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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Ρεμπετομπλούζ (Greek blues)

Prologue
In Greece, there are many stories to tell every day. Sometimes, the stories of the day are unrelated, like the incidents you see taking place on the road, with different people as actors. But most stories eventually marry well with each other, despite the different actors. Here are three different incidents which tell the same story.

Beginning
Yesterday, I took my son to the police station to have his national identity card issued, now that he is of age. The office is run by civilians. I had to show my own identity card as a form of verification, because my son is a minor. The officer filled in some details on a piece of paper, then she asked me to hand the documents to her colleague on the other side of the room. The first clerk noticed that I was born in New Zealand.

"Don't you want to go back there?" (Blah, blah, blah - if you have been following this blog long enough, you will know the answer to that question.)

"I hate it here," she answered, something you least expect a state employee to tell you on the job.

"Are you from here?" I asked her, not sure how much prying I was going to be able to do. The uniformed police officers who issue passports in the same building do not exhibit such candidness and they are as humourless as one would expect people in their position to be.

"Yes, been here ever since I was nine," she said. "I was born in Australia, and I've always wanted to go back!" Typical Greek procrastination, I thought to myself. The woman was older than me, which means that she would have been 'stuck' here for at least 40 years!

"But why don't you like it here?" I asked her, wondering when she was going to tell me to shut up.

"Hania is the most beautiful city in Greece with the worst people," the other civilian piped up.

"Exactly!" her colleague agreed. "People in Hania have a very high opinion of themselves." There is a certain truth to that. People in Hania have much more money than other people in Greece, due to the combination of tourism and agriculture. When you are involved in some way in both fields (which is very common, due to the nature of employment in Hania), you should not find yourself out of pocket.

"Are you from here too?" I asked her.

"Yes, but I was raised in another city of Greece," she said. "And I wish I were still there. I had more genuine friendships there; people here are more interested in your finances than other aspects of your life." This has always been a problem of small town life anywhere. The main problem with Hania is that people are richer than other Greeks. Having been born outside Greece, I thought I should have my say in the discussion.

"The locals are very spoilt here, which causes their children to be equally badly behaved."

"Absolutely true!" both women said simultaneously. "We're full of rich business owners who charge the earth for what they sell, and they don't pay taxes!" They went on to explain to me that high ranking tax officers recently came down to Hania to do random checked. Apparently, the whole of Hatzimihali Yiannari St (a main shopping area in the town centre) is now in the poo.  

Middle
My son is regarded as a problem case in his Greek village school. I am told he daydreams in class, he is slow at copying form the blackboard, he doesn't always do his homework, and he disrupts the class. I never thought my child had serious social problems, until I was told that he kicked a smaller child (and made him cry, presumably). I wasn't surprised when the headmaster told me to see a child psychologist about this. As a conscious parent, I made an appointment with the appropriate health centre to have my child 'seen to', mainly as a way to show I am cooperating with the school.


The first meeting involved only the parents. On hearing the name of the (primary) school that my son attended, the psychologist said: "Oh, we have a lot of children coming from there - the headmaster sends them all the time."

From this, I gathered that I had just wasted my time, my husband's time, the psychologist's time and the state's resources, on trying to fix a most likely non-existent problem; even if there were a problem, the headmaster was simply passing the buck by avoiding the matter himself. Worse still, I have since discovered that the younger child my son had been in a fight with was recently suspended. And all that, from an insignificant Greek village school.

The consultation went on without a hitch. I felt supported throughout the discussion; the psychologist asked us if we wanted to bring our son back for a private consultation (without the parents - the second phase of the analysis). I agreed, as I feel this is the only way I can justify what I have been doing so far in trying to raise my children in a part of the world where irresponsibility reigns. The appointment has been scheduled but has not yet taken place.

End
While I was weeding the garden yesterday, a neighbour, who had heard the church bell toll in mourning style (she knew the deceased - a 96-year old woman from Smyrna), was wondering what time the funeral was going to take place. The notices are usually posted on the electricity pole near my house. Evgenia and I initially started chatting about the daily routines of nothing in particular, which eventually led to a discussion of Greece's current affairs; the crisis is a central focus in any discussion these days.

She told me about how her husband can't find work these days easily (he's a builder), the low pay he gets when he does find work ("anyone building these days is virtually doing it at bargain prices," she complained), her annoyance when her unemployed sons (in their 20s) complained about being roped into the olive harvest this year (they said they were tired after working the summer season at their uncle's restaurant), and the very high taxes we are now all paying,. Her biggest worry is watching her husband get stressed, which then streeses her out too.

"And why are we to blame for all this?" she exclaimed, supposing that I would agree with her (well, I suppose). Evgenia has been a housewife all her life, at a time when women her age were looking for hotel cleaning work - there are plenty in the area.

"Well... we knew what was happening, but we just watched," I started. She frowned and looked at me sympathetically.

"You were born abroad, so you could probably see it happening all along," she sighed. "But even so, we pay our taxes, and all the state does these days is ask us for more." Evgenia is right; we do pay our taxes indeed, and we know that if we don't, these debts will never disappear from our name.

"Δεν τα φάγαμε μαζί," she ended. She, like most Greeks, fails to understand that we are all in this together, and that we could easily find ourselves and everyone else around us to blame for the Greek mess if we simply thought about our actions as a reflection of the country, rather than a reflection of ourselves. Her husband had recently put up a sign near their house which I happened to notice (being the observant type) as soon as it went up:
FIREWOOD - 150/ton - 6912345678
The sign had come down as quickly as it had come up. I doubt he had sold all the firewood he had collected. He was probably reminded by someone that being so upfront with prices and cellphones could also mean that he may be caught by the taxman. In this day and age, you never know who is reporting you. And it is highly doubtful he intended to pay any tax on his profits. (On another note,  150/ton for firewood is 50 more than you'd pay at other places - what on earth was he thinking?)

I let Evgenia have her cry about the high taxes and electricity bills of all the properties they own, none of which are rented: a house to live in, another house the same size as their home where her mother lives alone, another over-sized house in another village near the sea, built on the pretext that they would go there to retire once their sons got married and inherited the other homes... all built and extended by her builder husband, in the days when life was really cheap and the taxman was in no rush. Just before she left, she asked me what classes my kids attended at school.

