31/05/2010

O Kerkyra, orea.


My mind this morning was in the lofty heights of Mount Parnassus, far from the dusty train that I was travelling in. Instead of the mingled aftershaves and perfumes, I had the heady aroma of wild rosemary baking in the hot sun, the dry, chalky smell that rises off the rough, white tracks that criss cross the countryside. The hills of Greece and the islands are covered in wild herbs - you've never smelled thyme until you smell it there. You come back from a walk and your clothes are saturated with the scent.

The people of the islands - the ones that I met anyway - have a quicksilver vibrancy, oddly coupled with a laid back attitude to life. The Hellenic equivalent of 'soon come' I would imagine. There is no hurry, no rush to complete anything which, while a blessing on one hand, can actually drive you mad after a while. I remember the mischievous, open adoration that Greek men can bestow on the unwary female traveller. I was spared this for a while because of my looking more like a native but then they found out that I was not only a single woman, and therefore delightful, but a British single woman, this  seemed to make them even more determined. I did not give in, however, but they still stayed wonderfully hopeful.

One of the strongest memories I have of my time in Corfu is being driven down the winding roads at about 3am, chasing the moon as she sailed across the indigo sky, finally to hunt her down to a small bay ringed by olive trees. She shone magnificently across the wine dark water, casting a silver trail from the edges of the lapping waves to the far empty horizon. I sat on the rather ramshackle edge of what was possibly the smallest jetty in the world, and bathed my feet in her light. The night sounds rose behind me like a symphony and I was so happy that I felt my heart would burst. The water was as warm as a lover's touch and felt almost as caring, almost that it didn't want to let me leave. Perhaps Poseidon had plans for me that night but Diana dictated where we went, as we needed to get home before the clouds overtook her, for the car we were in had, in typical Greek style, no lights.

The car had other ideas and refused to start and, in fact, set its own engine on fire to entertain us. My friend shrugged happily, said that he could always get another car, and so we walked the 4 or 5 miles back to my hotel through the fragrant darkness, with the silvered rustling of the olive groves accompanying our steps.

"Be thou gracious unto me, thou who art king in the tract of the sea, wide-ruling son of Kronos, Girdler of the earth, and be gracious thyself, O Thalassa, and ye gods who in the sounding sea have your abode; and grant me to tell of your herds and sea bred tribes."- Oppian, Halieutica 1.74


Thea Eleni

My food memories started early.

The back door is open to let in the summer breeze. A cheap net curtain wafts in the window, sending dappled shadows across the floor. Outside there are children playing under a huge spreading apple tree with a large alsatian dog who seems to act as both friend and mother to unruly children.

Inside her small kitchen, Auntie Helen is cooking away as usual. The scent of mint and coriander fill the air, the wonderful aroma of lamb roasting in the oven teasing small stomachs who are waiting impatiently for dinner whilst maintaining the pretence of not really wanting to come inside.

I used to love to watch her cook, small and dark haired, with quick hands and kind eyes. She always used to call me agapi-mou…my love in Greek…that was all I really knew and I loved her dearly. Oh the food that would come out of that kitchen.

Wonderful soups and bean dishes always dressed with the sharpest of lemons and the fruitiest olive oil. Whole poached chickens with flesh like silk it was so tender, accompanied by fragrant rice or crispy potatoes. In summer she would use the fresh vine leaves from her garden to make stuffed vine leaves and we would get to try the grapes- so small and sweet and pale. Then Easter would come around. The whole place would be scented with toasted sesame seed smells, with the sight of Easter pastries fresh from the oven to delight us. The smell of these was amazing….a sweet dough filled with cheese and mint and egg and sultanas, topped with toasted sesame seeds and given to you still warm from the oven. Even now the smell of that cheese filling takes me straight back to her kitchen. Auntie always seemed to be able to get the plumpest sultanas and the freshest smelling mint. I think it was at her house that I had my first taste of black-eyed peas and greens together. Mmmm…still hooked on that one.

I remember watching Auntie get older, her hair turning silver at the temples, always dressed in black or navy blue, the mourning dress of small Greek women everywhere. After her husband died she moved away to the other side of London to be near her daughter. It was a nice little house but it didn’t have that smell - the imprints of years of cooking and different scents through the house. The smell of Uncle Paul’s oil paints was missing; his paintings of icons for the church were always hanging drying somewhere, the sad eyes of the Saints all watching me. I missed the apple tree and the vines, the long garden that we kids used to hide in and play with the dog. She was long gone too - the days of her carrying me and my two cousins on her back just a happy memory. Auntie still cooked but she seemed to be getting smaller, more birdlike, although if you were naughty you could still get a good telling off. I didn’t see much of her after my parents divorced and I still regret the passing of many years in which I didn’t see her. I still miss her. Every time I drive past that old house I wish I had the money to buy it outright and move myself back in there. I’d tend the trees and water the vines and maybe one day my niece will write something like this about me…
This may take some getting used to...but I shall try my best.

I wanted a blog that I can use for just food/cookery related posts and having been inspired by the awesome http://tinykitchentales.blogspot.com/I thought I'd start one here.

It will be sporadic, because I am, but we shall see how it goes.