Thursday, 15 March 2012

Novelty vegetables (Εξωτικά λαχανικά)

Aliens in the kitchen: that's how I felt as I looked at my latest acquisitions. My uncles have green thumbs. They will grow anything edible and green in their garden. They especially like it when they are given presents of seeds that grow unusual vegetables. Unusual, that is, for the likes of Crete. I have yet to see calabrese and kohlrabi being sold at a fresh produce store, not even at the supermarket. Finnochio is now a regular at the fresh produce department of most supermarkets. But it's always imported, from Italy: it's never grown locally.

calabrese fennel kohlrabi
Calabrese, finnochio and kohlrabi from my uncles' garden

For a long time, the standard Mediterranean vegetables were what was available in the fresh produce department most of the time. Anything out of the regular taste spectrum of the average Cretan, eg asparagus, Chinese cabbage, celeriac (celery root), Savoy cabbage, to name a few, were all imported products, from Holland to be precise. They carried hefty price tags and they were not locally grown, but what amazed me about them was that for those products to be in the supermarket, this meant that there was some kind of demand for them.

Those dark days are over. Since the economic crisis began, there has been a drive for people to 'buy Greek', at least in their food. It was at about this time that, despite the deep recession reigning over the country, those formerly unusual vegetables were now being grown in Greece and distributed around the country.

Greek-grown Savoy cabbage and celeriac from the supermarket - these cost me about 0.50 cents each.  The celeriac cost 1.15 euro/kg and it sat next to its Dutch version, selling at 0.95 euro/kg. Another noticeable difference between the two different celeriac was that the Dutch ones were so clean their skin shone; the Greek ones had a more 'real' look about them, as if they had just been picked from the ground, like the one above.

Although I haven't any real experience of cooking with these unusual (for us) vegetables, whenever I see a grown-in-Greece product which was once formerly imported from Holland, I always try to buy at least one such product to try in my kitchen. These new vegetables are very reasonably priced: for a start, they have brought down the cost of the imported competitors, but the Greek versions are not always cheaper than the non-Greek. It seems senseless to buy the non-Greek products, which are no doubt tastier since they are genuinely grown in a country blessed with good climatic and soil conditions, while the imported variants are either grown in soilless culture or they have been imported to Holland and redistributed to other countries after their entry to Europe from there. It may sound crazy, but Holland is one of the greatest exporters of fresh vegetables in the whole of Europe - that's because she is one of the greatest importers...

It's no surprise at all that such novelty produce is being supported in Greece during the recession. The average fruit & vegetable intake of the the EU is 400g daily. Germany keeps to this average. Not so the Greeks, whose fruit & vegetable intake is a staggering 800g daily. That's the highest in Europe, and I'm talking about the year 2011.

Celeriac chips and vegan burgers, a recipe adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi.

The figures were calculated using Eurostat, and were contained in a report I recently proofread about the olive oil and fruit & vegetable markets of Europe, focussing on three countries: Holland, Germany and Greece. Although the findings were very positive for Greece, they are actually quite negative in the global context. The Dutch and Germans are eating less fruit and vegetables, because they require more time to prepare. Not only that, but most people there are living alone or in pairs, with fewer children being born. This means that cooking does not take priority. The problem for Greece in this context is that, despite her high quality fresh produce, the market for exporting such products is shrinking.

Dolmades made with Greek-grown Savoy cabbage

It seems like a tough time for Greece's fresh food markets. The quality of her products will continue to be high, but she won't be able to sell her products in the traditional way (ie fresh and raw). What she grows needs to be re-designed into value-added products that need less preparation time before being eaten, because her potential customers don't have the time to prepare food from scratch. Maybe that's something we can teach our neighbours: while they are showing us how to be more productive, we can show them how to slow down and enjoy life.

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