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.

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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.

That Old Orange Magic

I’m conflicted. My heart — and the heart of so many Greeks and people who love this country — is breaking. Not just cracking in two but splintering like the plate glass windows in Athens when they were struck on the night of February 12th by a sledge hammer or a chunk of flying marble.

I don’t live in central Athens, I’ve never even smelled tear gas, and I try not to watch more than 20 minutes of news a day. I don’t want to be dragged down by scenes of violence and burning buildings, or by politicians pointing the finger at everyone but themselves,

Call me an ostrich, or even a cock-eyed optimist, but I find the best way to cope with this bleak midwinter crisis is to go for a walk in the park near our home.

The Alsos Syngrou (or Wood) is enormous and quite wild in parts. If you ignore the distant hum of traffic, it’s easy to pretend you’re hiking through uncharted territory.

Moreover, getting there is half the fun. Like so many districts of Athens, my streets are lined with bitter orange trees, nerantzies in Greek. In spring, their scent rises above the stink of exhaust. And now their fruit gleams warmly through shiny green leaves, brightening even the darkest days.

If you could eat them raw, the boughs would be stripped. But for marmalade fans, they’re a cook’s bonanza. I always pick them from trees on a quiet street or dead end to get the best quality, unpolluted nerantzia. I’m very selective, only a few from each tree, for you don’t need more than a dozen to make 4 jars.

I recently discovered something more exotic. A kumquat tree. Growing right next to the sidewalk. I only discovered it a month ago and I’ve been quite discreet about pillaging it. But all that ripe fruit is quite a provocation. Lately though, the owner has been gardening. Every time I pass by, he’s there. The little golden footballs hang untouched, leaving me to imagine the crunch of their skin as I bite into one, their sharp, just sweet enough taste, their smooth pips. And how different they are from that garish liqueur sold in tourist shops in Corfu.

They start me musing on the truly incredible citrus family. Never mind the whole orange and lemon family — the sweet oval lemons of Amalfi that you can eat without puckering, the blood oranges that make tangy vermilion juice (I’ve heard that in California they call them by another name — blood being too graphic a word).

What about grapefruit? Lucky me, I haven’t had to buy one this winter. Just when our own tree ran out, a friend delivered a giant canvas shopping bagful, almost too heavy to carry. I saved the peel and candied it. The way I used to do with our “frappa” tree in Maroussi. That’s an inedible grapefruit lookalike, with a thick peel good only for making syrupy Greek spoon sweets or crystallizing in strips.

Now it’s also the bergamot season — pergamonto in Greek. They resemble lemons, but the peel is a deeper, almost sunflower yellow. Last year, when I was making limoncello, I made a batch of bergamo-cello, too, but no one liked it. Another friend who was given a basket of them has been squeezing the juice and putting sliced bergamots over baked fish for a new taste treat that sounds more successful.

Brightening up the market yesterday, glistening through the rain, were still more citrus, heaps of tangerines and clementines. In our house, preference is divided. I love the distinctive sharpness of tangerines and couldn’t care less about the pips, while my husband, a self-confessed lazy eater, sticks to the less interesting but pipless clementines.

Rain poured down on yesterday’s street market, for at least the fifth Wednesday in a row (I’m also counting snow days). But the thought of the condensed sunlight in those mounds of fruit drew me out of my comfort zone.

They cheered and sobered me at the same time. For, with oranges at only 80 cents a kilo, they seemed a bargain. And yet, some people can’t even afford that.

As one vendor said, “We always used to get beggars coming by and asking for 50 cents. Now they’re asking for food. What are we coming to?”

RECIPE

Tangerine Peel Truffles

But I want to leave you with a sweet taste. Another marvelous feature of citrus fruit is that, as with the pig, nothing need be wasted. Here are some simply delicious “truffles” made of tangerine peel.

Peel from 30 unblemished tangerines

450 grams (1lb) sugar

450 grams (1 lb) almonds, blanched and ground in food processor

Boil the tangerine peels in lots of water to get rid of their bitterness until they are soft. Drain. Leave them to dry overnight wrapped in a big dish towel.

The next day crumble the peel between your fingers until you have a “puree” of tangerine peel. Put the peel and the sugar in a saucepan and boil, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sugar turns to syrup. Be careful not to let it burn. Remove the pan from the burner and stir in the ground almonds and mix thoroughly.

When cool, pinch off bits of the mixture and roll it into little balls and arrange them on a pretty platter.

