The Right Kind of Madness

I’m sitting in the shade of a gardener’s shack with a mad man. At least, that’s what he says he is, though his cloud of white hair, smiley face and cordial manner are reassuringly benign. The garden itself — an ebullience of tomatoes, potatoes, zukes, cukes and eggplant – could rival Findhorn.

It does look magical, especially since in early May, when I last saw it, the now fruiting plants were only a few inches high.

Way back in early May

“You’d have to be mad to do what I did here in Kifissia,” says Petros with a huge grin.

We’ve already established that he’s been to my country three times, to visit a relative in Pennsylvania; to Hong Kong maybe 50 times on business; that his daughter is an architect, his son tests computer games; and that he has another vegetable garden in Halandri, the suburb where he lives, about 20 minutes closer to Athens. And that, now retired, his passion for growing vegetables keeps growing.

Petros loves giving his crops away as much as he loves tending them. And because his garden always produces more than his family can use, he used to distribute its bounty to friends and establishments in his neighborhood.

The tomatoes on June 20th

“Besides the kiosk newstand, I’d take vegetables to the kafeneion. One day last year, I happened to go by with some cucumbers – you know how well they go with ouzo – and I offered them to a parea (group of buddies) sitting at a table outside. One of the men got really excited, sat me down and started asking me about my garden.

“Several ouzos later we were in his car driving up here to see whether we could make this abandoned property of his into a baxés.” Petros uses the common Turkish word meaning vegetable garden, rather than “perivóli,” and then tells me his surname is Baxevanis or gardener. What could be more perfect!

“He’d said there was water, but we had a devil of a time finding it. First we had to empty the plot of all the rubbish, junk, weeds and dead branches. That took 15 truckloads. And when we finally found the borehole, it had run dry from lack of use. Never mind, I said, we’ll use mains water and think about the bills later.

“Didn’t I tell you I was mad?”

Maybe, but he’s also becoming a celebrity. The garden has been written up in the local Kifissia newpaper, the mayor has been to visit, and strangers like me drop in daily, sometimes in groups.

Petros, a born gardener

Petros is ready with the hospitality. He keeps a bottle of tsípouro on the table along with a plate of sliced tomatoes doused with olive oil. He’s surprised when I decline the hooch. “Eight out of 10 women accept, say they’ll try it,” he says, but does not insist and pours me a tall glass of bubbling mineral water instead. He’s also got charcoal smouldering away in a small barbecue, and would be willing to grill us a few fresh sardines or even cook an omelette if there were time.

Behind him is a stack of boxes with green string handles and by his side are a pair filled with cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. To my right are more boxes, larger ones, containing lemons from his trees in Halandri.

Shyly, he admits that some of the vegetables go to the Municipality’s social services for needy families, others go to a home for handicapped children. He does sell some, of course, but “I’m not here to make money, so I can’t put a price on them.”

But Petros ceases being embarrassed when he talks about his dream. Or should I say dreams?

One dream is to work with schools and help them set up vegetable gardens.

“Mothers often bring their children with them when they come here. You should see their faces when I show them what a potato plant looks like. They’ve only ever seen them sliced up for fries. They have no idea what goes on underground.

“Now, with so many people going hungry, the schools could produce food for families. But it’s also just possible that one or two children will develop a love of growing things and continue doing that when they’re older.”

Petros’s other dream is to convince the owners of the big, lawn-covered properties in Kifissia to convert a piece of their thirsty greenery into a vegetable patch.

“I put in a lawn myself when I built my house in Halandri, but slowly slowly I dug it up and put in vegetables. Now the only grass that’s left is the paths that divide them. They’ll probably think I’m mad, but it’s worth a try.”

Meanwhile, Petros is planning a party in honor of his name day on June 29th. He’ll be roasting a lamb on the spit and serving tsípouro, sardines and whatever vegetables happen to be ripe. Plus there will be music for dancing. Everyone’s invited.

I wish I were going to be around.

As I get up to leave, Petros gives me one of those boxes with a green string handle.

“Let’s fill it, you can take it to Andros.”

We walk slowly to the gate, Petros bobbing down to grab a cucumber – three different kinds – some tomatoes, cherry and grapefruit-sized — and offers some peppers and a huge lettuce, which I refuse, embarrassed at so much generosity.

Petros ducks for a cucumber

“I have another dream, too,” he says. “To grow a tomato that tastes like the ones my mother grew in the early 50s. But for now, I’m happy just watching each plant get a little bigger every day. My wife, Kyria Despina, says I’m neglecting our home garden, but I can’t help myself. I told you, eho mia trella – I’m just a little bit mad.

After I wrote this, I looked up baxés in my Greek-English dictionary. Besides “garden,” there is another definition. To say that someone is “baxés” means “his heart is in the right place.” I think this is a better description of Petros.

Petros’s garden is located at Ionias 23 in Kifissia, between Harilaou Trikoupi and Kifissias Avenue near the Erythrea stop light, at the level of A/B supermarket. He’s there every day except Sunday between 8 am and 12:30. His home phone is 210 6820601. If you stop by, tell him Diana sent you.

RECIPE

Here’s a dish to make when you have plenty of summer vegetables. It’s a Baked Vegetable Casserole from Corfu, where they call it Ftohófago or Poor People’s Food. It’s taken from my first cookbook, Prospero’s Kitchen, (Ionian) Island Cooking of Greece, which has just been republished by IB Tauris/Macmillan. See cover, below. It’s available at Amazon, Eleftheroudakis, Kitchen Arts and Letters, etc.

