For someone who is an extreme Philhellene, I have a confession to make. Don’t worry – I’m not about to admit to a deep dislike of sapphire seas and sunlit vistas. I am not going to ‘fess up to an antipathy to the fruits of the olive tree or, an abhorrence of the aubergine. The reality is that my familiarity with Greek mythology is, at best, hazy. Not having benefited from a classical education, I am a bit bemused by it all. For starters there’s Zeus and his predilection for dressing up in the bedroom. I mean – honestly – who would be seduced by someone assuming the guise of a golden shower ? Then he prances about, got up as a white bull, to have his wicked way with Europa, like some sort of lad on a weekend away.
Moving on, after an awful lot of shenanigans, he begets his favourite daughter, Athena (fully formed – that seems to be significant) from having his head split open by any number of divine or demi-divine culprits. And that’s just Zeus ! But believe me, I do try to get a handle on all of this- then I came across Eridanus. Now, Eridanus is one of those curious mythical entities that is both an almost person and, well, something else too. I’ll give you the gist of it all.
There seemed to be some sort of family fracas between Helios (the Sun god) and his offspring. Somehow one of them, his son Phaeton, phell into a river in the phar north and that river morphed into Eridanus, which became the source of amber – the amber being formed from the tears of Helios’ grieving daughters. A truly beautiful explanation for the creation of amber, to be sure; and of course amber is mainly found in northern Europe. It’s a lovely tale. So you see, I spend a lot of time (when not cooking, of course) reading up about all things Greek and over the last few weeks it was almost impossible not to miss two very Greek stories.
One that really hurt was the demise of an ancient Athenian institution. On my very first visit to the capital, on a meltingly hot day, I was ushered down subterranean steps into a sparse interior. It seemed incongruous to seek refuge from the searing heat in a shop whose only means of cooking was frying; frying above and frying below. And then I was given a plate of edible, amber balls. Not real amber, of course, these were crisp, honey-gilded doughnuts. Not large and bready, like the western variety, these were just big enough for a couple of bites and as light as amber. The colour was pure gold and the flavour was honey; if you could eat amber, I think it would have tasted so. I had eaten my first loukoumádes in their very temple; we were in the home of the loukoumás – the confectioner, Aigaíon. http://www.loukoumades-aigaion.gr/
It seems though, that Agaíon has become another victim of ‘The Crisis’, or maybe shifting habits, but after almost 100 years, the iconic home of loukoumádes has announced their closure. Situated close to the university, and en route to Omónia Square, I imagine that in the early Twenties and right through to the Nineties, they were situated perfectly. There would have been hungry students, workers, business types and shoppers, all ready for a sweet fix at any time of the day. Now, although loukoumádes have ditched their prosaic image and are found in even the swankiest of Greek restaurants, it seems that Athenians are seeking sweetness elsewhere. Aigaíon has closed their doors and I, for one, was very sad to hear it. They are of course not alone, in the last decade some the most famous names in the panoply of Athenian eateries have disappeared. The restaurant Ideál, a neighbour to Aigaíon, was the best place to get a home-cooked meal outside the home – we were very disappointed customers when we turned up to a dusty sign and closed shutters a few years ago. I lament the loss of the iconic café Brazilian whenever I walk over the name set in the pavement on Voukourestiou Street. It felt so much of another time to stand and drink a strong coffee at the brass rail there, rubbing shoulders with ageing writers and artists; it was a very unique place. The coffee was perfect and their cake was to die for.
We may still have the name of Zonar’s but it is not the Zonar’s of the past – it’s just another glitzy restaurant. Gone is the haunt of artists, actors and composers, and the rainbow display of macaroons – buying a box of fancies from Zonar’s did feel very special. If we ever lose Ariston and their tirópites, I may actually weep.
So after the shock of all that, there was another Greek story in the news, and, blow me, but who pops up again but Eridanus.
