Saturday, 5 January 2013

Carobs (Χαρούπια)

At around this time last year, I went to an exchange bazaar at the invitaiton of a friend. These are held on Sundays in Hania.  Although I didn't have anything to exchange, I just wanted to see how they operated. By the time I got there, there wasn't much going on because most of the participating traders (using something called μονάδες - units, or TEMs as they are called in Volos which runs the largest exchange bazaar in Greece) had already done their trading and gone, I was told. Exchange bazaars are a response to the crisis - they never existed before, a sign of comfort, even among the poorer members of our society (a very telling sign of pre-crisis poverty levels in Greece).

carob tree
The carob tree (χαρουπιά - harou-PIA) grows very tall and wide. It provides fantastic shade although it is generally considered too big for a private house garden.

I obviously saw the dregs of what was going on - people selling (trading? I don't know the correct term here) stuff: old socks, do-it-yourself artwork, home-made biscuits (4-6 in a plastic box selling for 1-2 units, if I remember rightly). Everything was priced in units, and 1 unit was equal to €1. A supermarket carrier bag made of material scraps was priced at 18 units at one of the stalls. Even carob pods were being sold. Before the crisis, no one even bothered to harvest carob pods (there are many carob trees in Hania; it is a protected species); nowadays, you won't see a single windfall carob pod lying on the ground (there are multiple reasons for this.) The carob seller had put them daintily into a transparent plastic bag and tied them with a red piece of string. The value-added arrangement looked very pretty. 

All the products on the table are made from carob. Interst in carob has been renewed as a way of adding value added to a raw product. 

I had heard that some people came to exchange their olive oil, oranges, etc. Apparently, you can sell these for units, and if you have something you can exchange, or when you need a job done at home, eg plumber, electrician, etc for small tasks, you can use your collected units to get this work done for free. But the stuff being exchanged at the stalls when I turned up was clearly stuff I didn't want, or didn't need or could make/find myself or get it for free, if only I made the effort. The participants did not remind me of rural people, but townies.

Above: unripe carob. Below: ripe carob. It is not difficult to come across a carob tree in Hania. They are a protected species, whose crop was once used grond up as flour during WW2, when all villagers' food resources were confiscated by the Nazis. The pods were mainly used as animal feed.  

I make bottled tomato sauce, jams, chutneys and freezer food. I often make more than I can eat. The reasoning behind my food stock is for having food to feed my family and to have home-made presents to give away. I had in fact promised a jar of something to the friend that invited me to the event, but on that day, I was very disorganised and didn't remember to bring it along. I had been cooking and weeding the garden all day; my fingernails were still black when I went to the bazaar, something I was embarassed about, but I could not get rid of the dirt quickly enough, so I just scrubbed my hands as much as I could. (But my fingernails were still dirty.)

Carobs taste similar to chocolate, which the western world already knows quite well. I remember my dad telling me that this was his 'sweet' when he was a young child. Carob pods are eaten as is. They are hard on the outside, and chewy in the centre. The seeds found in the pod are very hard - they are not eaten. The flour made from ground carob makes very aromatic bread and dough products. Although it is tasty, it is a little hard on the digestive system, so you don't eat much of it. 

Most of the remaining traders were getting ready to pack up and go home. Not everyone had managed to trade their stuff, but there was a party atmosphere in the school grounds. People were celebrating their unity to fight the crisis. I met up with my friend who wanted to give me some of her stuff, which I felt uncomfortable about taking because I had nothing to trade. But as I looked at the papier mache artwork and the carobs, the thought occurred to me that I could never price my tomato sauces and jams and chutneys in the same way as that stuff. My work reminded me of the ant's summer chores, not the cicada's singing. We eat my stuff to survive.

A seed in a carob pod - that's a very tough nut to crack.

The carob seller wanted to get rid of her stock. She had not sold anything. She knew I was interested in cooking, so she said that maybe I could use them. I found the whole scene somewhat bizarre since I knew I could collect carob pods from the grounds of our fields! Out of niceness, I said I'll take a packet, and I asked her how to exchange points with her, but she said she didn't want any units for them; they were a present.

She explained their uses - they are good for the sperm count, I was told! I laughed as I thought about feeding them to my husband (we are not in the position to have any more kids). But the truth is that she had no idea what you could really do with carobs, which she admitted
, and it didn't surprise me. She was a townie who had collected the carob pods that fell to the ground from the tree in her garden, and she was selling them, even though she did not know the value of what she was selling. Anyway, you can't do much with 6 carob pods - you need much more than that to make them worth the effort to grind into usable flour or make a Cretan drink people called χαρουμπία (ha-rou-BI-a: it's rarely made now). 

I try not to be materialistic, so I realised I didn't need anything I saw being traded around me. My clothes are old or cheap but plentiful, I don't have an ornaments section in my house, I don't like to hoard; I'm not well off materialistically, but I have everything I need, and try to be satisfied with my lot, as many people do these days, in these very difficult times. So I don't really want to take part in these exchanges at this moment. We have produced all our olive oil supplies for the next two years, our garden gives us an endless (but restricted in variety) supply of vegetables. I have given away lots of vegetables so far this year; a food present has never been so valued in our recent past, as it is in our time. I have seen the joy my friends get out of opening one of my bottles, almost fainting with the aroma and muttering something about what it feels like to be in heaven. I give away all my children's old clothes in the same way that people gave them away to me. I like to give back what I'm given, to maintain my dignity without feeling abused or misused. 


Photo (2010) of fallen carob pods on the ground, late August, in Kalathas. 
I doubt any were allowed to go to waste from the recent crop.

I really felt the divide between the townie and the country dweller by going to the exchange bazaar. I baulked when I was asked to register for the exchange: what may I be exchanging? 'home-made gourmet tomato sauce', 'pure and natural apricot jam' and 'spicy organic chutney'? or maybe 'english lessons' since I'm an English teacher? and how on earth could I price my stuff? what is it worth? isn't my 'stuff' priceless?! My stuff costs me my time, love and labour to produce, not to mention my husband's incessant time spent in the garden, where he wholes away the whole of the summer when he isn't at work, coming into the house only at nightfall. My urban compatriots frightened me that day - it suddenly occurred to me that my family works very very hard for what we have. It doesn't just fall on the ground waiting for us to pick it up, like those carob pods. At that moment, it seemed to me that people had lost all sense of measure, combined with a total detachment to the earth, with their need to trade things that do not put a plate of food on their table.  

I hardly go to the town centre these days because I am tired of the facetious commercialism it has to offer during the day, let alone on a cold wintry Sunday, when Hania looks like a ghost town in some parts. Sunday trading does not exist in Greece (a situation aided and abetted by BOTH shopkeepers AND shop assistants). On that day, this void was instead replaced with the down-and-out side of Hania's otherwise generally glitzy seaside resort image; in broad daylight, hanging around outside the school where the bazaar was being held, gypsy kids, loiterers, needles, condoms, etc were spread around the area like trash in a ditch. At times like this, I covet the full gamut of green hues and shades that country life offers only a few minutes away from the grey tones of the concrete jungle. 

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