Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The perfect photo (Η τέλεια φωτογραφία)

I have been blogging for a long enough time now to know that I take crappy photos. For me, a photograph is often like a diary record. It is true that a picture tells a thousand words: in the time taken to press a button and capture a whole scene, I would have had just enough time to jot down no more than a ten-word sentence (in scribbly shorthand). So most of the time, I use my photos as an illustration of what I write, a bit like concrete evidence of a scene (or recipe) I am describing. A photograph added to a post also gives the reader an idea of what I am trying to describe; in other words, the photo is an integral descriptive tool these days - we see faster than we can hear or read.

One of the best Greek food photography blogs would undoubtedly have to be Souvlaki For the Soul. Peter G, the blog author, recently shared some tips on how to make your food photos stand out among the rest. I was amazed at the simplicity of the things he was suggesting, things as basic as determining what scene/mood you are after. It could be as simple as asking yourself if you want a vintage, modern, rustic or simple look (or some kind of combination). Once you've decided what look you want, then you need to find the appropriate props to set the scene.

I was reading Peter G's post while making kolokithokeftedes (zucchini fritters). I felt inspired to try to make not just the food taste good, but the final photo of the food to look good too.

Kolokithokeftedes with cherry tomato, arugula and baby radish salad
As soon as I cooked the fritters, I carefully chose my props, having decided on a rustic style. Out came an old-fashioned knife and fork, and an unused gingham napkin. The scene seemed a little bland: I decided to prepare a salad with brightly coloured ingredients as a contrast to the earthy colours of the zucchini fritters. As I set up the scene of the photo shoot, I suddenly became anxious: the fritters were getting cold, the salad was losing its crispness, and the aroma of the garden herbs in the fritters was smacking my nose - I wanted to eat it. My eagerness to please my eaters had dampened my spirits slightly; I snapped a few photos from different angles, but I could already feel the fritters getting cold.

I realised that to take good food photos, I would need to spend as much time on styling my food as I did on preparing the meal, something I could not afford to do at this stage in my life. Nevertheless, it was fun and the end results of that first photo shoot were very pleasing; my food porn photo speaks for itself. It seems to give off an air of high-quality professionalism that made me feel quite proud.

But seeking perfection in, what was for me, a new field, distracted me from the real task at hand: I had to feed a family. I ended up reheating the by-now cold fritters (gobbling one up there and then), and I had to put the salad in the fridge for a few minutes to cool it. Good food can't wait. Goodness knows how ice-cream photographers cope...

Just another Sunday morning, where everyone's doing their own thing at the same place at the same time...
I find it so much easier to be rough and tumble. My photos are as simple as my food.

Bon appetit!

©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, 28 February 2012

Autoteile (Ανταλλακτικά)

I began making online purchases when I started buying books through Amazon, but these days, I don't buy so many because I now have an e-book reader, which means that books and documents, whether paid or free, are downloaded automatically, without the worry about delivery waiting times. I've never been tempted to see what e-Bay offers for this reason - I don't like that waiting time. And I don't believe that I really need to add to my family's material possessions so desperately - we could all do with less clutter.

But spare parts for my husband's taxi is quite a different story. We definitely need those. Sellers of spare car parts in Hania charge 2-3 times the price for a part, compared to the price the same article is sold on e-Bay. That's how I started making purchases on e-Bay. For my husband's taxi. Using e-bay.de. I'm using a German site for this, naturlich, given that Germany is the car king of Europe. The last time I used the German language was when I was travelling in Germany (20 years ago). Knowing nothing about e-Bay or cars, I decided to make my new experience an educational one: I could brush up on my German skills.

ArtikelbildDuring a recent storm, the left rear-view mirror of the taxi was broken. We found a suitable translation for this: SKODA SUPERB links spiegelglas. Up came a few items on e-Bay, some of which mentioned the word beheizbar. "Is that mirror heated?" I asked my husband, which shows how little I know about cars. I do own a (Korean) car, and have had it for over a decade, but it pays to be ignorant on some matters, in order to free yourself from having too many responsibilities. "Yes, it is", my husband confirmed. After ascertaining the exact car model, it was with great trepidation that we hit the Kaufen button, because we'd never done this before, the website was all in a foreign language, and we really didn't know if we were signing our life away. Although online translation tools do help, it still feels like an "It's all Greek to me" moment.

 http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Business/Pix/pictures/2012/2/8/1328696474240/Fewer-Germans-are-holiday-001.jpg
Hans off? Probably not! Vielleicht Hans wartet fur die Sonderangebote. Deutschland ist der europäische König des Autos, nicht der Sommer-Ferien.

After quadruple-checking the German with a translator tool, we placed the order and got this message:
Sie müssen nur noch bezahlen. 

Τα λαμπάκια μου ανάψανε. Did they know we were Greek? "Yes, I promise, I will really truly pay," I mumbled automatically. My husband said other things, similar to what Papoulias was saying recently. Naturlich, we obliged, as we have done on all counts just lately.

I waited a couple of days to see if I would get a reply about when the item would be shipped. No email was sent, so I wrote one myself asking about this:

Hello von Kreta
Konnen Sie mir sagen wenn das Spiegelglas gesendet wird.
Vielen Dank

I got an email quite quickly:

 Der Artikel wurde schon gestern geschickt.

It was sent the day after we placed the order. So we waited patiently for the item to arrive. But it seemed to take ages: over 10 days had passed and still no item. They sure know how to keep us waiting, I thought. But I was also thinking about something else: maybe the parcel wouldn't come at all.

So I wrote another message:

Hallo von Kreta
Ich habe das Spiegelglas noch nicht erhalten.
Es ist jetzt 10 Werktage, da ich für den Artikel bezahlt habe.
Können Sie mir bitte sagen, was ich als nächstes tun müssen?

Imagine my surprise when I found the item in my mailbox the next morning. 

