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Saturday, 31 August 2013

Persephone departing (Η Περσεφόνη φεύγει)

There really is no point going to bed before 3am in the summer months on a Friday, Saturday or even Sunday night in my neighbourhood, including the eve of any major holiday or religious feast day. Add to that, a saint's feast day, which means that people with the same name are celebrating their nameday. I should point out that every day of the year in the Greek Orthodox calendar is dedicated to some saint. I'm not even including wedding and baptism celebrations in this list - they too tend to take place in summer, at outdoor reception centres. 

Pomegranates ripening in our garden - photo taken 29/8/2013

There is usually some outdoor celebration taking place on most of these nights, accompanied by the full range of music, often a live band, playing loudly with compelte disregard for people living in the area - if you live in places close to outdoor summer entertainment, you basically have to tolerate it unitl the end of summer. The rhythm of the music is often the same - feasts generally start with Cretan music, then go on to general Greek 'λαϊκά', which basically means 'popular' music, and as the evening wears on, the beat increases and the music becomes heavier with the tsifteteli topping things off, before modern English pop music takes over. To make the evening go on for a longer time, a general free-for-all follows in terms of muscial choices - I was recently woken up at 4am with the duck dance (I seriously wondered if they would play Smurf music after that). These feasts could go on until 6-8am, depending on people's kefi - despite the crisis, they don't seem to be lacking in it.

Singing, dancing and clapping are of course some of the joys of life, but in the modern world, there are also rules in place against playing loud music at certain hour (just like there are rules against smoking in public indoor places). But Greeks are very forgiving and forgiveness often overrides the rules. So we often end up having to share our village peace and quiet with a lot of cicadas before the winter sets in, despite our grumpy mood when we have to get up early the next day on so less sleep than we would have liked. I personally prefer ants: they are so much quieter.  

It's the last day of August, and a Saturday at that, so I can guarantee that tonight, there will be plenty of revelling going on. I take comfort in the arrival of September, because I will be able to truly sleep more comfortably at night: not only will it be cooler and I will be able to shut the window while I sleep, but the outdoor music will also fade away altogether with the hot weather. 

Grapevines at MAICh - photo taken 26/8/2013

I can see the signs of Persephone slowly preparing to leave the earth, and I sometimes wish I could hurry them on. She will not leave alone - the visiting Athenian housewives will also follow her, with their spoilt children who are raised fatherless and undisciplined for almost three months of the year while they bring their urban habits to the countryside. I'm tempted to crack open a pomegranate from our tree and eat the seeds, as a way to hurry in winter.

I am not lamenting Persephone's departure, for the time being, at least. In fact, it will mean that I can spend more time in the company of Demetra, Persephone's mother, the ancient Greek goddess of agriculture, who will now have nothing to do when her daughter is away, so she will start raining on the earth, muddying its parched arid appearance. My wild Cretan greens will start growing, which I can forage when Demetra takes a break from her grief, interrupting the cold weather to let the sun peek through the clouds. I am certainly not complaining. I am impatient for life indoors with the windows shut and less dust coming in and the silence of the empty wintry streets. I'm looking forward to using a blanket on the bed once again; living with Persephone for the last three months has made me feel so naked.

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Friday, 30 August 2013

Jujube (Τζιτζιφιά)

A quick post today, showcasing an unusual fruit which most people wouldn't be too familiar with: the jujube.
 
These little berries are green inside, and taste a little like sour dry apples.
The tree that they grown on is not necessarily a very bog one - it can look more like a shrub.
When the fruit wrinkles and dries up, it tastes like a date (no wonder the jujube is also called 'red date').
The Chinese use them dried in teas and tonics.
In Greece, they were very common in many parts of the country, and their Greek name - tzitzifies - is also a common placename (there is a suburb in Athens called Tzttzifies, and even an urban village in Hania).

I would never have got to know this tree if it weren't for my keen eye to spot unusual flora in my environment. Most of the students at MAICh come from Mediterranean countries where the jujube is more well known, hence, I never got a chance to get my hands on the fruit before they did. This year, the jujube seemed to survive thanks to its late fruiting - most of the students who know this tree well have left the Institute!

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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Chilling out

We all need to take time to disconnect in some way. Here's where I go to do that, when I can't physically leave my home.







All the photos were taken in the last two weeks at Koum Kapi, an inner-city beach and seaside cafe area in Hania.

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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The full catastrophe (Ολική καταστροφή)

It was St Fanourios' feast day yesterday, so we bought a galaktoboureko, and went to our friend Fanourios' house to celebrate his nameday, what was supposed to be our friend's happy little close-to-the-end-of-summer celebration of his name. We were greeted by dour faces which made us wonder whether someone in his Fanouri's family had died and the news had not been relayed to us. But since no one was wearing black (in Crete, we still do this for at least the first 40 days after a death), we felt sure that this could not be the case. The problem transpired as the evening wore on.

Fanouri recently discovered that he is not, as he thought, being paid as a 'permanent' state employee in the position he holds (I can't call it 'the job he does' - he doesn't do much) in the Ministry of Health (some kind of skills-oriented teaching in an occupational therapy environment). He discovered this quite by accident and so he informed his boss, who told him that there must obviously have been some mistake made somewhere. Permanent employees are paid differently from employees who are employed on a permanent rolling contract - the latter get more salary (perhaps that's why Fanouri didn't question anything, as he knew he was receiving more money than some of his colleagues) while the former get εφάπαξ (e-FA-pax), a lump sum payment upon retirement (he was of the belief that he would get this).

But in the state that the State is in, not much can be done about Fanouri's problem unless he hires a lawyer and gets the issue moved to court. But if he goes to court, the way things are going, he can't really be sure of a victory; worse still, if he wins his case (ie, if he is reinstated as a permanent employee), he will probably have to pay back all the extra money he received while mistakenly on a permanent rolling contract.

