Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Dickensian Crete (Η Κρήτη του Ντίκενς)

"You were on a different tangent, Maria", a friend wrote to me the other day. "You never sound Dickensian - you're content with your lot despite the adversities, you're like Nancy singing It's a Fine Life, and that's just not sensational enough." Her advice was that maybe I should start writing about scavenging for food in bins or nicking stuff from other gardens at night, and training my children to do that too. "That would get them to your doorstep, along with all the Greek TV channels. Why don't you do it for a laugh, to show how the media feeds on people's pain?" Better still, I could write something else that feeds on a local kind of pain that is not often well described in the media.

After spending the afternoon at the beach last Sunday, I decided that I was relaxed enough on that very hot day to take a walk through the Agricultural August exhibition, which was being held by the harbour. Agricultural August is an annual trade fair set up for producers to acquaint consumers with their products. The children were very excited about it.

 "We're going to try all that cheese and honey," said my daughter. "And we'll eat loukoumades afterwards," said my son. For both of them, it was all about the food. We parked the car on the outskirts of the town, a rather gloomy grey street whose shops operated only during the week, making the area look rather sad and empty at the weekend. It was really stuffy and muggy - we were hoping to feel a bit of breeze when we got close to the Western Moat where the fair was being held, next to the coast, just down the road from Hania's landmark, the lighthouse.

There were two aisles with stalls on both sides - the middle two rows of stalls were back to back. We began our walk through the free exhibition by taking the left hand side first. To see all the stalls, we decided to walk up one side, then down again on the other side - and the same again through the next two sets of stalls.

The children walked quickly past the first few stalls which were not food-related: the Municipality's stall, an insurance company, a distiller displaying different kinds of cauldrons for making raki (tsikoudia). There were little plastic shot glasses for anyone who wanted to try some raki, as well as wine. But these were not the stalls that the children remembered from the previous year. I was surprised by how much they knew what they were looking for.

The first food stall was selling baked goods. "Is there anything there for us to try?" they asked me. It didn't look like there was - it was for sale, not for trying. So they just walked past it very boldly, their confidence not greatly shattered. The next stall was that of an ice-cream maker. There was nothing there for free either.

"Is there going to be anything to try?" they asked with a slight uncertainty in their voice.

"I suppose so," I assured them. Not everyone seemed to be bringing out their wares as readily as they did last year. Or so it seemed to us, anyway. In the meantime, people were poring into the exhibition. Most Greeks come to Agricultural August, but not many of our immigrant residents. Perhaps they don't know about it; perhaps they don't realise what it is all about; perhaps they don't feel part of the local community; perhaps also they don't want to be seen somewhere that people will accuse them of coming to get a free meal.

The children continued to walk past the stalls that did not interest them. They knew what they were looking for: little bowls of something edible at the front of the stall, in front of the packaged goods that the stall holders were hoping to sell to anyone more interested than just sampling. The first stall they came across with the little basket of goods to try was for bakery goods: paximadi, sweet rusks, carob-flavoured baked products, bread sticks, among others. But nothing that in English would be understood as cookies or biscuits. Cretan baked sweet goods don't usually come in the form of biscuits. That's left for the mass manufacturing market.

The children picked up a piece of rusk and began chewing it, crumbling it over their lips. Their faces showed an earnest seriousness; they were tackling the task of sampling the goods as if it were a duty, nodding their heads at a slant, their eyes showing deep thought. "Mmm, it's good," they said, as they walked past the stall, not quite having swallowed it all.

At the next stall was a honey seller. "How do we try that one, Mum?" I showed them the tiny plastic spoons next to the bowls of honey and encouraged them to dip the tip of their spoon into the jar and twirl the spoon around so that the honey didn't drip onto their fingers or onto the ground. "Mmm, it's good," they said, as they walked past that stall too, still licking their sticky lips which by now had some crumbs sticking onto them.

The next stall had popular fried pastries of a local variety, the kind we make quite often in the winter when the garden is full of spinach. "Can we buy a kalitsouni?" I reminded them that we were going to have loukoumades from the stalls beyond the exhibition when we reached the end. We can't buy everything, and anyway, we'd be too full afterwards to sit anywhere to eat anything else. And it was still hot. Despite being so close to the sea, not a breeze could be felt. It was different when we'd left home, but we live on a hill anyway, and it's always breezier there.

