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.

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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.