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Thursday, 21 February 2013

Rick Stein's Mediterranean Escapes

I now have the chance to watch UK TV shows which are normally not available to us when we try to view them from Greece, through a website which allows you to view a range of channels from all over the world without paying a subscription fee. Watching UK TV channels from my own home computer is, I must admit, quite an eye-opener. For instance, female chat shows hosts (on BBC and ITV) don't wear slutty dresses or dye their hair peroxide blonde like ours do, and there are no παραθυράκια on the news programmes. I've also got a whiff of "Wanted Down Under Revisited" which deals, somewhat unsurprisingly, with Brits' desire to live in a 'better' place in the world (it should better be called "Moaners and Groaners"). Such shows give you an idea of British identity (they generally love their family, friends and the local pub, but they hate their weather and they wish they could afford to live in bigger houses).  It's also amusing to watch those 'antique' shows where junk is auctioned off for ridiculous prices.

Even though I generally don't watch TV cookery shows, I must admit that I have fallen in love with Rick Stein's Mediterranean Escapes. The best food shows in my opinion are those that present the food of different regions, like Rick's show. It's interesting to see what people eat in different homes. I'm not so interested in restaurant menus - they require ingredients that are not necessarily cheap or easy to source, and the techniques sometimes require specialised equipment that I most likely don't have in my house. But ordinary home cooking with local ingredients always intrigues me and TV shows of this nature give me a chance to see how other people combine many of the same ingredients that I use in my own home to make a fantastic, interesting, tasty and complete meal for a family.

When I caught Rick on the program, he was in Puglia, Italy, eating mainly vegetarian food. He noted how everything was cooked simply and that most food looked as though it came from only 2-3 miles away. He was eating at a local restaurant which didn't deal with many tourists because it was off the beaten track, despite being by the sea. In fact, he commented that the Mediterranean landscape where he was at the time was kind of unimpressive, not at all what a tourist would expect to see when they visit a restaurant that is supposed to be famed for its magnificent food. But that was it really - people do not make demands on the landscape when they go there to eat - they go there because of the food, which they pay great respect to, because they have a relationship with it. He was surprised to see both young and old people enjoying timeless dishes that, in his own admission, a young Brit would not dream of eating - it was a world far away from chips, burgers and curries.

Rick doesn't make an effort to show you just beautiful food - he accentuates the relationship Mediterranean people have with their food. While an Italian woman cooked up a plate of mashed broad beans served with boiled broccoli rabe greens, he asked her where she first learnt to cook this food. The woman answered that she cooks these dishes because she remembers her mother in her kitchen cooking these dishes when she was a young girl, and she knows that her grnadmother cooked these dishes too, so she feels compelled to cook these dishes because she doesn't want to break the chain. She said that it was an integral part of her life to do this, and even though her children grimace when they see what's on the table, they eat it, possibly moaning and groaning at the same time. But I bet they will remember this food in the same way when they are older, or living away from home, when they have children - they will remember their mother, and the memories associated with the extended family that such dishes arouses.

It was also interesting to see the Puglians pouring olive oil into their pots, as if the stuff came from a free-flowing tap, which of course, in places like this, it does, if I compare it to my own situation. There is no scrimping anywhere in cooking of this sort: whole heads of crushed garlic are thrown into the pan, sea urchins are poured into the oil, and in five minutes, a very al dente pasta is cooked for this sauce. In another pasta sauce, truffles are shaved in such quantities as to suggest that they are commonplace - yes, you may need to be a truffle hunter to enjoy such a dish, but it is a habit of such people that goes back centuries. They cook like their mothers did, as their grandmothers did for their mothers, and the chain is not broken.

Truffles and olive oil may sound like luxury items to the Brits, but they are not treated as such by the Puglians. In fact, most Mediterranean cooking involves sparse use of fresh - and few - ingredients. And most of the best dishes started out as poor people's food; parmesan for example was unknown in the Puglia region until it was mass produced: before that, the parmesan of the poor was fried breadcrumbs.

When Rick leaves Puglia, he goes to the Greek island of Kerkira, otherwise known to Brits as Corfu, popularised in the novel "My Family and other Animals" by Gerald Durrell who lived there as a child when his mother took him along with his brothers and sisters to the island for a change in lifestyle back in the 1930s. I was all excited when Rick said he was going to Greece, but I did feel a little disappointed when he said he couldn't wait to sip ouzo and eat stuffed tomateos with rice - oh my God, I thought, is he still there?

