Sunday, 28 July 2013

The good life (Η καλή ζωή)

The BBC4 Food Programme on Frugal Food is to be aired today (12.32 GMT, 14.32 Greek time), for which I was recently interviewed. I'm not quite sure how it will use the ideas that came up in the discussion, as I notice that the web page does not link to my blog, only to the other (UK) bloggers who were also interviewed for the same programme (see comment). We shall find out soon enough...

If I were to pick one photograph from my vast collection (due to my blogging) that summarises the economic crisis, in food terms and on a personal basis, it would be this one:
The wood-fired heater would never have come into our home if the Greek recession had not turned into an economic crisis. As soon as we installed it in December 2011, we stopped pushing a button to heat the house, and got used to hoarding wood and fire starter material, carrying logs up one floor, clearing the ashes from the previous evening, sweeping away the remains, building a pyramid out of branches, twigs and paper, and having everyone sitting in the same room to keep ourselves warm until it was bedtime. Eventually, as the main cook in the house, I got acquainted with the flames from the wood fire, and I knew when the embers had cooled down just enough so that I could cook a meal in the oven compartment of the heater, and I quickly learnt to synchronise my food preparation with that moment. We rarely use liquid heating fuel now, like 85% of the population in Crete (being one of the warmest regions in Greece) who have switched to another form of heating in the winter.

During the very heavy cold winter of 2011-2012, when the effects of the economic crisis and the consequences of the enforced higher taxation of Greek citizens drove families to an unprecedented form of deprivation ever seen in modern times due to a lack of cash-flow, I began a Cheap'n'Greek'n'Frugal  series of posts that featured every Friday on my blog, to highlight how I try to overcome the problem of keeping my family well fed on high quality food that costs as little as possible. 
Thoroughly sickened by the derisive treatment that Greece and the Greek people were being given by the mass media abroad, who understood very little of what was going in Greece at the time, despite Greece being in the news - and actually, the centre of it - on a daily basis, I began a 'beat the crisis' frugal food' album from June 2011 in my facebook page, featuring home-made meals that cost me very little to make, whose quality could not compare with the daily meals of people living in the so-called richer Northern European countries, as a way to remind myself that Greece was being purposely misrepresented on a global scale.

The series of Cheap'n'Greek'n'Frugal posts began in January 2012 and ended in June 2012. This should not be viewed as a complete coincidence - our summer garden then started to provide us with so much food after that, that my (still cheap 'n' Greek 'n' frugal) food lost its economical appearance. But that is the advantage of living in a rural environment. Frugal living does not mean you live in a hovel like a hermit - it means you search for ways to curb your costs, prioritise your needs, and stretch the resources available to you. Urban frugal living involves the same principles, but they come in a different form. The media is biased by selectively covering and emphasizing the negative welfare effects of high food prices on urban consumers, because their rural counterparts supposedly 'have' food:
"The groups who usually respond politically with strikes, protests or riots to the negative income effects of food price changes are urban consumers, not rural farmers; it is easier to mobilize the urban populations who are already concentrated in the cities." (Yuksel, H. Mass Media and Food Crisis, MAICh research currently being studied)
The photo was taken in a highly urban area of Hania in mid-March 2013. It shows what looks like a messy garden with a lemon tree in the middle. Look more closely: behind the garden is a chicken coop - the chickens are barely visible, but one is sitting on top of a rabbit pen. The area where the animals are kept will be covered by a shady leafy grapevine by the middls of summer (that's what the dry branches are: a vine about to start growing leaves). Next to the garden on the right are the remains of a wood-chopping session. The house looks unkempt and rather poorly; I believe economic migrants are living here, and not the Greek owner. But that makes no difference to what the photo depicts: it illustrates the frugal urban life in times of adversity.
But no one is self-sufficient in the world we live in. Rural consumers buy food too, while their income is generally lower than urban consumers. The media (which is generally biased to start with) prefer to cover more negative than positive news because the 'bad news hypothesis' is more catchy.

Vegan eggplant pie with home-made filo (approximate cost: 1.50 euro)
I can create virtually any meal I want at very low cost, using the resources around me.
Taiwanese dumplings with home-made filo (approximate cost: 1 euro for 12 pieces; recipe forthcoming)
It sounds really easy to be frugal, when you have your own garden, doesn't it? You grow this and that, so you cook and eat it. But few people realise how small the variety range is when you eat what you grow. In summer, for example, we grow tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, corn, beans and vlita greens (which is English are called amaranth). So those are our vegetables throughout summer - we eat from that range for approximately a quarter of the year. Since I rarely buy vegetables from the stores, that means that I am prepareing meals from a very limited range of items. To make this diet palatable, that means that I must cleverly cook these vegetables in many different ways.

That's what being frugal is all about: using the resources around you as wisely as possible. For this reason, you rarely see recipes on my blog that involved expensive unusual fruit or vegetables - it's not really a frgual way to cook. But my recipes still bring out a wide variety of food types - I just invent different ways to use the same ingredients, so that the recipes rarely resemble each other, even though they are oftne made of the same things.
Ways with zucchini: you will find them in all the above dishes - with boiled greens, as the main ingreident in burger patties, as a dip and as cupcakes. Below is the king of Cretan zucchini dishes - boureki (with potato and cheese).
Below I list some of my articles about frugal food (and by extension, frugal living) that readers may find useful, to understand my own ideas about frugal food:
  • Frugal living - take a peek inside my fridge to see what I stock
  • Price comparisons of imported and local food in Hania
  • Imam baldi - a dish I make in summer using 99% home-grown produce
  • Tomato sauce - this is prepared to last me throughout the year until the next tomato season
  • Yiros - the Greek version of a Happy Meal
  • Lentil stew - a very Greek, very frugal and very much loved meal throughout Greece
  • Some photos taken at a private subsistence farm whose owners spend little money on food, other than to buy fresh fish, bread, staples like beans, rice and pasta, sugar, salt and coffee
If I were to forecast the economic situation, I would say that for most Greeks, 2013 was not much different from 2012, and 2014 looks set to continue in the same way. I will still continue to act like an ant, hoarding for the winter. But I can still sing like a cicada, even if it means waiting to do this in the winter; at least I do not have to compete with them. Even if the situation suddenly changed and things began to look brighter, I don't think my own lifestyle will change: once you start being frugal, it's difficult to shake it off. 

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