Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Lentil stew (Φακές)

If you read Joanna Kakissis' recent views of Greece, you will find that Greece is on the brink of collapse:
"The postcard image of modern Greek pride is a rich, full table of grilled lamb, sharp cheeses, eggplant casseroles, olive oil-drenched tomato salads, and honeyed desserts -- of happy families toasting each other. It's not people fighting over free cabbage, staring into bare refrigerators, or gathering throwaway oranges at open-air produce markets. It's not free lentil stew. The future, all of a sudden, has started to look a lot like the past."
old soup plate

But cabbages are now out of season now, and you will be hard pressed to find them in your local λαϊκή (street market), as I discovered when I took a friend to the Saturday market in Hania recently. The article continues with some tired old cliches of Greek life in recession and there are also some other inconsistencies in this article, which are annoying to read, from the well-informed Greek food blogger's point of view:
"Those who still have their jobs, even if they've seen their incomes plunge by a third or more, consider themselves lucky. But they no longer stock up on pork chops and imported Gouda cheese, as they did in better times. They eat out less too... There's also a bestselling cookbook, Starvation Recipes, based on tips from Greeks who survived the famine of World War II. (Sample: Save bread crumbs from the table in a jar to eat later.)"
Stocking up on pork chops was never really the norm in Greece. Most Greeks have never needed to do this because few own freezers large enough to do it. Besides, fresh meat, heads, tails, gizzards and all, is always readily available in the fresh meat counter of almost all supermarkets. Greeks are generally not the stock-it-in-the-freezer-and-cook-with-it-for-the-next-month-or-so kind of race.

And what about this 'imported Gouda cheese' business? Forgive me for my mean thoughts right this minute, but does Ms Kakissis realise that 'imported Gouda cheese' is actually the cheapest cheese on the market? It's HALF THE PRICE of the well-known Cretan graviera (for example), which is made locally in my case! I actually buy it for kids' sandwiches and pizzas - it costs LESS than the most common cheese in our house, which is mizithra!

Kakissis mentions that Greeks eat out less now. Isn't that what happens in most other places when a crisis hits home? It's nothing new, nor is it a very Greek-crisis concept. Even our summer tourists are doing this at their hotels, or on the beach: they buy so much sliced bread, ham and cheese (the imported stuff, of course) at the supermarket, that the shelves need to be restocked constantly. The book she mentions made a bit of noise when it first came out, but few would believe it was being used, as might be insinuated by Kakissis' article, as a base for Greek home cooking. It's just an interesting book, as are Jamie's and Nigella's - they make great coffee table books.

nothing less will do

The opening discussion of Kakissis' article serves to remind me that there is a crisis in Greece which I can't see because I don't live in Athens. The only thing that Kakissis' article deals with properly (which is actually the main theme of her article) is lentil stew (φακές). They are a Greek favorite, eaten all year round, very simple and cheap to make, and always enjoyed by both Greeks and non-Greeks who try them at a Greek's home. And this is generally the only place where you will find them, because few tourists know about φακές. It is rarely available at restaurants because, as Kakissis writes in the title of her article, lentils are associated with austerity, aka poverty.

I made lentil stew yesterday, on request. My husband was tired of eating his garden-grown goodies: zucchini, eggplant and peppers. "Too much fresh food, Maria" he complained, "my stomach is growing stems". So I made φακές which we had with some mizithra cheese, raw onion, some left over kolokithokeftedes (zucchini patties) and the ubiquitous fresh bakery bread, without which my husband cannot sit down at any meal time.

Now that is a sure sign of hard times: when there was not enough to eat, and bread acted as the main part of a meal, which was served with a meagre portion of a saucy dish. The bread soaked up literally everything on the dish to the point that the dish was wiped so clean that it was hard to tell if it had been used. Not that my husband is poor, but he knows what it feels like to have just bread and oil to eat.

My version of lentil stew uses just salt, pepper and oregano to flavour it: this is because we make it with my home-made tomato sauce, which gives it a very strong flavour. This is quite different to my mother's φακές which contained bay leaf and dried orange peel, possibly because tomato was less easy to procure - she came from a mountain village, 500m above sea level. I once made this kind of φακές for the family, but I got a good telling off. I don't mix and match too many flavours or change the combination of my family's meals because I know they will notice: some things are meant to be (more on that in another post). And as I mentioned in another recent post:
When you watch the news abroad you get the impression that a revolution could break out at any minute... But when you come to Greece you see that it is all happening in one small part of Athens. We know that the crisis is real and that people are suffering, but this is not a country on the brink of collapse.”
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