Das Spiegelglas - sold by a German company, delivered from Poland to Greece.
I still had a chance to write another message, albeit hurriedly, on a happier note:

hallo noch einmal von kreta
alles OK mit spiegelglas
es ist heute gekommen
jetzt can wir uns zuruck sehen
vielen dank von sonnig chania

  If Europe without Greece is like a child without a birth certificate, then Greece without Europe must be like a homeless person or an orphan searching for its roots.

The company replied with a quick email, thanking me for the information. I suppose they must be pleased that I am now one of their satisfied customers, and they wouldn't be hearing any more Greek nonsense from me.

©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.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα)

Today is a public holiday in Greece, celebrating the start of the Great Lent. I originally published this post about Clean Monday through Suite101.

Clean Monday in Greece is a day of cleansing, as its name suggests, as well as a day of feasting, ending with a session of kite-flying.

Fasting and feasting

Clean Monday rings in the start of what is basically a mourning period in the religious calendar, peaking on Good Friday with the crucifixion and culminating with the climax of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the actual day is always celebrated in a much more positive light. For a start, the celebrants are usually to be found amidst family and friends. It is a food-centric event, with special menu items to serve the purposes of the fasting rules. The day finishes with a round of kite-flying, weather permitting, which denotes a sense of joyful youth. Clean Monday is a moveable feast, dependent on the day Easter falls, but it is often associated with the start of spring in Greece.

Traditional food

The food eaten on this day is mainly vegan, with the exception of shellfish. Some people prefer to eat out at a seaside taverna, but most people make the effort to cook the day’s specialties at home. Those who have access to a rural dwelling will endeavour to celebrate the day in the countryside or out in the open; picknicking is common. The main meal of the day is defined by taramosalata dip (made of fish roe) and lagana, a sesame-topped large flat bread traditionally baked only on this day by the whole country’s bakers. Salads, grain dishes, vegetarian soups and shellfish (including snails) accompanied them. There is an infinite variety in the meals prepared for this day, reflecting the wide mainly plant-based range of meals found in Greek cuisine, including desserts, namely halva and fried eggless dough shapes. Most home cooks will maintain tradition by offering lenten meals associated with Clean Monday, but the greater variety of food available in Greece in modern times provides a wealth of opportunities for improvisation.

Clean Monday (in Greek: Καθαρα Δευτερα) signifies the start of Great Lent, the beginning of the 49-day lenten season (the fasting period) before Easter Sunday is celebrated in the Christian Orthodox church. In Greece, although officially classified as a religious holiday, it is regarded as a special day of celebration by all Greeks, regardless of their religious affiliations. Nowadays, most people do not follow the fasting rules to the letter as set down by the Greek Orthodox church, but most Greeks will adhere to them on this day; this is more to do with the cathartic need to rid the body of toxins gathered from the over-indulgence of the Apokries (Carnival) period preceding Clean Monday, when meat was the central focus of the meals. Fasting is a way to cleanse the body of impurities, and the meals eaten on Clean Monday reflect this to some extent. In any case, the day is now rarely regarded as a purely religious event to be celebrated according to religious norms.

Religious holiday

Because Clean Monday is a holiday which always falls on a three-day weekend, people will gather in family groups. Special meals are cooked, referred to as lenten (νηστισιμα), since meat or dairy products are not traditionally permitted according to the fasting rules. Although fish is also excluded from today’s diet, shellfish are in fact allowed, because they are considered to be bloodless. The most devout will also abstain from olive oil on this day, although this is in fact rare in modern times.

[CIMG2849.JPG]Meal choices

A meal to be served on Clean Monday requires good planning rather than any special cooking techniques. Here is a selection of fasting foods combining Greek favorites and elements of the regional cuisine of the island of Crete. The menu includes s designed to provide a choice of dishes that form a balanced meal when combined. Most of the dishes require quite a bit of work in their preparation (or cleaning up afterwards!), but not in their cooking technique. They all represent part of the traditional meal of the day.
(This article was originally published at Suite101).

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Sunday, 26 February 2012

Greek vegan (Βίγκαν)

Tomorrow, Clean Monday (Kathara Deftera - Καθαρά Δευτέρα) is the start of the 50-day vegan period in the Greek Orthodox fasting calendar; shellfish are allowed.

Different societies have different ways of classifying food. Nowhere does this become an issue of imminent importance than in a communal kitchen:
Cooking a meal in the communal kitchen also created feelings of distrust: should it be shared? if so, how much money should each flatter fork out to cover the meal? who cleans up afterwards? does the meal cater for everyone's taste, needs, idiosyncracies? low-calorie, kosher, carb-free, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, environmentally friendly, fair trade, politically correct?
This issue also causes confusion for travellers. For example, in Western societies, people who don't eat meat like to know if what they are eating is suitable for vegetarians, or, to take it one step further, if it is suitable for vegans. Although Greek food products now increasingly carry labels with some of the above-mentioned, the vegetarian-vegan label - and the difference between them - is still an issue that hasn't been fully resolved here, mainly because Greeks don't view food in this way: yes, there are vegetarians (χορτοφάγοι - hortofagi) in Greece, as well as vegans (βίγκαν), but I'd say the latter are rare, and judging by the transliteration of 'vegan' from English to Greek (rather than a true Greek word for the concept), it is more likely that the Greek notion of vegan is still under construction. At any rate, being a vegan is a conscious choice, for whatever reason; no society in the world is raised as a vegan from birth. Avoiding meat, fish, eggs, all dairy products and even honey (because it's produced by an animal) every single day of your life sounds, to put it mildly, unnatural. Babies cannot make a choice about being vegan, so the choice is made by their carers. France and New Zealand have both suffered fatalities associated with extreme vegan diets being forced on babies (in combination with bad parenting); having said that, advice about how to raise a vegan baby abounds on the web.

