Monday, 28 May 2012

The way we always will be: Octopus and dolmadakia (Χταπόδι και ντολμαδάκια)

When Betty Blair began writing her book Sun, Seasons and Souvlaki in the early 1970s, she was looking for ways to introduce foreigners to Greek culture. Among those themes was also included the subject of food. Greek tourists at the time knew very little about modern Greece - their knowledge was mainly limited to ancient culture. Picking up common threads in the Greek identity as the main topic, she identified a number of themes which she explored as briefly as possible, without complicating the issue. The food topics she included give us a hint of timeless Greek food.

Betty Blair, 1973, Athens, writing her first book Sun, Seasons and Souvlaki on the balcony of her apartment, in the company of potted plants and canvas awnings. She also uses some rocks to keep her papers in place in case of wind. Balconies in Greek apartments haven't changed much; Betty's apartment was a ρετιρέ, ie penthouse, on the top floor, so it was probably bigger than normal. The marble mosaic floor and the shaded glass also tell us something about Greek home renovations during the junta regime: construction had a functional rather than stylistic role. When I came to Greece in 1991, most of the apartment blocks erected in the building boom of the 70s had not been modernised, giving Athens her grey look in the inner-city suburbs.

We often think of cooking from a book in the form of recipes with a list of ingredients followed by a list of instructions. Even so, there are also many times when we are annoyed to find that a given recipe 'doesn't work'. But most home cooks around the world do not cook according to books. The recipes are carried around with them in their head and they move in their kitchens as if on automaton. They've been cooking the same meals so often that there is no need to refer to any other source. No doubt they have watched someone else cooking those meals, and they cook from memory. And their recipes always work.

The average Greek household cook prepares a similar range of meals as her contemporary counterpart on a daily basis. When cooking from the range of traditional Greek meals, most of the time, she will have learnt to prepare them from her mother and/or grandmother. At any rate, when her first time comes to prepare a particular meal, she will ask her mother/grandmother directly for the recipe. 

Sun, Seasons and Souvlaki approaches Greek cooking in the same simple way. Betty Blair was as much a novice cook as her intended (English) readers would have been. But her descriptions show that she was very eager to learn how to cook the meals she had gotten used to eating during the time that she lived in Greece, and that she had been watching someone preparing them before she picked up any skills. Instead of writing recipes in the conventional way, Betty simply tells you the story of the recipe. By reading Betty's story, you too can learn to cook Greek classics in the same way. It's a case of  'just do it', and eventually, you'll get it right.

I've made dolmadakia and octopus countless numbers of times before I came across Betty's book,; Betty's versions do not differ from my own first experiences of making these dishes. They also provide a fresh approach to cooking and Greek cuisine.

Above: Betty's recipe for dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves). Below: doing it just like Betty says.
Pick the tenderest vine leaves, mix some herbs with pureed tomato and rice, roll the leaves into tiny parcels, place them into a saucepan lined with more leaves, pour the remaining liquid from the rice mixture over the dolmadakia, cover with more leaves, pour some water and oil over them - and don't forget to cover all the vine leaves with a plate before you place the lid over the pot.
Above: Betty's simple octopus recipe. I bought a fresh octopus, removed the ink sack, washed it and cooked it in a closed pot till soft. Then I lifted it out, cut the tentacles off, chopped the head in half and packed it into a small clay pot with olive oil, vinegar and salt. I left it in the fridge overnight to marinate. Octopus is very easy to cook - it requires no technique!

Being spontaneous in the kitchen at times often gives you the most interesting results. It does however require some effort. These days, you can easily buy canned dolmathakia and octopus in any Greek supermarket. Why compromise on taste when these delicacies are so easy to prepare at home?

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