Monday, 13 July 2009

Veggy heaven

Greece SHOULD be a vegetarian's paradise: cheap locally-produced fresh fruit and veg; gorgeous aromatic herbs growing wild on fragrant mountainsides; and traditional dishes that would meet the approval of the strictest of vegans. Trouble is, most Greeks just don't understand the concept of someone choosing not to eat meat.

Think back to that scene in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" when the heroine tells her mother her fiance is vegetarian. Mama's response was a hearty 'He don't eat meat?? ....No problem! I do lamb'.

That was no exaggeration. It happened to me. Many years ago, when I was still a relative newcomer to Athens, a well-meaning aunt who heard I didn't eat meat kindly prepared a separate dish especially for me at one of the family gatherings. Very proudly, she set down in front of me a lovingly prepared, carefully presented.... ham souffle ('Ham's not meat, is it? It's ham').

I could hardly tell her that ham was 'off the menu' when she'd gone to the trouble of making something specially for me so, I went through the motions of tucking in enthusiastically while trying to discreetly pick my through the dish and hide the bits of ham under a stray lettuce leaves.

I was in one of my veggy-kicks when I became pregnant with my son. As soon as we realised that I was carrying a passenger, the entire Greek clan automatically assumed that I'd turn carnivore again.
But I didn't.
Instead, I told my doctor I didn't eat meat and asked for his opinion. The Other Half was sitting next to me at the time, smug in the certainty that I would be told to start scoffing T-bones for the sake of our unborn child. But the smirk was quickly wiped from his face when dear old doc said: 'Good for you. It shouldn't be a problem - but if it is, I'll tell you what to do.'

As it turned out, it never was a problem - I'm one of the few mothers-to-be I know to go through the entire nine months without having to take a single iron tablet.
Some people just don't need meat, I guess.

The average Greek sees most vegetarians as harmless, but certifiably insane.

That view is strongest in those who grew up during and just after the war. And that it is where that the roots of that attitude must lie. Times were very hard in occupied Greece (and the years of internal turmoil that followed the war). Those living in remote mountain villages or islands had the advantage of relative self-sufficiency, but it was particularly tough for people in the greater Athens and Piraeus area.

According to the stories my father-in-law tells us, there wasn't a green leaf, stalk or stem to be found in the city by 1944 - it had all been eaten. Just as in occupied Holland where people resorted to eating tulip bulbs, hungry Athenians ate (or tried to eat) anything that grew. Many died of starvation, including three of my father-in-law's aunts and uncles.

The stories of the tricks he and the other local youngsters played on the German soldiers guarding the potato sheds near the port hide a darker reality. A plateful of boiled potatoes or a bowl of cracked wheat meant a "good day" in the working class neighbourhoods of Piraeus. Meat was an almost unheard-of luxury for those kids.

So, put into context, I guess it's understandable that my in-laws' generation view vegetarians as eccentrics at best.

But it's their offspring that are now paying the price for their parents' deprivation. Once the hardship eased, those who remembered the aching of their empty stomachs were determined that their sons and daughters would never know what it meant to go to bed hungry. Meat was once again on the menu, and it was served up with great delight and relish.

The post-war baby boomers of Greece grew up a well-fed lot. As long as they lived at home, they got their fair share of yemista (vegetables stuffed with rice), fasolakia (green beans in tomato sauce), fasolada (a rich butter bean and vegetable soup), horta (wild greens), lentils, dolmades (rice-filled vineleaves), chickpeas, briam (a medley of baked vegetables) etc., along with the lashings of succulent meat their mothers proudly served up.

The problem came when they left home and embarked on a busy career that left no time to prepare food from the wild array of colourful produce from the local laiki (open air market). The easy solution was that good old Greek stand-by - souvlaki or gyros - grilled meat (usually pork) on a skewer or sliced and wrapped up in a fat slice of greasy pitta bread with onion, tomato and tzatziki. Cheap, quick and tasty.

All very well now and then - but when the souvlaki shop or the pizza parlour become your main source of nutrition, something is bound to give. The result is, in the space of a couple of generations, the Greeks have changed from those pinch-cheeked youngsters who survived the hardships of 1940s to a nation with the one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe and a rapidly increasing cholesterol count.

Against the backdrop of that new reality, maybe I'm not the loony after all?


  1. Of course, they'd love you!
    And when it comes to feeding time, they'd just hand you over to me!

  2. My middle son is a vegetarian and whenever he comes to Europe to visit family he sighs rolls his eyes and goes with the flow. (Well, with his Belgian relatives anyway- same apres war mentality to meat..."you are so thin! You must EAT!")

    When he comes here to visit he assumes I will make him all his vegetarian delights and [squeak] I just manage. In the winter Corfu does NOT have a huge selection of vegetarian choice, but it is getting better.

    Here's my Corfu Tweak on the Beans:

    Boston Baked Beans (a la Corfu)

    There are probably a thousand recipes for Boston Baked Beans. This one is mine. (It classically has 1/4 lb of bacon or pork in it, but i skip this and gently cook the onions and garlic in a good slurg of olive oil and add to the beans)
    [30 minutes to put together- at least 10 hours to simmer- oh, and two overnights worth of 1) soaking beans and 2)simmering in crockpot!]

    1 pound dried navy or great northern beans (or cannelli)
    2 onions, chopped
    1 cup water
    1/2 cup brown sugar
    1 500 gr bottle "spicy Greek" ketchup
    1/4 cup molasses (Tate and Lyle's treacle)
    4 cloves garlic, crushed
    1 tablespoon salt
    1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
    1/4 teaspoon black pepper
    1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon cayenne

    Soak beans in enough water to cover plus three inches over night. Drain beans and place in a large pot or slow cooker. Add remaining ingredients. (you can cook the onions and garlic in a some olive oil if you'd like before you add them) Cover and simmer for 8 to 10 hours. I put it together the day before we eat it. I have a slow cooker so I just leave it on overnight. In the morning I turn it off, let it cool a bit, then put it in the oven to completely reheat, brown and soak up the excess juice (if there is any juice...if there isn't add a bit of water before you bake in the oven!)