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Thursday, 16 February 2012

Monastic cooking (Η μαγειρική στο μοναστήρι)

I began to loathe meat in Greece. This was not due to the taste of Greek meat. The reason for my hating it was all to do with eating too much of it. On arriving to Greece, I was bombarded with meat at every meal my relatives cooked. Looking at things form their side, they fed me a lot of meat because I was a guest. Entertaining Greek friends and family invariably means providing them with a home-cooked meat-based meal. Greeks are also generally not vegetarians. They certainly like their vegetables, but they like a bit of meat to go with it. Serving vegetarian food is seen as improper, unless it's a fasting period in the Greek Orthodox church.

monastery essex january 1992

My travel diary tells me that I took the decision to become a vegetarian on February 16, 1992. Before that, I ate meat in moderation, until I came to Greece and stayed with relatives for four months, who cooked it every day. Before I took the decision to become a vegetarian, I had actually been a practicing vegetarian for three weeks because I had been staying in a Christian Orthodox monastery in Essex in the UK. Meat was never served and most dairy products were hardly ever served at the communal meals, most of which were lenten. The meals were all communal and eaten in silence, with someone reading out loud from the Bible, symbolic of the Last Supper.

Monastic cooking clearly fits within the frugal paradigm: simple cooking, few ingredients and no waste. In the Greek Orthodox faith, seafood is permitted, which isn't considered vegetarian (of course!), although I don't recall any fish dish being served while I was staying at the monastery. But I do remember that all the meals were tasty and filling, and there was a large section of land under cultivation that allowed the monastery to cater for most of its food needs. Thus, monastery food tends to be seasonally based.

Looking back through my diary, I was surprised to find that I had kept notes on the meals served at the monastery. The meals were generally very simple: pureed or chunky soups with lots of spices, thin sauces served over pasta, hot or cold unmixed salad green, soups and vegetable stews, rice or potatoes (never both) mixed with herbs, and for something sweet, a plain cake, stewed fruit or crumble. Due to the seasonable nature of the monastery meals, recipes are probably never exact, and cooking is often based on what there is in plentiful supply at that moment in the monastery kitchen. I find the cooking methods similar to my own - quite a sustainable and economical way to keep a family fed.

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Bread rarely goes too stale to eat in our house - we buy a large sourdough loaf once or twice a week, and it doesn't show signs of mould until after five days. I recently made some no-knead bread in the wood-fired oven - a brown loaf that sliced well but was rather crumbly, and a white loaf that was too dense. Neither was particularly liked by the family. They declared that they would eat it only if they were desperate.



I'm glad I was looking through my old travel diary at about the time I made that bread. Here's a snippet of a 'recipe' I recorded in it:
Spread stale bread on a baking dish. Cover with tomato, olives, onion and herbs. Like pizza - can be vegetarian or not.

A few summer-frozen tomato slices later, along with the last of the grated cheese, a slice of ham chopped roughly spread sparsely on the bread slices, topped with some dried oregano and drizzled with olive oil - they needed only five minutes in the wood-fired oven to come out toasty and tasty. The children may not have liked my bread, but the sliced-bread pizzas went quite quickly.

PS: My vegetarian phase lasted six months - I got tired of saying 'no thanks' every time I ate with my family. But I still prefer vegetarian dishes to meat dishes, something I notice in my daughter; the other half of my family definitely want their meat, which leads one to wonder: If 'man food' is meat and 'girl food' is salad, what's 'gay food'?

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