Friday, 29 May 2009

Athens Portraits: The family way

There's something about a Greek gathering of the clan that distils the very best and very worse of Hellenic family life.

No matter what the reason – be it a wedding, baptism, name day or religious holiday – you can be sure that there will be food involved. And lots of it - for, as with so many things here, moderation is thrown out of the window when putting together a Greek family dinner.

The rule of thumb is, as my mother-in-law says, "den ftanei an den perisevei" ("it's not enough if there's nothing left-over"). So, a typical family gathering will be centred around a plethora of sights, smells and tastes fighting for space on the white linen-clad table in pride of place in the dining room.

Typically, that table will be weighed down with a huge variety of dishes to tempt your palate, perhaps including: fragrant kokkinisto (beef in a rich tomato sauce flavoured with cinnamon); platters piled high with slabs of pastichio (layers of macaroni interspersed with mince meat and bechamel sauce); cheese pies; bowls brimming over with glistening salads; steaming horta (wild greens); homemade taramosalata and tzatziki; crisp deep-fried slithers of aubergine and courgette; and scrumptious roast potatoes. And that's just for starters! The main attraction might be roast suckling pig or even a whole goat or lamb that has been slowly cooked on a spit over hot coals since the early morning.

Any protestations of diet or vegetarianism are – predictably – ignored or dismissed as passing fads.

It's all washed down with lashings of soft drinks, beer and local wines. Despite my years here, I've still not learned to love the sharp acidic twang of retsina-type vino, but if I'm lucky there'll be a few bottles of the rich fruity reds that Greece is so good at producing (but less expert at promoting in the international market – perhaps intentionally?).

As the mountainous feast on the table grows, the menfolk will sit on the balcony talking politics and smoking, while the women bustle in and out of the kitchen in a frenzy of preparation. As they do, they catch up on family gossip, exchange agonies of their latest ailments and engage in a little speculative match-making for the younger members of the family who are not yet spoken for.

Over-indulged children wander in and out to steal scraps of food before the main event (much to the delight of their ever-obliging grandmother who will pick out the choicest pieces for them). After all, it's their reward for enduring assorted aunts' whoops of delight, declarations of amazement at how much they've grown and the agony of affectionate cheek-pinching that comes with such family events.

At the very eye of that storm of activity is the noikokyra (housewife and hostess). This is her showcase and she is certainly not going to give anyone grounds for going away unhappy or unfed. She bustles about in the best tradition of village PR, attending to everyone's needs and ignoring the family's pleas to sit down, relax and eat. And when she does finally settle down, she'll alternate her apologies for the inadequacy of the food with little grunts of self-congratulation at how well her prize dishes have turned out.

Meanwhile, everyone – from the ancient yiayia (grandmother), in the place of honour at the head of the table, to the cockiest youngster fresh out of college – will feel free to discuss and offer their expert advice on the issues of the day.

Whether it's political analysis, health tips, career guidance or parenting advice, they all have an opinion. And they all express it. Loudly. Usually, all at once.

There are no rules about talking while you eat here.

Once the din recedes and everyone has eaten themselves into a stupour, the remains of the main course are whisked away to the kitchen, and yet more food appears – as if by magic – on the tabletop battlefield.

Boxes of goodies visitors have brought from the local zacharoplasteio (a kind of luxury version of a patisserie which does a roaring trade on high days and holidays) will be wheeled out, along with platters of fresh seasonal fruit, trays of homemade bachlava rich with honey and walnuts, kataifi like exotic syrup-drenched Shredded Wheat, or tiny saucers of local fruit cooked in heavy syrup to produce a delicacy so sweet it can only be consumed by the teaspoonful.

Food and family are perhaps two of the most important threads woven into the fabric of Greek society. If they were removed, I suspect the whole thing would simply unravel. As elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the two are so intrinsically linked that it takes the fiercest of feuds to break that warp and weave.

So, raise your glasses and give a hearty "Stin i yeia mas!" (To our health!) to that flavoursome and distinctly Greek bond between the generations. Long may it reign.

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