Don’t worry about exact amounts; you don’t even need to have all the ingredients. But do put the vegetables in the order I suggest. It looks fiddly but is very straight forward.

1/3 lb (150 g) each of okra, string beans, zucchini (or more if you’re only using one or two of these vegetables)

2 medium new potatoes, scrubbed and thinly sliced

2 green bell peppers, seeded and thinly sliced

1 lb (500 g) tomatoes, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil or more

3 large red onions, thinly sliced

1 head garlic, peeled and slivered

1 bunch parsley, finely chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

sugar

breadcrumbs, fresh or dried, whatever’s on hand

Preheat the oven to 375°F/180°C.

Trim the okra and string beans, if using, and thinly slice the zukes.

Oil the bottom of a large roasting pan that is at least 4 inches/10 cm deep.

Combine the garlic, parsley, salt and pepper. Sprinkle some of this mixture on top of each layer of vegetables in the following order.

Strew the bottom with half the onions.

Next place the green vegetables – okra, beans, zukes.

Add a layer of potatoes and green peppers. Sprinkle this layer with a little olive oil and ¼ cup/60 ml water.

Spread the remaining onions on top.

Cover with the sliced tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, a little sugar (to bring out the flavor of the tomatoes), the breadcrumbs and the rest of the oil.

Bake in the preheated oven until the vegetables are all soft and the liquid has been absorbed (add more hot water, if it looks dry). This should take about 1 ½ hours. Cover the pan with foil if the top is getting dark too quickly.

If you don’t manage to polish this off in one sitting, it is also just as good the next day at room temperature.

Taking A New Look At Village Life

Until last weekend, I’ve never been much tempted by village life, in Greece or anywhere else. Give me the wide open spaces, neighbors who are too far away to drop in unannounced, views uninterrupted by houses, and certainly nobody’s cooking smells, party noises, or music choices except our own.

But a visit to a friend’s village a third of the way up the long leg of Evia–Greece’s second largest island and the closest to Attica–changed my mind.

Raptei would never win an award for architecture; you won’t find it illustrating postcards. Red tiles have replaced most of the beautiful old local slate roofs. Several houses droop empty and neglected. Some have been shored up with ugly cement. But because so much greenery camouflages its blemishes, you forget them.

What you don’t forget is its people.

I’d heard about Sophia Eleftherou for years. My friend Annie Apgar, who calls her Sophie, mentions her strength and humor, her kindness, her cooking, and her dexterity with the rolling pin almost every time she comes into Athens. Now we were finally going to meet.

Annie leads me a few steps down her rutted street and opens a gate onto a broad terrace lined with potted plants. On the far side a staircase leading to Sophie’s work area. Although she has a spacious kitchen with an electric stove and all mod cons, Sophie does most of her serious cooking in a tiny closet-like room over a gas-powered hub with two-burners. And sometimes even in the adjoining fireplace. We peer into the room, large enough for one person, and there she is, stirring two pots, one filled with simmering sheep’s milk for yogurt, the other bubbling with frothy apricots for jam.

“Here’s my friend, Diana,” says Annie.

Sophie, an erect figure in a loose dark dress, turns away from her pots and sizes me up coolly. “You’re the one that kanei [makes] cookbooks?”

After 20 years in Sydney but 39 years since her return, Sophie’s in her late 70s but still speaks pretty good English. She and Annie, who’s a Kiwi, chat animatedly in Greeklish.

When I nod in the affirmative, her serious almost stern face breaks into a welcoming smile. But then she sobers up again. “You should have come earlier, you’ve missed the pita. I’ve been up since 6, weeded the vegetables, rolled out the fyllo, baked the pie, and when I finish with this yogurt, I’ll be done for the day.”

Sophie stirring sheep’s milk for yogurt

While she’s stirring, Annie shows me around: the ancient oven with its black halo squatting on top of the empty chicken coop; the patches of corn, tomatoes, and zukes; a small olive grove where chickens are pecking at the earth; an outdoor sink; and a couple of storerooms, where Sophie displays her fyllo-making skills to groups of foreigners who join Annie and her fellow Kiwi, Jude Collins, on Culture and Cuisine Tours of Evia (http://www.cultureandcusineinevia.com/) in spring and fall.

These performances are legendary but though it’s only 10:30 I’ve missed my chance. Instead, we try to drag the recipe for the kolokithopita (zucchini pie) out of Sophie. It’s clear she enjoys telling us, but slowly, on her own terms. And with spread fingers to indicate the size of the zucchini or the piece of cheese. When I ask if I can write about her and take her photo, she looks pleased, not falsely shy or overly modest, a person of dignity accepting recognition.

She then leads the way upstairs to the proper kitchen, which is clearly the main room of the house, and sits us down at a spotless white-napped table with four chairs. Photos of lovely daughters, grandchildren, and a handsome, late husband stand out against the unadorned white walls.

Will we have quince spoon sweet or pita? Both, I say shamelessly.

Why is it we expect such hospitality in Greece but so rarely offer it so spontaneously and naturally ourselves?

After Sophie presents us each with a saucer of glistening reddish quince strips studded with blanched almonds, she takes out the pie.

Annie’s surprised; the pan contains four crispy cylinders instead of the usual full square. Each is made with a single sheet of homemade, hand-rolled fyllo and as I bite into my portion, I realize it is quite simply the best I’ve ever tasted. It’s light and crunchy; so often homemade fyllo is too thick, too heavy, stodgy.