But Fanouri is in a bit more of a pickle than just that. The accounting office is now moving to another larger metropolitan centre where people do not know him and he does not know them. In the past, when he wanted to earn some extra money on privately-operated government-funded training schemes, his supervisor would OK his application, in full knowledge that he wasn't actually qualified. In fact, Fanouri has no real qualifications, only work experience, because he never finished high school. That doesn't stop him from having a school leaver's certificate though; it was so easy to fake anything in the past, which is how he got his foot in the door to the state sector. All he needed was the right signatures.

But if he goes to court... suddenly everything will be brought to the surface. The extra money, the fake papers, the successful applications that were never properly justified, the signatures on those applications, and who knows what else. Literally everything is now being double-checked. It seems as though someone pressed the button on the Big Brother machine and set everything ino motion. Why on earth that didn't take place earlier is no longer the issue - the fact is that it has happened. And these are not the only things that Fanouri will have to worry about if he ever decides to take the issue to court - he may end up losing his place in the public sector, because he wasn't supposed to be there in the first place...

Aside from his future career and salary prospects, Fanouri also faces another little problem since he stopped paying off his house loan to the bank, because, as he claims, he was given the loan by the state on the basis of his salary at the time, which has now been drastically reduced, therefore it is the state's fault that he can't pay back the money that the state gave him (as he is now arguing in court over that one, too). But since the mergers of some Greek banks, somebody has probably already discovered that Fanouri was never actually in a position where he could not repay his bank loan. He was given a loan from one bank but he had his savings in another bank - which have now become the same bank. And if he is claiming inability to meet his tax debts, well, he's probably in for a nasty surprise there soon.

The game is now over, it seems, as Fanouri's namesake has indeed found everything (like his biography claims about him) that there is to find. Now we need to find a saint that is blessed with hiding everything. But sainthood is more difficult to achieve these days, and miracles are so much more difficult to prove.

Just for the record, I don't anyone that goes by the name of Fanourios. This post simply illustrates the latest news stories. My circles of friends and family are rather varied, as are most Cretans', being insular people, so I do actually know of a number of different people who are suffering the agony of one of the problems that my fictional Fanouri is having to deal with right now, but not the full catastrophe. 

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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Thai pork satay with peanut sauce (Σουβλάκια σατέ με σάλτσα φυστικοβούτηρου)

When you cook most of your meals from scratch, you will often find yourself cooking on automaton when you are trying to feed your family. Inspiration comes from many sources, but the tried and tested recipes are the easiest to deal with, and you know what to expect from them. It's a little more difficult to be inspired to cook something new and untried, especially when children are involved. But as they grow older, they are more open to new tastes, which has helped me a lot in my desire to cook a wider range of meals at home.




 Ασιατικά σουβλάκια (σατέ): αντί το συνηθισμένο ρίγανι και αλατοπίπερο με λεμόνι ή κρασί, βάλετε τα σουβλάκια σε μαρινάρισμα που περιέχει 1 κρεμμύδι, 2-3 ασκελίδες σκόρδο, 1 κουταλάκι από το καθένα κόλιανδρο, κύμινο, κουρκούμη (turmeric), το ζουμό ενός λεμονιού, 2-3 κουταλιές σάλτσα σόγιας και 5-6 κουταλιές ελαιόλαδο. Ετοιμάσετε μια σάλτσα από 2 κουταλιές γεμάτες φυστικοβούτηρο, 50ml κρέμα καρύδας, λίγο λεμόνι, κύμινο, κόλιαντρο, ζάχαρη και σάλτσα σόγιας. Σερβίρουμε το ψημένο σουβλάκι (που το αλείφουμε όσο συχνά γίνεται με το μαρινάρισμα) με την σάλτσα που κανονικά την αλείφουν πάνω από το κρέας (εγώ την άφησα ξεχωριστά, μπας και γκρινιάζει η οικογένεια, αλλά τελικά όλα καλά - τους άρεσε πολύ ο συνδυασμός. Σημείωμα: τα σουβλάκια είναι φτιαγμένα με πολύ λεπτά κομμένο χοιρινό, όχι με τους παραδοσιακούς κύβους χοιρινό ή κοτόπουλο.

A friend was getting rid of some of her old books, among which were included some cookbooks. They were all written over three decades ago, making those books precious because they were written at a time when internet did not exist, less processed food was mentioned in recipes and printed material (eg books, magazines and newspaper) was the main source of a new recipe for the home cook.

One of the books in my friend's collection was A Cook's Tour by Sarah Gates. As I picked it up, the book fell open at the page showing a satay recipe. The last time I had this (with peanut sauce) was in New Zealand, where fellow Indonesian students would cook it and share their meals. They always ate with their hands - never with a fork - deftly scooping up rice with the first three fingers of one hand and bringing it to their mouths.
I had some boneless pork in the freezer which I sliced before it was completely defrosted in very thin pieces. This was marinated in onion, garlic and ground spices with some soy sauce, before being threaded onto skewers. The peanut sauce was made with canned coconut cream and peanut butter - you can get practically anything you need to cook Asian food from scratch these days in Crete. I served the sauce separately from the meat just in case I got complaints from the family who had never had satay before, but they liked it very much, so I guess we'll make this one again.

Old cookery books are sometimes prized for their historical value; for me, they acted as a reference point of inspiration. Satay was new to my family; they not only loved the way the meat was cooked (as opposed to the traditional Greek souvlaki), but they also agreed that the peanut sauce tasted much better with these novel souvlaki than the tzatziki that was on the table. They are becoming better accustomed to pairing foreign tastes that go well together. Satay is not commonly known at all in Greece, but a quick check on the internet yielded a few links to sate recipes with Greek twists. Tahini can be used instead of peanut butter for a more Mediterranean taste - regular souvlaki can be marinated with ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger and soy sauce, instead of the traditional Greek flavours. It's not that hard to produce delicious satay in souvlaki paradise.

