Monday, 12 March 2012

The way we are: Then and now (Τότε και τώρα)

Life can be simple, and the simple life can also be made to look highly desirable. I wanted to capture this concept in a photograph that specifically showed how the food traditions of Greece have remained quite stable during a time when the country cannot be described in this way. In a recent book find, I came across a photo depicting Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα - Kathara Deftera), with a perfect image of the associations we make of this day: lagana bread, vegan food and the coming of spring.

A 1978 image of Kathara Deftera.

I still had some lagana left in the house from Clean Monday's purchase. It had gone a little stale, but it was still tasty, especially heated up in the toaster. Lagana traditionally contains no rising agent, which is one reason it doesn't grow mould. Instead, it hardens like a paximadi (rusk) and becomes very tasty when dipped in olive oil.

After Saturday's lunch, I set up the kitchen table with a few props:
- an old-fashioned (store-bought) tablecloth with Cretan designs,
- a bowl of my pickled summer banana-peppers,
- a bowl of my home-cured olives,
- the leftover piece of lagana, and
- a vase of flowers I had picked from a walk around Ayious Apostolous.


Apart from forgetting the wine and knife, I also felt that it was one of the most uninspiring scenes I had ever photographed. The kitchen badly needs a paint job, the windows were dusty, the afternoon light was not very bright, and the whole atmosphere looked so artificial. Most of my food photos are spontaneous - they either work or they don't work. Today's contrived session not only did not work, but so much time was spent badly on something that I knew was not working in the first place. I gave up, and went back to writing about my foray into posh nosh.

The next day, the sun was shining. What a blessing that felt in what has been one of the coldest winters I have ever experienced. I may have stayed in a mountain cabin for two days, I may have felt snow in my hands, I may have been born and raised in a colder climate than Crete's, but I have never lived for two months continually in a cold house, warmed up only by a wood-fired heater in one room. The appearance of the sun recharged my creative energy. I decided to once again try to recreate the image of the Kathara Deftera of yesteryear.

The flowers had wilted slightly and the lagana was one day older. There was nothing I could do about that at this moment. I took my props outside and began setting them up.

Not that my photograph was lacking the picturesque scene that I wanted to recreate, but there seemed to be a lack of natural light. Not only that, but the ugly yellow tarpaulin and chicken wire net fencing in the background in front of the neighbouring olive grove made my food look like that of a poor Cretan farmer's, not the feast of the dedicated follower of the good life. I left the props where they were and went back into the kitchen to carry on cooking the Sunday lunch, which was now starting to look more sumptuous than my leftover lenten food: I was preparing a pork roast with potatoes, to be cooked in the very last of the summer's frozen tomato juice (not to worry: plenty of jars of home-made tomato sauce in the pantry).

The sun was now starting to creep over the little balcony where I had set up my props, so I took my camera and went outdoors. But someone had bet me to it.

"Mmm, lagana, can I have some?" asked my daughter. She had already started to pick at the olives and peppers.

"In a minute, dear," I tried to sway my daughter away from the food, as I popped a couple of olives into my mouth. I already knew I was running out of time before the scene of perfect idyll would be dismantled. I moved the table a couple of inches from the original spot where I had placed it, and hurriedly snapped a few more shots.

There was a hint of sunlight scattering white light on the plates, and the ugliness of the scene had now been removed by my bending down, moving around and playing with the zoom to ensure that such items would disappear from the final image. The romance of Greece was starting to appear in the photo.

"Is it OK if I have some lagana now?" my  daughter asked.

"Can you wait a few more minutes?" I asked her. It would be nice if I could take a few more photos to make sure that I hadn't missed that special moment when the sunlight was its peak. I went indoors and emptied out the washing machine, hoping that the good weather would last to dry my clothes on the line. Just lately, they had to be dried indoors (private households in Crete don't have dryers because we rely on Mediterranean sunlight, which has been lacking this past winter). But by the time I got back to the balcony, I found more company.

"You forgot the olive oil, Mum," said my son, who had bought out a couple of plates and some lemon, which he particularly likes with oil as a dip (more like a spread) for his bread.

"And the feta," said my daughter between mouthfuls. "Do you want to take a photo of us eating?"

"Yes, why not," I said and prepared to capture their al fresco brunch.

"Oh, wait, mum," my son called out. "Do you want us to look natural while you're taking the photo?"

"Would be best," I answered.

And that was the end of the photo session. If I captured anything of idyllic Cretan life, it was its spontaneous essence. I don't think I'll bother too much more with contrived photo shoots. The natural ones come out much better. Cheers! (Σ'υγεία!)

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