And the filling? Annie asks, “Do you put any onion?”

You’d have thought she’d suggested arsenic. Sophie wrinkles her straight aristocratic nose in disgust, “What, and ruin the taste? Onions and zucchini do not go together!”

I ask what sort of cheese she uses in another dish, zucchini fritters.

“Gouda.”

“But that’s not traditional,” I protest.

“We’re making our own traditions here,” retorts Sophie.

As we’re nibbling and chatting, another woman pushes the beaded curtain that fronts so many country doors here—they let in the air and keep out the flies. This is Mina Apostolou, whom Annie calls the village angel. “She’s always giving things to others, never saving anything for herself.” Younger than Sophie, with an unwrinkled smiling face under fluffy white hair, she comes bearing a couple of empty plastic yogurt buckets. This is the precious local tupperware, always returned to the owner to be refilled or passed on to another neighbor.

Mina and Sophie

After more talk and banter—the two girls love to tease each other—Annie and I drag ourselves away. We still have to fit in a swim before I depart. Annie offers to take Mina and Sophie another day. Annie may not make yogurt or pitas, but she often serves as the village chauffeur.

We’re out the gate when we hear Mina calling her. “Ela, Anna, come back, I forgot to give you your yogurt and eggs.”

“I still have some of the old yogurt.”

“Oh, throw it out. But don’t forget to give me back the container.”

This is the Greece we fell in love with, Annie and I, so many decades ago. And, guess what, it is still here. My bet is that no matter what happens after our election day on June 17th, these enduring values of hospitality, humor, generosity, and neighborliness in the best sense will be even more evident.

I think I could get used to village life with friends like Sophie and Mina, not to mention Annie.

RECIPE

Zucchini-cheese Pie/Kolokithopita

There’s no way I can teach you how to reproduce Sophie’s amazing fyllo pastry. But here’s another version from my cookbook, Feasting and Fasting in Crete. If you can’t bear the struggle, there is perfectly adequate “country-style” fyllo in the frozen food sections of good supermarkets, even in the US (or so I think).

350 grams (2 1/2 cups) bread flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

about 180 ml (3/4 cup) warm water

2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine the flour and the salt in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Add the water and olive oil and work the flour into the liquid to make the dough. When all the flour is absorbed, knead the dough in the bowl, adding more flour or liquid as needed, for about 10 minutes. The dough should be elastic and smooth. Cover and leave to rest for at least an hour before using.

If you were Sophie, you have a long pole like a skinny broomstick instead of a rolling pin. You’d also have a round tabletop on stumpy legs that you’d set on a work surface to roll out your pastry. But an ordinary floured table will do.

Separate the dough into four balls and roll out as thin as possible. You’re going to make these pies as if they were strudel, so make them rectangular. And cover the dough balls with a cloth so they won’t dry out while you’re working.

The filling

4 fresh free-range eggs

2 zukes about 7-8 inches long

a slab of feta cheese about the same length as the zukes

chopped dill

and a handful of trahana, rustic pasta pellets made of soured milk and flour, to soak up the zucchini water

Grate the zukes into a colander, sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for 30 minutes. Squeeze dry with your hands.

Crumble the feta, beat the eggs, and mix them together with the grated zucchini, dill, and trahana. If you don’t have trahana, use raw rice or semolina.

Preheat the oven to 375°F/180°C.

Spread a quarter of the filling a couple of inches behind the short end of the pastry square and roll it the pastry over itself to the end, as you would a jelly roll (does anyone make those any more?) or a strudel. Tuck the two ends underneath and press them down to seal. Brush the surface with a little olive oil and place, seam-side down in an oiled baking pan. Repeat until finished.

Bake the pies until the crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes. We ate ours piping hot but they’ll be delicious at any temperature, though probably not quite as good as Sophie’s was.

The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring, tra la . . .

When you’re anxious about the fate of your country, when you have no idea whether you’ll have a pension, a home, food on the table or gas in your car a month from now, how do you keep from biting your nails to the quick, drinking the wine cellar dry, or stuffing all the delicacies you can afford into your freezer?

Answer: Go outside, don’t listen to the news or read a paper, and make a pact with your companions not to mention politics or finance for as long as you’re together.

Last weekend, for four days, about 30 friends and strangers followed this advice and had a magnificent time visiting gardens on, of all places, “my” island of Andros. We – members of the Mediterranean Garden Society – stayed at a hotel, so I did not have to come home to my indomitable patch of thistles and weeds and moan about the impossibility of having it look even one half of one percent as kempt as the places we’d seen.

It is such fun being a tourist in a place you know well, feeling pride in others’ reactions to the secrets you already possess and elated at the discovery of new ones. For this is no ordinary island. Andros is the second largest of the Cyclades and the only one blessed with water. Watermills, albeit abandoned, are as plentiful as windmills in Mykonos. Streams, springs, rivers make some parts of the island as luxuriant as the pluvious Italian Riviera, and one of them, full of desirable minerals and bubbles, gushes through a bottling plant.

Not your everyday Cycladic island

Even in the drier areas rivulets of pink oleanders betray the presence of underground veins, while in May normally drab gorse and broom spatter all but the most barren hills and roadsides with daubs of bright yellow.