More bakery products. More honey. More bakery products. More honey. "Mmm, it's good," they'd say after every sample, as we walked past each stall. "It wasn't really that good," my son whispered to me, as we walked past one honey stall. "It was bitter." He is used to Cretan sweet thyme honey, so I guessed that he had just tried the pine tree honey produced in Sfakia. Despite being produced locally, the locals are not actually enamoured by it. Better sales of this product are made in Northern Greece, where thyme honey is regarded as inferior; the North is used to a bitter form of fir tree honey which is produced only every two years, in limited quantities. Greeks generally think that their local products are the best; they generally don't know each other's products at all.

Just when I was wondering where the cheese sellers were this year, we came across the first cheese stall. "Finally," said my son. He took a toothpick and picked up a tiny cube. "Delicious," he said, nodding his head, forgetting momentarily that he was supposed to be sampling the products, and not looking to satiate his desires. The word 'cheese' denotes 'hard yellow cheese' in Crete, never white cheese like feta or mizithra. (And again, in the North, 'cheese' denotes white feta, not yellow cheese, which is not common there.) We don't buy much cheese in summer, as we prefer mizithra; hard yellow cheese is too heavy in the summer (it's also twice the price of soft white cheese). Besides that, we have become cheese snobs (due to lots of travelling outside the country); local cheese producers are a little lax in their standards, and we are very picky in our tastes. The best cheese (and I mean yellow cheese) that we have tried in our life was French cheese. (As for feta, I can get very good stuff here too - I only buy certain brands or from certain producers - feta making is a little 'new' in Hania.) There is no reason for Cretan cheese not to be like French cheese - the only reason it isn't is because local cheesemakers do not make a greater effort to produce better cheese.

That was it, basically - bakery products, honey and cheese, with much fewer of the latter than in the previous year. Perhaps they were tired of handing out cheese for little return. Generally speaking, the locals have their own favorite stores and they do not change so readily. All the stall holders are either small or medium-sized businesses, mostly selling to the local market. There is little to gain from Agricultural August for most of them. Despite this, most of the stall holders that had products to sample were very generous, calling out to people to come and try their products, and always showing great compassion for the younger members of the public. The lower takings of their businesses during the crisis is their way of understanding that people no longer have it to give it - we are all in the same boat. This bears an element of responsibility in the businessman, who realises that he must approach the consumer in more realistic terms.

We came across an unusual stall selling the brightest coloured foods in the whole exhibition: green icing on cupcakes and coloured meringues on a stick, pink strawberry liqueur and coloured popcorn. The business is mainly involved in catering for events. A girl in fancy dress was selling balloons while another girl was shovelling popcorn and handing it out as a sample. "Like to try it?" she asked my daughter, who was only too happy to oblige. "Mmm, it's good," she said, and was just about to walk past the stall when the assistant said: "Wanna buy some?" She was not there just to give out samples, she was there to sell.

What is there that I could possibly need to buy from the Agricultural August stalls? My husband picks up bread from his favorite bakery, which he refuses to change. Paximadi is a nice idea, but our house is full of paximadi (I stock up when it is on sale). A beekeeper relative supplies me with honey. We have our own supplies of home-brew wine and there are plenty of bottles of raki in the house because we are given it by home brewers every year, but we are not drinkers ourselves. We buy cheese from the supermarket or the street market, mainly in winter, when we need it.

EVOO-based soaps? Sun-dried tomatoes? Locally produced soft drinks? They are all occasional purchases, and these days, you decide which one product you will buy - gone are the days when we could have everything (and not necessarily use it).

There are some novel products on the market, stuff I would really like to try, like that aloe vera juice, but price is always a consideration. Once it makes it into the regular supermarket shelves, I suppose the price will come down. I will pop into the bakery that says it makes carob-flour bread - I've always fancied the idea of my bread tasting of chocolate. And those cooked jarred farmed snails were rather tasty as a mezedaki, albeit slightly expensive. Apparently, you can add them to any of your favorite sauces - but we don't eat or cook snails in this way, and it is a rather expensive way to have snails, especially when we collected our own from our fields this year.

It was still very hot and we all felt quite uncomfortable by the end of our stroll through the trade fair. We sat at one of the empty benches, feeling rather steamy. I could tell that the kids had had their fill, and they were feeling rather turgid, both in mind and in body.

