Greek Idylls – Part Two

“Miso kilo, parakhalo,” which means “Half a kilo, please” was the single most useful phrase I learned. Every neighborhood in Athens had its own farmer’s market on a certain day of the week: in Sourmena, it was on Saturday, in Glyphada on Thursday, but in Ano Glyphada, where we lived in a second-floor apartment set in Kyria Venetia’s garden of citrus and olive trees, our market was on Tuesday mornings. Very early in the day, around 5AM, a two-block stretch of road would blocked off, and the venders would set up their small tables, covered with faded canvas awnings, all along the sidewalks, each offering their own produce specialty: piles of seasonal fruit and vegetables, eggs, mounds of lemons and fresh-cut herbs.

There was a vendor with a specially fitted-out trailer, stocked with staples like dried beans and rice, and cheap kitchen implements, and curiously enough, a flat wooden crate full of live snails, rustling and clicking their shells together. Some of the vendors didn’t even bother with a table: the man with a deuce-and a half full of freshly dug potatoes just piled up a great mound of them on the pavement, and weighed them out with an antique balance scale and a set of battered weights that looked as if he had liberated them from a museum of ancient household implements. Other tables offered mountains of fresh artichokes on long stems; great bunches of fresh spinach and carrots, a small branch of a lemon tree with half a dozen lemons on it, proving by the un-withered leaves how fresh the rest of them were. The egg vendor, presiding over flats of fresh brown eggs, packed a dozen into a large cone fashioned out of some sheets of newspaper, and presented my daughter with a tiny egg, half the size of the others. Blondie put into a small bamboo basket I had just bought from the elderly man who eked out his pension making baskets of all sizes from bamboo and willow gathered here and there, and proudly carried it home (where I made her own tiny little fried egg sandwich out of it.) The vendor with a table piled high in fresh cherries urged us to taste them, fresh and sweet, and then I looked down in horror and discovered my daughter calmly spitting the pits back into the fresh cherries: the vendor was hugely amused. After all, children are children.

This is what Kyria Penny’s Greek mother in law did with the sour cherries, used for cooking and preserving:
Dissolve one pound of sugar in two bottles of cognac or brandy, and pour over a pound of pitted or whole sour cherries placed in a wide-mouthed 1 gallon glass jar. Add a 2-in piece of cinnamon bark and three or four cloves, close the lid and put the jar in a place where the sun will shine on it most of the day for two or three months. After that time, strain out the cherries and the spices, and pour the liquor into a sterilized glass jar.

Greek men are determined and charming flirts, and actually locking eyes with one of any age is taken to mean that you are interested. They treat flirting as an enjoyable interlude: like men of any other nationality, they would adore for the flirting to actually go farther (way farther!) but if not… well, it is entirely enjoyable on its own merits. The only way to avoid it entirely is to have a large man with you. At all times. Preferably appearing to be homicidally jealous and well armed. Otherwise, wear a serious looking ring on third finger, right hand, and borrow a small child, preferably a child with a resemblance to you. This will not stop them at all; just slow it down to a manageable level.

There was a bakery on the corner, producing fresh boules and baguettes every day or so. In the summer, I would see women coming away from the bakery with a covered casserole, or roasting pan, carrying it with potholders. When the baker was finished with the baking for the day, especially in the summer when it would heat up the apartment dweller’s kitchens to bake something (the locally-available bottled-propane heated stoves were appallingly badly insulated), he would let housewives bring in their casserole to bake in his already-heated oven.

Fresh-baked feta and spinach pie, out of the oven
Fresh-baked feta and spinach pie, out of the oven

The bakery also sold wonderful feta cheese and phyllo tarts: cheese pie, or tiropita, which my daughter loved above all other savories:
Crumble ½ pound feta cheese to the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Make a béchamel sauce of ¼ c. butter, 3 Tbs. flour, and 1-cup milk, and allow to cool slightly. Mix the sauce with the crumbled cheese and add 3 eggs and ½ tsp dill. Allow half a package of Athenos phyllo dough to thaw thoroughly. (They package it with two individual rolls of phyllo dough) Unroll, and cover with a slightly damp towel. Melt ½ cup butter, and use a little to grease the bottom of a small, square baking dish. Layer sheets of phyllo in the dish staggering the layers, draping the half of each sheet over the side if the dish. Brush melted butter after every two layers, in the dish. When all the sheets are used, pour the cheese/béchamel sauce into the center, and begin laying the layers over the cheese mixture, buttering every two layers. Sprinkle a little water on the top of the final layer of phyllo, and bake in a 350 deg. oven for 45 minutes.

(To be continued – further reminiscences of living in Athens in the early 1980s)

2 thoughts on “Greek Idylls – Part Two”

  1. We’ve been preserving sour cherries (pricked) in jars with sugar and a mixture of cooking brandy and Dutch redcurrant gin (brought home years ago and since found in a cupboard). Anyway, after a twelvemonth the resultant cherries are wonderful with vanilla ice cream. The liquor is preserved for the new year’s crop. If we think that its alcohol content is running a bit low we top up with strong rum.

    If you like to take the stones out first, the neat way is to freeze the cherries and then let them thaw to the point that you can get the stones out without destroying the flesh of the fruit.

  2. My daughter lived in Grenada Spain for a year and the propane vendor would show up on the same day each week and God help you if you did not get down there to buy a new tank. There were none to be had elsewhere. I think it also provided heat in the winter.

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