Soothing though unfettered nature can be, the focus of our tour was gardens, the cooperative efforts between people and plants. We visited 12 in all, ranging from the palatial to the intimate, busy to minimalist, relatively flat to precipitous, and even one set amidst the boulders and torrents of a ravine. The owners were both Greeks and foreign (British, Canadian, American), permanent residents or seasonal. Virtually all had some kind of help, whether a team of six gardeners or a once-a-week maintenance man. All of them represented enormous thought, passion and respect for the plants they had chosen or found (some properties had centuries-old trees or indigenous rock roses).

One of several venerable olive trees.

Although some gardens had exotic touches – a stand of sugar cane, white peonies (unusual for this far south), flamboyant orange and yellow succulents – they all relied on native Greek stalwarts: lavender, rosemary, salvias, the big family of grey-leaved plants that love the sun and don’t need water . . . And roses, especially white ones arrranged in bushy banks or climbing up trellises. (Even I have them, enough to keep envy at bay, for once.)

Mediterranean colors and textures featured in all the gardens

Besides 101 kinds (a conservative estimate) of flowers and ornamental plants, eight of the gardens had impressive vegetable beds, which will be able to feed many more than the owners in the coming crunch; three raised poultry, including guinea fowl, pheasants, exotic chickens and geese (better than dogs as guards); there was one vineyard and one apiary and even a small flock of sheep.

All the exploring, question-and-answering, photographing and talk consumed a good deal of energy. So even though most of hosts offered refreshments ranging from local wine and cheese to crunchy cinnamon bisquits and sour-cherry-ade, there came a moment when lunch and dinner assumed more importance than identifying a shrub or analyzing compost.

“When are we going to eat?” You could feel the concern simmering through the group as meal time approached.

Here too I was pleased. Andros may be uniquely green and beautiful but its gastronomic reputation falters in comparison to Mykonos or Sifnos.

But we chose well. The traditional tavernas – Yiannoulis near Agios Petros beach outside Gavrio and I Parea in the main square of Andros town – served island specialties that had us wiping our plates spotless. Among them, the tenderest of artichokes stewed with broad beans or peas; the robust omelette, froutalia, bursting with piquant homemade sausage and fried potatoes (and thankfully lacking the pork rind of old); zucchini, tomato, and fava croquettes; fresh white cheese simply called “doppio” or local.

The famous Andriot froutalia

Our hotel, the Andros Holiday, known for its kitchen, not only set us up with a great breakfast – including one of the best bougatsas (flaky custard-filled pastry) I’ve ever been tempted by – they prepared special menus for the MGS at dinner. A salad of delicate greens, zucchini & cheese pie, pork fillet and sliced fruit the first night; rice-stuffed tomatoes and peppers, excellent hamburgers with mushroom sauce, oven-fried potatoes and a tangy lemon pudding that had us exclaiming with every mouthful. (The chef kindly gave me the recipe, see below.)

Our most memorable meal was lunch in the ravine garden. We had to walk down 190 steps to reach the house. Which raised the logistical question, how do you deliver supplies for 40-50 people and how do you dispose of the noncompostable garbage afterwards?

190 steps down and then some. Once there you never want to leave.

I wouldn’t want to live there but it was exhilarating, a jungle of surprising plants, water everywhere, a gaggle of small children anxious to serve as guides, roast lamb, grilled chicken, Epirot cheese pie, more froutalia, tzatziki, eggplant salad. . . and a feisty hostess of a certain age who keeps young and fit with all those steps. (Exemplifying the principle that what doesn’t kill you makes you strong.)

Home alone (with Joy of the People, of course) for the next five days, I started thinking about what one friend had said, upon seeing our land: “Well, it has lots of potential.”

We haven’t changed anything for so long, it looks like a very entrenched status quo to me. But maybe a little innovation would be just what’s needed to divert our attention from things over which we have no control.

RECIPE

Lemon Crumple for 8 people

With thanks to chef Iordanis Koubousis and the Andros Holiday Hotel

For the Crumple

50 g confectioners’ sugar

75 g brown sugar

80 g butter, softened

100 g cake flour

pinch of salt

75 g hazelnut or almond brittle

For the Chamomile Syrup

100 ml water

10 g chamomile (about a teaspoon)

50 g white sugar

100 g brown sugar

For the Lemon Cream

150 g butter

150 ml lemon juice

grated zest of 3 lemons

170 g white sugar

6 large eggs

1 squirt vanilla essence

pinch of salt

Make the crumple and the chamomile sauce 24 hours before you want to serve the dessert.

For the crumple, put all the ingredients, except the nut brittle, in the food processor and zap until smooth. Add the nut brittle and zap until homogenized. Refrigerate for 24 hours. Then, grate into large crumbs onto a baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes at 180° C.

For the syrup, place the water, chamomile and sugar in a saucepan and boil for about 5 minutes, set aside for 24 hours, then strain and pour it over the cream before you add the crumple.

For the cream, put all the ingredients into a saucepan or heatproof bowl and warm up, whisking, over a bain marie (double boiler). Keep whisking until the mixture is smooth and thick or reaches a temperature of 80° C. Remove from the stove and pour into small bowls or glasses (we had it in champagne glasses). Top with the sauce and crumple and savor every mouthful.

Note: I think the chef meant to write crumble, but I’d never tasted a crumble like this, so I’ve left it the more distinctive ‘crumple’.

The marble lion at the top is part of the famous Menites fountain, one of the more watery spots on Andros.

Sunday Surprises in Kifissia

It’s been snowing for days. Practically blizzarding. We can’t open the windows or huge flakes come right into the flat and litter the rugs and tiles with thick white balls. Of course, I’m not talking about real snow. This is the end of April, the season for poplar fluff, which comes right on the heels of the pine pollen, which turned our cars and balconies yellow a few weeks ago.

