The Genius of Greek Cooks – Guest Post

There is no one I know who writes more eloquently and with more passion and knowledge about Greek cooking than my Canadian-Greek friend, Dora Tsagias. Though Dora grew up in Canada, her heart has always been in her homeland and after her marriage, she and her Uruguayan-born husband Alex made their home in Athens for a time.

They now live in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada where they raised their daughters and where Dora owns a specialty food shop that is packed to the brim with products from all over Greece – the finest of olive oils, Cretan cheeses, Greek mountain tea, oregano of course, honey and much more. If you’re lucky on the day you arrive, there might just be some her own fresh-made pastitsio filling the air from her oven. Her store is called Tithorea after the village in mainland Greece at the base of Mount Parnassus that is her maternal grandparents’ ancestral home.

Dora, Ευχαριστώ πολύ. Thank you very much for allowing me to share your piece that so beautifully celebrates the genius of Greek cooks. And what better time than now, as the Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival is set to return to Sifnos on September 22, 23 & 24, named after the late Sifnian chef and author whose last name Greeks use for the word cookbook itself. During this festival, cooks from all of the islands of the Cyclades, throughout Greece and beyond will do what they love most – bring with them the ingredients their ancestors used and, in what amounts to a cooking extravaganza and huge eat-a-thon, create dishes that generously nourish body and soul. What could be more healing than that after these past two years when events like this were forced to cancel, when the pandemic kept us so apart

Καλή όρεξη to one and all. Bon appétit

THE JOY OF TRADITIONAL GREEK COOKING 

(ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΗ ΚΟΥΖΙΝΑ)

by Dora Tsagias

During the weeks, then months, of the pandemic, I was confined to my kitchen as never before. Ingredients I took for granted, such as flour, yeast, whipping cream, and brown sugar, were erratically unavailable. Fear of shortages, fear of the unknown, spurred me to look at old recipes given to me from my theia Maria that belonged to my yiayia Thodora. 

I recall my grandmothers’ stories of World War II rationing and the intense deprivations long after. What else that comes to mind vividly is my own admiration for φτωχή κουζίνα, the traditional cooking of the poor in Greece. In times of want, which historically have been all too frequent, a cook had to make do with what was available. This is true in every country, necessity being the brood mother of invention. The inconvenience of no whipping cream had nothing to do with the scrounging and stretching of the cook facing bare shelves.

Back in 1993, when Alex and I moved to Greece, I’d brought several cookbooks along from Canada. But when I began to be invited into Greek homes, and asked my neighbours how to make σπανακoπιτακια , or αuγολέμονο (start with a mature hen), or ντοματόσουπα (simplest of tomato soups), I shelved the books. They seemed fussy. I woke up to the realization that the immense variety of Greek food was expressed fully—and spontaneously—by frugal home cooks using what they had, no matter how limited that might be. The authority was Yiayia, grandmother. None of my Greek family or friends used cookbooks at all—or even measuring cups and spoons, except sometimes for baking. 

I’ve eaten at fancy restaurants in many places during my travels, the ones with the hype, food shows, books. After having dinners at my theias’ houses, I can’t worship at those urban temples. Greek home cooks have a depth of information on seasonal ingredients, a vast range of dishes they serve, and an inborn aptitude for knowing what’s ripe today. After years of cooking with them, I’m still in awe of the impromptu genius of the traditional cook. Follow the dropped crumbs and you’re led back to a φτωχή κουζίνα.

Cuisine was high/low because for much of history, Greece had a small middle class, unlike France, which developed a restaurant culture and an elaborate bourgeois cuisine. This is why Greeks appreciate everything. Parts of the pig and cow I never thought would see light are served forth with relish, along with, hard to behold, a platter of songbirds. Hold one by the beak and bite, crackling bones and all. I have surreptitiously slipped many morsels of lamb heart, intestines of unweaned veal, and rabbit kidney to the side, but my family and friends love this country soul food. 

I remember how fascinated Alex was seeing our neighbours out for daily walks but they’re weren’t just walking. They were picking dandelions, spiky greens, snapping fennel flowers; jumping a ditch and risking a broken collarbone for a few sprigs of asparagus. A foraging instinct spirals in the DNA. Foraging is kind of in with chefs worldwide these days, but I’m not thinking of a morning out collecting seaweeds or fiddlehead ferns. Greeks forage out of an abiding bond with seasons and land. Foraging: the opposite of selecting produce coated with wax, plastered with stickers, or passing up strawberries from Chile in winter. No prewashed lettuce compares to ραδίκι, chicory. During the rush of summer bounty, the extra artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, cooks preserve them under oil, to be pulled out when needed. Beans and hot peppers. Fennel flowers and tomatoes dry on screens in the sun. The μανιτάρια (mushrooms)  and chestnut- gathering among the majestic golden trees in fall signals the beginning of dinners by the fire. This is true today, true when I first arrived in Athens, and true as far back as memory goes. 