to kima paleohora hania chania
Taverna menus often mention the lathera dishes, but not necessarily the nistisima.
In my blog, I never use the 'vegetarian' or 'vegan' label. This is deliberate: traditional Greek food is never distinguished in this way (despite the fact that recent Greek food trends tend to point in this global direction). I only use the 'lenten' label, ie it can be eaten during the Greek fasting periods. In Greek cuisine, the 'vegan' aspect of the cuisine is usually denoted as νηστίσιμα: nistIsima, meaning lenten, or λαδερά: latherA, meaning 'oily food', which is usually plant-based, containing mainly vegetables, tomato and olive oil. The 'lathera' term also appears on menu cards. But 'lathera' causes confusion for tourists who are vegetarians and want some dairy in their food, or vegans who didn't expect to find shell fish included in the 'nistisima' fare. The reason for this is because nistisima and lathera are usually what Greek people eat when they want to fast for religious reasons (according to the norms of the Greek Orthodox Church).

Predominantly vegan - my Kathara Deftera meal: vegetarian spring rolls, baked chickpeas, guacomole, chestnut stew, rice - and some seafood.
Another point of confusion for travellers with special dietary needs who prefer to prepare their own meals rather than eat out all the time is what they can expect to find available for their vegetarian/vegan needs at Greek supermarkets. I can safely say that most internationally well-known food is available in Cretan supermarkets - but NOT in the variety or at the price you would expect! Chinese food is expensive here, whether you want to eat out, or buy it at the supermarket. Not only that, but there is little variety to choose from: most Asian food products carry the Blue Dragon label, which puts me off buying anything - how on earth is one label dominating this section of the supermarket?! Tofu (a tasteless commodity in my opinion) is rarely found anywhere in Greece except large urban centres, ie Athens, Thessaloniki (?) and possibly Iraklio (??), and only in specialised stores (eg organic markets). Things like vegan burgers and vegan sausages simply do not exist in Crete; they do not form any part of the traditional Greek cuisine. This kind of food is seen in a negative light, and it's easy to see why: the word 'sausage' or 'burger' does not collocate well with vegetarian - it is associated with 'meat'.

Convenience vegan food does exist in Greek cuisine, with an added bonus: you always get what you see pictured on the packet.
So, no one is vegan in Greece, right? Not exactly. For religious reasons, most people, whether they are religious or not, will adhere to the traditional Greek Orthodox fast at some point in the year. But they can include shellfish in their 'vegan' diet, can't they? Yes - if they can afford it, and if they actually like it (not everyone likes seafood). But being a Greek vegan is not confined to eating during a fasting period. Most meals that I cook at home during the working week are in fact vegan. The day I wrote this post, I had cooked fasolada, and made marathopites for an evening snack - they are both completely vegan. After our evening meal, my daughter asked me for some chocolate, but I found that we had none in the house. I could tell she was craving for something sweet. I always have a selection of my own home-made spoon sweets in the house. She loved the quince desert: again, it was completely vegan. This was served with Cretan mountain tea - it is a vegan drink because it's not common to add milk to this kind of tea. But we aren't actually vegans - we aren't even vegetarians! Our vegan-looking meals are often served with some form of dairy during the week (notably feta cheese or boiled eggs), while truly carnivorous meals are cooked at the weekend when we have more time to cook - and savour - meat meals. In essence, we are never completely vegan - although most days of the week, we are actually vegetarian.

marathomizithropites
Even though we often prepare vegan meals in our house, we are not actually vegans: fennel pies, bean soup, quince desert and mountain tea (milk is not usually added to it). These meals were prepared and/or eaten on the same evening.

When you're on holiday, you want to enjoy your time away, and cooking meals from scratch cannot always be a priority. What can vegans do when holidaying in Greece to reduce their workload and cut down on outdoor eating expenses? If they're coming to Crete, then they have a plethora of fresh fruit and vegetables to choose from, as well as local specialties like paximathi, the dry bread-like rusk that is made into the now popular Greek (not just Cretan) dakos, which isn't vegan (you can tell the taverna owner to omit the cheese from your dakos, but I won't blame him if he gives you a funny look). Vegans will be pleased to know that some of the Greek vegan taverna specialities are also sold in the canned and frozen sections of the supermarket, among them dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves), gigandes (baked beans), agginares a la polita (artichokes in lemon sauce), and bamies (okra in red sauce). You may be wondering who wants to buy these foods when most Greeks would cook them from scratch. I can think of quite a few categories: people who lead busy lives (notably working mothers), shepherds and cheese makers who live for a long time in remote areas with no creature comforts, hunters on long trips in remote countryside, campers, extreme sports people, picnickers, etc.


 
Above: bagged frozen meals ready to cook straight from the packet; paximathi (rusk, a very popular alternative to bread); spoon sweets for desert. Below: more Greek dishes, canned and ready to heat and eat (they don't need cooking, unlike the frozen dishes).
 

One thing I've learnt about vegan meals is that it is very important for vegans to find a way to obtain enough protein, which non-vegetarians get from meat. Vegans eat beans and grains for this reason. Beans require quite a bit of time to cook: some need overnight soaking while others need a long cooking time. In this case, vegans are out of luck in a place like Crete: canned beans (ie ready to use in a meal) are never sold here. This is because of the Greek culinary culture - beans constitute an integral weekly meal cooked at home, and these dishes are always cooked from scratch with dried beans. Red kidney beans and English-style baked beans are sold in cans, but this is an exception: they are not considered part of Greek cuisine, and are treated as novelty imported products; hence, few people buy them, and naturally, they are expensive, like Chinese dried noodles. You will be hard-pressed to find canned chickpeas or white beans in a Cretan supermarket, which are sold de rigeur in most western countries.