Nobody really minds. The messy fluff that piles into grubby grey drifts on our sidewalks and gardens gives us a chance to complain about something other than our upcoming elections, plethora of unworthy candidates and worries about the day after when no one wins. And we lose.

We’re not often stuck in our apartment on a spring Sunday. But Joy of the People was feeling too unwell (nothing serious, don’t worry) to even accept a lunch invitation from dear friends for “more lamb if you can stand it.” So he collapsed on the sofa with the paper and I sat at the diningroom table with my laptop.

Our own lunch was a nonevent. The perfect looking avocado I’d hoped to serve proved impossible to cut through; the center was hard as wood even though the outer flesh was squshy. In fact, it rather took away our appetite so we contented ourselves with yogurt and strawberries.

At about 5 pm I decided to go out for a breath of fluffy air and walk up towards Erythraia for a change instead of circling the park, which I’d done Saturday.

I threaded my way through quiet streets to Kefalari Square, where every single café throbbed with animated talkers hunched over half-drunk frappés (the Greek version of iced coffee). A clown was teasing a giggle of children in front of Fridays. A Porsche and an SUV-sized Minis had stopped at the news stand.

Then I turned left and a couple of blocks on I stopped to stare at a crane tilted over a collection of unfinished maisonettes. Lined with blue insulation, fenced with dented aluminum, abandoned buildings are no rarity in Kifissia, but the crane swaying in the breeze added interest. So I went around the corner to get a better look.

And forgot about the construction site. The skeletons of nine burned cars, still reeking of charred rubber, their hoods opened to reveal fused engines, stopped me in my tracks. A few people, similarly dazed, were commenting across the street. “It’s a message.” But from whom to whom? The cars were not particularly luxurious or provocative. Sure there was an Audi sportscar, but the others, a Smart, an aged Cherokee, a battered red van, a tired Golf seemed inadequate targets for enemies of extreme wealth.

One of the charred cars

We got used to hearing about torched cars in Parisian banlieues, but it’s a relatively rare form of vandalism in Athens, and unknown in our suburbs.

A tall mustachioed gentleman with a friendly face approached, so I asked him in Greek what had happened. “They say that around 3 am some hoodies rode by and poured gasoline over the cars and set them alight.” I nodded and asked where he was from. “New York,” said he. “Me too,” said I, so we continued in English, amused at the coincidence.

Back to the joys of spring!

When we parted, I kept walking north, stopping to take photos of a flower standand then on to my destination: a new vegetable garden in a plot attached to an abandoned house. A friend had alerted me to the beautifully tilled soil, neat-as-a-pin rows and the promise of organic veggies for sale. The gardener was absent but a sign gave morning opening hours and a number to call for orders. I’ll go back to find out more. Watch this space.

A welcome addition to our community

Heading homewards, I noticed a new shop. Veneti, perhaps the capital’s best and largest chain of bread and sweets, had moved into premises vacated by a deluxe auto showroom. And this was their inauguration day. An eager employee gave me a tour and I promised to be back.

Veneti's shop window. Doesn't this make you want to taste their bread?

I ambled past Zillions ice cream parlor—with every seat occupied inside and out—and the price per kilo reduced from 19 euros to 16.90. Still pretty expensive. I’d deliberately set out with no cash to avoid such temptations.

Zillions gave way to trillions of roses, their perfume vying with the orange blossom. Some sidewalks were pink with “confetti” from the Judas trees, which had lit up the streets before Easter.

Roses to gladden the heart and the senses.

Back in Kifissia center, where I go almost every day, yet another new shop had opened–a café called Bellini, tucked as close as a Siamese twin to chef Christoforos Peskias’s Π Box, which looked dead.

What? Toppled from its fashionable perch? I went to the back courtyard. There three cafés, Π Box, Bellini and the Muffin Shop, were enjoying capacity crowds. Not an empty table. At 7 on a Sunday afternoon.

Conclusion: The crisis does not seem to have hit café/frappé society; gilded youth, young families with double strollers and rambunctious toddlers, even older couples filled Kifissia with life and ease.

And yet, how would they have reacted to the sight of the burned cars? Or to the news I learned only this morning (Monday), when we ran into a friend outside yet another new bakery on the same block as Veneti’s?

“Did you hear,” he said, “about the car bomb that went off under my grandmother’s apartment a few nights ago? That one was aimed at the Uruguay ambassador!”

I don’t know what to think, how to react. So I’ll brave the fluffy air once more and make a foray to the organic farmers’ market. We’ve run out of strawberries.

RECIPE

And just so you don’t go away with a bitter taste or a feeling of foreboding, here’s the recipe for the Chocolate Cloud Cake we swooned over at Easter.

250 grams dark chocolate (70%)

120 grams unsalted butter

170 grams fine sugar

6 eggs, 2 whole, 4 separated

2 tablespoons liqueur (I’d put mastiha or cointreau)

Line a 22 cm cake tin with baking parchment. Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler or in the microwave. Add the butter and remove from heat when melted.

Beat the whole eggs and 4 yolks with 75 grams of the sugar until thick and creamy. Add the chocolate mixture and fold in until no streaks remain.

Beat the egg whites until thick, gradually adding the remaining sugar until peaks form. Fold them into the chocolate gently.

Pour the mixture into the cake pan and shake a little to even the surface. Bake at 170 C (360 F) for 35-45 minutes until set and small cracks have formed. Cool in the tin. Don’t worry if the middle sinks a bit and the rim cracks some more.

