the industry is saturated, then there won't be enough work for all of us working in it, let alone the loss in the value of the licence, which most people working in the industry have paid for dearly.

Why are cabbies against deregulation? Isn't it the way things are going in a country like Greece which has serious economic problems?
Just to put things straight, the cabbies aren't against deregulation. They simply want it to take place with laws that will protect both old-timers and newcomers to the profession. Such laws already exist in other European countries. All we want is to be like them, and none of them have completely deregulated taxi industries. When deregulation comes, it's still going to hit the existing cabbies. There'll be mini-buses, private care hire, mini-vans, taxi fleets, all-inclusive airport transfers, hotel chauffeurs, and a whole host of new services that haven't been exploited yet in Greece, like they are in other countries. But these services exist alongside private cabbies like myself, along with well-established rules to protect both customers and businesses.

taxi
Mr Organically Cooked in his cab

But isn't this strike hurting the tourist industry at a critical time?
Yes it is. But when you have been given an ultimatum, what should you do? Should you just grin and bear it? By striking, you are showing your indignation. A well-organised strike has a better chance of making an impact. So far, no one in Greece has chosen to accept the fate handed out to them by the government. Everyone goes on strike. Strikes are a way of life in Greece. At any rate, tourists use taxis mainly for port transfers. They don't use taxis the way Greek people do, or should I say used to, when the Greek taxi was considered very cheap. They know taxis are expensive means of transport from their own experience in their own country.


What do you think of your colleagues' action blocking access to some ferry ports and airport terminals around the country?
Such actions are deemed harmful for the tourist industry, but again, I don't believe it. It simply gives Greece a bad name, which the country has already earned from our politicians' actions! Again, it's politicians' actions that have caused this strike! The actions of the taxi drivers at the ports were wrong for moral reasons, but people should be asking themselves where the police were to stop them from behaving like that. In any other country, this wouldn't have taken place; why was it allowed to take place in Greece?! The police only got involved when they realised we were serious; surely, they should enforce law and order at the first instance, and not take a wait-and-see stance.

But many of those tourists may not visit Greece again, after what they went through during the blockades!
Well, I don't doubt that they will be angry, but somehow I doubt that they didn't know what they'd be in for if they came to Greece. I don't use the internet much, but my wife who uses the internet all the time says that there is no one in the western world, where nearly all our tourists come from, who doesn't know about the problems that Greece is going through. The Greek crisis has practically become a serial with thousands of episodes, most of which contain untruthful claims made by people who don't speak our language, don't understand our culture and don't even live here! Everyone seems to have something to say about Greece these days, because she's on the news all the time, all over the world. People come to Greece for a holiday because they want to, not because they are afraid their holiday will be ruined. At any rate, they probably see Greece as a safe holiday destination, which is why we've had record numbers of visitors to Greece this year. We're being told that this is due to the Arab unrest, but I'm not convinced that people are coming here just because they can't go elsewhere. When I go on holiday, I make a conscious choice about the destination, and I know what I want to do when I get there. Each place is unique. I don't think western tourists make less intelligent decisions than I do.



But the blockades stopped tourists from doing what they wanted to do while they were in Greece, so it was like they wasted their money coming here!
The blockades were enacted to make a statement to the government. Our unions constantly asked the MIT to see us and discuss the situation so that we could resolve it, but he keeps telling us that he isn't backing down on his new interpretation of the law, and he could only talk with us after summer. Somehow, the cabbies had to make a statement, and like all Greek strikes, it involved some chaos, which is a Greek word. Chaos is as old as ancient Greece! And we have to accept that sometimes things go wrong on holiday. Just look at what snow does to the Eurostar trains, or what happens when volcanic ash disrupts flights for two weeks. Travellers who were caught up in the disruptions still managed to sue the airlines and train companies just because their holiday was stuffed up by an unpredictable act of nature! At least in Greece, strikes are announced, so if you still decide to go ahead with your trip, even though you've been informed about the strike action through website information, you are partly to blame for being a victim of your own fate.

While you're on strike, how are you coping financially?
That's a very tricky question. Like all freelancers, most cabbies will have savings. Cabbies are usually family-oriented men, so if their wives work, they'll be in a luckier position. The ones who I really feel for are those that entered the taxi trade only recently, because they are most likely to owe money on their cab. They've got serious bills to pay. I'm glad I live in the country because at least my food is free. Athenians don't have that luxury. Being out of pocket is part and parcel of striking.But if we don't strike, we risk losing our trade completely. Since the announcement of the deregulation, an application for a fleet of 1700 taxis has been lodged with the Attika (Athens) peripheral administration unit. Who can afford to buy 1700 licenses on the cheap? Only people like Vgenopoulos, the owner of Olympic Airlines, who will then add an airport transfer to each flight, using his fleet with us as low-paid chauffeurs. It's a clear case of the big fish eating the little fish, impoverishment through globalisation.

  Although I don't completely get it, I guess Sunday's (6-Aug-2011) Kathimerini magazine supplement cartoon is trying to show the strength the cabbies showed during the strike (akin to brute force).

How likely is it that your actions will have an effect on changing the government's stance on the deregulation of the Greek taxi industry?
We're hopeful that they are taking heed of our actions, because our strike so far is the longest on record in our sector, so we are showing endurance at a critical time when it's hurting our pockets, and we would really truly rather be out there working than losing money. The fact that Ragousis refuses to see us and the dissent concerning his actions within government circles makes us feel very hopeful that this issue will be resolved the way we believe it should be. Strikes always involve an element of risk. You may get nothing out of them, which is what happens most of the time these days. But if you have a real cause, and you show how strongly you believe in it, then you have to stick it out. That's what we're doing.