 
The above choices (packaged rice medleys, Asian food, and dried sous) are all considered internationally known convenience food. I would use them when I need to - but I also know that they are sold at much higher prices than in countries where these products are used as staples in everyday cooking, so I avoid them.

I personally believe that you can't find a greater variety of non-meat, non-fish, non-dairy products than a place like Crete - but if you are looking for specific ingredients to cook with which never feature in Greek cuisine (eg tamarind, tofu, kombuchi, seaweed, etc) or processed prepared vegan food which is made specifically for vegans, you won't find it here, because it is regarded as totally foreign, kind of like a Greek person expecting to find a souvlaki shop while touring a place like Thailand. You will be able to find all the ingredients needed to cook any kind of meal you like (I often cook Asian stir-fries from scratch), but if you really want your specialised convenience foods, you will have to carry them with you in your suitcase.

I I can't fool my family with vegan food: pilafi rice (not vegan because it was cooked in chicken broth, but nevertheless, no meat), lentil soup, cabbage-stuffed spring rolls, olives and bread. But a meal at our house does not feel complete without cheese on the table.

UPDATE: The February 2012 edition of Gastronomos carries a recipe for vegan sausages: watch this space!

©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.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

My piece of the pie (Και να έχουμε και να τρώμε την πίτα)

The lesser of two evils:
"If we had gone bankrupt, Greeks would have lost everything. Now they have lost a lot. That's a huge difference."
The lesser of two evils makes up for what had been happening for so long in Greece's recent past, when a great many people had all of the pie and ate it too. You generally can't have them both now. There will always be those who fight to keep what they believe is rightfully theirs, but they need to remember that this will probably always be at the expense of those who never had access to it:
‎"Workers in our country refuse to accept the barbarity of the tougher neo-liberal measures that have been extortionately imposed by our creditors," the GSEE private sector trade union warned earlier this week. And that is why they will continue and step up their struggle... to block the destruction of our society" (BBC, 22/2/2012).
So GSEE will continue to fight for their noble cause, even though they know full well that they will get nothing. They continue to live in hope, believing in the eventual good will of the same people who took away their privileges. And hope always dies last. No doubt the GSEE does not accept that it did its bit to help destroy the country, and their actions will simply provide another occasion for opportunists, vandals and criminals to destroy/burn/loot what remained from the last time, as if it were not enough. They want to have their pie and eat it too.
 
Above: Greek protesters in Athens, 1980. Below: Greek protesters in Thessaloniki, now. We often see same generation still protesting. They got older and fatter, and they continue to protest. Are they biting off more than they really need to chew? Spartan thinking, man! We’ve got to get lean and smart. All of these state subsidies that Greeks got, they make you fat and lazy (Cocomat owner).”


In a civil war, one nation divides itself into two factions. Don't have any doubts that this is what has now happened in Greece. There are still a good number of people, both private sector and public sector employees, that will not admit that the bringing down of the system (which was totally chaotic and served only a certain sector of Greek society, always less than 50%) is going to make Greece a fairer society for their children. But their own parents suffered to raise them, while their offspring simply jumped onto a higher platform. The way the older and middle-aged generations of today lived is as different as black and white - the latter now has to make sacrifices for their own children, instead of just expecting things to get even better and even easier for them, which usually means blocking others' access to the same privileges.

 
Before I lay me down to sleep, 
I pray the Lord my pita keeps.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray to have my pita ate. 

There's still plenty of spinach growing in our garden, so I can still hope for plenty of home-made pie to have in the near future. It's always been a great source of pride for me and my husband to say that we've always worked hard to both have and eat it. To ensure this, I make it in stages: The first day, I harvest and clean the spinach, allowing it to dry before I use it in the pie (the pie will not be good if the spinach isn't dry). The next day, I chop and mix it with all the herbs and cheese. The next day I make the pastry and assemble the pie, or pies to be more precise, because a good deal will go in the freezer and I won't have to make them again in the next 5-6 weeks. Everything gets done one step at a time. So I can say that most times in our home, we deservedly have our pie and eat it too.

A word of caution: If you are Greek and you remember your grandmother making huge pies in 45-60cm tapsi, just remember that a 30cm tapsi is probably big enough for our families, which are much smaller than our grandparents'. I don't make them much bigger than that. So our piece of the pie is possibly smaller than our ancestors', but it's probably just enough anyway, and it takes less time to make than the effort yiayia put in hers. We can't and won't and don't need to work as hard as that generation did in the physical sense; that is the privilege of living in more modern times.

©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, 24 February 2012

Cheap 'n' Greek 'n' frugal: Two ways with octopus (Χταπόδι)

Prices are in euro (valid in Hania). All ingredients are Greek or locally sourced; those marked with * are considered frugal here because they are cheap and/or people have their own supplies.  

On the rare occasions that I'm in the town centre during the day, I'm very easily tempted to buy some fresh fish from the open fish markets that operate only in the morning, closing just after lunch. They do not re-open in the evenings, one of the few businesses in the town that do not do so. Maybe it has something to do with the freshness of the product - nobody wants to buy 'fresh' fish that has been sitting in an ice-covered box all morning.

Even though I live in a coastal region, fish has always been an expensive commodity. Although I am tempted by the fishmonger's array, I usually look at the prices before I choose what to buy. I always buy fresh fish at the same place, because it's the first store in the centre that I encounter on entering the town after I park my car on the outskirts, thus it is the first place that catches my eye. The owner has gotten to know me. He knows that I will not pass by his shop without buying something.

After I had a good look at his prices, I mean his wares, I decided on some baby octopus: just 5 euro a kilo. I call that CHEAP, especially since I know I can make very frugal meals out of it. These two meals will be eaten on consecutive days because fish doesn't stay fresh for too long.

You need
1kg baby octopus (~5 euro) - you will probably get about 8-10 pieces.
It needs minimal cleaning - just take out the 'eye' found in the centre where the legs converge. Then open the head and carefully remove the ink sac. Then wash it and let it drain. Place all the ocotpus in a bowl, adding a glass of wine to marinate it.