"I think this year's fair wasn't as interesting as last year's," I said. "What do you think?" The event was marketed as a way to get producers and consumers together, and it remained true to this end. It could work out more successfully for some of the stall holders than others, but there is also an element of chance involved. Rural people have different needs to those of urban people, despite eating roughly the same food; they are stimulated in different ways, and have different kinds of knowledge about natural/food products, naturally because they are more connected with them.

Take carobs for instance; we don't see them as too exotic, since we can see and touch a carob tree whenever we want - they are found in our neighborhood as well as our fields. Spoon sweets are delicious but we have a fridge full of them. We know how easy they are to make, even though we don't make the full range. Some of that cherry spoon sweet that we tried would have been nice, but we'd have scoffed that down too quickly - the bitter orange sweet would be left behind. Maybe we are tired of bitter orange sweet - oh well, have sweet fresh oranges too, plenty of those in the fields...

"I remember there were more things to try last year," my son said. "And it all looks expensive." They weren't actually that expensive to me because I could compare the prices here with what I normally pay at the supermarket (they seemed the same or just slightly cheaper here), but if you bought something for 3 euro here, and another thing for 4 euro there, and something else for 8 euro... you'd lose count of the number of euros you spent, and you'd need to rush out to an ATM to refill the purse (credit cards were not available in this open-air fair).

I did make one purchase: a large packet of novelty savoury rusks, which had been coated in olive oil and oregano. They were very fragrant, with a fresh oil smell (Cretans generally know what a rancid oil smell is like as we are very used to eating freshly pressed year-old olive oil), but they were almost like crisps. They had been made with spongy bread which had been double-baked and dried, sliced into small bits, a bit like thick 'n' chunky potato chips. I knew they would be eaten very quickly (gone by Tuesday), but I thought it would be a nice way to appease the gap between 'want' and 'need' - we didn't really have any 'need' for them, but they were being sold at a reasonable price, so we could fulfill our 'want' cheaply.

"We could make these ourselves, couldn't we, Mum?" I was surprised at how perceptive he was. Yes, indeed, all we needed was a baguette, and oven, some oil and oregano, and perhaps a little salt to make them really moreish. There are few needs that we cannot satisfy in our household - and even our wants are very relative, it seems.

We were glad to leave the exhibition because it was now stifling hot, with no respite, even by the coast, where we sat near a fenced off grassy area to have our loukoumades (these were being sold outside the stall areas). They, along with the souvlaki sellers, were making a roaring trade that night. In fact, these are the people that made the most money on that night - not the producers who were trying to introduce people to farmed snails, carob-flavoured rusks and olive oil soap bars. They may be the best products on the market, but they don't have that edge over a fragrant pork skewer and syrupy fried doughnut, which are cheap, filling and cheering.

The band at the fair had started to play Cretan music so it was getting a little too loud for us. The walk from the exhibition to the car took us through the harbour which was buzzing - and I mean literally jammed with people,  mainly tourists, as the Greeks were all at the fair. But there was no peace and quiet anywhere - it was just as noisy by the port, where a dance display could be heard across the waters on the other side.

We walked past the tangle of illegal traders all selling their home-made wares: beaded jewellery, portrait drawing, roast nuts, grilled corn - there was even a snake charmer, with what looked like a boa constrictor wrapped round her neck. Then there were the Pakistanis selling all sorts of Made-in-China gimmicks like laser torches, squishy neon toys and the like.  I've never seen the children trying to escape a walk by the harbour - they were totally put off. That's not how we like our Venetian port - we want it quiet and peaceful, so we can enjoy all the natural sights and sounds that it offers. The evening, it looked rather garish.

We took a side street and got out of the thick of the mob, walking past one full taverna after another - and more Greek music. Not the kind I listen to - the kind tourists like. Finally, Pireos St. And the car. It was a garish finish to our evening, and we couldn't wait to get home. We found the balcony breezy, the neighbourhood quiet (despite our deaf neighbour's TV being too loud again), and the house just as we had left it - waiting to welcome us back home after a tiring outing.

"Σπίτι μου, σπιτάκι μου*," my daughter said, as we soaked up the cool air of the evening while sitting on the balcony. Urban life is OK, but rural life is OKer. At such times, this is confirmed.

*Σπίτι μου, σπιτάκι μου - 'My home, my little home' = Home, sweet home.

It goes without saying that we have enough food to eat, and even if we did have to buy everything we ate, then I'd place a bet that we would have found legal ways to get as much as we could for free without resorting to Χρυσή Αυγή handouts. Dickensian Crete is simply a miscollocation. 

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