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

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Paying the Electricity Bill or Why I Still Love Greece

There is a saying in Greek, “I Ellada pote den pethainei” (Greece will never die) and today I saw why this is true.

I’d gone to the Public Power Company (DEH) office to pay my son’s bill. No, I’m not a doting mom with a spoiled child. My offspring left Athens two months ago to take up a job in a recently liberated country south of here. The bill was huge, not because he left his freezer on but because it included the newly imposed tax on private property. This tax has caused an uproar among Greeks since nonpayment can result in your own private blackout. They instantly dubbed it “To Haratsi,” in memory of a head tax levied on Christians in the Ottoman Empire, which every male over the age of 12 had to pay every year if they wanted their head to stay attached to their shoulders!

I hadn’t been to the office in years so when I saw two doors, one marked payments and the other reimbursements, I naturally entered the first. And plucked a numbered ticket from a machine. The paper in my hand said 240, the number on the overhead board read 150. So I sighed and went outside to wait.

As I sat on a bench, bundled up on this typically March day, the sun made furtive, feeble attempts to break through the gray clouds. But from a folding chair at the far edge of the building, an old woman had taken over the job of spreading cheer. Wearing an ankle-length brown overcoat and a black and white wool scarf to protect her head and ears, she was selling “koulouria” – sesame rings – from a big nylon bag.

Columns of koulouria in central Athens

But this was not one of those frail ladies in black that one sees often near the Central Market, who squat next to their wares with a pathetic pile of greens or a branch of bay leaves. No, this woman was an entertainer.

As people came and went, she kept up a commentary: “Buy a koulouri from this grandmother,” “Buy a koulouri in forgiveness of Pangalos (our fattest and most controversial Socialist MP),” and to a customer, “Sto kalo (go with the good), thanks and have a nice weekend.”

Sometimes she would break into song with a deep throaty voice that was capable of piercing high notes, as if she’d come from the same nest as Yma Sumac. She must have been the life of the glendi at those country fairs round churchyards, where Greeks dance and sing all night. Maybe she still is.

“Koulouria gouria,” she’d cry, making a rhyme with the word for luck. “Take one for your mother-in-law to dip into her coffee.” And if a mother with a child in a pushchair, she’d ask loudly, “Ah, ena paidaki, do you think he’ll grow up to be prime minister?”

She brought a smile to many faces, even though they’d just been relieved of considerable sums of money.

And she was certainly not shy. A woman lit up a cigarette on the bench next to me, and she said, “Kai to diko mou tsigaro, pou einai (and where’s my cigarette)? So the woman got up and offered her a Marlboro.

Every now and then, she’d give a shout, “Any of you unemployed out there? Come and get a koulouri, it’s on me . . . as long as you show me your card from the Bureau.”

From time to time, I’d get up to check the progress inside. When there were only about 50 ahead of me, I went myself to buy a koulouri. And took two, one white and one “diet” made of dark flour. Usually the size of bracelets, these were as big as halos.

Eleni's halo-sized sesame rings

I complimented the woman on her voice and she beamed an almost toothless smile. Her name was Eleni, she comes to this corner next to the PPC office and has been selling her sesame rings every day, rain or shine, but not snow, for the past five years. She lives in Menidi, a working class suburb west of here. Before that she did odd jobs. She has a pension but it doesn’t go far and her son is unemployed.

“Ola ta paidia tis Elladas einai anergoi – all the kids in Greece are out of work.”

A guy calls to her, “Why should I buy a koulouri without cheese?”

(A wedge of kasseri is the standard accompaniment to this traditional midmorning snack.)

“You want cheese? I’ll bring some on Monday.”

I’d been waiting half an hour before I overheard someone saying you could pay the haratsi in the second office without a number. So I went in the reimbursements door and stood in line for a mere five minutes.

But for once I wasn’t angry at the misleading information. Eleni had given me a wonderful show, which I never would have enjoyed if I hadn’t sat on that bench for so long.

I thanked her and said goodbye. Any time I want a free concert and sit-down comedy, I know where to go.

Greece will never surrender with people like Eleni to keep our spirits up.

I wish I could have taken her photograph, but I’d left home without even my cell phone. Here’s one instead of the koulouri seller on Ermou Street in central Athens. He doesn’t have an iota of Eleni’s survival qualities.

The Joys of Country Life

If you want to get away from it all – all being politics, taxes, pension cuts, PSIs & IMFs, transport strikes, burning cities or runofthemill exhaust fumes, cement jungles and prying neighbors – then I heartily recommend a week at our honeymoon cottage on Andros.

We arrived after three months absence on the first spring morning of the new year at the end of February. Usually December and January are blessed with halcyon days – sunny, mild stretches when the sea is calm enough for a kingfisher to lay her eggs in a floating nest. (Alcyone was a daughter of Aeolus, who threw herself into the sea after her husband drowned. Instead of letting her die, the wind god blew her to him and some benevolent deity changed them both into those quicksilver birds.)