For the first meal (serves 4), you need:
1/4 cup olive oil*
1 onion sliced thinly* 
2 cloves of garlic finely chopped*
half a kilo of baby octopus (4-5 pieces; see above)
a bunch (or two) or spinach and/or mixed fresh herbs (fennel weed and/or bulb, as well as parsley,work well here) (~0.50 cents)
200g of tomato puree (tinned will do - I use home-made tomato sauce)*
salt and pepper*
300g elbow macaroni  (~75 cents)


Heat the oil, saute the onion and garlic for a couple of minutes, then add the octopus (without draining it from the wine). Cover the pot and let the octopus cook in its own juices on low heat for half an hour. Then add the spinach, tomato and seasonings and cook for another half an hour in the same way. Finally, add the elbow macaroni and just enough water to cook the pasta, which will soak up all the liquids in the pot. Let the pasta cook uncovered for 15 minutes, adding more water as necessary until done.

Serve with a green salad (it doesn't need bread) and white wine.

Total cost of meal: about 4 euro; 1 euro per person.

For the second meal (serves 2-4, depending on whether it's an appetiser or main meal), you need:
half a kilo of baby octopus (4-5 pieces; see above)
a few tablespoons of olive oil*
one tomato, sliced (optional)*
salt and pepper*

I cooked this in the wood-fired oven

Take the octopus out of the bowl of wine and place it in a wide shallow baking tin. Add seasonings and oil, and place tomato slices (if using) on top of the octopus (to keep it from burning). Place the tin in the oven, uncovered, under the grill. Let the octopus cook in its own juices, turning it at least once. The total cooking time will be about half an hour. You can also cook it in a conventional oven (ie both elements, top and bottom, are on) - the octopus won't need much longer to cook.

Serve with crusty bread to mop up the juices and a green salad. Both these meals are suitable for Great Lent, which starts next week on Monday.

Total cost as a main meal: about 4 euro; 1 euro per person. 

©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, 23 February 2012

Little shoes (Παπουτσάκια)

Children quickly grow out of their shoes much more quickly than their clothes. I knew my son needed new shoes, but not because I had seen the holes in his old ones. Up until last week, he had only one pair of shoes, which were close to a year old. So he really did need another pair of shoes. The made-in-china boots that we'd bought him on sale (21 euro) from a large shoe warehouse in Hania came apart after a week of being worn. We stuck them down twice with super-glue, but in the back of our minds, we knew that those boots could not really be classified as a decent pair of second shoes.

Unlike little girls, little boys don't always tell you they need new shoes. They don't always realise that having holes in your shoes is a not a good thing. Sometimes, they get attached to the comfort that a pair of old shoes offers, even if their socks get wet (which is how I realised that there were holes in his shoes). Little girls don't need to wait to feel the discomfort. They will have the finger pointed at them, or more likely, down to their shoes, by other fashion victims, who will say: "Look, your shoes have got holes in them!" and they'll come straight to mummy and daddy and tell them that they need new shoes.

Shoes are not really a top priority in my house because both mummy and daddy in this house know that their mummies and daddies grew up with no shoes. In fact, yiayia doesn't have a pair of shoes, only a pair of slippers and a pair of muddy old shoes with holes in them that she uses for the garden. When we mentioned to her that she needed a pair of shoes, she insisted that she didn't. "I never go anywhere, I am always at home, and if I go into hospital, I won't need shoes there," she answered. Her first pair of shoes, like all my children's grandparents, came when she was nearing her teens.

We now wear shoes because everyone else does, and we don't always mind if our shoes are old, as long as we have something covering our feet, because it looks more civil. Greeks are not like Kiwis, where people like to walk barefoot in the street after work before they go to the pub, or even at work like one of my maths professors at university, who came to the lecture theatre barefoot (right throughout the year). And in Greece, there are appropriate shoes for the appropriate time of the year, so another of my lecturers in the TESOL department would have looked quite out of place in her jandals (that was her only pair of shoes throughout the year). Wearing shoes in Greece is not necessarily about making a fashion or lifestyle statement; it's all about appropriateness.

Although it is a priority to wear shoes in Greece, it isn't a priority to wear shoes without holes in them. Priorities these days have to do with preserving our health (especially in this cold winter that we're having), eating healthy food (which has probably helped us to preserve our health), keeping safe and out of harm's way (like not entering areas where protest marches are scheduled to take place), and paying our bills, so that we don't have to feel threatened by having our communication and electricity supplies (aka in Greece as OTE and DEH) cut off. Priorities differ among us, but this kind of lifestyle has suited us so far, and surely I can't be so special that I am one of a small minority who lives like this in Greece. After all, only about one or two hundred-thousand Athenians thronged the streets on that fateful Sunday when Athens was razed. The other four million or so citizens of Athens were presumably keeping out of harm's way.



Last week, we found some time to go into town and buy some new shoes. It was cold and wet; umbrellas don't do much for you on narrow streets, like those in the commercial heart of Hania. The rain was coming down too quickly and heavily for the drains to cope, and we all got soaked as we tried to avoid the puddles, especially my own feet; despite the heavy rains we have had in Crete, I still buy very cheap shoes which I know look fine at an office job, but in essence, they are not appropriate for walking around in wet weather.

We had a few problems finding a good pair of shoes for my son because we were looking for them late in the sales period, which meant that the most popular sizes and colours had run out. Finally, we found a store that offered good sports shoes (this is what most Greek kids wear to school, except the girls whose parents doll them up in their grandparents' and godparents' presents) at reasonable prices. My son could choose between a lace-up and a scratch pair; he chose the latter (for obvious reasons, as lace-ups mean more work), at a cost of 45 euro (his old shoes - the same brand, an almost similar pair - had cost 50 euro the previous year).