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Monday, 26 August 2013

Crete in one dakos (Όλη η Κρήτη ένα ντάκο)

Last night, an attempt was made to assemble the biggest dakos ever at 1.80m x 8m for the Guinness Book of World records. Dakos is a favorite Cretan snack which is often turned into a vegetarian meal when accompanied by a salad. It often forms our own evening snack throughout the summer when we have an abundance of fresh tomatoes growing in the garden. The base of the dakos is made of double-baked bread, usually wholewheat, that becomes hard and can last for a long long time in storage, to be used when needed. The rusk has been eaten in Greece since ancient times and it was one of the foods that soldiers often carried with them, as they were easily transportable.

The giant dakos was presented at the small forested park near the beach at Ayious Apostolous in Hania. Whereas a decade ago, the dakos was known as a Cretan specialty, it is now widely known all over Greece, having entered the mainland restaurant menus. The wholewheat rusk is now made to suit a multitude of different tastes, with white flour, brown flour, multigrain, etc, and most bakeries produce their own version. Dry bread doesn't sound exciting, but once you try the dakos, you will probably be hooked. Dakos can be made vegan or vegetarian, depending on whether you use the cheese - but generally speaking, Cretans associate dakos with the cheese.

The giant dakos event is not going to be remembered just for the dakos that was shaped in the form of the island of Crete (it was baked in smaller parts that fitted together like a puzzle). I preferred to see it as a celebration of the Mediterranean diet. The event was not characterised just by a food presentation. It started with a group of people who had an idea, which was taken up at the community level. The choice of the bakery, the cooking of the rusk, its transportation to the site, the setting out of the tables and chairs, the makeshift kitchen for the assembly of the dakos, the grating of the tomato (by hand, of course!), the choice of olive oil and mizithra (soft white cheese), the designation of the kitchen assistants and how each one would take part, the assembly of the dakos (layer by layer), the congregation that came to the event, and finally, the sharing out of the giant dakos to the audience (children were treated first) all formed a significant part of the event.

The dakos base was baked in a commercial baker's oven, but the grating of the tomato and the  spreading of the cheese was all conducted at the park. In about half an hour, the dakos was assembled; there was a bit of a scramble for photographs (I got a 6 1/2 foot man to take my shot from the dais set up for musical component of the event) after which the dakos was immediately distributed to the public.

Any food celebration in the Mediterranean area does not start and stop with food, so this was not the end of the event - music and dance followed, completing and marking the event as a whole and complete one. The Mediterranean diet cannot be divorced from the lifestyle component:
Our piece came from the Rethimno part of the dakos.
Without a community base and a musical accompaniment, there would be no Mediterranean diet; it would simply be called 'Mediterranean food'. The food of the Mediterranean can be found in other parts of the world, but not the lifestyle - it is actually the lifestyle that UNESCO wants to protect as Intangible Heritage under the general title of the Mediterranean Diet.

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Sunday, 25 August 2013

Loutraki beach (Λουτράκι Ακρωτηρίου)