Φτωχή κουζίνα’s defining heritage is that Greeks have a deep-rooted connection to the earth. A second gift: a waste-not philosophy, crucial for us Earth dwellers. Φτωχή κουζίνα: Use every ounce of the pig, snout to tail, grill whatever your fishing line pulls in, grow what you can, shop frequently so that bunch of carrots or broccoli doesn’t wilt before you get to it. The habit arose from lack of refrigeration but results in less waste, a practise I still use living back here in Rockwood. Greeks still have tiny refrigerators compared to most in the U.S. or Canada. Shopping daily seems not a chore but a time to hear the news and talk about what you’re going to do with the kumquats or beets.

The primary waste-not example is bread. Loaves are bought almost daily from the local φούρνο (literal translation is oven). This habit goes way back. (Oddly, the word connects with “fornication”—prostitutes used to gather around the bread ovens  for warmth.) A local man who was a child during WWII told me his breakfast then was a slice of bread moistened with wine and sugar. Babies today are given a hunk to soothe their gums, where my dad still to this day soaks day-old bread in water and dredges it through sugar when he is craving something sweet.

Driving around Greece, you spot the old planting configuration of a wheat field bordered by olive trees and grapevines. There you have it, the sacred trinity: wheat, oil, wine.  φτωχή κουζίνα’s triumph: wheat, which means pasta and bread. Ah, what the home cooks did with pasta! Poetry and fun and most of all inventiveness from flour and water — nothing more basic, and yet even the simplest accompaniment can reach the sublime. Chickpeas or bitter greens, any bitter green crushed into a pesto, a handful of herbs, whatever you have. Good oil, and, with luck, a few shavings of truffle. Pasta’s infinite varieties prove the brilliance and solace of the poor kitchen.

The transformative ingredient in Greek food remains great olive oil. My family has been pressing ours for generations. Picking olives in October through December connected us with the ancient cycle of the seasons. Olive oil, in the Mediterranean world, is not just an ingredient, it’s a libation, a holy substance that connects you to the earth and promotes a sense of belonging in time. Our brand new oil, glowing like liquid emeralds, was a revelation. Trying to duplicate my yiayia’s stuffed zucchini, her χοιρινό ψητό  (pork roast), even her plain green beans, I’ve fallen short. Mine is good. Not as good. I watched closely. Whereas we North Americans drizzle olive oil into the pan, she flipped off the spout and poured. She used three times what we did. Four times.

I copied. Our food sparkled, and I learned: Douse your salads and grilled steak — but also rub a daub on an insect bite, baby’s umbilical cord, or stretch marks, or dry skin. Steep some with lavender and flavour your bath water. Pour a dribble on an orange and sprinkle with salt. Fry with it, yes, regardless of what you read to the contrary. For a Greek family of four, they will use one pound of butter per year. But they use, as I do, at least a litre of olive oil a week.

I think the abiding connection to nature and the respect for what it gives lie at the heart of why Greeks seem to feel at home in time. We become happy when we fall into natural rhythms, seasons, expectations. I love to see the ρυθμός, the rhythm, of dinner, which arrives with all four distinct courses at once. Each is savoured and concentrated on. At the call “καλή όρεξη” to the table, you flush with pleasure; you are coming into a celebratory ambience. Something wonderful is about to happen. No one speculates on how many calories are hiding in the meal.

After a long Greek dinner, I feel not only the gift of exceptional company, food, and wine but also an inexplicable sense of well-being, of revival. This healthy appreciation is directly connected to  φτωχή κουζίνα. Revere what you have. Food is natural, eaten with moderation, yes, but with gusto. Here we are at the heart of the matter. Those great grandmothers knew all about gratitude and respect for what’s served forth.

We are at a big moment for change. The pandemic gives us a chance to rethink, control, reinterpret. I keep reminding myself that the Italian Renaissance flowering occurred after the plague. The wartime, hard-times grandmothers facing meagre cupboards developed one of the most loved cuisines in the world. Their heritage could not be more genuine. Here’s poet Cesare Pavese: “A gulp of my drink,” he wrote, “and my body can taste the life/of plants and of rivers.” The abundant ancestral table remains set for the best life has to offer. Opa!

SHARON’S BOOKS, THE SIFNOS CHRONICLES: TALES FROM A GREEK ISLE AND SIFNOS CHRONICLES 2: MORE GREEK ISLAND TALES ARE BOTH AVAILABLE THROUGH AMAZON. YOU CAN RECEIVE THEM IN AN INSTANT TO READ ON YOUR KINDLE OR OTHER DEVICE, OR ORDER THEM AS A PAPERBACK. IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO BE IN SIFNOS, YOU CAN BUY THEM AT TO BIBLIOPOLEIO, THE BOOK SHOP, IN APOLLONIA.

THE WEBSITE FOR DORA’S SHOP, TITHOREA, IS HERE.

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