The next day, when he returned home from school, I asked him if his new shoes were as comfortable as his old pair.

"Yes, these ones are really good," he said. "They even keep my feet warm."

Now that he knows the difference between his old and new shoes, I wonder if he will remember to tell me when he needs a new pair. If this happens, I also wonder whether I'll be in a position to buy him a new pair of shoes when he needs them. At the moment, it doesn't look that way, unless I change the order of my priorities: first I buy new shoes, then I pay my electric bill - or simply convert our savings account into a current account.

Right this minute, Modern Greece is a tale of two cities, or rather, two camps:
What most people don't care to admit is that this crisis is survivable. I know this, because I know what I'm worth. I'm sorry to say, but not all my fellow compatriots do.

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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Visitors (Επισκέπτες)

On this day last year, two events took place virtually simultaneously, which concerned both my homelands: the Christchurch earthquake, and the announcement of Crete as a point of arrival for the 15,000 Chinese nationals stranded in Ghaddafi-ruled Libya.

Last year on this day, the strategically-positioned Mediterranean island of Crete became the planned reception centre for the many foreign nationals fleeing the troubles of North Africa, notably Libya, where there were many foreign workers numbering over 1,500,000. Up to 15,000 Chinese citizens were evacuated from Libya with Greek ships chartered by China. Many of them were brought to Crete, boarding the same ferry boats that Cretans use to travel to Athens. Once they arrived, they stayed on Crete for a period of up to a month, until their transportation back to China was arranged.


The Chinese government, in cooperation with the Greek government, chartered Greek ferry boats to transport their citizens to the island. The main urban centre of Crete, Iraklio, accommodated nearly all the Chinese nationals in their hotels, which, at this time of year, are normally empty, as Crete is mainly a summer holiday resort, and the majority of hotels do not remain open during the winter period.
Once they arrived, they stayed on Crete for a period of up to a month, until their transportation back to China was arranged.


This event was seen by the local authorities of Crete as an opportunity to help foster better relations between the two countries. The main tourists of Crete come from the UK, Germany, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, including former Eastern bloc countries. Tourism ties between Greece and Asian countries, notably China, have often been discussed, but little action has eventuated from such discussions. For the last few years, a controversial deal involving the development of the southern Cretan port of Timbaki into a harbour for ship containers carrying Chinese goods, which would have been financed by the Chinese government, received negative attention by the local community. During the recent Greek economic crisis, the Chinese government stepped in with offers of investment opportunities to help the beleaguered Greek economy, although it was never taken up.

The imminent arrival of the Chinese nationals to the island of Crete was seen as an opportunity for the locals to provide their unusual visitors with a glimpse of what a Greek holiday may be like, and a chance to experience Greek hospitality, albeit under unusual conditions: the generally warm dry climate of Crete had dampened with cold rainy weather, as the first ferry boat made its way through the Libyan Sea to arrive in the port of Iraklio.

Local authorities began to prepare the local community by explaining to them the importance of such an occasion. It was seen as a way to foster better trade relations between the countries, and a novel way to introduce the Chinese to Greek products, namely olive oil and Cretan cuisine. As both the Greek and Chinese cultures have a long history stemming back to ancient times, and are both strongly connected to the culinary traditions of their respective countries, the influx of Chinese citizens into Crete was seen in a positive light, with a focus on the similarities between these two very different cultures, rather than their differences.

High interest has been shown by the Chinese market with its preference for Greek olive oil in the last three years. The three major importers of olive oil in China are Italy, Spain and Greece, since the companies from those countries cover almost 90% of imports into the country. In April 2011, the Bureau of Economic and Commercial Affairs at the Greek Embassy in Beijing in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry organized a series of events to promote the Greek product, which included a week of Greek cuisine in China, presentations about Greek olive oil for Chinese journalists and potential customers by chefs, retailers and importers of Greek olive oil.

The severity of the Greek crisis and the recent turn of events seem to have cut short possible developments that could have proceeded from our visitors' short stay last year. I wonder how those 15,000 Chinese nationals remember Crete today. 

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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Buying filo pastry (Φύλλο)

Filo pastry will be a big seller this week, being Cheesefare Week, a popular time in Greece for making pita, before Great Lent kicks off on Clean Monday next week. If you find making your own filo pastry too much work, here's a guide to buying it in Greece. The following articles were originally published through Suite101.

pies from karpenisiThe home cook in Greece has a wide variety of filo pastry to choose from. The right kind of pastry depends on the filling and desired texture of the pie. Although I make my own filo pastry, I occassionally buy it when I want very thin sheets of pastry, which I don't have the patience to make these days.

Most (if not all) filo pastry sold in Western countries is of the thin filmy type, nearly always sold frozen, resembling the texture and weight of cigarette paper, and it's quite fragile. In Greece, however, when applied to pastry, the term 'filo' (cf. φυλλο = leaf) denotes a wide range of pastry types, all of which have their own special purpose. The universally well known thin filo pastry is labelled 'kroustas' (κρουστας = crusty), and it is the one usually used in making baklava and galaktoboureko, the traditional Greek custard pie, along with a wide range of other sweet and savoury pies. It can be bought freshly made from a specialist store that makes it on a daily basis; or from the refrigerated goods counter at a supermarket, packaged as fresh; or from the freezer section, where it is bought frozen (once thawed, it cannot be refrozen). Most filo pastry is sold in standard 500g packets containing 12-16 30x40cm or 40x40cm sheets.