The Akrotiri peninsula ('akrotiri' actually means 'peninsula') was once considered one of the most inhospitable places to live on the island. It was made famous by the setting of the film "Zorba the Greek" (1964), which captured well the desolate look of the area at the time: scrubby thorny plants covered most of the very rocky land, and virtually nothing more grew there, due to a lack of water source. As soon as the area received a regular water supply (40 or so years ago), it slowly underwent transformation. For a start, the shrubby land became covered in grapevines and olive groves. The value of the land increased in a very short space of time, and  - poor villagers - became rich landowners practically overnight. The US maintains an army base in the area, many parts are now forested, giving it a lush green look, and the present landowners, often rich local business people, have built villas there (originally as εξοχικά, country retreats), giving the area a luxurious look.
Typical Akrotiri landscape today
Akrotiri is now treated as a suburb of Hania and is closely linked to the town via main arterial routes. It is well known in Hania as the best place to grow watermelon - something to do with the soil and microclimate. Most residents of the area are well off - there are very few old or badly maintained houses in Akrotiri - and everything looks big, new and luxurious. The beaches surrounding the rocky high peninsula offer some of the best swimming opportunities in Hania.
My kids' sports teams had organised an outing at a beach in the Akrotiri area as a fundraising event. The beach they chose - Loutraki, a lesser known beach compared to its neighbour, the tough and mighty Marathi - I had last visited only once before, about 12 years ago, and didn't like it very much. It was a little untidy and scraggly, with cramped seating space, located in a small protected bay flanked by a rocky coastline. It didn't have much more appeal than my local beach, although the sea looked cleaner. Loutraki used to be a very laidback family beach, with a sole canteen on the sand, which served souvlaki skewers, fried potatoes, packaged snacks and drinks.
The rocky area has now been relandscaped on one side, housing a beach bar with a DJ, a casual restaurant, a formal restaurant, umbrellas and deck chairs (free to use by ordering something to eat/drink), all laid out on a grassy lawn. The scenery is quite stunning; it looks out onto an island situated in Souda harbour, and yachts can be seen sailing past every now and then. The colour of the very clean sea is a dazzling light blue, contrasting nicely with the lush green foliage of the area; edible wild greens *(notably rock samphire) can be seen growing abundantly among the very sharp rocks, and natural sea salt (the kind you pay a small fortune for to use in your cooking) collects in the littler craters. Sea urchins line the sea bed by the rocks. I even saw a sprig of a fig tree that had sprouted among the rocks with a fig on it!
Loutraki beach is now divided up into two areas - the 'family' beach on the sand, which is still very cramped, but it has a lifeguard and first-aid station; and the upmarket tropical-looking beach bar area elevated above the rocks, with sun loungers all over the artificial lawn. Steps have been built to assist people in accessing the rock where they can go freefall swimming. The area is overrun by glamorous-looking people, mainly couples, slim tanned bodies and the latest fashion bikinis. Good-looking young uniformed waiters come to serve you. It is mainly frequented by Greek locals and Greek tourists (ie from the mainland), but there are also foreign tourists. You don't have to be rich to come here - using the deckchairs costs as much as a soda or coffee (something like 2-3 euro). Even if it is overpriced, you would still pay this price for a deckchair at other beaches, and if you add a coffee to those prices, it may end up costing you more. Hania has no pay-to-use beaches - this is as much as you will pay. Going to Loutraki is more of a class thing. There was a Jaguar sitting in the parking space near the restaurant area. I parked my tinny Hyundai next to it.
Since it was a Saturday, most of the sun loungers had been taken, but I was very lucky to find a set of two for me and my son, right by the waterfront, while my daughter sat with her friends from the basketball team (although yoyu could pick one up from the spares lying around the bar and plonk yourself anywhere in the general area). I felt a little awkward being here, but it was a nice experience. It gave me the chance to see how the other half lived.
Clockwise from top left: rock samphire, sea salt, tiny fig tree, purslane. 
The distance between one set of sun loungers and the next was quite close - Greeks are mindful of their personal space around them, despite the close proximity they may find themselves in with their beighbours. But everything said is within earshot of other people. On my left was a very-much-in-love couple (a sexy blonde Russian woman and a tall dark Greek); on my right was a middle-aged foreign couple (they didn't talk much). I don't know who was sitting behind me, but they were definitely Greek, according to the conversation I overheard (remember, I wasn't eavesdropping - Greeks talk in public without considering who may be listening, as it is generally the case that people are talking all at the same time, so they have their own conversations to listen to and maintain):
First man: Hey, long time, no see! Where have you been hiding?
Second man: Oh, I'm at the tailend of a week of leave from the clinic. I'm due back on Monday. 
First man: Have you been busy there?
Second man: Yeah, it's been really busy these days, mainly due to the tourist season. But I'm hoping to be seconded [what is known in Greek as απόσπαση] to a smaller clinic, somewhere on the islands [as the biggest island in Greece, we locals never feel like we are living on a typical 'glossy brochure'-type Greek island], hopefully Kastellorizo [population ~500]. There's a serious shortage of doctors on the smaller islands, most of the community clinics are under-staffed, and I'm really hoping I get a placement on one for September.
First man: Kastellorizo? That's a bit of a hole, isn't it? There isn't much to do there now, let alone the winter.
Second man: Oh, I'm not asking for a placement there in the winter, I just want to ride out the tourist season in a smaller place. I may get a position in Symi [population ~2500] instead of Kastellorizo.
First man: Symi's better in many respects. It's bigger, so there's more to do. Wouldn't you prefer to be there?
Second man: Oh, no, not at all! Kastellorizo has a proper medical centre, so you just take up your position there, there are other staff to cover you, so you don't feel under pressure. But in Symi, there's nothing organised to step into. You're on call the whole time, you may work throughout the whole day and get no sleep at night because you're on your own, and effectually on call 24/7. I really hope I get the Kastellorizo placement. It's like being on holiday down there. In Symi, you end up working the whole time. 
I really hope this doctor gets given the Symi placement. The tax payer likes to know that they're getting value for money, especially these days when the state is unable to afford to pay most of its employees, let alone give them paid holidays. Don't ask me why the larger Symi is under-staffed while the smaller Kastellorizo is overstaffed - I'm just telling you what I heard. (Symi probably has to maintain a number of medical centres located in different areas, whereas Kastellorizo has only one.)

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Saturday, 24 August 2013

Supermarket offers (Προφορές στα σουπερμάρκετ)

We stopped off at the supermarket yesterday to buy some of our favorite brand feta cheese (Plataion), but the store we chose was out of it. How annoying, as it was the only item we needed. While there, we picked up the store's brochure, which listed their latest offers. This time, it was full of 'buy one, get one free' offers. The kids were with us, and they noticed the first item listed: buy one pizza at 3.74 euro each, get one free. It sounded quite convenient, so I bought the special.

Sometimes we need a meal in a hurry and this one could be cooked in a matter of minutes. Each pizza was just enough for two hungry people so I felt it was well priced. If it weren't for the kids being with us and pointing out the offer, to be honest, I would not have bought them. A quick dinner can easily be prepared in our house, consisting of other 'healthier' ingredients, containing notably more salad ingredients.

I skimmed through the brochure and found all sorts of other items in it that could easily lead us into temptation by making our lives easier: for every packet of frankfurters (2.62 euro/285g), sachet of mini-crackers (0.52 euro/70g), bottle of ready squeezed juice (1.77 euro/285g), cup single-serve prepared milk coffee (1.39 euro/230ml), box of special K cornflakes (3.88 euro/375), tub of expensive ice-cream (6.862 euro/430g), bag of pre-cut frozen fries (2.21 euro/600g), prepared meat patties (5.14 euro/500g), or bottle of iced tea (1.50 euro/500ml), you'd get one more of the same for free. Everything was made to sound cheap, and it was all invariably tasty in that fast food sense, and full of fat and salt/sugar. There were what seemed like ten pages of 1+1 offers.

