My Pomegranate Love

It’s absolutely freezing here in Athens today. The temperature at midday registered 0 degrees centigrade and with the ferocious north wind making our bedroom curtains quiver, we’ve been pretty cold even with the heat on most of the day.

Monday afternoon is when I usually visit the organic farmers’ market in our neighborhood. I never expected them to set up their stalls today but to get a breath of even fresher air, I ventured out of the flat and walked in their direction. To my surprise, practically all the vendors were present. And nobody was complaining. “We’re used to it,” said the pretty young woman who sells eggs, “but we won’t last the full three hours.”

“Never mind,” said the apple man with a grin, “the cold is good for you. Chases the germs away.”

I filled my bag with Pink Lady apples, tangerines, clementines and blood oranges, a snow-white cauliflower, and a few tiny Cretan bananas.

Buying the bananas reminded me of the good old days in the 70s, when bananas were contraband. In order to protect the virtually nonexistent Cretan production, the junta decided to forbid the import of the Central American variety.

So we had what we called The Yellow Market — Chiquita bananas smuggled into the country and sold by gypsies at traffic lights or off the back of pickups. It was a ridiculous situation but one that persisted for a few years even after democracy was restored.

Amazingly, though there’s no shortage now, bananas are still among the bizarre things sold at traffic lights by the latest generation of beggars. Along with flowers, Kleenex, sesame rolls, fishing rods, cigarette lighters, plastic toys, car dusters, chamois cloths and so forth. There are so many supplicants, sadly, that one cannot give to all, but I do find I reach for a coin when greeted with a smile instead of a whine.

But back to the market.

Although my bag was heavy, I made room for some pomegranates. The season is almost over, and I’ll be so sorry to see them go. In October and November, we were eating our own from our two trees in Andros. It was the first year they actually produced more than two or three each. And of course their ruby seeds tasted so much better than any money could buy.

But for the last two months, I buy them from the organic growers whose trees are in Ermioni, in the Peloponnese opposite Hydra. It’s the pomegranate capital of Greece.

I am no Persephone. No way I could stop with six seeds. They are just as more-ish as peanuts or potato chips. A bit healthier, luckily. I eat them by the spoonful, plain; sprinkle them over muesli (with slices of those Cretan bananas); throw them into green salads, along with toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds; add them to baked apples or quinces or fruit salad.

I also adore fresh pomegranate juice, which I first had in Istanbul in October 2010. And what about pomegranate molasses, a delicious substitute for vinegar. It’s a gooey substance that you have to force out of its plastic bottle but it’s a lot like balsamic essence. I dribble it on fava (yellow split pea) puree and use it in salad dressings. (You can find it in Middle Eastern specialty shops.)

Cleaning them is a chore, but the secret is to roll the pomegranate on a hard surface, pressing into it as you roll. This will loosen the seeds.  Slice off the two ends, then halve and quarter them and they’ll pop out without much effort. I wear rubber gloves when I do this for the lovely colored juice turns black under your finger nails and dyes them for days.

Even if you can’t find pomegranates in your part of the world, I hope you’ll enjoy these photos.

This pomegranate was so perfect it could have been a Japanese ceramic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ode to Bean Soup

I’ve just been for a brisk walk in the park next door. We have had cold and frosty mornings, noons and evenings here in Athens for a week now. And I suddenly thought, perfect weather for bean soup. Greeks do not have a huge repertoire of soups. There’s no chicken soup for the soul in their culture; plain chicken soup simply means you’re very ill. In the old days, a hen was never slaughtered till her egg-laying days were over, and only then to make soup for a sick child or fading grandma. Adding egg and lemon to thicken and season it, is another story, and usually means a special occasion.

There’s no indigenous gazpacho, minestrone or soupe a l’oignon. No borscht, vichyssoise or even pumpkin, pea or cream of mushroom.

But where Greece excels is in its ospria — legumes or pulses. I can’t think of any other cuisine that works such gustatory magic with chickpeas, lentils or plain old white beans.