"I like your kids," she told me. "I watch them from the balcony of my house. They dabble in everything, don't they? I see them helping in the garden, carrying firewood, hanging around their dad in their garden, biking in the village. They look very street-wise, almost like small-sized adults in farmer's clothing. And they speak English with you, don't they? They're set up for the modern world already."



If you don't understand the lyrics (not even in translation), you probably need to add a bit of madness to your life.


Epilogue
Evgenia's observations have convinced me that I am at least taking the right direction; even though I am often surrounded by a lot of madness, greek stories like the ones I have related to you today encourage me to keep going.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Εργαζόμενος (Employed person)

εργαζόμενος: a person who is employed

My daughter came home form school on Monday and told me excitedly that there would no school on Wednesday, ie today, because it is the feast of the Three Hierarchs, regarded by the Greek Orthodox Church as the greatest teachers. According to the Greek state, this accords the status of a school holiday. Hence, all people working in the educational field get a day off work today.

She then asked me if I could take her to MAICh with me, but I told her that I would also be on holiday that day because MAICh is a Greek educational institute, which my daughter hadn't realised.

"But the headmaster said that it isn't a holiday for εργαζόμενοι," she said.

"Next time he says that, ask your headmaster if he is an εργαζόμενος," I replied.

Where's the spinach?
Ah, there's the spinach!

The way the headmaster explained the holidays to the children (and not the holiday itself) is just another side to the Greece of two speeds.

This mid-week break was a good day for weeding the garden. After torrential downpours from the night before, the weeds were like putty in my hands.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Greek graffiti (Γκράφιτι)

Some people think of graffiti as a social curse, a form of vandalism. Others regard it as a form of expression, especially among people who do not have at their disposal many other ways to say/do something and be heard/seen. Graffiti is also an art form, and it has always had a place in urban societies. It adds a certain vibrancy to the often dull concrete, glass and steel environment of the city.


VOLOS 2011: "Life doesn't have a GPS, baby" - something to keep in mind when plans fall through.

I've heard many people, both from Greece and abroad, complain about the amount of graffiti they see in Greece, as it is a very common sight everywhere. It can look kind of ugly when splashed over public buildings, because it is defacing. While in Athens, my son was fascinated by the metro trains, very few of which had been left untouched by graffiti artists. I quite liked them too: they made the trains look 'happy'. In an austerity driven economic climate, they seemed to give off a better image than the regimental-looking orange-grey design which seems to have no place in a city like Athens, with her bright sunshine and in a city whose international reputation has been smothered by the few gangsters that get all the attention, while the majority keeps calm and carries on.


PELION 2011: "Our grandfathers were refugees, our fathers were immigrants, and we are racists" - racism has grown exponentially  during the economic crisis: immigrants are regarded by some as the problem.

Because of the ease with which Greek graffiti can come up all of a sudden (lack of policing, increase in  crisis-related vandalism, inefficient preventive action), this form of expression has also become an important form of communication. A phrase or two, as short as a cellphone txtmsg, often provides a succinct proclamation that communicates a mood and reveals a widespread feeling.


PELION 2011: "So it's back to the shit" - a sign of resignation and defeat.

Graffiti often carries potent messages. Sometimes those messages can sound extremist, but that should not be surprising. Graffiti is a representation of extremism. Graffiti writers do not perform their trade in full view of the public, even though their hangouts are public spaces. Graffiti writers go about their business surreptitiously, when they know they will not be seen. They spray under the cloak of darkness to make sure that their work will be seen in the light of the day.


ATHENS 2013: "Goal and a beating" - a recurrent theme in team soccer, akin to saying that you play to win, and if you don't win, you turn to violence. This graffiti appeared near the entrance to the OAKA installations, where I had previously seen some staff working on the grounds, keeping them clean. The next morning, at the entrance to the grounds , I noticed an upturned trashcan on what appeared to be spotless grounds right in front of the metro station. Someone had just kicked it over, presumably on purpose, with complete disregard for the efforts of others to keep the area clean, and the desires of others to be able to enjoy a public space with respect. 

When this form of communication is used as a weapon, as in the case where the graffiti writer put it in his mind (and they are usually male) to enforce an opinion or a state, we always have to remember that graffiti writers are in the minority and they don't really express the society in general. They live in hope, in similar ways that we do.

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Monday, 28 January 2013

Rumex obtusifolius - Dock (Λάπαθα)

Dock (also known as sorrelRumex obtusifolius)) is known as λάπαθα (LA-pa-tha) in Greece. It's a common plant found growing in lone clumps in fields. The splotched leaves have a sour lemony taste. They grow quite long which makes them useful for making winter dolmadakia, when fresh grape vine leaves aren't available. I was first introduced to them by an aunt who foraged them in the village where she lived. It is popularly sold throught the cooler months. I buy some occassionally from the same place I buy my wild horta at the street market.

I was lucky to find a clump of dock growing in both our orange orchard (bottom centre) and home garden (right). The land is often turned in the garden, making weeds disappear for a couple of seasons before they reappear; the orchard isn't fenced, so I thought another forager would get to them first. I looked around for more sorrel in both fields, but I didn't find any.

The lady at the stall is quite a character. As I approach her stall, she calls out to me, boasting about the high quality of her wares: "Come, my girl, buy some horta for your kalistounia!" When I ask her for a bag, she tells me that I can fill it myself. When I ask her why there are chard leaves (which we grow in our garden) on top of the wild horta, she says it's to stop the horta from wilting. "You pick whatever you want, dear," she tells me. But there are also chard leaves at the bottom of the pile too; she says they got there by accident. When I start to turn the horta on the table to find the species I want, she asks me gruffly: "What are you looking for?" So I tell her I want petrokare and akournopodi and she searches in her crates for clumps of those species. 
The sorrel leaves I found were too small to make into dolmadakia, so I used them in a spanakopita for more flavour. I bought some large sorrel leaves from the street market to make dolmadakia.

