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Thursday, November 01, 2001

Food

Some Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of Greek Food


“The cook sets before you a large tray on which are five small plates. One of these holds garlic, another a pair of sea urchins, another a sweet wine sop, another ten cockles, the last a small piece of sturgeon. While I’m eating this, another is eating that; and while he is eating that, I have made away with this. What I want, good sir, is both the one and the other, but my wish is impossible. For I have neither five mouths nor five hands….” This scene describes the frustration we feel when we fail to taste all the dishes on the meze spreads. It is obviously an age-old problem, as the passage comes from the comedy, Centaur, by Lynceus, written in the fourth to third centuries BCE.

The art of cooking is nothing new: Even before classical times, there were professional cooks and bakers in Athens; they prepared elaborate foods and sweets on command. Meze, increasingly popular today all over the world, involves the sharing of food. All participants, fork in hand, help themselves from a variety of dishes placed in the middle of the table. Judging from the quote, it has been a regular table custom since antiquity.

Texts and some vague recipes that have survived show how sophisticated ancient cooking and baking was. Today’s food researchers often turn to the writings of Archestratus, the Greek gourmet-poet of the fourth century BCE, to find information about the ingredients and the way food was served in antiquity. Alain Senderens, the renowned French chef, considers Archestratus the forefather of nouvelle cuisine and used his name for the first restaurant he created. Ancient sources are invaluable in the effort to trace the roots of modern Greek cuisine. Being part of the cultural exchange that took place for more than 2,000 years among the large empires of the Mediterranean basin, Greek cuisine has gracefully assimilated many influences from both the East and the West. With the birth of the modern Greek state in the nineteenth century, and in the spirit of reviving its ancient past, several cultural features of modern Greek life were accused of being non-Greek. Unfortunately, Greek cuisine did not escape this cultural “cleansing.” Later, in the 1970s, package tourism stabilized and spread some politically correct dishes all over the world, thus diminishing the rich Greek culinary tradition to three or four “mutant” dishes.

It is not surprising that the most popular Greek foods throughout the world are not chickpea or bean soup, yellow split peas, or the stewed mixed seasonal vegetables and greens that most Greeks ate regularly until the late 1960s. Those dishes only recently started to be part of the menu of upscale Greek restaurants. Mousaka, pastichio, creamy avgolemono (thickened egg-and-lemon sauce), and Greek salad are the dishes that most non-Greeks consider to be the epitome of traditional Greek cooking. Yet, most of these dishes have very little to do with traditional foods. They were developed, or drastically revised, by professional cooks and restaurateurs. Those chefs were particularly concerned in creating recipes that would please the Athenian upper class of the early twentieth century, people brought up eating mainly French-inspired foods, often in cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean such as Smyrna (Izmir today) and Alexandria. Those popular dishes have a mild taste and please the palates of Europeans and Americans, as they offer tamed, sweet, and creamy combinations of traditional oriental favorites, such as eggplant – food that even children would like to eat.

In the late 1920s, the first and most influential cookbook appeared in Greece. It was written by Nicolas Tselementes, a Greek chef who had served in places such as the St. Moritz Hotel in New York and the Sacher in Vienna. The book was a compilation of all kinds of recipes (French, Italian, American), together with the Greek ones that the author considered important. There were also chapters on how to serve and present food, how to dress maids, etc. That book made such an enormous impact on the rising Athenian middle and upper classes that, to this day, “Tselementes” is synonymous with “cookbook” in Greece. Tselementes’s beliefs and ideas of what is right and wrong influenced not only home cooking, but also professional chefs, as he was the principal teacher of all the important Greek schools of cooking. He revised many Greek recipes, adding a French accent to them. He is probably the one who added the thick layer of béchamel sauce to mousaka, an eggplant and meat casserole, and pastichio, the Italian-inspired macaroni casserole. He believed that French cooking had its origins directly in ancient Greece and that, later, under Turkish rule, Greek cooking became more Eastern, something that he was determined to correct.

Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth. While French cuisine is based on technique and elaborate sauces, Greek cooking – as with traditional cuisines all over the southern and eastern Mediterranean – is ingredient-based. Greek cuisine is earthy and makes the most of the seasonal produce of each region. Everyday and festive dishes wisely combine flavorful sun-drenched vegetables and greens with grains – such as bulgur or rice – and pulses, breads, and local cheeses. Olive oil is the key ingredient, while olives, capers, and all sorts of fragrant herbs complement and enhance the taste of even the most basic dishes.

The much-praised fish and seafood of the Aegean was never plentiful and was often considered a delicacy, even on the islands. Meat was scarce in mountainous Greece, and was eaten as a holiday dish, in small portions. In short, traditional Greek cooking, the model for the much-admired Mediterranean diet, is exactly what modern scientists prescribe to people who want to live a long and active life. Unfortunately, in recent years, as Greece has become more affluent, people have tended to eat much more meat.

The tremendous impact that Tselementes’s ideas had on Greek urban society deprived many regional cooks of pride in their traditional foods. They didn’t stop cooking them for their families, but, once in charge of restaurant kitchens, they thought they had to cook meat, and try to prepare “international dishes” to please their patrons. Italy and Spain, as well as Morocco and Turkey, have capitalized greatly on the popularity of the Mediterranean diet. But Greece has done very little to support and encourage the few people who try to keep their rich culinary tradition alive and introduce it to the rest of the world. Public television in Greece publicizes black-tie ceremonies during which awards are given to Athenian restaurants that serve French food, while the few upscale restaurants that serve Greek dishes are listed under a different category. Thus Greeks are still led to believe that the delicious foods their grandmothers cooked – often the same dishes Italians have triumphantly publicized all over the world – are not good enough for modern, affluent Greek society.

Local produce, along with unique and delicious traditional preparations, have been abandoned, as a large part of the country has been developed to accommodate low-budget tourism. In Athens, expensive food items such as Serrano ham and bresaola (air-cured beef) are imported and sold in upscale markets. But the truly exquisite louza of the Cycladic islands (whole pork loin macerated in wine, spiced with savory, oregano, cinnamon, and cloves, and then smoked or air-dried) is nowhere to be found. A myriad of very good local artisanal cheeses is produced in various parts of the country, mainly from goat’s and sheep’s milk. Yet upscale gourmet shops or city restaurants never bother to look for them.

Greeks completely lack the ability to market their products the way Italians do. But the younger generation is learning fast. The only thing urgently needed is a vast campaign to bring back the pride and encourage people to continue their local production or revive the unique delicacies they have abandoned.

There is hope, however: “Greek cuisine hasn’t had a great reputation for the past 2,000 years. Greek restaurants were condemned to Seventies package holiday nostalgia along with the headaches from the retsina,” the restaurant critic of the British newspaper, The Independent, wrote last year. “Now that we’ve resurrected everything from Mongolian hotpots to Peruvian guinea pig, it’s the Greeks’ turn to prove that neo-Hellenic cooking is what we all want to eat in the year 2000,” the critic continued, as he praised London’s Real Greek.

That restaurant – along with New York’s Periyali and Molyvos, and a few others – are shining examples of a new breed of Greek restaurants that have appeared in large cities of Europe, Australia, and the US. For the first time, people who have never had the chance to eat authentic Greek food can now taste and enjoy well-presented dishes, along with modern inventions of talented chefs based on traditional preparations. The success of these upscale overseas Greek restaurants has brought some respect back home for the old frugal, rustic foods. There now seems to be some increased interest among sophisticated Greeks for the almost forgotten dishes of the past. Let us hope that this interest is genuine and lasting, not merely the result of following yet another international food trend.

Aglaia Kremezi is a frequent contributor to Gourmet; her first book, The Foods of Greece, won a Julia Child Award.
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