On closer inspection, it was obvious that the supermarket chain had produced the brochure in such a way that it would fool all except the most savvy readers into believing that they were buying bargains. Here are the different ways that they try to trick you:

1. They use a large eye-catching title on their brochure that leads you to believe that the offers in it will be of this type (but the offers in the brochure are of mixed types). The title of the brochure is 1+1 δώρο (buy one, get one free) - the finer print next to it tells us that there are also other offers.

2. Some of the 1+1 offers listed are actually double-packs - you can't buy them singly (but they are labelled in different colour coding - but still, they aren't real 1+1 offers). The products on the cover page of the brochure all show one item, except for the shower gel offer, which shows a double pack - you can't buy each item separately, whereas the other items are all available separately (but you need to remember to pick two up when you buy them). 

3. Use of the same advertising style is made for non-1+1 offers, so you are being fooled by the trompe l'oeil effect (eg a 30% discount offer looks just like a 1+1 offer). This is the most misleading way to sell specials. The similar designs of each different offer are placed on the same page, creating an optical illusion. You wouldn't spot the difference immediately. Look at the way the second page of the brochure is headed: 1+1. Right below the 1+1, the item is being advertised as 40% off the regular price. It's not a 1+1 offer - but the same design is used on the whole page. Half the products are 1+1 while the other half have just 20-40% off the price. Even if you picked up two of them, you'd still be paying a bit extra for the second item.

4. In this brochure, not even the pages that seemed to use only one method of advertising were fair in the sense that they were showing a price per kg of each product, but they were not saying why these prices were special (ie they did not show the regular price - if there was one - or how much they were discounted by). In my opinion, something isn't a special if it doesn't show the regular price it is sold for.



If I get to the brochures first (trhey are delivered to our homes on a regular basis), I always throw them into the recycle bag as soon as I get them. My family likes to look at them because of their eye-catching appeal (they don't focus just on food). There is no such thing as a special offer on food. You are most likely being tricked, or the food is not good quality, or a large quantity will simply last you a lifetime, and you will end up throwing out most of it when you do a check of expiry dates in your pantry.

Here's the funny part: after we paid and left the store, I thought we had paid too much. I checked the brochure once more, and realised that the 'specials' were for the following week. Oh well, the kids did say the pizza was good. If there is any left in the store when the specials start, I may pick up another set.

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Friday, 23 August 2013

Purslane (Γλυστρίδα)

I posted this photo of purslane on my facebook page without realising it would become an instant hit. I suppose it is the serene look of this wonderful weed and the way it grows wildly and spontaneously, without any help apart from some irrigation. Purslane, Portulaca oleracea (in Greek, αντράκλα - antrakla, or γλυστρίδα - glistrida) is a common edible weed in Greece during the summer months. It has long thick juicy stems and grows around tomato and zucchini plants. For those who are familiar with it, it has a light refreshing taste, and is especially good in tomato and/or potato salads.


Purlsane is an edible weed. The tiny buds produce a small yellow flower. The seeds of the plant are tiny and black - they look like fine dust. You can see them all over the worktop. 

You can use the tenderest parts (like the ones I've cut off on the left) for salad, or you can place the whole (cleaned) plant in a jar of wine vinegar with a little salt sprinkled into it, which can be used in the same way as capers or the kritamos weed (samphire). Even if you don't use it all up by next year, it will remind yo throughout the colder months of winter of the warmer months to come. Since it is renewably annually, you don't need to keep it - you'll just pickle some again more next year.

Pickled capers and pickling purslane

Although purslane grows literally everywhere and anywhere during the summer, for the last 3-4 years, it is being sold at the market these days, a sign that it is quite popular. For me, who lives in a house with a large garden, in a village, it was quite a scary sight. It made me feel that this could possibly be a sign of how busy people seem to be these days, distancing themselves from nature despite being so close to it. Then again, they may not live near a clean source of purslane, and they find it easier to pay 50-60 cents for a cute little bunch of purslane (shipped form Athens). Let's hope, for my judgmental sake, that it is the latter; you know what Greeks say about people who eat a lot of glistrida, don't you? They talk too much.

My favorite recipes for fresh purslane are: orzo pasta salad, artichoke and purslane salad, and cucumber/zucchini and purslane salad. Pickled purslane is good in tomato and potato salad.

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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Looking through the window

Greek education is in the news again today: yesterday it was about striking teachers, today it's about the new state guidelines for the curricula of junior high school (γυμνάσιο - yim-NA-si-o, with three classes: A', B' and Γ', meaning 1st, 2nd and 3rd class) and senior high school (λύκειο - LI-ki-o, again with three classes).

We find a parallel system of the public versus the private sector working in education, just as we have parallel systems for every other sector in Greek life. Generally speaking, kids go to public school during the day, while they go to private classes to supplement the SAME knowledge in the afternoon. (As a non-education example, the obvious one is in health: the nurse paid through the hospital - ie the public sector - on the ward administers medicine, but the nurse who washes the infirm is paid for privately by the patient or their family - and only if you can afford it, of course). During the summer, they do cramming classes at the same institutes. All this entails that they can afford the lessons, and many children can't these days. For the last 15 or so years, the Ministry of Education has bene offering supplementary afternoon classes (ενισχυτικά -  e-ni-schi-ti-KA, literally 'reinforcements', which are free. (I have been told that my kids' junior high school will also offer such lessons, but of course with so many changes taking place in education at the moment, we will have to see what hasn't been scrapped when school terms starts).

Are these extra lessons necessary? Most people - including the public-school Greek teachers themselves - will say that they are. Since I haven't sent my kids to such institutions, I can't really have an opinion. One thing I can say is that if your children are academically inclined and you want to help them along the way to get into university, no matter where you are, whether you live in Greece or not, if you can afford it, you will go that extra mile to help them. So in a sense, these lessons have their use. What differentiates Greece from most other European countries is that there is something unnatural about sending kids to school during the day, with more lessons in the afternoon/evening, not to mention the money needed for this to happen: in Greece, such lessons usually start at junior high school, because kids have to pass exams to get into the next level of each class.