But first things first. We bought a small tuna straight off one of the kaikis tied up at the dock. The fisherman plucked it from a crate where about a dozen glistening porgies (tsipoures) lay breathing their last. Talk about fresh.

We bought the tuna from a kaiki like this one.

And then drove up and over the hills between our house and the port, slaloming around potholes and clusters of sheep and goats, mothers with their sets of skittish twins.

Roadside puddles spoke of recent rains, but the biggest puddle was on our terrace, which meant the guestroom under it would be damper than usual. Unblocking the drain and sweeping the lake away was no biggie. Worse was the fact that we had no electricity. Lightning had knocked out something vital outside the house, and the surge protector had died trying to shield the refrigerator. (It also carbonized the innards of our second phone and we’re lucky it didn’t burn down the house – the electrician in Athens told us yesterday.)

But we didn’t know that at the time and I was far more upset about having to trash the moldy blackberries; I’d been hoarding them for out-of-season crumbles.

My husband dealt with the Public Power Company, while I got out my gloves and secaturs and started pruning.

Short of picking fruit and olives, there is no gardening job I like better than pruning. It’s scary at first, when you’re not sure which branches to cut, but very satisfying and utterly absorbing once you gain confidence.

Our trees are youngish, between 22 and 18 years old, so not unmanageable in size. I start by cutting all the branches that go straight up, the ones that cross over and rub each other, and even the ones that dangle down. They say the center of the olive tree should have enough space for a bird to fly through it without grazing its wings.

Most of our trees were so dense (like the one above) that each one took two to three hours to penetrate and shape. As I sliced away, I was oblivious to everything except the branches and the leaves, the breeze, the sun on my back, the smells of earth and grass and almond blossoms, but mostly the sounds. The countryside is anything but quiet, and the dozens of sheep and goats that surround us kept up a constant cacophony of anxious plaintive bleats and husky, reassuring baaas.

After (the ropes support a baby almond tree, a volunteer)

Believe it or not, we were engaged in a wonderful symbiosis. Sheep and goats find olive leaves the best mezes – a real treat – and we could throw all our branches over the fence for their delectation and clean up our own land in the process.

Our first three days were hara theou – so bright and clear that God rejoices, as the Greeks say. And then suddenly it was winter, ferocious glacial winds and a soot-gray sea, sometimes invisible under a thick fog. On Tuesday it snowed all day and all night and by the next morning everything was covered in white. Not thick enough to be a blanket, but rather rustic lace or openwork embroidery, like the curtains that hang in island windows.

That was my joy, to see the land transformed, even if only for a few hours.

Snowy landscape, island-style

Four days of zero temperatures and then spring sprang back. The plum buds that had been the size of seed pearls opened, slowly slowly, into blossoms, the apricot branches that had been totally bare sprouted tiny red beads, daisies popped up where there had been none, and black bees only slightly smaller than humming birds feasted on the rosemary hedge.

The plum tree on the day we left

I returned to my pruning and would have finished if rain hadn’t drenched our last hours.

But water from the heavens was not our only problem. As if the electricity failure wasn’t enough, our tap water was spurting out black. Literally. Filling the kitchen sink with rich earth. As for the bathroom, the faucets were clogged to a mere trickle. The tanks were not at fault; the filter there remained almost white. Perhaps a rat had gnawed a hole in the rubber pipe . . . under the ground somewhere?

We loaded up the car with relief.  There’s nothing like something screwing up the plumbing to make “civilization” and its discontents look more attractive.

As for the black water, that will provide some fun for next time.

Recipes

 That little tuna was sublime. All I did was bone and butterfly it, sprinkle lots of lemon juice on the open side and grill it, drizzled with olive oil, coarsely ground pepper and rosemary (all but the pepper, our own, of course).

That’s hardly a recipe, I know. I also made two big pots of soup – lentil and bean – and a new dish, rice with cauliflower, an idea from the Gastronomos magazine that comes with the Kathimerini once a month. Here it is, streamlined:

1 large cauliflower, washed and separated into smallish florets

1/4 cup/60 ml olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

hot pepper flakes, to taste

½ tsp rosemary or thyme

salt and pepper

1 cup/240 g Carolina rice or whatever’s on hand

¼ cup/60 ml white wine

1 lb/400 g canned chopped tomatoes

Wilt the onions in the oil, add the garlic and seasonings and cook for a minute. Add the rice and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Pour in the wine, bring to a boil, and then add the tomatoes plus 1 ½ cups (360 ml) hot water, stir, lower the heat and cover. When the rice is half cooked (8-10 minutes), fold in the cauliflower florets and add more water if necessary. Cook for another 10 minutes or until the cauliflower’s how you like it and the liquid has been absorbed. (4 servings)

Gastronomos added toasted sesame seeds to the finished dish, but I didn’t have any. I also intensified my version with a tablespoon of homemade tomato paste, which I make with lots of sugar. This is a surprisingly good way to deal with cauliflower, after you’re fed up with gratins, curries and just plained boiled.