When she finds them, she chucks them hard on top of the other wild aromatic horta (€4/kg) and turns away to deal with another customer. I keep filling my bag and then wait my turn for her to weigh it. She comes back and grabs my bag. I make sure to remind her I only want half a kilo of greens today. She throws it on the scales and tells me it's more than half a kilo. I ask her how much it costs; without taking any greens out of the bag, she says: "€2, that's how much you wanted to spend, isn't it?" I laugh, and give her €2. 
To flavour my dolmadakia, I added a mixture of wild and cultivated greens growing in the garden: wild carrot, borage, fennel, hartwort and (cultivated) parsley. I rolled the stuffed dock leaves into triangles, which requires a technique (click here) like rolling filo pastry into cheese pie triangles.

Then I pick up a pack of lapatha, which are sold in bunches without the stem, with the tops and bottoms tied together with a rubber band. Dock leaves are a prized green, and are therefore sold separately from other horta species (rarely mixed in with them). The lady at the stall senses another purchase: "Take some lapatha, dear, add them to your kalitsounia." I see the sign at the front: ΛΑΠΑΘΑ €0.80. I decide to take them and give her €1. I tell her to keep the change.
I ran out of dock leaves when there were about 4 tablespoons of rice stuffing left. So I used another leaf I'd harvested when I visited my uncles' farm: pak choi, from a gift of seeds I had given them.

"No," she says, "you take your change," and she comes back with €0.20, but I waive it away. As I do, she frowns, and grabs another bunch of lapatha, stuffing them into my bag before I have time to protest. I walk away from her stall thanking her.



You can see the dock leaves in the white bucket in both the photos.

"See you next week," I call out as I leave the stall.

The milk of dock leaves is said to have been used regularly in the past to relieve the sting from nettles. Did they know they could eat the leaves afterwards?

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Sunday, 27 January 2013

Sonchus oleraceus - Common sowthistle (Ζωχος - Tσοχος)

With money scarce, and many commitments to be met with the meagre amounts we make in a high-needs world, we all like to get something for free. This morning, as soon as I saw a break in the rainy weather, I got into the garden to harvest enough greens to last us throughout the week in different meals. Apart from a hearty-looking red cabbage, I found some chickweed, borage, a few sprigs of wild carrot weed and plenty of tender leafy Sonchus oleraceus, otherwise known as the common sowthistle (ζωχος or τσοχος in Greek).


An overgrown sowthistle
Sowthistle is the commonest wild-growing edible green that you will find in almost all places around the world which receive at least a little sunlight and plenty of rain. It even grows in lawns, and in some countries, it's considered an invasive species (I'd hate to think how they control it - foragers, beware). It's easy to confuse it with dandelion, hawskbeard and hawkweed, and this should not be surprising (or worrying), since all these plants are highly related, belonging to the same tribe, the Chicorieae, which is where we get the word 'chicory' from.  I am pretty sure my harvest is all sowthistle, because I have it growing in all stages of maturity in my garden, which helps in its identification.

Sonchus oleraceus had a variety of medicinal uses in ancient Greece. Various parts of the plant were used to stimulate menstrual flow, alter liver function, stimulate fluid elimination, stall defecation and combat cancer, warts, inflammation and fever.

Sowthistle is a very bland but sweet-tasting green which can be used in a variety of ways by Greeks all over the country: boiled and dressed with olive oil, braised and cooked lightly in olive oil, finely chopped and added to pies. It's used in the same way as spinach. Generally speaking, we don't eat it raw - it is uninteresting and may be bitter in this way. I've seen it used rather like lettuce in Western vegetarian recipes. Because sowthistle is not cultivated and grows in the wild, blanching the leaves is highly recemmended because it gets rid of any chance contamination (eg animals may have peed on it). 

But if you appreciate cooking in the Greek style, you will cook sowthistle and not eat it raw. After clearing the roots of dirt and grit, you then wash your greens well. The next thing I do with any greens that I buy or forage in the wild is to set a large pot of water to boil. When the water starts boiling, I place all the greens in, pushing them down and turning them with a ladle. The water will stop boiling from the addition of cold leaves; when it starts boiling again, I drain away all the water and rinse the greens one more time. This clears away any dirt that you might have missed, and any other contaminants, which you can see resting in the water. Once you've done that, you are ready to use your sowthislte. 

My favorite way to eat sowthistle is to boil it till soft, by placing it in the pot again, poring water into the pot over the greens and letting the pot boil again, till the roots are tender. I don't stir the pot much so that teh leaves don't disintegrate. You will notice how nice your kitchen is smelling as the greens boil. The smell of sowthistle in particular reminds me of my mother's kitchen because sowthistle was a very common green New Zealand and she cooked it often. We would have boiled potatoes and broad beans with it. All the greens, beans and potatoes would be dressed with olive oil, lemon and salt. In other islands like Rhodes, an accompaniment called sivrasi is a must for all boiled horta.

I often hear it said that greens lose their nutrient value when they are cooked intensively, but there cannot be very much truth in this, since Cretans have always cooked their greens in this way and the studies of their longevity rates during times of poverty and little material wealth are due to their eating greens in this way.


An added bonus of cooking Chicorieae is that the water in which they boiled makes an extremely refreshing tes, hot or cold. Remove the greens from the pot and place in a serving vessel. Then strain the liquid in the pot and pour into a bottle. This tea will keep two days in the fridge. It's great with a sprig of mint and/or a slice of lemon.

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Saturday, 26 January 2013

Identifying wild greens in the Cretan landscape

This post has taken me more than four years to write.

Foraging is a time-consuming activity, mainly the domain of older people who live in rural areas. Our work schedules don't give us the chance to be out in the fields very often these days, which is why my skills become rusty from one forage to the next. It took me a long time to feel confident about foraging for wild greens (we call them χόρτα - HOR-ta) in the Cretan countryside. At any rate, most people have a garden near their homes these days, so we can grow what we want to eat close to our house. And as I discovered over the last decade that I began to take an active role in gardening and learning the art of foraging, many of those 'wild greens' that I was picking in fields are also found among our crops: they are in fact 'common garden weeds'!
 A mixture of herbs and greens harvested in our olive grove, early January 2013.
Wild greens are basically plants that grow uncultivated in all sorts of places, ranging from roadsides to open fields. They have been an important part of the Cretan diet throughout the centuries, receiving the most attention during the time of the post-war studies concerning the Mediterranean diet. Although foraging for horta may sound like an old-fashioned activity, it is in fact still very popular. Wild greens still form a significant part of the diet in Crete, judging from the fact that these greens are collected in the wild, sold at the supermarket, the greengrocer's and the street market, and commanding high prices.