I've just checked the .pdf files with the state guidelines for gimnasio, and I am not surprised to see GREEK LANGUAGE studies at the top of the list for both cases.
Timetable for junior high school (gimnasio) in Greece (Α' Β' Γ' refers to 1st 2nd 3rd class)

'Greek Language and Literature' is divided into two parts: 'Modern Greek Language and Literature' and 'Ancient Greek Language and Literature'. Modern Greek Language and Literature is covered by 2 hours of 'Language Instruction' and 2 hours (per week, presumably) of 'Modern Greek Literature' while Ancient Greek Language and Literature is covered by 3 hours of 'Ancient Greek Language' and 2 hours of 'Ancient Greek Texts and Translation'. So that means 9 hours of Greek language studies in total, with more than half My kids are gonna be doing more hours of Ancient Greek than Modern Greek! 

The painful process of progress is very slow in Greece. It will eventually happen because there is only one way to go, and that is forward, but it will simply happen at a very slow pace here. Greeks are finding it difficult to go forward because they are constantly looking over their shoulder to see what they left behind, and this is even being reflected in our education system, with children as young as 12 learning more Ancient Greek at school than Modern Greek.

the acropolis athens
One of my best photographs of the Acropolis hill, taken from Arios Pagos. I still like to tell my kids that i have actually walked inside the Acropolis, something that is no longer allowed.





As Greeks, we carry a great weight on our shoulders - that of our glorious past. We are constantly worrying that it is fading away, becoming less tangible to us, and we are forever looking for ways to keep it alive. We know how much Western civilisation was founded on it, and how much it is still revered in all academic faculties. We still haven't found that χρυσή τομή that will let us live in both worlds equally harmoniously, but when we do, I think that that will be the turning point for this country. We won't be looking so much in the mirror then; instead, we will be looking through the window. It pays to remember how Orpheus lost Eurydice forever:
Orpheus travelled to the underworld and by his music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone (he was the only person ever to do so), who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.
BONUS INFORMATION: Orpheus and Eurydice are beautiful ancient Greek names, and they are still in use today in their modern Greek forms. I have a friend whose son is called Orfea, and an older female friend whose name is Evridiki. 

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Wednesday, 21 August 2013

You don't scare me (Δεν με φοβίζετε)

Heading: Schools closed after they open for the first day of the new term... Indefinite strike action proposed by Teachers' Union from the the start of the new school year


Hey, Greek teachers, you don't scare me.

I know you are making very little money at the moment (like most of us - we are all in the same boat), and you believe you deserve more (like most of us), and some of you are about to lose their job (like so many of us in the private sector). And striking is the only way you know how to make your demands known in Greece. It used to work really well before, but not so much now, except as a scare tactic. There is strength in numbers, though, and you're the big tough nuts out there in the Greek public sector.

But it's not your fault - that's what you've been brought up to believe, to demand your working rights by not working. So I forgive you in that respect - but you of all people in the Greek public service should be the more creative ones, given all that knowledge of yours in your head; you should know all the answers. Admittedly you can't strike in August, because you can't hold pupils, students and parents to ransom then (schools are still closed for summer holidays). So you're threatening with strike action next month, as soon as they open.

But do you realise that parents are already used to their kids not going to school? Summer lasts a long time in Greece... And you do know that those bloody stupid set textbooks you yourselves complain about all the time are all available online? We don't need to go to school to have them given to us or explained... In my case, I've got to drive 22km to take my kids to school every day. So I guess I'll be saving a pot of money in petrol...

All the above may all sound like a simplistic view to you. But you can see why I'm not worried if the schools are going to stay closed indefinitely, while you have your little revolution.

Changing your mindset is like breaking a horse. It's a very painful process for both sides - but it has to be done. And eventually it happens. When the horse is broken, it takes on a purposeful mind of its own. But it takes hard work, and a lot of patience. Greeks are a little less patient perhaps than others, so maybe they are more like mules. Mules are mules all their lives, but if Greeks want, they don't have to be mules - they can become horses. It will just take a little longer.

So I just want you to remember - you don't scare me. 
It's just for this year - it will pass. Eventually.


Έλληνες εκπαιδευτικοί, δεν με τρομάζετε.

Ξέρω ότι βγάζετε πολύ λίγα χρήματα αυτή τη στιγμή (όπως όλους μας - είμαστε όλοι στο ίδιο καράβι), και πιστεύετε ότι σας αξίζει περισσότερο (όπως όλους μας, πάλι), και κάποιοι από εσάς πρόκειται να χάσετε τη δουλειά σας (όπως τόσοι πολλοί από εμάς στον ιδιωτικό τομέα). Και η απεργία είναι ο μόνος τρόπος που ξέρετε πώς να κάνετε γνωστές τις απαιτήσεις σας στην Ελλάδα. Μια φορά κι'έναν καιρό, αυτή η μόδα είχε πολύ πέραση, αλλά όχι τόσο πολύ τώρα, παρά μόνο ως τακτική εκφοβισμού. Υπάρχει δύναμη στους αριθμούς, όμως, και είστε τα μεγάλα σκληρά καρύδια στον ελληνικό δημόσιο τομέα.

Αλλά δεν φτάιτε κι'εσείς μόνο - φτάιει ότι έτσι σας έχουν αναθρέψει να πιστεύετε, να απαιτήτε εργασιακά δικαιώματα με το να μην εργάζεστε. Γι'αυτό τον λόγο, σας συγχωρώ - αλλά απ'όλους τους άνθρωπους σ'αυτό τον σάπιο τομέα όπου ανήκετε, το ελληνικό δημόσιο, εσείς θα πρέπει να είστε οι πιο δημιουργηκοί, δεδομένου ότι κρατάτε τόσες γνώσεις μέσα στα κεφάλια σας. Θα πρέπει να γνωρίζετε όλες τις απαντήσεις. 

