How have I been here this many months and not talked about food as often? Given that it is the one thing that is forever on my mind, I am surprised.
Daily ‘bread-gate’ is just a fact of life here. By way of explanation, this is is the bread delivery at the village mini-market, which took me a while to figure out the intricacies of its schedule with a few questions and observations. Bread gets delivered from the bakery in town at around 8am – but if you leave it to after 9am to try get some they may have sold out, leaving you at the mercy of buying long-life sliced bread (acceptable only for cheese toasties in my view). Trick is it to get there at 8.15 in a scrum of elderly villagers to get the choice of loaves; wholewheat, seeded, crusty white, something ciabatta-like, sesame etc etc. Sunday is the day of rest so no bread deliveries at all, meaning people buy double quantities of loaves on Saturdays. Got it? G refuses to even participate in this ritual – he sees it as a weird thing ‘bread is bread’ (he would be happiest eating white sliced bread that tastes like cotton). But I stick to my principles in fetching in the bread, because fresh bread matters to me!
This week I have dedicated a lot of time to food, no I don’t mean hours gorging on it, well not ‘hours!’, but time spent wandering around markets and shops, and looking for recipes. Last week I made Halva from a really simple 1 2 3 4 recipe (based on 1 part oil, 2 parts semolina, 3 parts sugar and 4 parts water) I kept it simple and omitted the raisins and almonds. But it was a tasty sweet treat and one I’ll make again.
In a bookshop in Ermoupoli I bought a really facinating cook book from the Women’s Agrotouristic Cooperative of Syros who run the To Kastri Taverna. Enchanting Food Tales from Syros is exactly that, as it narrates short tales from 3 generations of the same family as the shared recipes are passed down. The stories are wonderful slices of life as they centre on seasons or local celebrations throughout the year, and the corresponding recipes are very seasonal: it includes everything from Magiritsa (Easter soup) to Vasilopita (St Basil’s new year pie), as well as favourites like Greek salad and stuffed courgette flowers. Loads of dishes I can’t wait to try out.
This week we finally had one ripe red tomato that made it into a salad. Yes, it was unarguably the best tomato I have ever tasted. Despite the odds of a challenging garden and the climate, it might be one of the few we manage so has to be enjoyed! On the plus side, my hand pollination of a courgette has led to one being a substantial size and ready for picking! Vegetable celebrations all round.
I think the seasonality of local fruits and vegetables has been what really interests me in cooking in Greece. When we first arrived we had fresh strawberries cheaply available, then Cos lettuces, followed by courgettes and local cherries in May and Apricots in June. Availability and price follows the seasonal harvest in a logical way. Its not impossible to get things from the bigger supermarkets here and you can get imported goods from all across the world should you need them. I can genuinely say I have learnt to appreciate this at the fruit market – scan around for the seasonal stuff and adjust recipes to match. August is great for nectarines, figs, peaches and melons are abundant , but you won’t find a strawberry for love nor money! By eating seasonally when produce is at its cheapest it does make a big difference. I am finding that the tastiest recipes always benefit from ingredients when freshly harvested, in the right season and are much cheaper than the UK. I’ve made a lot of aubergine and courgette bakes with Kefalotyri grated and feta cheese on top – just fry the veg first in olive oil, throw in some garlic and chopped tomatoes, bake in the oven for 20 mins until the cheese melts and gets crispy. Perfect with a salad and fresh bread…I am obsessed! (it finds a way into every food photo)
I am also in a phase of reading about the history of Syros, I ploughed through Sheila Leceours fascinating study of Ermoupoli during the Italian occupation, ‘Mussolini’s Greek Island‘ which reveals the mechanisms of Italian occupation and the tragic famine which resulted in nearly 6,000 deaths. It helps you to see Syros in a different light from the beauty we are shown as visitors, and understand its social and cultural complexities. Visiting the Industrial Museum last weekend also added to my enthusiasm. The museum houses a fascinating collection of tools, machinery and artifacts that show how advanced manufacturing, printing and textile trades were in this once flourishing town.
Given that a plan to electrify Ermoupoli in 1900 was underway at a time when most towns across Europe were decades away from such modernity. It has really interesting history that is being brilliantly preserved and celebrated. It also has copies of Cicladi the daily paper printed during the Italian Occupation.
Its not all textbooks and cookbooks, I have also been reading a lot of ex-pat books about Greece. This is a whole genre – one you buy one, Amazon then makes a point of telling you about the 100 more they recommend, having read a few, I can say they are of varying quality and intrigue. The latest one by Rob Johnson A kilo of String is quite a fun and informative book about how he and his partner, Penny moved to the Peloponnese to buy an olive grove. All very fascinating vignettes about the tribulations of the olive harvest (horrific, back breaking work apparently!) As the title reveals, string is another thing bought by the kilo here in Greece. Like wine and olive oil – measured out in a fashion that closely resembles a litre (almost but not quite). Anyway what I liked about Rob’s book is that he references a great motto which I think sums up Greece for a lot of people who live or spend time here. “Everything is difficult, but nothing is impossible” Its a nice reminder of just getting on and focusing to get through the difficult bits of life. It’s also a bit more optimistic than a Greek saying “Τι να κάνουμε” – which translates as “what can be done?” Often overheard when Greeks talk about difficult challenges, and politics, more often than not accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders to display the futility of it all…
As the season winds down and the yellow glow of August light fades, whatever happens after the summer is likely to be difficult. Until then we have each day – the sun will rise, I will fetch bread, we will eat and enjoy the fruits of Greek life at its fullest.
Like growing the courgette and tomato on a barren patch of land, however difficult, was not impossible after all.