Harvests from our fields, early January 2013
I began taking a more active interest in foraging when I first started making spanakopita and kalitsounia for the family. I often bought wild greens to complement the flavours of my spinach-based pies; many wild greens are highly aromatic, and can be used both as a salad ingredient or herb. But I realised that I was actually paying for many horta that I could have picked straight from my garden, as well as during our visits to our olive groves and orange orchards. My biggest problem was that I didn't know the names of these edible greens, so I felt uncomfortable about picking something for eating, whose name I didn't know. This is despite the fact that I knew it was edible! But I am not alone in not knowing what all these horta are called:
"There are more than 100 edible horta (wild greens) on Crete although even the most knowledgeable would not recognise more than a dozen." (Lonely Planet Guide to Crete, by Victoria Kyriacopoulos)
A good starting point to learning about edible wild greens is to buy some when you see them being sold. Different greens are sold in different seasons. They aren't always sold separately according to species. You will most likely find them being sold in mixed lots. If they are being sold as a separate species, they are most likely not wild greens; they are cultivated, grown from sowing seeds. Since various species often grow together, a professional picker will harvest them at the same time. Although they can be separated, the truth is that the whole process is very time-consuming: as soon as horta are picked, they need to be cleared of dirt, and taken to the market for selling as soon as possible. Not only do they lose their nutrient values if they are not consumed soon after picking, but they also lose their freshness and vitality, so that they won't be suitable for eating. But the fact that they are being sold in all kinds of markets shows the value people place on horta. Once you are familiar with what is being sold, you can start looking for them yourself in the wild. It is also possible to start growing them in your own garden. A number of species that were once found only in the wild are now becoming cultivated. However, not all species have become domesticated, so you will still have to forage or buy them.   

Mixed greens for boiling or braising; most are chicory species, mid-January 2013
You really need an old person to help you to tell apart the various species, and to have a final say on what is edible and what isn't. You can also ask the person who is selling them to you to tell you the names of the wild species. In many cases, you will realise that even they don't know the names of all these greens - they just know that they are edible. To take my mother-in-law as an example, it's been a long time since she involved herself in this work and she claims to have forgotten their names, but she can still tell me if something I picked is one of the edible species she used to forage pre-1956 when she left the village and moved to an urban area! I got a better response from a middle-aged woman at the laiki (street market) who is still actively foraging and selling her harvests at the street market. The tips of her fingers are black from picking; she knows her stuff well. She had also separated the species into boiling/braising greens (for hot salads with extra virgin olive oil) and aromatic/herb greens (for chopping finely and adding to pies), selling the aromatic ones at a higher price than the salad greens. I've also seen this in some of the fresh product specialty groceries in the town, which sell mainly foraged greens.

A mix of highly aromatic greens, added finely chopped to pies and pasties: mid-January 2013
Another added difficulty in identifying horta is that the same species have different common names in different places. Even if you think you know the name of the species, don't be surprised if people from another region have a different name for it: the drive from Iraklio to Rethimno is only about an hour or so long, but the dialects differ immensely, and the same common name is not used in the two areas - Hania will probably use a different name altogether! Then there is the scientific name, which is sometimes the same generic one for horta that look different. Wild greens for eating are picked at a very early stage in the growth of the plant, so you have to know the different growing stages of each species: the young stage when the tender shoots rise from the soil, the middle stage when the plant stem toughens, and the later stage when the plant blooms. This is why it is difficult to identify wild greens from books - there are never enough photographs shown, to help you recognise them at the right stage for picking. They are usually shown in their blossom stage, which looks completely different to their picking stage. Some of these wild greens remind you of pretty flowers in their mature stage, so again you think of them as ornamental plants rather than edibles. By that time, it is too late to pick them and you have to remember what they looked like and where you picked them for the following year!

Domesticated greens, January 2013
It should be pointed out that wild greens are different from wild herbs, and they are used in a different way. Greens can be eaten as a salad, most often boiled, whereas herbs are used in small quantities simply to add flavour to a recipe. Not all greens are wild: many greens that we eat are domesticated, eg lettuce, endives, beet leaves, cabbage, etc. Books on wild herbs abound. So do book on greens. But books on wild greens do not. Be wary of this when you see a book collocating the words 'Crete' with the word 'greens' in the title. It may be all about domesticated, rather than wild greens.

Through my work at MAICh, I've been very lucky to come across some scientific articles about the edible horta of Crete. I also have access to old out-of-print books written by Cretan scholars that list wild greens and herbs found in Crete, namely: Συμβολή εις των δημώδη ορολογίαν των φυτών (Ευαγγελία Κ. Φραγκάκι, 1969) and Φυτά και Βότανα της Κρήτης (Ιωάννη Ε. Χαβάκη, 1978). They do not contain photographs, nor do they use scientific names, so they are of little use to the amateur. They were written in the style of folklore narration, and they are interesting to read for historical reference.

One of the most popular cookbooks on Cretan cuisine is that of Maria and Nikos Psillakis: "Cretan Cooking: The Miracle of the Cretan Life and Cuisine." First published in Greek in 1995, it is a sellout among tourists in various languages. A small list of the more common wild greens is included in the ΧΟΡΤΑ-ΛΑΧΑΝΙΚΑ (Greens-Vegetables) chapter: black nightshade (στίφνος), nettle (τσουκνίδα), mallow (μολόχα), sorrel (λάπαθα), amaranth (βλήτα), chicory (ραδίκι),  brighteye (γαλατσίδα), purslane (γλιστρίδα), vetch (παπούλες), golden thistle (ασκολίμπροι), king's spear (δρύλοι) and avronies, a kind of wild asparagus. A number of greens that were once considered wild at the time the book was written are now being cultivated, namely spiny chicory (σταμναγκάθι). But there is no attempt (at least in my own Greek 6th edition pubished in 1998) to name the less common - and "purely wild" because they haven't yet been domesticated - wild species. As stated above, few people feel confident enough to name them reliably. 