Βεβαίως δεν μπορείτε να απεργήσετε τον Αύγουστο, επειδή τότε δεν μπορείτε να κρατάτε όμηρους τους μαθητές, τους φοιτητές και τους γονείς  (τα σχολεία εξακολουθούν να είναι κλειστά για τις καλοκαιρινές διακοπές). Ωπότε, απειλείται με απρεγίες τον επόμενο μήνα, μόλις ανοίξουν τα σχολεία πάλι.

Αλλά δεν έχετε συνειδητοποιήσει ότι οι γονείς έχουν ήδη συνηθίσει την κατάσταση - ότι δεν πηγαίνουν τα παιδιά τους στο σχολιό. Το καλοκαίρι έχει πολύ μεγάλη διάρκεια στη Ελλαδίτσα μας... Και σίγουρα ξέρετε ότι αυτά τα ηλίθια βιβλία για τα οποία εσείς οι ίδιοι συνέχεια διαμαρτύρεστε είναι όλα διαθέσιμα σε απευθείας σύνδεση (γιου νόου, online). Δεν χρειάζεται να πάμε στο σχολιό για να μας τα δώσετε, ούτε να μας τα εξηγήσετε... Στην περίπτωσή μου επίσης, πρέπει να οδηγώ 22 χιλιόμετρα για να πάω τα παιδιά μου στο σχολείο κάθε μέρα. Έτσι υποθέτω ότι θα κερδίσω πολλά λεφτά μην εξοδεύοντας χρήματα για βενζίνη.

Όλα τα παραπάνω μπορεί να ακούγονται σαν μια απλοϊκή άποψη των πραγμάτων. Αλλά σίγουρα έχετε καταλάβει γιατί εγώ δεν ανησυχώ αν τα σχολεία πρόκειται να παραμείνουν κλειστά επ 'αόριστον, ενώ εσείς κανετε την επανάστασή σας.

Η αλλαγή της νοοτροπίας σας είναι παρόμοια με τον τρόπο που γίνονται τα άλογα πιο υπάκουα. Είναι μια πολύ επώδυνη διαδικασία και για τις δύο πλευρές - αλλά πρέπει να γίνει. Και τελικά γίνεται. Όταν το άλογο 'σπάσει', παίρνει τον δρόμο του με το δικό του νου. Αλλά χρειάζεται σκληρή δουλειά και πολλή υπομονή. Οι Έλληνες έχουν ίσως λιγότερη υπομονή απ' άλλους, οπότε μάλλον μοιάζουν περισσότερο με μουλάρια. Τα μουλάρια παραμένουν μουλάρια όλη τους τη ζωή, αλλά αν θέλουν οι Έλληνες, δεν χρειάζεται να παραμείνουν μουλάρια - μπορούν να γίνουν άλογα. Απλώς θα πάρει περισσότερο χρόνο.

Γι 'αυτό ακριβώς θέλω να θυμάστε - δεν με τρομάζετε.
Αυτή η κατάσταση είναι μόνο για το τρέχον έτος - θα περάσει. Τελικά...

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Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Ethical meat

Some friends invited us to their house for lunch a little while back. I knew what kind of food to expect there: in Crete, meat is the norm when preparing a meal for guests, our friends like barbecue, and they also like to prepare a lot of food, which often turns out to be too much and is left over and not eaten. I always feel sorry for the animals involved in such food preparation practices because I also know that our friends often tell us that they "don't do leftovers", which I suppose means that they end up chucking out food (usually by feeding it to their pets: they also give us doggy bags to take home, if that is any consolation).


Our latest meat purchase came on Sunday - 9.5kg of free-range lamb, sold to us at 5/kg. The meat pictured here is from half a sheep (ie one side); the animal weighed close to 20 kilos. The cost per kilo is very low compared to store prices. But there are many many reasons for buying meat in this way; it is not all about the price.

Well, I wasn't far wrong in terms of what I expected at the lunch party (there were 10 diners). There were barbecued pork steaks (one for each person, plus a couple of extras, for good measure) and  barbecued chicken (two hens), barbecued pork sausages, barbecued lamb chops and even a barbecued lamb's head. The lamb got in there because they had also cooked a lamb roast in the oven, together with roast potatoes; literally no one touched either, possibly because our host decided to fry some potatoes as well: 'για τα παιδιά,' she insisted (for the children) - her own ones are beefy teenagers. That meal could have served 20 guests, together with the green and tomato salads they served, which disappeared as fast as the bowl was set down on the table.

After removing as much fat as possible (you can see it in the pot), I divided it into portions, which I placed in plastic bags, ready to put it into the freezer. Some portions are bigger than others - some will make one family meal, while others will make enough for two meals (hence, no need to cook the next day.)

Our hosts were only trying to please their guests, presenting the best of the best that they could possibly afford, and it seems that they could afford a lot: meat is not a cheap commodity these days. But the whole idea of excess during a crisis simply fuels my belief that it is not an economic one - it is an identity crisis, or as my husband put it the other day when we were discussing it, a crisis of values.

I personally abhor this kind of cooking to excess; we only cook what we know we are going to eat, particularly when it comes to meat - I have made it a firm habit never to cook too much, because when there are too many meat leftovers, it simply means that we will end up eating many portions of meat over the week. We limit our meat consumption for health reasons, but I also like to keep in mind the ethical issues involved in eating meat. 