Traditional filo pastry

karpenisipie shop karpenisiBut in the motherland of filo pastry, this word denotes a wide variety of pastry types. Filo in Greece has a similar meaning range as that of snow in a place like Canada! There are thicker filo sheets called 'horiatiko' (χωριατικο = village style) or 'paradosiako' (παραδοσιακo = traditional), packaged and sold in the same way as the kroustas sheets, which are used when making 'heavy-duty' pies with dense fillings. This kind of filo pastry resembles traditional home-made pastry that a home cook would make. Traditional Cretan pasties (kalitsounia) are always made with this kind of pastry. Cretan cooks use all varieties of filo pastry discussed here, but the most popular is the thicker horiatiko (paradosiako) type.

Other varieties of filo pastry

Then, there is the pastry labelled 'kourou' (κουρου), commonly known in English as shortcrust pastry, which can be rolled out into any thickness that the user requires to make a dish. I would use this when making a large Cretan meat pie. The 'viritou' (βηρυττου - literally: 'of Beirut') filo is similar to 'kroustas', but contains eggs. It is used in the same way as kroustas, but it would be unsuitable during religious fasting periods (eg Lent). Unlike the thin kroustas, viritou is not suitable for vegans.

tiropsomo makrinitsa pelion
None of the above-mentioned pastries rise when cooked; puff pastry, a buttery dough which expands when heated, is called 'sfoliata' (σφολιατα) in Greece, a word derived from the Italian language, which hints clearly at the foreign origins of this pastry. It's the only one that is not strictly a filo pastry. Sfoliata is often used in the well-known cheese pies sold in bakeries and snack-shops all over Greece. Again, this pastry can substitute all the other pastries mentioned above, according to the preferences of the cook. Puff pastry is used in the traditional tiropita (cheese pie) sold in snack shops all over the country.

mosaic pie
You can get an idea of what these pastries look like and are used for from a well-known Greek pastry-maker's website. Traditional food meets culinary art: spanakopita and tiropita are transformed into impressive sculpted masterpieces, giving them a new lease of life.

In Greece, spanakopita (spinach pie) and tiropita (cheese pie) are very popular street-food snacks, often sold in bakeries, snack shops and cafes. Spanakopita has also passed into the realm of global cuisine, and is now a popular pie all over the world. Both spanakopita and tiropita are made with filo pastry filled with a mixture of spinach and other leafy greens and/or a variety of cheeses. Both are considered vegetarian, while spanakopita can also be vegan, ie made without the addition of dairy products, making it a good choice for Clean Monday and the Greek Orthodox Lenten season, the fasting period before Easter.

You can make delicious spring rolls with filo pastry. A packet of 500g gives me 12 sheets, which I cut in half and get 24 spring rolls; a packet of 8 regular-size Chinese spring roll wrappers costs more than 2 euro at the supermarket, while the filo pastry costs less than 3 euro.

Filo pastry and pie fillings

kalitsounia with honey What makes these savoury pies and pastries unique is the range of shapes they come in. Filo pastry parcels, both big and small, are a form of culinary art in Greece, in similar ways that sushi is in Japan. Using the same filo pastry and pie fillings, a wide range of small and large pastries can be made, all of different shapes and sizes. Some shapes are specifically regional and they each have their own special name, while many are recognized throughout the country.

Portion control

galaktoboureko Large spanakopita and tiropita pies are cooked in a baking tin, and then cut up into triangles (if the baking vessel used is round) or squares (if it is rectangular). But the artistic flair of the cook is seen in the small individual pasties. These are preferable to large pies because they hold their shape better (especially useful when packing them for a work lunch or picnic), making the filo pastry less fragile. They also provide a form of portion control which can used in combination with weight control.

filo wontonsOne of the most popular pita shapes often made by home cooks is the simple triangle, a seamless closed pocket made with the thin variety of filo pastry. For the home cooks who make their own phyllo dough, which is often thicker than store-bought filo pastry, the shapes are endless. In the cuisine of the island of Crete, the most common shape is the half-moon called kalitsounia, while in Central and Northern Greece, spiral savoury pies are more common. Once filo pastry is cooked, it sets, making open pasties a possibility, such as the Cretan Easter specialties of lichnarakia and baked kalitsounia. Filo pastry can also be rolled into cigar-like rolls, similar to Asian-style spring rolls, making this shape perfect as an appetizer or cocktail snack.

samosaModern food trends now allow for much more creativity in the traditional Greek kitchen, providing a new lease of life to old favorites. The possibilities are endless for the creatively inclined cook looking to impress. You can buy or make your own filo pastry, and fill it with your own unique blend of spanakopita or tiropita fillings. It's difficult to imagine Greek cuisine without filo pastry, which forms one of the staples of global street food: where would we be without some form of filled pocket-size pastry/bread?

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Monday, 20 February 2012

The way we were: Greek man in London (Έλληνας στο Λονδίνο)

"Like a fish out of water": a foreign-born Greek woman describing her husband to me on his first trip abroad.

The cold weather ripped through his body. Every now and then, a gust of wind whipped his face, freezing all their unexposed parts. Timoleon had lost sensation of his nose and had started breathing through his mouth. It had not felt so cold in the airport corridors; the difference in the temperature at the train platform shocked his senses. He had felt this kind of cold before, when he was trekking through the Lefka Ori, during a hunting expedition, but he was well wrapped up then, and he expected it at any rate due to the altitude. At any rate, the cold at such heights was stable - there was no sudden changes in the temperature. Here, one minute he was in the warmth of an artificially heated environment, but the next he found himself exposed to all the elements. His gloves, hats and scarf were packed at the bottom of the suitcase. He wouldn't be able to get them out until he got to Nektarios' house. The children's excitement rendered them unable to feel the cold. He watched them gazing wondrously at the train tracks, waiting to see the train as it came into view.

"I thought the place would be busier," he remarked to his wife who had just arrived from the cashier with their tickets."It must be quieter because it's Sunday."

"We're not in London yet," his wife replied. "This place is just a pit stop."

"I thought you said we aren't going into the centre of the city."

"We're not." Explanations seemed inadequate at this moment. This was a big new world for him, and he was about to discover it for himself.