All these wild greens came from my garden yesterday: sorrel, hartwort, three kinds of chicory, wild carrot, nettle, mallow, borage, chickweed, and one unnamed species (that I know is edible). I've included clover; it isn't used in the same way as the others but clover is used as a sour flavouring in countries where lemons are hard to come by. About a decade ago, a Lebanese student told me that when she couldn't get hold of lemon, she'd flavour her tabbouleh with clover. In Greek, the common name of clover is ξυνό (xino), which means 'sour'. 
One of the earliest scientific studies carried out in Crete on the subject of wild greens was conducted by Trichopolou et al. (Food Chemistry 70 (2000) 319-323), focusing on the "Nutritional composition and flavonoid content of edible wild greens and green pies: a potential rich source of antioxidant nutrients in the Mediterranean diet". This study helped establish the significance of wild greens in the Cretan diet to the outside world:
"A traditional village of Crete was visited ... in mid-April 1997 and with the valuable guidance and help of the women of the village, 13 different types of edible wild greens were collected. These greens were used for the preparation of the traditional Cretan green pies, which were studied. Cretan green pies are small half-moon shaped pastry filled with a mixture of wild greens and fried in virgin olive oil. According to the local recipe, the finely chopped wild greens are not boiled but cooked with plenty of virgin olive oil and only a little water for approximately an hour at a medium temperature. They are then left to cool and drain before filling the pastry.

Those "traditional Cretan green pies" are what we call here in Crete "kalitsounia"
Fried kalitsounia
Baked kalitsounia









"[Seven of the wild greens and the traditional Cretan green pies] were analyzed for their nutritional composition and  flavonoid content, in particular  flavonols and  flavones. A high nutritional value and a low energy value characterize the wild greens. These wild greens have a very high flavonol content when compared with regular fresh vegetables, fruits and beverages commonly consumed in Europe. Rumex obtusifolius was found to contain twice the amount of quercetin contained in onions. Two pieces of Cretan green pie (100 g) contain approximately 12 times more quercetin than one glass of red wine (100 ml) and three times more quercetin than a cup of black tea (200 ml). Wild greens potentially are a very rich source of antioxidant  flavonols and  flavones in the Greek diet.

The greens that were studied in by Trichopoulou et al. are the following:
Fennel - μάραθο (maratho - Foeniculum vulgare Mill)
Wild leek (chive) - αγριόπρασο (agriopraso - Allium schoenoprasm)
Sowthistle - τσόχος (zochos, a kind of chicory - Sonchos oleraceus L.)
Hartwort - καυκαλύθρα (kaukalithra - Tordylium apulum)
Corn poppy - κουτσουνάδα (koutsounada - Papaver rhoeas L.)
Sorrel/Dock - λάπαθο (lapatho - Rumex obtusifolius L.)
Queen Anne's Lace - σταφυλάνικας (stafilinakas - Daucus carota)

And that's roughly what I find in the mixed bags in the markets, as you can see in the following photos.
















Clockwise, starting from top left:  petrokare - wild celery (???), maratho - fennel weed: Foeniculum vulgare, agriopraso - wild leek: Allium scoenoprasm, mixed wild greens, radiki - chicory: Chicorium intybus, stafilanikas wild carrot; harvested in January 2008

This study was followed up by Vardavas et al. (Food Chemistry 99(4) 822-834on the "Lipid concentrations of wild edible greens in Crete" who list the scientific and common Greek names of 48 species of wild Cretan greens. The scientists collected the wild greens between mid-January and early March in 2002 from Iraklio, Rethimno and Lassithi, from various villages, up to a height of 1200m. They compared the vitamin and antioxidant properties of these wild species: carotenoid (lutein and b-carotene), vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), total polyphenols, ctocopherol, a-tocopherol and phylloquinone (vitamin K1) contents, with 6 commonly cultivated vegetables in Crete: lettuce varieties, artichokes, broad beans, beets and spinach. The results showed that wild greens often contained higher levels of protective vitamins and minerals than regular cultivated crops. What's more, some species from Italy and Spain had lower polyphenol content compared to the Cretan varieites of the same plants, while the same species from different regions of Crete also exhibited differences, possibly due to environmental factors. The general conclusions of the study are as follows:
"The traditional diet of Crete, which is high in local greens, whether eaten with olive oil in salads, in pies or other recipes, plays an important role in the health of the elderly and rural population of Crete. According to our study of 48 wild and 6 cultivated greens of Crete, the wild Cretan greens are rich sources of vitamin C, K, E and carotenoids, and capable of significantly contributing to the RDA needs of the population. In most cases, it was found that the wild greens had higher micronutrient content than those cultivated."

A study aiming to identify the level of biodiversity in 500-year-old olive groves, conducted by the LIFE+ Biodiversity CENT.OLI.MED. project, revealed a very high level of biodiversity. With the help of an older member of the community who was very familiar with the area, 106 plants were found on one single plot in an ancient olive grove in a village (approx. 500m altitude) in Hania. Of the 106 plants, 27 species were found to be edible, and widely used in the local cuisine, whereas many plants were found to have aromatic or pharmaceutical values. 

edible weeds
Click on the photo for detials - May 2008
No wonder these wild greens are sold in many places throughout the town to non-rural dwellers. People know their value. I still buy some wild greens, picking through the mixed assortment in the grocer's crate, to take only the ones I need, as a number of species can be found in my garden. My absolute favorite wild green which can be used in both braised greens and pies is 'akournopodi' (Oenanthe pimpinelloides) andsomethig called 'petrokare' whose scientific name I don't know - it looks like wild celery. The greens I include here are not a definitive list, and this post won't really help you unless you get stuck into foraging yourself, getting your fingers dirty and examining your finds carefully. Once you use these greens in your spanakopita and kalitsounia, you will think the effort was worth it after all.


Akournopodi is the shiny green plant at the bottom centre.
Petrokare is the large leaf (attached to a stalk) on the right-hand side.

