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Monday, October 15, 2001

Book Reviews

Culinary Sailing

The Foods of the Greek Islands by Aglaia Kremezi. Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York, 298 pages, 2000, $35.00.

This is a beautiful book, and it demands to be read in comfort. But you won’t be comfortable for long, because every second recipe makes you want to rush straight into the kitchen to try those flavors for yourself. And each time Aglaia Kremezi adds a note or anecdote to her recipes – as she usually does – she raises issues that just have to be followed up in the study!

In essence, this is a cookbook. There are well over 120 recipes, spaciously set out, fully explained in language of crystal clarity. And there are plenty of alternatives for those who can’t get a special ingredient or just want to try something different. In the closing pages, you find a list of unfamiliar ingredients and a directory of suppliers of Greek products.

The chapters follow the familiar sequence from appetizers to desserts. Which means, in Greek-island terms, that we start with the meze, in a chapter subtitled “more than just appetizers.” We end with island desserts, which, as the subtitle reminds us, highlight “honey, fruits, nuts and fresh cheese.” Between these two milestones are six other chapters: savory pitas and pies; fish and seafood, “scarce but excellent”; succulent meat; beans, rice, bulgur, and pasta; seasonal salads, vegetables, and potatoes; and the powerful mysteries of bread.

Aglaia has collected recipes assiduously and adapted them for the modern kitchen wherever necessary. They come from her own family, from lifetime friends, from her travels across Greece, and from the more adventurous and authentic of chefs at Greek island tavernas. Notably, there is a selection of recipes developed and tested on critical New York palates by Jim Botsacos, chef of Molyvos Restaurant. I’ve enjoyed his octopus salad (page 42) and I like his grilled fish (page 85), so I’m looking forward to tasting more of this Molyvos selection.

The recipes are astonishing in their variety – although not so astonishing, perhaps, when we realize that each island has its own quite distinct history. Men from every island traveled the world. Each island has encountered different influences from traders, invaders, and others. Thus, the Venetians and the English left their mark on the Ionian Islands such as Cephalonia, Ithaca, and Corfu. Turkish and Anatolian influences were strong in Lesbos and Chios – but Chios was a Genoese possession for hundreds of years. Crete was ruled by Arabs as well as Turks and Venetians.

These varied influences – outlined in the introduction – mean that each island has its own culinary traditions. So, from Tinos we have a recipe for that light-textured but fiery-tasting garlic dip, skordalia, in a local version that includes capers. Kythera offers its famous grilled artichokes. From Folegandros comes a cheese-and-onion pie known locally as kalasouna. From Skopelos, a spinach pie often called (of course) skopelitiki. From Chios, a fish terrine, psari pikti. From Lesbos, barbounia gemista, stuffed red mullet. From Crete, tzulamas, a festive pork, currant, and pistachio pie. From Andros, finally, leg of lamb stuffed with wild greens and feta cheese.

Any reader will learn something new about Greek history from this book, and food history in particular. You’ve heard of Archestratus, the Syracusan Greek of about 350 BCE who has rightly been called the “father of gastronomy.” Do you remember, however, what Archestratus said about cooking fine fish? Aglaia Kremezi will remind you: Take it as fresh as possible; prepare it as simply as possible, with few added flavors, just a dash of olive oil maybe and a spray of oregano; and don’t overcook it. On page 74, she reinforces this ancient judgment with a contemporary viewpoint from Yannis Foskolos, the cook at an excellent fish taverna in Syros, who says that, “Masters of fish cookery take care to prepare [fish] as simply as possible so that the exceptional taste of each different kind is not lost.”

Notice Aglaia’s well-chosen subtitle for her fish chapter, “scarce but excellent.” In this chapter, she does more than provide some excellent recipes for fish. She also helps historians toward an answer to a real puzzle: Historically, how significant was fish in the Greek diet? Scholars such as Tom Gallant, who have argued that it was something of a rarity, can take heart from her remarks on page 73: “Because seafood is not plentiful in Greek waters, fish has never been the staple food of the islanders. The fishermen sell most of their catch to merchants in Athens or to the large hotels and tavernas of the popular resorts. On most of the islands, except the larger ones, there are no fishmongers. People catch their own fish, or they wait at the port for the boats to return and pick from what is available. Because fish is expensive, fishermen keep just the smallest of their catch or the kinds they can’t sell.”

This is clearly true and well-observed, and it ties in very neatly with those scraps of early comedy in which the characters boast of the fish they found at market and of how much it cost. Those characters are Athenians, and not the poorest Athenians either. Then as now, they were the people from whom the fishermen of the Greek coasts and islands had to make a living.

Greek history is present in the background throughout this book. It’s bound to be. But, throughout, what shines through is not dry history but fresh inventiveness. Look at the originality of the flavors, and at the confidence with which unexpected combinations create a newly classic dish. Taste the black-eyed pea and Swiss chard salad (from Cyprus). Just imagine the tangerine-scented almond cookies (from Chios). And don’t miss the chicken and fennel stew with quince (from Corfu). Is Greek cooking one of the classic gastronomic traditions? On the evidence of this work, it is.

And on the evidence of her life, Aglaia Kremezi is the ideal person to write this book. Here, she recounts growing up:

Even before going to school I remember shelling peas in the large kitchen of my grandfather’s old house. I had to stand on a stool in order to rinse and trim the wild greens. I would help my aunt roll bitter orange peels and thread them like a necklace when she made her bitter-orange preserves. My younger sister and I always helped shape the Christmas honey cookies. We learned how to remove the stones from cherries using a hairpin, and we looked on as my mother scaled and gutted all the many kinds of fish my father brought from the port of Piraeus, where he worked. Watching my grandfather slaughter a hen with a small ax was traumatic, and we would cover our eyes as the hen flapped, headless, about the yard. But the dark-fleshed, chewy meat we cooked in stews or soups was so much more flavorful than that of the pallid, sickly-looking chicken we eat today.

She tells us how to make the cherry spoon-sweet on page 240, by the way. As for her aunt’s bitter orange preserve, however, we might have to wait for a sequel.

Throughout this book, anecdotes and sidelights bring us closer to the realities of Greek island life – or, often, to the way of life remembered by islanders who are now living elsewhere. It is a life that may soon be doomed to disappear. This is an issue that disturbs Aglaia and should disturb all of us. The tone of this book becomes, suddenly, deadly serious as she discusses the continuation of island cooking traditions.

Recipes are seldom written down and are simply passed from mother to daughter. Now that many islanders have moved to Athens and the younger women work outside the home, this oral tradition is seriously endangered. Very few of the poor islanders’ foods have been recorded, and these dishes survive only as memories of a past laden with hardships that modern cooks would rather forget. Traditional island cooking is, unfortunately, on the verge of extinction. It is that tradition which I hope to preserve in these pages.

She has done her best, and this splendid book is the result.

Andrew Dalby is the author of Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece and Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices; his Flavours of Byzantium will be published later this year.
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