The train arrived on time. The last time Timoleon had travelled on a train was more than three decades ago, on what felt like a slow dull journey through the Peloponnese, along with a few hundred cadets, all new bootcamp recruits. After finishing his military service, he never saw a train again. This train reminded did not remind him of his previous train journeys. It aroused a child-like excitement in him, the same as the one he could see his children experiencing; their joy was contagious as they began to board the carriage. He spotted some empty seats behind a glass door.

"No, not there," his wife shook shook her head, moving the suitcases into the corridor. He had opened a door to an empty compartment, but hadn't noticed the sign: "FIRST CLASS". At least this time there was plenty of leg room, even in the second class carriage. As the train left, the tracks gave way to an open view of a flat-pan countryside. Empty fields below a dull grey sky, small settlements popping into view at regular intervals, and rows and rows of uniform housing. These images were not new in his mind; he had seen them all before, but not in real life.

The train stopped at various stations along the route, dropping off a few passengers, with only a trickle boarding. The image that he had in his mind of London had still not emerged. Where are the masses? he wondered. At the same time, he could picture people sitting in the warmth and comfort of their homes, which all looked like picturesque maisonettes. Who would want to be out and about on a day like this, he assured himself. As the door of the carriage opened, the freezing air reminded him of why being indoors felt goodat this time.

The neat and tidy picture of uniform scenery suddenly gave way to a brown-green mess, blotted with colourful spots of fabric scraps and papers flapping in the wind or lying on the ground. Although it passed by his eyes very quickly - he would have missed it if he coughed - it was enough to remind him of Roma housing located by Greek motorways. In this case, though, the travellers and their trucks were missing from the detritus. He could hear his children singing the Polar Express song.

"What on earth was that?" he said, turning to his wife.  His wife proceeded to explain the idea of allotments to him. "People want to tend a garden, but due to lack of space in urban areas, they don't have space around their own homes, so they ask their local councils to provide them with a piece of land in a public area." The whole idea sounded romantic. There was only one problem: in this climate, it would take a miracle for anything to grow.

It was a little after the allotments that the open spaces and greenery became scarcer, and the natural landscape was replaced by buildings and long rows of terraced houses stretching for miles. His image of London was finally approaching.

"Our station's next," his wife chimed. "Remember," she continued in a warning tone, "there'll be people coming on and off the train, so we've got to watch out for the children and there's the suitcases to carry off..." She always used a serious sound to her voice when giving explanations, advice and any sort of instructions and directions. It made him feel a little sheepish listening to her, because she made it sound like he was in dome sort of imminent danger if he did not follow her advice to the T. She had already gotten off her seat, and the train had only just begun moving again. He presumed that it was a part of her Anglo-Saxon upbringing that she could not shake off, no matter how long she had been living in Greece.

The train entered a covered track as it began to slow down. To Timoleon's great surprise - and horror when he realised that this was their station - the platform was crowded. It felt like high summer season at the airport, multiplied by a hundred. The name of the station was now clearly in view: "Welcome to Clapham Junction: Britain's busiest railway station." His wife was already by the door dragging one suitcase in one hand and a child in the other. He followed suit.

A flood of images bombarded his bewildered eyes: the melee of people, the many shades of their faces, the quick pace of the crowd, the robotic actions of a mob expertly trained in the art of exiting and boarding a train carriage, the gong sounds coming from the intercom, the foreign languages flying through the air, the narrow concrete underpasses; presented altogether, they induced instant panic attacks on his mind. These were the images he carried around in his head when he thought of London. All that was missing to complete the picture was Big Ben. Where was Nektarios in this jumble? How were they to find him?

"He told us where he'd be," she assured assured him, speaking as quickly as she was walking, all the while holding on tightly to the baggage assigned to her, child included. "Platform three," she said, pointing to somehting in the air that Timoleon could not see. His wife led the way. Even though she claimed never to have come here before, she seemed to glide through the mess with ease; not only could she find what she wanted, but it was exactly where she expected it to be. The next minute, she was hugging Nektarios, who had appeared out of nowhere. After a very exchange of greetings, he turned round, indicating with a gesture for them to follow.

As they made their way to the station exit, Timoleon suddenly realised that most people around him were dressed up in green clothing. One person was even wearing a green wig.  He could only think of Greek politics and football, even though he knew that it was highly unlikely that he had landed among ΠΑΣΟΚ or ΠΑΟ supporters. He was feeling rather lost among the masses, like a fish out of water, as if the world had suddenly been tipped upside down. The cars were on the wrong side of the road, the drivers were in the wrong side of the cars, the signs were all foreign. He spotted a LIDL supermarket, its characteristic blue and yellow sign brightening up the greyness. He took comfort in finding something familiar amidst the sea of strange people and buildings, new faces and landscape, ground as yet untrodden by him which he was about to cover. It was Sunday, it was freezing, and he was in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, making his way through a crowded thoroughfare plotted with structures reminiscent of Dickens' stories standing side-by-side and criss-crossed with traffic. If he were at home right this minute, he'd be rising from a midday nap, and making his way to the armchair to watch TV in the comfort of a heated house.

supermarketAll of a sudden, the high street disappeared, and a sense of quiet hung in the air. As quickly as they had been mixing among the multitudes, they had left them for a cosier and more genteel environment. They had rounded a corner full of rows of two-story houses, looking like carbon copies of each other save the paint work. Saloon vehicles lined each side of the street, which seemed completely deserted, as they were the only ones walking down the road. A few steps down away was a supermarket: "Open 24 hours" read the sign in the parking area. They're probably all in there doing their shopping, Timoleon thought to himself. 

*** *** ***

On becoming familiar with the novel habits of the western world, given the right conditions, the newcomer's rate of catching up with the new pace of life often is exponential, while his previous life is sometimes remembered as a bad dream.

 
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