Different wild greens are available in each season. Some wild edible species resemble wild inedible (and possibly toxic) species. Always check if the area you are foraging in has been sprayed with pesticides. Roadsides will most likely be polluted by car fumes. Bear in mind that you may be trespassing if the field is not your own; owners don't want guests carting away what they see as their property, and the local villagers don't enjoy seeing strangers picking wild greens in their area. You may want to park your car far enough away from their suspicious eyes, so that you don't come back to flat tyres; foraging for wild greens carries similar connotations as with truffle harvesting in France. Olive groves that are located in hilly fields and undisturbed areas, far away from roads, are the best places for foraging because of the greater degree of biodiversity found in the area; the less tampering with the land, the more species growing on it. Another good place is old 
ξερολιθιές (xerolithies - dry stone walls)These places are less likely to be polluted with chemicals or contaminated by toxic substances. If you think flocks of goats and sheep pass through the area, you may want to think twice about collecting greens that may have been pissed on. If you see spray cans attached to fences around fields, it means one of two things: either the owner has sprayed the area with chemicals and is warning you not to forage; or the owner has not sprayed the area with chemicals and is simply trying to scare you away from foraging in his field. You forage at your own risk. The usual forager's/mushroomer's rule applies when picking something from the wild: if in doubt, throw it out. 

vikos vicia sativa fournes hania chania
Click on the photo for more details - May 2009
The task of foraging wild greens does not stop once you pick them - they require copious efforts at the post-harvest stage, as you clear them of dirt and grit, wash and dry them, before they are ready for use. For best storage practices, don't wash them until just before you use them - they keep well in their own soil with the root (which is usually very nutritious) in the fridge, wrapped up in newspaper and placed in a plastic bag.

And above all, good luck in your search for horta. Only experience will help you to become a better forager.

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Friday, 25 January 2013

To die for

Some visitors from Northern Europe had arrived at MAICh this week, and looked a little lost. They were headed by a stout Greek bilingual male who seemed to need some help in finding a particular place on the campus, right at the moment I was passing along.
- Where are the stone houses? he asked me.

- They're just behind the Poseidon building, I said, pointing in the direction they wanted to go.
Poseidon

- Are you Greek? he asked me.

- Yes, I am.

- You don't sound Greek. I am never really aware of how accented my spoken Greek is.

- Well, I was born overseas but my parents were Greek.

- Overseas? Where exactly?

- New Zealand.

- New Zealand? It must be nice there.

- Yes, it is, but it's nice here too.

Just then, a young red-haired man who was leading the group with the stout Greek man came forward. I noticed how much the other group members were smiling. The day was sunny, not at all cold and only a light breeze was blowing.
The photo was taken at the celebration of the cutting of the Vasilopita.

- Yes, it certainly is nice here, he said, in near faultless, but highly accented Greek. That's why I live here too.

- You're not from here? I asked him.

- I'm from Sweden, and I've been here ten years, and I don't want to leave Crete, ever. I want to die here.

That man looked younger than me. I hope he lives a long enough time to enjoy Crete.

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Thursday, 24 January 2013

Plant-based meal

A completely plant-based meal is effectively a vegan meal.



Not that anyone in my house is vegan; home-made vegan sausages simply taste really good, and you tend to eat a lot more in quantity when you eat only plant-based food.

Sorry about the blurry photo: boiled beetroot, bread, vegan sausages, avocado dip, boiled potaotes, and red wine.

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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Materialism (Υλισμός)

Dear Linux/Ubuntu/Chrome (to whom it may concern), the word 'Zealand' does actually exist, it always collocates with 'New' and I do not wish to 'add' it to my own personal list of non-standard spellings or idiosyncratic vocabulary. The alternative spellings offered ('Zeal and', 'Zeal-and', 'Dreamland') are unsatisfactory. 

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a mother of a child at the fencing club. We had not met before, and we did not know much about each other in the first place; only our children's activities brought us together. My Greek accent (as usual) was the instigation to a deeper conversation about 'different' children, the kind that don't go with the usual flow (I like to describe them as the kind that create streams from rivers).

"You're raising them without materialistic values," she noted. I have to admit that she left me speechless with this statement. It's not something that Greeks would first notice about me, and if they do, they will think there is something wrong with you if you are not materialistic (eg you are poor, uncultured, strange, etc). Material comforts are very important to Greek people, and this is mainly why Greece is in crisis now. The pre-crisis social class system in Greece placed a lot of people in the classic middle class, who would never have been categorised in this way had they been living in another Western country. 

Of course, there is a minimum of material comforts that we all need to make our lives easier, but we take these comforts for granted because we think they are 'standard' fixtures everywhere: running water in an in-house kitchen and bathroom, electricity, a phone line, an internet connection, a fridge and washing machine, a separate room to prepare and cook food. These things are seen as 'normal' in the Western world. In mountain villages of Crete, these things only came, one by one, since the 1980s, while internet connections aren't yet possible everywhere; some people still live with outhouse toilets.

What the other mother meant was that I'm trying to raise my children by making them realise that nothing will come to them easily. We don't buy things just because other people buy them. Buying things means spending money - if we don't include something in our budget, it has to be negotiated. Just because other children have a play station in their home, or a cell phone in their pocket, is not a reason for it to come into my own children's home or pocket. If that were the case, then I shouldn't have an internet connection at home; most of my children's classmates don't have one (they buy pre-paid limited-use card units). 

The discussion with the other mother reminded me of a Greek friend who has been talking to me about emigrating to New Zealand. He feels he can't offer a middle class life anymore to his family in Greece, despite having his own home and virtually all the creature comforts a low-income person living in a non-Western country could dream of. But there is one thing holding him back: he's been offered what he feels is a low salary there, something in the range of $NZ100,000. 

$NZ100,000? It sounded like a lot of money to me. My friend explained that it wasn't feasible to cover his living expenses without his wife working, and they want to start a family.  I don't know how much the average salary is in New Zealand, or the average cost of living or even what expenses are involved in living in New Zealand these days, as things will have changed very much since my time there, and anyway I wasn't a home or car owner while I lived there. But $NZ100,000 sounds a like a lot of money to me. Converted to euro, it's something like €63,000, which is twice my own home's combined income! Can I really not live well on this amount?

I know I'm not highly materialistic, which is probably why I can live with much less money than most people. But my understanding is that I actually have more money than these very materialistic people, probably due to the fear of 'a rainy day'. I also notice that these people aren't very frugal anyway. They often complain about not having enough money, but their spending habits don't seem to indicate that. 