When cold, spread whipped cream over the top and decorate with chocolate shavings or as inspired.

Easter on Andros

Christos Anesti! Christ is risen. The words pop out of our mouths at the stroke of midnight on Easter Eve and for the rest of the week even if the Passion of Christ means nothing more to us than uplifting music by Bach. Even if we have not been fasting for 48 days, even if we have not darkened the door of a church.

My father, a vestryman and dedicated churchgoer, used to be very disparaging about what he called “oncers”—people who attend one service a year, at either Christmas or Easter. But though I always mean to join the procession following the Epitaphios—a flower-bedecked facsimile of Christ’s casket—on Good Friday and wait with the crowds outside a country chapel for the priest to burst out with his lit candle and announce the joyful news of the Resurrection, I don’t often manage even that any more.

I’m not at all religious in the conventional sense. Four years of enforced dogma and twice-daily prayers at an Episcopalian boarding school extinguished any residual childhood beliefs or expectations of solace from the pulpit. But ceremony is another matter and I love the drama and theatrical aspects of the Greek church, the poetry and hymns of the Protestants.

In the old days when we were new to Andros, I never missed going to the church at Fellos, the only one functioning between our house in the outback and the port. There we would greet friends, stand somewhat apart from the local congregation (being both oncers and foreigners—Athenians are regarded as alien as Anglo-Saxons), clutch our candles and wince when the lay chanters we knew as the tiler or the plumber intoned off-key.

Sadly, I have never taken part in the preparation of the Epitaphios. In some places, on islands like Spetses, Poros or Hydra, or towns like Corfu and Heraklio, where there are several churches within a small radius, the processions converge in a central square and there’s an unofficial competition as to which parish has created the loveliest bier. The equivalent of the Women’s Auxiliary meet in the morning, bringing flowers from their gardens, preferably white, and decorate the “coffin” with them.

I could have brought apple blossoms to the Epitaphios.

Walking behind it in the evening with hundreds of other people, all singing the achingly beautiful Byzantine hymn, “O Glykí Mou Eár” (O My Sweet Spring), can be incredibly moving and inspiring, even to a jaded agnostic.

But when there is just one church, on a hill no less battered than wuthering heights, the straggly procession simply circles it three times and the hymn disappears into the wind and emptiness. The experience bears repeating only just so often, and I think I’ve had my share. I also no longer welcome the firecrackers and explosions that drown out the equally wonderful Easter hymn and reduce the service to a raucous charade.

This is a rather circuitous rationale for why we stayed home on both nights, cosseted in our comfort zone. The men played backgammon by the fire, we women cooked—a succulent risotto of artichokes and broad beans from our guests’ garden on Friday, and made the avgolémono (egg-lemon) thickener for the mageirítsa, Easter soup with lamb’s innards, on Saturday. We’d shamelessly finished dinner by 10 pm and then, dare I admit it, watched movies on TV until after midnight. Fireworks woke me up at 2:45!

Sunday turned out to be a perfect. Perhaps because it is also a pagan festival and older gods watch over us.

Spit-roasting a lamb at Easter always means that we anxiously check the weather reports every few hours from the beginning of the week on. Will April showers dampen our charcoal? Are fierce winds going to prevent us from lighting it? Strong southeasterlies—the worst for our terrace—had been blowing for days, but the forecasts maintained they would shift to the southwest and drop. Sure enough, Aeolos took pity on us and reduced his presence to a gentle breeze. Helios banished all clouds. And that lamb from next door tasted even better than I’d predicted.

Our team has got the spitting/roasting routine down to a fine art. The guys got up around 8—none of that rising at 6 to dig a pit and prepare the fire. They drank their coffee and then skewered the lamb, which had been delivered to our door on Saturday afternoon. I gathered bunches of all the herbs in our garden—oregano, rosemary, mint, thyme—leaving out the sage, and they stuffed them into its belly along with some garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice. I made an oil, lemon and oregano basting sauce and the critter was twirling by 10, rotating by machine and not, as in the old days, by hand.

Just ready to come off the spit. I think I like the skin even better than the meat.

Our friends started arriving after 12:30, while I was still picking wild flowers—white and blue lupins, yellow daisies, pink mallows with purple stripes and many other mauve-blue combinations—for the tables. They all came laden, with wine and with food, dips and desserts to complement the pièce de resistance.

Tzatziki, hummus, taramosalata, something spicy and creamy, beet/orange salad, roast potatoes, cheeses; strawberries and cream, chocolate cloud cake, apple tart and an English simnal cake—a rich fruit cake with marzipan icing and 11 balls that symbolize the Apostles.

Desserts to fill the eye and the tummy.

Many couples brought both starter and sweet as well as wine, overwhelming us with their generosity. We have enough wine left to hold another party.

Conversation stayed light. No one mentioned “the crisis” but there was a gentleness in the atmosphere, a feeling of deep appreciation for the multiple gifts of friendship, good food and perfect weather.

As for that lamb, Greeks and English-speakers alike descended on the crispy succulent beast as soon as it was laid on our (covered) marble table not long after 2 pm. Nobody bothered with plates. We all tore at the skin, offering each other the best bites, some armed with forks, others with sharp knives. Only when we were sated with meat did we retire to the tables for our salads and potatoes.

Some people might have been shocked but I was pleased. Our houseguests and family always attack the lamb this way. To serve it sliced and congealing on a plate is disrespectful to the animal. We all agreed it was the best ever.

