Postcard from Greece

Postcard” is a monthly column featuring guest bloggers from around the world. Today we received a postcard from M. L. Kappa (Greece) who blogs at athensletters.com. Do check out her exceptional blog about life and times in Greece, it’s highly recommended! If you’ve been wondering how things change and how the Greeks cope with ongoing crisis, M. L. Kappa shares with us the individual and social choices that people make in terms of food. Let’s read her thorough postcard:

Most people love to eat – they like to go out to restaurants and cook at home. Food is a large and enjoyable part of life. But what happens when money becomes short?

In the last five years, two things have affected eating habits in Greece: the trend for fitness and the crisis. We want our food to be healthy, and we need it to be cheap.

Greeks have started looking to the Internet for information – they wish to better themselves, but also to belong to a “tribe” with similar habits. Depending on budgetary considerations, they prefer anything seen as “traditional”, “organic,” or “unprocessed”. Food grown locally is seen as fresher, tastier and healthier; and buying local is a way to help our stricken economy.

The crisis has shrunk the shopping basket, but Greeks still put a premium on feeding their families healthily and well, even if it means cutting costs somewhere else. The higher the financial and educational level, the more money is spent on good quality ingredients.

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So, in spite of our troubles:

We continue to be interested in food, as witnessed by the popularity of TV shows about cooking and nutrition, and of chefs who have become celebrities.

We gather in friends’ houses to enjoy home cooking.

We care whether our neighbors have enough to eat and volunteer or donate to various charities.

We order in less and cook more. Young people go home to eat, so food shopping has increased.

We look for better prices in the supermarket, visit local open-air markets and are not shy about buying half a watermelon or two apples instead of a whole kilo.

We throw out less food.

We think about avoiding waste and recycling leftovers, helped by clever ideas we find on the Internet – last night’s vegetables added to a cheese soufflé, for instance.

We have rediscovered old recipes using pulses and pasta, and often cook ladera (the word means ‘oily’ – they are various vegetables, braised with olive oil). Eaten with feta cheese, they provide a delicious, nutritious and cheap meal.

We have cut down on expensive foods like meat and fresh fish. When we do want meat, we buy chicken, which is cheap and easy to cook, followed by beef then pork. As for fish, we go for small, cheaper fish like sardines.

Because we have less spending money, we buy fewer snacks and goodies for the kids. We try to cut down on junk food and promote healthy eating.

We make sure to buy things that the whole family will like, and not pander too much to individual tastes.

We play it safe, not risking food people won’t like and which might get binned. Flour purchases have increased, since we do a lot more baking at home.

We don’t really like frozen semi-prepared foods, except for spanakopita (spinach pie) and tyropita (cheese pie) and, to a lesser extent, pizza. We buy frozen vegetables when we have no time to shop, although since many women have lost their jobs, they have the leisure to seek out more time-consuming but pleasant shopping venues, such as open-air markets.

If a member of the family is unemployed he or she takes over the cooking and, even if the food they make is not the most healthy, is it perceived as good because it’s home-made. More men have taken to cooking, especially single men. Encouraged by the male chefs they see on TV, they try their hand at ever more complicated recipes, along with the ubiquitous BBQ.

For breakfast, most Greeks like bread with honey or sometimes jam, cereal or ‘toast’ (which is essentially a grilled cheese sandwich). However, a lot of young people skip breakfast – they just drink coffee and smoke!

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In the countryside, people grow their own vegetables and keep chickens and goats. They send food to their relations in town. People who have land, even a garden, will grow food – but we don’t have a system of allotments such as exist in other European cities.

As elsewhere in Europe, farmers get low returns on their produce, so many have reconverted their land into electricity production – when driving through the countryside you can see solar panels covering entire fields. However, there is an increasing awareness that Greece is importing a lot of products it could grow locally, such as lemons and pomegranates. There is a trend in young people returning to the land and taking up organic farming, such as fruit, roses, lavender, herbs, top quality olive oil, even truffles. Also, there is a thriving production of wine.

Overall, the food and drinks industry is a vital component of the economy, since it has become a dynamic, competitive and export-oriented sector.

In spite of people watching their budgets and eating at home more, Greeks like to go out, to cafés, bars and restaurants, even if they have to nurse a single coffee or drink for a couple of hours. A lot of new restaurants have sprung up, mostly started by young people who cannot get a job elsewhere, offering affordable, tasty, quirky food. There are also a lot of ethnic eateries run by immigrants: sushi, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Mexican – you name it, you can have it. Particularly in Athens, small treasures can be discovered on a lot of backstreet corners. Smiling waiters, nice food, people enjoying themselves – what better way to forget the crisis, even for a short while? Street food is also doing well – especially souvlaki, seen by people as nutritious as well as cheap.

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Unfortunately there are also a lot of families – middle class families where both parents have lost their job – who cannot afford to buy food and are obliged to queue at church soup kitchens to get a hot meal. They can also subscribe to the KINONIKO PANDOPOLIO (Κοινωνικό Παντοπωλείο -Social Market). These are small shops situated in various neighborhoods which provide free groceries, clothes, household items etc. to families in need. They are supplied by donations from the large supermarkets, the food industry and private individuals.

Another disturbing statistic is that a large percentage of kids in the Athens region go to school without breakfast. Teachers who can ill afford it themselves bring bags of cookies and fruit to feed their pupils.

Charities are doing great work, providing meals, cooking in the street, finding sponsors. And now that refugees are swarming in the streets many people, despite their own shortages and troubles, are still doing their best to feed them while waiting for the authorities to provide solutions.

To end on a more cheerful note, I have copied out a recipe for briám, a dish of mixed baked vegetables. This is very popular in Greece, especially in the summer when the vegetables are in season and particularly tasty.

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Μπριάμ ( pronounced bree-ám)

4 large tomatoes, cut in 1/2 inch slices
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2 inch slices
2 large eggplants, cut in 1/2 inch slices
2 medium size green zucchini, cut in 1/2 inch slices
1 large red onion, sliced thinly
1 green pepper, cut in 1/2 inch slices 2 cloves garlic, diced
5 TBS chopped parsley, chopped coarsely
1/2 cup olive oil.
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Start by layering the potatoes in a greased deep baking pan. Lay one half of the tomato slices over the potatoes and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Layer the next 6 ingredients and top off with a layer of the remaining tomatoes. Salt and pepper. Pour olive oil evenly over tomatoes and bake uncovered in a pre-heated 350° oven for 1½ hours.

This tasty dish is best served at room temperature (it’s even better the next day, when the flavors have melded well) accompanied by lices of feta cheese, with maybe a few black olives on the side. The vegetables can be varied at will. Enjoy!

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