Bean soup or fasolada is often acclaimed as the country’s national dish and there are probably as many slight variations in its preparation as there are cooks. in Crete they’ll add dried orange peel and mint, in Macedonia, some hot pepper flakes, but basically the recipe just calls for carrots, celery, onion and tomatoes or tomato paste plus lots of olive oil.

As I walked, I could see Mt. Pendeli frosted with snow above the park’s silver-green olives. Mountains marry nicely with bean soup. Friends used to make a habit of celebrating their post-Christmas wedding anniversary with a climb to the refuge on Mt. Parnitha, the highest peak above the Athenian plain. The refuge supplied the fasolada, the celebrating couple would bring along smoked salmon and Moet Chandon. That was before we all got too creaky (or lazy) to exert ourselves.

But the most exalted fasolada I ever slurped was served three-quarters up Mt Olympus. On the fourth of July. About six of us had decided to climb Greece’s tallest mountain and had made the gentle ascent through magical woods to the top refuge. Though it was a lovely summer’s day, snow clumps lingered in recesses among the rocks.

It was only about three hours from Prionia to the upper refuge at Spilios Agapitos but the younger set — my son and two pals, along with a colleague from my office — collapsed after lunch. I instead was exhilarated, high on height and not at all ready to put my feet up.

So I went out for a little stroll, intending to just mosey around the lodge, drink in the view, smell the air. After 10-15 minutes, I bumped into our leader, Pericles Papamathaiou, another office friend and my guide to Greece’s mountains. He was a violinist and a poet by nature, civil engineer by profession, but I think he lived to climb.

Even from our office in central Athens, he’d spend his lunch break trotting up Lycabettus and he knew all the paths and caves on Attica’s slopes. Once he even led me to the trig point on the summit of Parnassus in a dense fog.

But that afternoon, when we met up we didn’t really mean to go all the way up Olympus. It just happened.  “Let’s go just a little further,” he said. And before we knew it we found ourselves at Skala (2,866 m), at the top of an alpine basin, ready to reach for Mytikas, the official summit.

Fortunately for me, I think, the gods had other plans. In a twinkling of an eye, the peaks disappeared, Zeus pulled out the kettle drums, and the skies opened with buckets of ice cubes. Thunder ricocheted round the huge basin and within minutes the mountainside was white, except for some exquisite purple flowers, my first gentians.

We huddled in the lee of a rock and watched this transformation in utter awe.

When it stopped, we began our descent. Going down is always much much harder than climbing up. First of all, you don’t walk, you have to trot, digging your toes into the scree at just the right angle so you don’t keel over. Pericles showed me how and it was quicker but exhausting. My two big toes kept stubbing on the tip of the boots and were so badly bruised the nails fell off months later.

There were two consolations that evening. One took the form of a superb bean soup. The other? I was so sore, I didn’t have to go back up the next day and be humiliated by NOT getting all the way to Mitikas. Apparently, the final approach is like a narrow bridge, with nothing between you and the abyss. My experience was perfect. I had got as high as I wanted and I had felt the soul of the mountain.

RECIPE

Coincidentally, I’ve just relearned an old Greek housewives’ foolproof trick for making beans tender. Soak them overnight as usual. Drain them in colander and sprinkle with a tablespoon of baking soda; rub it in with your hands and leave for half an hour. Rinse, drain and begin the soup proper.

It helps if the beans are organic and they must not be past their expiry date.

500 g/ 1lb medium white beans, preferably from the Prespes lakes

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

2-3 fat carrots, coarsely chopped

3-4 celery stalks & leaves, coarsely chopped

1 tsp hot pepper flakes

1/2 cup olive oil

1 can peeled tomatoes or 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste

veg stock or water

Put the soaked beans in cold water or stock to cover, bring to the boil and cook, uncovered, until the beans start to soften. Add the vegetables. When both beans and veg are tender, add the oil and tomatoes. Adding them earlier can slow down the tenderizing process.

I also throw in other herbs, like parsley or kafkalithra (tordyllium) and a strip of dried orange peel, if I have any, plus lots of black pepper at the end.

Visit to the Taj Mahal, Marathon

Marathon. Read the word and you think of endurance tests, or battles, or perhaps even Lord Byron, who sat above the crescent beach and wrote: “The mountains look on Marathon–And Marathon looks on the sea; And musing there an hour alone, I dreamt that Greece might still be free.”