Ribs are a good choice for barbecuing - but not if they are as free-range as this meat (you are better off slow-cooking this as an oven roast with potatoes).

In Greece, I think it is true to say that ethics are not an issue at all in Greek people's minds. Greeks don't view the eating of meat as an ethical issue, and neither do they understand the concept of ethical meat. To their credit though, I can say that Greeks do have some understanding of the different kinds of meat available on the market, and what meals they are used for; that is a good foundation for their (eventual) understanding of the issue of ethical meat (when the issue eventually becomes one in Greece).   

From what I know, my hosts do not buy non-Greek meat, even though it's cheaper. The belief that Greek food is better than non-Greek food is still quite prevalent. This is of course a good thing for the economy, with added benefits for Greek identity; but it remains a subconscious belief - Greeks have not quite grasped the idea of building confidence through their own home-grown values, despite the foreign market's great interest in Greek food. (It seems to me that they are still looking at the outside world to shape their identity, identifying who they want to be rather than understanding who they really are. Greece has the potential to be great - it's all about the confidence shown in her by the Greeks themselves.)  

Tail - after the horse meat scandal broke out, I have a politically incorrect sense of superiority when I cook with meat whose body part I can immediately recognise on sight.

The meat we ate at my friends' place was not necessarily grown under ethical conditions: for a start, the chickens were from their own coop, a small, rather restricted caged area. But they were three or so months old whereas most mass-produced chicken on the market is slaughtered at 6 weeks old, so one could say that they had a reasonably long life before they became food. Pork is always a sore issue in terms of the ethics involved in raising it in Greece - pork is one of the most popular (and cheap) meats all over the country, and there is such over-consumption of it (at least in Hania), that we even import great quantities of it (a lot of supermarket pork these days comes from Holland and Belgium - it is cheaper than Greek pork). 

Lamb sold in Crete is, most of the time, Greek. The taste of Greek lamb is unique, because it is nearly always free-range, not necessarily organic, but definitely fed on a lot of natural food. Sheep and goats are often seen grazing on roadsides, so it's not hard to understand why the taste is so good. But lamb (and even more so goat) is more expensive than pork, which is why it is not as popular as pork. (Beef is the most expensive meat in Crete and it mainly comes from mainland Greece.)

Lamb's legs - if you can tell which one is the front leg, and which one the hind, you're doing well.

We had a bit of a discussion about lamb while we were eating. One host asked us where we buy it from. We explained that these days, we always buy it straight from the producer. It is of course cheaper to buy meat in this way, but we have a totally different reason for buying straight from the producer (which will become apparent as you read along). My husband mentioned the person he bought meat from the last time we purchased it. Our host said that he had also bought lamb from the same producer, but he didn't like it: "It was rather tough and sinewy," he said. That is a sign of free-range meat, I thought. The animal hasn't been cooped up in a restricted area; it's been allowed to roam freely in an open space, making the meat tougher. The more natural food that it eats also makes the meat taste better, having been scented by the wild herbs and foliage of the Cretan (and generally the Greek) countryside. Just as importantly, the animal had a reasonably long life (about 12 months) before it became someone's dinner, and it was slaughtered in the way that animals have been slaughtered for many centuries - it died in the area where it was born, away from the eyes and ears of other members of its species. It was led to its death without having experienced the concept before it eventually died.

"How did you cook it?" I asked him. It was immediately obvious to me what the problem was that my host found with the meat he bought from the farmer. When we buy this kind of meat, we cook it for a long time. Often, I boil it (to remove fat - the stock makes an excellent pilafi, so even that liquid is re-used), and then I place it in the pot or the oven (according to the chosen recipe), and it continues to cook till it falls off the bone, having soaked up the herbs and spices I added to it.  


Every part of an animal is useful. This time, we only got one kidney (which came with the half-side that we bought); the other innards (including the head, guts and stomach) were not sold to us because another customer wanted them. As I was cutting the meat into portions, some of it came off in shreds - I will use these bits to make things like spring rolls, etc where only a little meat is needed.

"On the barbecue, lamb chops, just like these ones" he replied, pointing to the rather charcoaled meat in the serving platter (they often burn it accidentally; the pork chops were cooked better because - if I may say so - my husband cooked them). How long do barbecued lamb chops need to cook? About 15-20 minutes in total, I suppose. It's been a long time since I barbecued lamb chops (we do mainly pork chops, and just lately, even that has felt like a hassle to me because you end up feeling rather hot, tired, smelly and sweaty). So our host was trying to cook meat in a quarter of an hour, from an animal that had had a year of life in rumination. He was right in saying that the meat didn't taste good - when meat is cooked in the wrong way, when the cook does not take into account the method that was used to raise the animal, then for sure, the meat will not taste good. The only way to cook such meat is slowly

I didn't enjoy my meal on that day at my hosts' home for this reason. It isn't at all the case that I think too much - my husband didn't enjoy the meal much either, but for different reasons to mine. Whereas I was thinking about all the wrong choices my hosts were making, he was thinking "I've eaten better barbecued meat than this." (See what I mean about the subconsciousness factor involved in Greek identity? He's taking for granted what I regard as a marketable aspect.)

Mind you, we didn't need another lamb's head - I have one sitting in the freezer at the moment. What gets up my nose about the Western civilised world's abhorrence to images such as this one is the price they are prepared to pay to eat this at a high class restaurant: top-to-tail restaurant food is very expensive in Western countries, whereas in Greece, it is the norm for taverna food. A lamb's head costs just 1 euro these days at the supermarket.

Maybe I shouldn't think too much. But I'm still glad that I cook the way I do, and I prefer the food choices that I make, and that I choose slow-cook taverna meals when we go out for dinner. It's so much healthier and so much more sustainable than anything I eat elsewhere.

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