By Aglaia Kremezi
I believe, is the only country in Europe to give its civil servants
paid leave of absence in November, so that they may return to their
villages to help harvest the olives: A perfect example of how much
the produce of the land and traditional eating habits still affect
modern life. At least four out of ten baby-boomers that live in
the big cities -- Athens and Thessaloniki -- come originally from
agricultural areas. They have moved to the cities during the last
forty years, bringing with them the cooking and culinary habits
as practiced in the villages by their mothers and grandmothers.
The majority of the people who live and work in the densely populated
capital of Greece continues to maintain homes and close ties with
their places of birth. They visit them on long weekends, summer
holidays, as well as every Christmas and Easter.
one of the most important reasons that drive all the new inhabitants
of the major urban centers back to the land is the pure and unadulterated
taste of food in their village homes. It evokes a different time
in their lives, happier and more human. The foods Greeks dream of
are not elaborate and complicated, but based on the humble but delicious
regional produce: Seasonal vegetables, leafy greens –growing wild,
or cultivated— grains, mainly in the form of homemade bread, fruity
olive oil, home cured olives, beans and other legumes, local cheeses,
yogurt, occasionally fresh or cured fish, and sometimes meat, are
the basis of everyday Greek Cooking. Bread used to be the basic
staple food, as it was in ancient and Byzantine times. Although
now people can afford a great variety of foods, Greeks still consume
enormous quantities of bread. Every meal ends with seasonal fruits,
while sweets are part of the festive table, which almost always
involves meat, lamb in most occasions.
oil, the primary fat used in Greek cooking, is basic to every Greek’s
life and identity. “A stubborn and rebellious wife, who refused
to submit to her husband and go to bed with him, was rubbed with
olive oil for seven days. On the eighth day --according to Greek
folk tales-- she became sweet tempered and loving, ready to let
her husband make love to her...” This is the most exotic of the
sixty or so folk remedies in which olive oil plays the leading role.
Most of these remedies, with roots in antiquity, are still practiced
in rural Greece. For Greeks olive oil is not just the main fat used
in cooking. It is also tied to every ritual, both folk and religious,
that marks the crucial events in the cycle of life. Priests anoint
with olive oil the infants at Christening, and again with olive
oil, mixed with wine, the bodies of the deceased are embalmed prior
to burial. Most Greek families either produce the olive oil
they consume –about 40 pounds per person each year— or they buy
it from friends who have a surplus.
dishes like the green bean, eggplant, potato or zucchini stew, cooked
in lemon or tomato sauce are called ladera (i.e. cooked in olive
oil). The fruity juice of the olives is the principle ingredient
in those delicious vegetarian meals, which are eaten with plenty
of crusty bread and cheese. Greek food is simple, down to earth
and forgiving, but not plain. It is tied to the natural produce
of each region making the most of it and changes with the seasons.
In the homes people still don't make stuffed tomatoes or melitzanosalata
(eggplant dip) during the winter months, although one now finds
these vegetables all year round.
day, the ingenious Greek cook manages to create a new, interesting
and delicious dish from the same few, humble ingredients. Let’s
take horta –the wild or cultivated greens— as an example: Horta
are steamed or blanched and made into salad, simply dressed with
lemon juice and olive oil; they are sautéed with onions or garlic
and supplemented with homemade pasta or cheese to make a more substantial
meal. Greens are also added to a flour-based soup or porridge to
feed the family, or mixed into batter and fried to make patties.
When meat or poultry are available, the greens can be added to it
and finished with avgolemono, the delicious egg and lemon sauce,
to create a Sunday meal. And, of course, the various greens
are the base of many pies, large or small, baked or fried. The most
famous are the large pies baked in Metsovo, on the extreme northwest,
while very popular are also the small fried greens turnovers of
Crete. Both dishes contain seven or more different varieties of
horta, each complementing the other in flavor and aroma.
follows the seasons, and the seasons are followed by religious holidays.
These holidays have often evolved from ancient celebrations.
Easter, Greece’s most important feast, seems to have its roots in
the pagan agricultural spring festivals of antiquity. Celebrated
in the open country, amidst fragrant herbs and multicolored spring
flowers, the Easter table features tiny succulent spit-roasted lamb
or kid and salads of wild greens, tiny raw artichokes and fresh
fava beans. The traditional Easter sweets are made with the creamy
fresh cheeses of the season. Many traditional dishes are still closely
related to religious holidays, although pizza and hamburgers, as
well as gyro and “Greek Salad” tend to banalize modern Greek food.
various rules of the Greek Orthodox Church have shaped people’s
eating habits. Even non-religious Greeks abstain from foods deriving
from animals –meat, dairy products and eggs— during the numerous
Lenten days that precede Easter, Christmas and other religious occasions.
This is the reason why many dishes – stuffed vegetables, pies etc.
-- come in two versions: One with meat (sometimes called the "festive")
or with cheese, and one without, for the days of fast. Greeks, until
recently, have been mainly vegetarian not by choice but by necessity.
Conditions were such that it was not possible to pasture large herds
and so provide meat for everybody. A rare, festive dish, meat was
consumed on Sundays, at Easter and Christmas, as well as on important
family feasts. With its many islands, Greece has more boats per
capita than cars. Nevertheless, fish and seafood has never being
plentiful enough to become a staple for the people who live near
the sea. The fish and seafood of the Aegean is exceptionally delicious
but scarce, while the best fish islanders manage to catch is sold
to the big cities for the much needed cash.
used to relate stories about the men and women of Crete who lived
healthily past the age of one hundred, thanks to a diet poor in
meat but rich in olive oil, greens and grains. Strangely enough,
those stories have now been proven scientifically correct. The
irony is that the very people who told these stories were the ones
who in practice did exactly the opposite. In the sixties,
as the country recovered economically, imported meat and other foodstuff
became plentiful and our parents and grandparents started to eat
to their hearts' content to make up for lost time. Also they considered
it their duty to stuff their children with lots of meat and imported
butter. Although a large percentage of Greeks are still heavy smokers
and the country doesn’t enjoy one of the highest standards of living
in Europe, strangely enough, the inhabitants of Greece have one
of the world’s highest life expectancy. Certainly the old eating
habits must contribute to this...
Kremezi --a journalist, writer, photographer and food columnist--
lives in Greece and divides her time between Athens, and Kea --an
island of the Cyclades. She is an international authority on Greek
food and a contributor to many US food publications, including Gourmet,
Cooking Light, Bonne Appetit, Food Arts and Food & Wine. The
Foods of the Greek Islands: Cooking and Culture at the Crossroads
of the Mediterranean, (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) is her latest book.
Her first book, The Foods of Greece, won a Julia Child Award. She
is also the author of Mediterranean Pantry, Creating and Using Condiments
and Seasonings (Artisan, 1994) and Mediterranean Hot, Spicy Dishes
from Southern Italy, Greece, Turkey and North Africa (Artisan, 1996).
She is a consultant for Molyvos, the upscale Greek restaurant in
New York city, which was awarded three stars by Ruth Reichl of the
New York Times. Her books feature not only recipes but beautiful
photographs and essays that explain history, mythology and
religion and how they fit in with the cooking of Greece and the
Greek world. Her books can be found in most bookstores in
the USA, Canada, UK and Greece and can also be ordered through GreeceinPrint
by using this form. You
can find descriptions of of her books on the cookbooks
Join Aglaia Kremezi and friends on a
culinary experience on the island of Kea at www.greektravel.com/greekislands/kea/keartisanal