But I shouldn't be too hasty in jusging him. I think I know where he is coming from. Ask the average British tourist in Kerkira (where's that? you ask - sorry, it's Corfu to you) what s/he thinks of the food in the popular Mediterranean resorts, and they will tell you about the best fish and chip shops and where they had a good burger. As a restaurant owner on the island told Rick, as he was dining on artichokes and peas in dill and lemon sauce cooked by the man's mother, tourists don't like this kind of food, they don't know what it is, they can't imagine what they may get when they ask for it, even if it is written in English, so they just order a pizza or a steak. They can't appreciate this kind of food because they are unwilling to try it. The restaurant was located in a tourist area but the customers were mainly Greek. Brits don't generally go to the Mediterranean for the food - they go for the sun, the sea and the cold beer. It's moments like these when we have to admit that the food is simply not that important, and the Greek tourism sector is going to have to get to grips with this if it wants to secure a good market share. Making the food the centrepiece is simply not going to work at times. As an example, take the Greek hotel breakfast. That's a global concept, and for that reason, globally recognisable breakfast food is served there - bring out a rusk with grated tomato and freshly crumbled goat's cheese, and you've lost the package tourist...

Rick made a very wise observation about Greek vegetarian food: he said that the dishes weren't really made for vegetarians - they were simply delicious dishes that don't contain any meat. That sums up my vegetarian cooking. The dishes I cook are usually vegetarian, and often vegan at that, but not on purpose: meat and other forms of protein, notably cheese, accompanies my dishes in small quantities. The protein is a supplement rather the main part of the meal. Take today's meal of chickpeas and rice: the kids practically fell into the pot when they saw what was for lunch. They didn't even ask for any cheese! They just wanted to savour a dish that they associate with "good food". They didn't notice it didn't contain protein. And if it did, they would have complained: "That's not revithia, mum! Next time, make it in the real way."

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I keep UK TV on in the background as I work on my computer. My family are amused as I shout out to them: "Quick! get a look at this!" each time I find something worth sharing with them. On another note, I was also quite shocked to find out that Britain has many beneficiary claimants who are defrauding the system: as the host of  "Saints and Scroungers" points out, wherever money is being given away, there are always corrupt people, cheats, liars, "single" parents, families with more children than they can afford to raise, and a host of other lazy sods trying to cheat the system to get their hands on it. (It makes Greeks look tame when you see benefit fraudsters loading up their garden shed with caskets of wine and champagne, and building summer homes in Spain, all on UK taxpayers' money.)

The order of the news items give you a clue as to what is important to Brits: the Pistorius case is getting a lot of (ie too much) attention at the moment, seconding the Birmingham terrorists' story (men with Asian origins who were born and brought up in the UK but hated the country and went to Pakistan to train to be suicide bombers). There's also lot of ado about Adele's success in the US (another sign of British identity - always wanting to please their cross-Atlantic neighbours). The economic crisis seems to have caught up quite quickly with the UK with the crash of the 4G sale (implying that 3G seems good enough for the time being). And did you know that railway tracks fetch high prices in the UK? (Just like they do here - it ain't much different).

Watching other countries' television programs makes me feel a little smug about where I find myself. But I know how the BBC feels about non-UK residents seeing their programs without paying the exorbitant subscription fees demanded for cable TV (personally, I think €15-20 per month is far too much). It's been only a few days since I discovered this little gem of a website. Before anyone blows the whistle on filmon, and the BBC blocks my access to its vertitable little empire, I will continue to savour Rick's Mediterranean escapes and maybe chuckle a little as I hear the weather forecast announcer when he s/he tells us how frosty, cold and rather miserable the weather is at the moment; it's 16 degreees Celsius here in the middle of the Mediterranean, and for the last three nights, we haven't lit a fire (OK, maybe I am getting a little too smug).

Thanks to my potentially short glimpse into UK life, I had a chance to enjoy Rick's down-to-earth honest approach to the food he tries in the Meditrerraenan. He is not pretentious. And above all, he treats my Mediterranean food with respect. And if Rick chances to read this, I invite him to my Mediterranean table too.

(BTW, the Brits really do have a weight problem, judging from the many overweight people that fare quite prominently on the various shows I am watching; it's definitely got something to do with the food...)

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