If you own your own home, are happy to drive an old car, don't take your kids to unnecessary frontistiria, use the car economically (during times of high prices per litre - it's €1.73 at the moment), buy treats occasionally, pay for occasional trips to the doctor (I don't wait for the 'free' state services of EOPPY to solve my health problems), book 1-2 weeks away from home on a low-budget holiday, and cancel the holiday if you do home renovations, you can raise a family quite happily in Greece on €30,000. We have a garden because we like to plant a garden; it's a nice hobby. We cook at home a lot because it's healthier and cheaper. We don't have gym subscriptions, we don't rush off to the hairdresser's as soon as our fringes grow, we don't indulge in consumeristic spending sprees, we don't spend unnecessarily on accessories and clothes, we don't buy to-go coffees on a regular basis, we don't leave the house without filling up a water bottle, we don't plan to install a swimming pool on our property. For all these 'necessities', there are frugal substitutes.

If I wanted to emigrate, I'd do it only if I could live better than I already do where I am. I don't think I can do this by making a similarly 'low' income like the one we make in Greece. Thinking back to my time in New Zealand, I'd be worried about the stress level it would cause me if I couldn't keep up with the Jones. Not that I'm keeping up with them here either, but I notice how important some things are to others: Does it matter that my children's bedding doesn't have a cartoon character? And if it did, is it important to have the full range (not just the sheets, for example)? Who really cares if my car is a Hyundai and not a Lexus? Am I really a scrooge for not going to the cinema and waiting for the DVD to come out? Do I really need the full colour range of the same scarf to go with all my coats? (Isn't 1-2 coats enough to have?) What does it really say about me if I don't have a cable TV connection? It's just not easy to be middle class anywhere these days - we had it too easy in Greece for too long on this one. It's all a matter of personal happiness. 

This does not mean to say that my children do not ask me for things. They say that they need things that I feel they can do without. But most kids do that anyway. I notice that the more we discuss this issue in our house, the less likely they are to make unnecessary demands. I bought them a Nexus 7 for Christmas, the most expensive present I've ever bought them in my life. We talked about it for at least three months. They have understood that this is the only present they will get for the whole year and maybe longer. They don't yet get pocket money, and they don't have close relatives in Crete that shower them with presents (probably as a result of the combination of a lack of grandparents and having older parents).

My friend says it isn't easy to discard materialism when this is what you have been used to all your life, especially when your parents raised you on it. If you've been exposed to life in a big city, living on the idea that you can have whatever you want by using your disposable income, then it's difficult to change your standards. It's difficult not to fall into the traps of consumerism, especially if you've never been through this phase. We all have our consumeristic moments. In a way, the crisis is forcing people to be more frugal, but it will take a long time for people to pass on these changes to the next generation. 

On a personal note, I had a very materialistic mother. She died young, and I was left with all her crockery, cutlery, kitchen tools, pots, pans, blankets, sheets, tablecloths, napkins and I can't think of what else I have of hers that reminds me of her materialism. My mother's materialism made me condemn it. I could have discarded all the mismatched old-fashioned dinner plates, but I chose to keep them. For this reason, I didn't need to buy much when I began living on my own. Even when I moved into a home with my husband, I still kept them. I didn't need the expense of creating a new home. This is why my home furnishings don't look modern, and this is also the reason why my Greek home looks unique among the rest. And no, we will not buy a Nexus 8 to replace the Nexus 7 (or whatever the next edition will be called).  

*** *** ***
I told the other mother that I thought she was really quite clever to realise this about my family in such a short time of having met me, and I asked her if she was born and raised here. She told me she was from another Greek island and came to live in Hania when she got married; she has spent all her life  in Greece.

"But you do have a different air to your way of thinking," I said.

"It must have been something in the water," she joked.

I doubted that. It must have been something to do with the people that raised her.

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Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Urban cuisine (Aστική κουζίνα)

Have you noticed the preponderance of product placement in Greek cookery programmes, showcasing Philadelphia cream cheese and Oreos biscuits? LIDL supermarket sponsors another one and Lacta chocolate is going to the big screen...

I can't say I miss going out for a taverna meal because I know I cook the same kind of food as what you will find in a traditional Greek taverna in Crete. This provides some comfort to me, because I know I don't really need to go out to have such a meal, and besides, it's cheaper to cook the same meal at home. What I'd really like to be able to do is to go out for a cheap meal to a place where I can order and enjoy the kind of meal I don't often cook at home, something like a Chinese or Indian meal. Not that this is going to happen any time soon; although there are new eateries opening up on a regular basis in the town, they don't necessarily look as thought they are going to serve anything novel that I can't prepare at home more cheaply.
Meals on the overnight ferry from Hania to Athens: you can choose between Greek and global cuisine, but there is more of the latter than the former, and even when you do try to choose the former, it is not really 'authentic' for want of a better word. Potatoes are always pre-cut, rice is par-boiled and bread is made from ready-made dough (ie it is not bought fresh from a bakery). Price is the main indicator in the food choices of the ship's owners. The bun shape in the photo is never - ever! - sold in Hania, even though this ferry boat is owned by a Hania-based firm (it must be cheaper). Sun-dried tomatoes never appear in a Cretan taverna menu, nor does halloumi cheese (which turned out to have fake grill marks on it, made by BBQ sauce). Apart from the youvarlakia and tzatziki, everything else on the trays in the photo could have appeared in any part of the world. On a monopoly such as the ferry boat, I paid €26 for what you see pictured above.

Haniotes never really had a chance to experience cheap international cuisine, and I think this phase of social growth and mind-broadening is going to bypass us completely. International food is expensive to reproduce in Crete; despite the abundance of fresh products on the island, it's not easy to substitute certain tastes. I'm lucky enough to have had the chance to enjoy not just this kind of food, but also the atmosphere involved in eating such meals, throughout my travels. Most Cretans have never experienced a "food court", for example. Meals out are definitely changing, even in a stalwart traditional Mediterranean town like Hania, but they aren't going towards international food - they are going towards global food.
My first meal in Athens comprised a fixed menu (included in the price of the hotel - special pre-arranged reduced group rate of €30pp/pn, sharing in a double room) at the hotel Civitel Attik. Note the lack of any real Greek look to the salad which was flavoured with balsamic (not red wine) vinegar, the bread served with the main meal (exactly the same bun as on the ferry boat), the potatoes served with their skin, the turmeric-flavoured rice and the boneless chicken. 