If you are not going to use them within the next day or two, lay them between sheets of wax paper and store them in the freezer. Makes about 60 pieces.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-Christmas Athens: Fritters and a One-Man Show instead of Bread and Circuses

This December there was such an outcry about the municipality’s plans to spend 200,000 euros on decorating Athens for Christmas, that the Mayor backed down and hired school children to do the job. Instead of installing the “tallest tree in Europe” – an earlier mayor’s boast – in Constitution Square, city officials made do with the trees already in place. Instead of the previous years’  “village” of Austrian-looking “cottages” selling sweets and trinkets for children filling the middle of the square, the big open area looked like it does on a normal day. Though normal – plain cement plaques and fountains uncluttered by the tents of Indignados or protest banners – is becoming more and more unusual.

When I finally made time to go down to the center yesterday, Athens was on her best behavior but hardly wearing her gladrags. The day sparkled, as it often does this time of year, so even without tinsel and lights, the city looked bright. And pleasantly crowded with people of all ages, many of them munching on sesame rings – a standard Greek/Turkish snack. I was tempted but did not give in. And the friend I was meeting did not offer me her last bite.

Instead we admired the bitter orange trees. You can find these on many an Athenian street, their blossoms pouring sweet perfume in the spring, their fruit deceptively alluring this time of year. Remarkably, the trees are still full – lately, bitter oranges have provided ready ammunition against the riot police.

And in addition to the oranges, the trees are sporting decorated tin cans, spangling silver, red, blue with Santas and stars, against the green leaves. School kids designed them, without remuneration.

We ambled down Ermou Street without seeing a single closed shop. This is Athens’ main shopping drag; there are boarded store fronts aplenty everywhere else.

We passed the chocolate souk, the shoe souk, the fabric souk, and the florists’ souk before reaching Athinas Street, which is a mishmash of hardware stores, bakeries, specialty food shops, posh banks, and even a tack and harness boutique on the stretch between Monastiraki and the Central Market. This last, with its Camargue and Western saddles, wide range of sheepbells, shepherds’ crooks, and bridles studded with blue and white evil eyes, raised questions. Who were its customers?

This district is one of my favorite parts of Athens. It still maintains its Anatolian flavor combined with a Hellenic liveliness and is a comforting mix of stylish revamped neoclassical buildings, Byzantine and 19th century churches, funky cafes, and derelict facades.

We sniffed the aromas from the spice emporia and the pastourma/preserved meat palaces on Evripidou, pored over the knives, spatulas, and kitchen paraphernalia in a shop for cooks and, resisting the urge to enter the Market, walked up to the Byzantine church of Sts. Theodore (there are always two of them), on to Praxitelous with its bead souks, and into a very special place for a timely lunch.

We were both suffering from hypoglycemia and museum back as we sank into the old-fashioned wooden seats at Doris, an Athens institution. Here both famous and undistinguished sit at marble-topped tables and feast on homey Greek dishes cooked far better than almost anyone’s mother could produce. Not for the steak and fries aficionados, Doris specializes in classics like moussaka and fish soup, stuffed cabbage rolls or stuffed eggplant. We decided on spinach with cuttlefish stew and lahanorizo/cabbage risotto, which stopped us from speaking as our tummies stopped complaining.

But the real reason for going to Doris is the plate of just-fried loukoumades/doughnut holes drizzled with honey and cinnamon. If you order them after lunch, you’re offered them free.

Sated by now, we waddled back to Constitution Square. And would have descended into the Metro were it not for a big crowd blocking the entrance. Hundreds of people – young, old, Greeks, tourists (yes, there were even a few Asians) – had formed a square within the Square to watch a juggler with chutzpah. Using four or five mispronounced Greek words, a 30-ish Canadian was stopping Athenians in their tracks. He had banter and humor; he could keep torches flying and blow them out without missing a beat; he could sit atop a 10-foot unicycle, tossing wicked looking scimitars; and best of all, he could tease the determined non-spectators who grimly crossed his territory without a pause.

At the end, having performed an “impossible” hat trick, he pleaded with us all to drop in one, two, or “the usual” five euros. I didn’t see any notes flying into his capello, but just about everyone left a coin or two.

Though his was but a tiny circus, this wandering performer kept his audience entertained. Lifted them out of themselves and their problems for a while and set them down gently on their way.

PS Doris was listed in the NY Times last January as one of the best eateries in Athens. I’m happy to say nothing has changed since then. You’ll find it at Praxitelous 30, Athens; (30-210) 3232671.