The response to Christos Anesti is Aleithos Anesti, Verily He Is Risen! Another less religious greeting is Chronia Polla or Many Years, which is a standard wish for longevity that Greeks proclaim around any sort of holiday, be it name day, birthday, Christmas, New Year’s, whatever.

The one I like best is “Kai tou Chronou.” May we all be together again doing the same thing next year. In times like these a year is a long time, but I can think of no better wish to get us through it.

Pre-Easter Thoughts from Andros

It’s raining. I wouldn’t be here sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop if it weren’t. Since we arrived on Andros on Friday (the 6th), we’ve been outdoors from sunup (well, more like 9:30) till sundown close to 8 pm. Quite apart from our thirst to be in the embrace of nature as much as possible after a month in Athens, there’s been so much to do.

Taking first things first, our dear friend and neighbor Costa Fixit kept his promise and really did solve the black water problem (see Joys of Country Living). It took about two hours but he cleared out the accumulated sludge of 23 years with a pump that forces water through the pipe at high pressure.

What a relief and what a blessing to have a wizard at plumbing and electrical conundrums so close at hand. My husband, whose name translates as Joy of the People, is a surgeon. Since retirement he has picked up many new skills—painting, plastering, digging, strimming, even carpentry—but doesn’t do elec/mech jobs. His first DIY table would have walked with a severe limp, but he found himself putting the panels on the sides of the kitchen counters when the tiler said it was the builder’s job and the builder maintained the opposite. That was just the beginning. He also was forced to install a whole false ceiling, beams and all, in the guestroom when the carpenter refused to help after he delivered the pieces. And he dismantled it years later when termites threatened to bring it down inch by inch.

The spring where we get our drinking water never runs black.

But once the water was flowing freely again, we could dedicate ourselves to prettifying the property for Easter. JotP got out the hoe and started carving passages through the weeds to various essential points, like the water tanks, electricity meter, vegetable patch. The grasses, usually wheat and wild oats from the previous owner’s farming days, are only mid-calf height but the thistles are thicker and thornier than we’ve ever seen. I’ve been pulling oxalis, a clover-like pest, from the veg and flower beds, and doing my part in the losing battle against the thistles. I know we could drip Roundup on them but besides being death to bees and everything else who wants to help Monsanto?

Last Sunday was Western Easter. I watched the moon waxing and pondered as I do every spring why the Orthodox and the other Christian persuasions arrive at different dates (most of the time) when their calculations stem from the same rule. For, as Ezra Pound once told me in Rapallo in 1972, “Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.” I suspect it may have something to do with the Orthodox Church’s adoption of the Old Julian Calendar for this particular holiday.

Spring has sprung.

But to return to Ezra Pound. We happened to have dinner at mutual friends, who’d known him for years. The controversial poet retired to Rapallo after his release from St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington DC, where he’d been committed in punishment for his infamous pro-Fascist radio broadcasts during the War, instead of being shot as a traitor. It was thought preferable to treat his actions as mad rather than criminal.

After that, EP made a vow never to talk about anything meaningful ever again, which meant he was largely silent. So our hostess, in an effort to engage him, asked him the Easter question. He was distinguished looking, with his shock of white hair and his pointed white beard, but he did not seem the genius who had helped Eliot rewrite The Waste Land and inspired countless younger poets. He replied without elaborating and the light had gone out of his eyes.

So, our Easter this year falls a week after everyone else’s. We’ll do a lamb on the spit, and I can see it grazing in the field next to ours. Fortunately, I cannot guess which one our neighbor has selected for us or I might feel some qualms about eating it. I’m grateful that Mihalis has not introduced us but that I can still vouch for its free-rangeyness. From past Easters, I know that it will taste of wild mint, oregano and salt air, better than the gigot du pre salé de Normandie so prized in Paris.

Goats grazing nearby. The sheep are even closer.

I’m also grateful that we’re already here on the island. That the sudden seamen’s strike on Holy Tuesday and Wednesday did not blight our travel plans (as they did thousands of others, Greek and foreign), That we didn’t have to venture out of the house today for provisions. That being here takes the edge off our fears that Election Day, tentatively scheduled for May 6th, will plunge Greece into an anarchy far more serious than the disorganized uncertainty which prevails today. And that I can indulge in a little reminiscing.

Now I will put the laptop on a chair and throw together a fasting cake.

Raisin and Walnut Cake from Eastern Crete

This is really easy. It has no eggs or milk and uses olive oil for shortening instead of butter. The inside is dense and moist, the outside crunchy and almost toffee-like.

300 grams (2 cups) golden raisins

60 ml (1/4 cup) raki or brandy

about 420 grams (3 cups) all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

240 ml (1 cup) olive oil

200 grams (1 cup) sugar

120 ml (1/2 cup) fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon baking soda, dissolved in the orange juice

grated peel of one orange

120 ml (1/2 cup) soda water

150 grams (1 cup) chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190 C (375 F).

Soak the raisins in the brandy for about 10 minutes and then chop them in the food processor.

Sift the flour and spices together into a bowl. In a separate, larger bowl, using an electric mixer if you have one, beat together the olive oil and sugar until creamy and slowly add the orange juice along with the grated peel, soda water, brandy-soaked raisins and chopped walnuts. Stir in the flour, a little at a time, until you have a thick batter.

Slide it into a lightly oiled springform cake pan (24 cm /9.5 inches in diameter)  and bake for about 1 hour. Serves 10.