Unless you live in Attica, you probably do not associate Marathon with cabbage beds or turbanned Sikhs on bicycles. And yet, this flat and fertile plain, where a small army of Greeks defeated a golden horde of Persians 2,500 years ago, is an enormous vegetable patch. In recent years, because many Greeks stopped doing manual labor, Marathon has turned into a suburb of Lahore.

Zinnia, the family pooch, among the cabbages

It’s funny how the immigrants to this country fell immediately into certain job categories. Filipinos do housework, Georgians and Bulgarians care for the aged, Albanians build, Egyptians man the fishing boats, and Pakistanis, Indians and Sikhs plant and pick veggies.

An unexpected benefit of this last is that almost everywhere Asian groceries and restaurants have sprung up to cater for these people. They are not always immediately evident.

Even though the Taj Mahal is on the main road between Marathon and Nea Makri, not far from Attica’s biggest beach at Schinia, where the battle was actually fought, I had never noticed it. Even though it has a turquoise blue facade quite unlike anything else on the strip, it doesn’t advertise itself.

But H, a friend who was born in India, had been advertising it for months, so after hearing her sing its praises, how could we refuse an invitation to lunch there on the second day of this year?

We certainly weren’t hungry after too many festive meals. And I’d just put my own pot of dal — lentil soup  to boil — when the phone rang.

An hour later, we were peering in the window for a sign of life. Nothing, But the door was not locked and we gave a shout. A tiny young man appeared and after some earnest discussion with our knowledgeable friend, we placed our order and were told to come back in 40 minutes.

Everything is made on the spot. So we strolled on a back street past lemon groves, NeoHellenic villas, and potato fields. The only people we encountered were dashing looking dark-skinned men riding their bikes in what H said was a peculiarly Indian manner, knees in, feet out, and very very slow.

With more time and energy, we could have visited the Marathon Museum, the famous burial mound of the Athenians or even the sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods near the coast. We could have walked along the waterfront. But we were lazy if not hungry.

Our lunch was superlative. Piping hot samosas, creamy dal, chicken and vegetable curries, rice, lassi (yogurt drink) and a carafe of drinkable wine, plus divine nan that was as light and moist as a croissant. The fiery factor was just right, too. We ate with relish, but had to ask for ‘doggy bags’ the helpings were so generous.

The cost of all that was a bit too spicy. We had feared as much because the prices on the menu had been blacked out. However, the dishes are authentic and if we’d been six people instead of four, the bill would have been quite acceptable. We’ll bear that in mind next time.

There is a certain irony to the presence of so many Asians in Marathon, where the Persians’ defeat meant that Europe stayed “Western” for so many millennia. But as long as these visitors bring their cooking pots and spices with them and allow us to share their meals, who’s complaining!

I for one hope they’ll stay even when Greeks pick up the hoe again.

The Taj Mahal, 325 Marathonos Ave., near the turn for the Tymvos Marathonomahon (Athenian tumulus), tel. 2294- 56123; 6937401340

Recipe

My favorite Indian cookbook author is Madhur Jaffrey. She has a recipe for Spicy Baked Chicken in Illustrated Indian Cookery that has become a regular in the family kitchen. But my son, who’s also a fabulous cook, has even improved on it.

First we make a spice rub of about equal amounts (1 heaping tablespoon, let’s say) of ground cumin, finely ground Turkish chili pepper (paprika will do), turmeric, black pepper, salt, 3-4 mashed garlic cloves and lemon juice.

Then we rub the chicken, cut up into 10 pieces, with it and let it marinate in the baking dish for at least 3 hours, or all day (in the fridge, in this case). If the chicken is free range, we remove the skin, poke the flesh with a knife and make sure the rub gets everywhere.

Finally, just before popping the chicken pieces into a preheated oven (200 C/400 F), we pour a can of chopped tomatoes over the chicken along with a good swig of olive oil. Turn the chicken half way through cooking. (If the chicken is a large one, like the country chickens we have on Andros, cook at a lower temperature.

Yummy with rice or fried potatoes.