*** *** ***
As I write this, we are awaiting the result of tomorrow's talks, not with Ragousis, but with the heads of the peripheral administration units of Greece (a clear sign of the government losing face, by not sending its own representative), who have pledged not to issue any new cab licenses until the new laws are drawn up and the taxi unions are given a chance to debate them. There is a 99% chance that the strike will be resolved. This is a clear defeat for the government, who tried to enact the new taxi laws by presidential decree, which means that the law does not need to be debated (whereas drawing up a bill means debate before the law is passed, after which it cannot be changed). Since the Greek economic crisis broke out, the cabbies' strike is the only one among the low-middle class professional establishment in Greece to claim a partial victory during the extreme austerity conditions exercised by the government, possibly due to the unfairness that it uncovered, coupled with the fact that it combined endurance with a nationwide compulsory strike (unlike the public sector, where striking takes place 1-2 days and is optional for the union members).  

UPDATE: The strike ended on Friday, 5th August, 3pm.

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Monday, 1 August 2011

Fried green tomatoes (Τηγανιτές πράσινες ντομάτες)

It's often said that the best meals with timeless value are those that originated among the poorest people, who had limited ways available to them to store food, so they would make very simple dishes using very fresh ingredients. No wonder such frugal dishes tasted so good. In our times, frugal cooking, and by extension frugal living, is often associated with a simple lifestyle, led by people who wish to escape the shackles of a consumeristic society, where every move one makes is governed by a pecuniary transaction. The crisis is nothing new to such people: they have lived in crisis-mode for most of their lives, without anyone really noticing. Frugal living often entails blending in with the background, keeping away from the limelight, but it doesn't entail evading taxes.

green tom batter
"Who can blame slaves for being cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to it. It is the only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength of their tyrants." Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself by Harriet Ann Jacobs, available for free download.

Frugal living is about to become close to impossible to accomplish now in Greeece. It was once so easy to live in the countryside, grow your own food, and work for a low income to make just enough money as needed to pay for services and food that you couldn't grow yourself, pay your taxes, and change your car once every fifteen years. Now that the state finds itself amidst a debt crisis that it cannot escape from, the only way it's found to pay its debts is by taking out more debts, which has shown not to work. Since it can't manage to nab tax-evaders and make debtors pay off their debts (a simple mind wonders why property can't be seized and bank accounts can't be blocked until arrangements have been made with the tax department), it's been decided that everybody, regardless of socio-economic status, income-earning ability or means, will pay a "Solidarity Levy" to alleviate this crisis (my own will amount to approximately 150 euro), amidst a regular monthly bill from the tax department for all sorts of other extra state levies, in an attempt to cover the debt. We've suddenly become slaves to the state.

 frying tom fried green tom
"I like a straightforward course, and am always reluctant to resort to subterfuges. So far as my ways have been crooked, I charge them all upon slavery. It was that system of violence and wrong which now left me no alternative but to enact a falsehood... It is a sad feeling to be afraid of one's own native country." Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself by Harriet Ann Jacobs, available for free download.

It's our fault, we are constantly reminded, by the great financial minds of the European Union:
"Juncker said the Greek crisis had been largely caused by itself. "Between 1999 and 2010 wages rose 106.6% even though the economy did not grow at the same pace. The wage policies were completely out of control and not based on (gains in) productivity*," he said."
What Juncker or the reporter failed to mention was that the salaries which doubled in the last decade were state salaries and not private-sector salaries. Take my example: In 1995, I was receiving a net salary of 245,000 drachmas (equivalent to approximately 720 euro) as an English teacher at a private language institute for children in Athens. (It pays to note that this salary was considered very high at the time (a good salary for that time period was 150,000.) Seventeen years later, I receive 1134 euro (a 32-euro decrease since the new taxation laws came into effect last month) at a European-governed agronomic institute, teaching and correcting the writing of post-graduate students. Thus, true to form, Juncker’s statements are a collective lie. Our former hidden economies, which lay in the foundations of frugal living (spend less-save more, grow your own, recycle, don't throw away), are now being regarded as a form of freeriding which necessaitates that a tax be imposed, in order to stop us from cheating the state. As an example, rural water supply charges were to increase by 13% (through the addition of VAT tax), which would immediately have hit farmers. The amendment was, thankfully, withdrawn, when it was vetoed by a member of Parliament from Crete, who claimed that the government was trying to pass this law by cover of darkness (during a late-night Parliamentary session when it was presumed no one would take much notice).

tomato meal
"When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him?" Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself by Harriet Ann Jacobs, available for free download.

Slavery never did anybody any good. In fact, it turned honest people into dishonest ones. It taught them to steal in order to survive, to lie in order to escape death, to hate because they could not find any reason to love their tyrants. Greeks are often accused of cheating the system - the stereotype will probably remain with them forever.

*As I read this, I recalled this past academic year's events: the institute's students' pass rate in the external ITP examination for proof of English competence was 75% this year, double what it was in all previous years. I single-handedly ran the course (with fewer teaching hours, more online work and some 'put-the-fear-of-God' tactics), after the departure of my two former colleagues who were involved in the same job with the same students - too many cooks used to spoil the broth...

Thanks to my facebook readers who gave me some good tips to make this really tasty dish of fried green tomatoes. This constituted yesterday's Sunday lunch, together with a Greek tomato-based salad, and a potato-and-tomato frittata.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.