The only place I've seen anything resembling a food court in Greece is at a shopping centre, close to the hotel where we were staying. You could choose any meal from a range of international choices, including crepes (~ 3.50), rolls and sandwiches, burgers, ice-cream, frozen yoghurt, elaborate coffees and all sorts of other 'to-go' food and drink stalls lining the dining area. The Far East stall (visible on the right of Everest) was the only 'international' cuisine on offer that differed from the regular European/American 'global' food.


During last weekend's trip to Athens, I had many opportunities where I was able to try food that I don't normally eat or cook at home. Even though I was still in Greece, I found that I had far fewer opportunities to eat food that I could truly categorise as a Greek meal. Save Friday night's ship journey (where I was effectively still in Cretan waters), I did not once sit down to eat a Greek meal. All I ate was international food, all served denuded of its cultural origin. Even the meat was completely boneless (I've never cooked boneless meat at home) which brings to mind the recent food scandal involving horse meat: I really did not know what I was placing between my jaws, even when I thought I did.
The hotel breakfast (included in the room price) presented all the delights we like to indulge in when we're staying away from home, but very few of these delights were actually Greek-tasting in origin. But a hotel can be forgiven because they cater for the tastes of many nationalities which means that the food they serve often reflects global standards. Not many people are used to tomatoes and feta cheese with their coffee, for instance!

What is more overwhelming is that this food tasted good, in the same way that hi-fat hi-carb hi-salt food (and who knows? it may even have contained sugar) always tastes good. I can't directly label it all as junk food because most of the time, it was served on a plate with a knife and fork. It felt like a proper meal, although I rarely prepare food in a similar way.

The young people working at a fun park's hot dog stand did an excellent job. You could choose between the standard frankfurter (3.20) and tasty traditional Greek-style sausage (4.20). Toppings were the standard ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise - none of which are particularly Greek. 

The truth is that this kind of food is much easier to prepare than anything I eat at home, even something as simple as a salad or stir-fry, both of which require copious amounts of fresh ingredients and time spent chopping everything finely. It's so much easier to wrap some food inside a sculpted piece of cooked dough, or to fry something directly from its frozen state.

Pantry staples can easily be whipped up into a carbonara. 

If there is anything that keeps Cretan cuisine going strongly on the island, it is perhaps the islanders' food racism, an aversion to modern food customs pervading Greek society. It is still cheap to buy fresh ingredients in Greece, but the time it takes to produce a meal makes the whole process sound rather unsavoury to the younger generation. A bean stew is economical, filling and tasty - but it's not very modern. It's wrong to assume that unemployment means people have more free time available to cook the old-fashioned Greek way (with fresh ingredients and long slow cooking times). The economic crisis has made people search for easier, quicker and cheaper solutions to feed themselves while they get on with the job of rebuilding their lives after the catastrophe that has befallen them. In Crete, this is a slower process for one simple reason: Crete is not suffering as much as other parts of Greece, for the reasons I have explained many times in my blog.

In Greece, pork ribs are always sold attached to the steak, so you can imagine my surprise last week when I saw a rack of pork ribs at the supermarket. 

If any inferences can be made by observing Greeks' present eating patterns in the capital city, one thing is certain: their style of eating out shows the kind of progress they desire - global food for global citizens. The direction that Athens is taking is that of a city heading towards the future, using its past as a background to the present. In this way, Athens is developing a unique personality - not just in terms of food - from these changes; the way I saw Athens on my last visit, the city felt urban, modern, international and cosmopolitan. That is quite a change to the boring, tacky, traditional, souvenir-kitsch look of the past, when Athens felt like just another concrete jungle lacking any individual charisma. It took a crisis to get to this point, but at least the crisis has its positive side. 

Greek culture is often regarded as very connected with its culinary cultural practices, but the crisis, coupled with modern food trends, is changing this. Elena Paravanti refutes this opinion, saying that people are being misinformed about the true cost of non-traditional meals, but this is taking into account only the cost of food, and not the desire of the average Greek to move in the direction of local trends. Even if we accept that food is not just something we throw our money on, we still have to accept that people don't have much disposable income to spend on traditional choices. Foo must provide value for money in terms of energy. When people do not have much money to spend in general, their main motivation to buy something has to do with the price, as noted by Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a UK (Greek-heritage) expert in consumer psychology, in terms of some food companies' tactics to change to producing a smaller-sized product for the same price as the larger-sized product that they have stopped producing, possibly as a cost-cutting measure:  
"People in the UK only value food as a commodity for energy, rather than on the continent where it is seen as something worth spending money on. In fact, price is often the indicator people will look at – they don't look at nutritional value, or how it's produced... this thinking offers no incentive to shops and brands to improve the quality of their products. "It's a waste of the supermarket's time to focus on quality. The only competitive edge is their price... [The use of cheap additives] signifies how much supermarkets will do to lower the price of food, but also the fact that people don't pay attention to anything about nutritional value. But in reality we are paying a higher price because it affects our health." (The Guardian
Modern urban food doesn't have to be completely lacking in culture, but when price is a significant factor as it is now for most Europeans (and Greeks especially), it could have an effect on the way people think about food. If, for example, Philadelphia cream cheese (readily available at all supermarkets in Greece) is a cheaper option than, say, traditional creamy Cretan mizithra, a young person will more likely move towards it. Pasta baked with milk and cheese (or just a packet mixture) is cheaper, just as filling and less time-consuming to make than the traditional Greek favorite pastitsio, which requires three pots and an oven tray to make. 



My own family complained last week when the pastitsio I made came out more like a macaroni cheese (I used a reduced amount of mince). I remind them that if we reared our own meat in the same way that we grow spinach, possibly our pastitsio would have an authentic ring to it, in the same way as our spanakopitas. For now, they may have to be content with a spinach-based pastitsio instead. That's the difference between urban and rural cuisine: if you have eat, you eat it, but if you don't, you have to think about how much it will cost you to buy it.

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