Of course, I can only assume that it is after the mythical river that the German supermarket chain, Lidl, decided to name their brand of ‘Greek’ products, though the spelling is slightly different. The northern river offering valuable gems must have seemed like a good patron for this project. The problem is that, in the same way that you can’t designate orange plastic as genuine amber, you can’t say food is Greek just by putting a Greek-sounding name on it.
OK they do the feta, the olives and the oil, I guess those are sourced in Greece – hopefully. But the the ready meals are just totally invented. Is there anyone that knows of a thing called ‘Gyros Rice Dish’ ?
Let me explain, gyros is the Greek name for a doner kebab – it’s grilled meat, thinly sliced and eaten as a kebab, in pita bread. It’s street food. It is not shreds of protein mixed into rice. Ever.
But the thing that really got the goat of the Greek people was the marketing. The packaging of all Eridanous products is adorned with glorious photos of the blue domes and the white walls of Greek churches, identifiably from the very real island of Santorini. You need the blue and white thing of course – they are ‘Greek’ products and after all, blue and white means Greece.
But because the marketing team have no idea about Greece, Greek culture or Greek sensitivities, they decided to air-brush the crosses off the domes of the churches, to make them religiously neutral. They actually thought it was ok to represent a church as religiously neutral. Their disdain for reality tells us everything you need to know about the whole project. Just as they have airbrushed the photos and the sanctity of the images, they have airbrushed the food culture too. What they have made is a fake – a mere pastiche of package-holiday Greece. This is not a myth, it is bogus and anything but Greek. I normally welcome heightened awareness for Greek food and culture but it’s real Greek culture I’m after – the authenticity that gave us Aigaíon, Ideál and Brazilian, not a marketing strategist’s plastic, photo-shopped Greece.
So as an antidote, here’s a real Greek recipe.
Kolokithópita – Courgette Pie
6-7 large courgettes (preferably the ‘white’ variety)
OR 1 medium sized marrow (approx 750 gm to 1kg)
180 gms peeled butternut squash (optional)
1 large leek
1 small handful of flat leaf parsley
1 small handful of dill
2 eggs, well beaten
3-4 tabs Greek yoghourt
150 gm feta, crumbled
Ground black pepper
1 packet (approx 250 gm) filo pastry
Sesame seeds and or nigella seeds (optional)
Into a colander, grate the courgettes/marrow and the butternut squash, if you have chosen to use it.
Sprinkle with a little salt and leave in the colander so that the liquid starts to leach – it’s a good idea to stand the colander on a plate to stop the liquid going all over your worktop !
Finely chop the leek, parsley and dill and place in a large mixing bowl.
Next, one handful at a time, take the grated courgette/marrow and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Add the squeezed, grated courgette/marrow to the chopped leeks and herbs.
To this add the beaten eggs, the yoghourt and the crumbled feta, a little salt and black pepper and mix well. Remember when adding the salt that feta is quite salty in itself.
Now, take a medium sized roasting tin and brush with olive oil.
Line the tin with a sheet of filo pastry, allowing the surplus to fall over the side of the tin. You want to have flaps of pastry that you can fold over later. Depending on the size of the tin and the size of the filo sheets, you may have to lay the sheets in the tin ‘portrait’ way up rather than ‘landscape’. If you do this overlap the sheets, so that there is no way for the filling to seep out.
Repeat this 3 times, brushing each layer of filo with plenty of olive oil.
Now put the courgette mixture on top of the filo and then fold over the flaps, and cover the filling with another 4 or 5 sheets of filo pastry, tucking it in around the edges and brushing each layer, including the top one, with olive oil.
Pat the whole thing with a little water and with damp fingers push any surplus pastry into the sides of the tin, so that the pie is sealed.
Take a sharp, sightly wet knife and score the top of the pie, just deep enough to go through the first few layers of filo.
Sprinkle with sesame or nigella seeds and bake at 180 degrees for about 35-40 minutes, until the pie is crisp and golden.