Savoring the flavours of Greece

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Travelogue and thoughts of Athen

If you were to picnic in the foothills of Mount Olympus, and look not up to the peaks (where silver clouds keep the gods hidden) but down of the coastal plains to the glittering blue Gulf of Thérmai, you’d see the bounty of the Greek table laid out before you.

On the slopes, juniper and pine perfume the air, the Greeks cut the pine bark and use it to flavour retsina, their unique, mouth-puckering wine. Here, men hunt for rabbit and quail, they herd goats and sheep, raised for their meat and milk, which is made into wonderful cheeses and tangy yogurt, prizes of the Greek kitchen. The olive trees you would see are the earth’s contribution to the very heart of the cuisine: Greeks adore olive oil, and the country uses more per capita than any other nation (Kalamatas are treasured wordlwide, small ones koroneiki, yield exquisite oil).

Shimmering in the heat of the southern lowlands, the scrub, with its scent of bay laurel, oleander, mingles with orchards-quince, perhaps, or bergamot or cherry-where bees drawn to the flowers create some of the world’s most intensely flavoured honey. Then your gaze would fall upon the seashore, for Greece is an archipelago, thousands of islands strewn across the azure Mediterranean. The bleached stone and sand are dotted with whitewashed houses. On the docks, fisherman hawk an array of fish and seafood. From the shallows come shrimps, mussels and lobster, with the deeper waters offering up bulging panniers of octopus, sea bream, mackerel, and sardines.

For millenea, the Greeks have lived close to the earth. Their food is simple and quick, light and flavorful. The emphasis is on freshness, because Greek cooks recognize that food taste best when they taste of themselves, rather than of complex sauces or of time-consuming preparation. The Greek kitchen is traditionally largely vegetarian, because meat and fish were once too expensive for many. Then there are the breads which are a supplement-the Greeks have a special one for everything from the saints’ day to wedding days. Indeed, the Greek Orthodox calendar is significant in what appears on the table, calling for fasting during as much as half the year. Each fast is broken with an extravagant meal, washed down with glass after glass of anise-flavored ouzo- a custom almost as grueling as the fast that preceded it.

The Greeks understand the perfection of simplicity. Few things compare to a fresh meal on the sunny patio of a seaside taverna, consider grilled fish sprinkled with salt and lemon juice, alongside an olive-oil-dressed green salad. For dessert, there is creamy sheep’s milk yogurt, topped with stewed sweet cherries or apples. Unquestionably, the food fit for the Gods.

Two Greek favorites: Stifado and moussaka

Stifado

The word Stifado (also stifatho) comes from the word “stufado,” brought to Greece by the Venetians in the 13th century, after the fall of Constantinople (1204) and before the Ottoman invasion. The older versions of stifado do not include tomato, which didn’t appear in Greece until after the discovery of America. They may have also incorporated fruits, nuts, and a wider variety of vegetables than we include today. Nowadays stifado is an onion-laden stew made with red wine or red wine vinegar, tomato and a selection of spices (often including cinnamon) creating a flavorful base.

Ingredients: 1 ½ kg of stewing beef, 100 gr flour, ½ bottle red wine, 2 cloves of garlic, 800 gr baby shallots, olive oil for frying, 3 bay leaves, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 tbsp tomato puree, 200 ml stock, salt and freshly ground pepper, 5-6 cloves

1. Cut the beef into large chunks, the bigger the better. 2. Season with flour and plenty of pepper plus a little salt. 3. Heat oil and fry chunks of beef until sealed on all sides and slightly brown. Put the lid on the casserole and simmer for a while. Put aside. 4. Add some more oil to the same pan and fry the onions over a medium heat until they start to brown. Place back the beef and add garlic cloves. 5. Pour in the wine and add cinnamon, all spices and heat until it just begins to boil. After one hour add beef stock and bay leaves to it. 6. Stir in the tomato puree. Simmer for at least 2 hours (occasonally stir stifado). Traditionally it is served with fresh bread and melted Feta cheese on top but you can offer with tomato puree flavored rice as well. 

Moussaka -baked aubergines, potatoes, minced meat with feta cheese

Ingredients: half a kilo of minced meat (beef and veal mixture), 750 gr potatos sliced, 750 gr aubergines, 3 eggs, half liter of fresh milk, 200 gr grated cheese and one bar of feta, 1 onion, 1 stick cinnamon, 500 gr tomatoes, (peeled or tomato can)half glass of olive oil, 100 gr butter, 4 tbs semolina, salt and peper

Fry the aubergines and the potatoes slighlty. Sauté finely chopped onion in one tablespoon of oil in a saucepan then and add the mashed tomatoes without the seeds and the cinnamon. Season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat off.

Heat butter in an other saucepan, add the semolina and sauté. Put aside. Beat the eggs with the milk and pour over semolina. When everything is set, turn the heat off. Add half of the cheese. Arrange layer of potatoes in an oiled baking pan. Sprinkle with cheese. Cover with a layer of aubergines, sprinkle with cheese, then layer with all the minced meat, sprinkle with cheese etc..

Finally pour the cream over the layers and top with feta cheese. Bake moussaka in the oven for 40 minutes over 180 grades.

Very sweet Greek desserts are a Greek passion. Lighter style is a baklava-a sugary pastry with apricots and pistachios or the olive oil biscuits which are set out with cups of strong coffee. Other option is a thick yogurt which is served with spoon sweets, such as cherries apple or orange peels. The Greeks make these stewed desserts out of anything tasty and in season, figs, quince, even walnuts.

Peach with honey syrup

4 ripe medium peaches, 1/2 cup honey

Using a sharp knife, lightly score bottom of each peach with hatch marks. Prepare an ice bath, and set aside. Fill a large saucepan with enough cold water to cover peaches, then remove peaches. Over high heat, bring water to boil, and blanch peaches about one minute. Using a slotted spoon, immediately transfer peaches to ice bath. Remove from ice water and peel. Set aside peaches and skins.

Reserve 4 cups of poaching liquid in pan, add skins and honey. Bring to boil, and cook until reduced to 1 1/2 cups. Pour liquid through a sieve, set over a bowl, and discard skins. Immediately spoon syrup over peaches, and serve.

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