Back to Basics in Athens Basements

“I know a place where we could have lunch,” said my friend J last Saturday.

We’d had a meeting in Theseion, a colorful district near the Acropolis, and decided to wander back to the train via the Central Market. Neither of us has the chance to do that often, so we enjoyed every step of the way. We passed a church I’d never seen before, perched on a rock;

neoclassical houses in every state of repair from freshly painted to crumbling; a thick stream of peddlers selling everything from original handicrafts to complete junk; half-excavated antiquities; outdoor cafes and restaurants;

Plateia Avyssinias and its flea market; and the miscellany of shops on Athinas Street, where I stopped by a favorite Cretan bakery to buy gritsinia studded with 8 seeds and J “threw an eye” into the tack and saddle emporium next door.

A bit of the Flea Maarket

By the time we reached the Market, we had no appetite for dangling meat carcasses or even mountains of glistening fish on ice. But we were hungry.

So J led me down the street with the vegetable booths, around the corner and across the street. She stopped outside two scruffy brown doors, thick with layers of chocolate paint, and said, “This is it.”

I peered into the darkness. In this neighborhood, there are dozens of basements, but most of them are shops stocked with dry goods, sacks of beans and grains, textiles, ropes. . . I didn’t expect the black hole to conceal a restaurant. And yet, as I negotiated the uneven steps, I could see massive wine barrels lining one wall and about ten tables, all occupied.

A typical basement shop

I followed J to the “kitchen” next to a second set of cement steps, which let in a little light. It was about the size of a galley on a small sailing yacht, separated from the main room only by a till enclosed by a wooden grate. Pots and baking pans filled a counter near the wall. I saw no other kitchen, and no place to prepare the food, but perhaps there is one hidden off limits.

A grouchy looking older man stood by the till and supervised the youngish waiter. He nodded at us to sit at the adjacent table for five, which had two empty seats. Then we realized that two of them were old friends.

It seems Diporto (Theatrou Sq. & Sokratous 9) is an institution. Everyone knows about it but me, and I’ve been here 40 years. How did it escape my notice!

It has obviously escaped the attention of the Board of Health and Brussels hygiene rules, but no matter, we ate extremely well. A big bowl of fava for J and a big bowl of spicy cuttlefish stew for me, though I was tempted by the chickpea soup, which seemed to be the most popular order. The remains of fried fish, salad and something with tomato sauce decorated the plates of our friends, who called for another half kilo of retsina and some fruit.

The waiter obliged, squashing the plate with sliced apples onto the one with the fish bones. Yuck. Our Swiss friend V took the situation in hand and cleared the table herself. And we went back to discussing pension prospects, architecture and synchronicity. When they left, three men, strangers this time, joined us. Our bill was minimal.

History repeated itself on Thursday night. I’d gone to hear the Athens Singers, my old choir, sing John Stainer’s The Crucifixion in St. Paul’s Church near Syntagma. The performance was excellent and there were lots of old friends to catch up with before and after. Including J, who said, “I know a place where we could have dinner.”

She invited another couple and off we went into Plaka, where there was no sign of any crisis, just flocks of young people having a good time. And half way down marble-paved Kythathinaion Street, she steered us into another basement institution, where three laughing women of a certain age were hauling themselves up the uneven steps.

At least, Ta Bakaliarakia (The Little Codfishes) (Kydathinaion 41, 210 3225084) was no surprise to me. It’s been open since 1865, and though repainted a few times, it hasn’t changed much from the early 70s, when I used to visit often.

It’s bigger than Diporto, with two rooms and a kitchen tucked behind a big display case fogged by the steam from simmering pots and pans. And it’s brighter and swankier, with B&W photos and yellowed certificates on the wall, but the same old-fashioned rush-seated wooden taverna chairs and tables.

We didn’t speak much. A guitar- and bouzouki-playing duo were seated next to us. They were singing old favorites, classics that Bithikotsi made famous in the 60s and earlier. But the four of us lapped up the nostalgia, along with the retsina, which is becoming extinct, while dining sumptuously on zucchini croquettes, horta (greens), cod brandade in spicy tomato sauce, fabulous fried potatoes and, of course, fava, J being addicted to it.

As she said, “Basics in the basement, what more could one want?”

And for a couple of hours, we reveled in the illusion that Athens has not changed and all was well in the capital of Crisisland.

RECIPE

Fava

In Greece, fava are split yellow peas, usually served pureed and at room temperature. They are quite different from Italian fava (broad beans). The Diporto fava arrived with a topping of chopped onions, olive oil, black olives and pickled peppers. The Bakaliarakia version was even better. It was made with peas from Santorini, which were noticeably creamier and tastier. The dish is a taverna staple year round, but particularly during Lent.

Here’s how I make it.

2 cups (500 g) yellow split peas

1 large onion, cut in chunks

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt & black pepper to taste

Wash the peas well and place them in a pot with the onion and oil, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim off the scum and simmer for about an hour. The time will depend on the quality of the peas. Test them for tenderness and add more water if necessary to keep them from sticking. They should be quite soft, the consistency of loose mashed potatoes.

You can eat them as is, without zapping them in the food processor, but I prefer the smoother texture. Like split green peas, they will solidify when they cool.

Fava is usually served in tavernas at room temperature with onions, plenty of extra oil, fresh lemon juice. But I like to add capers and sliced sun-dried tomatoes. The other day, though, I made it looser as soup, topped with concentrated balsamic vinegar, hot pepper flakes and some finely sliced fried sausage. Delish.

Fava soup