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.


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.


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?”


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.