Thursday, 20 February 2014

Smells like Greek spirit

Take a walk pretty much anywhere in Greece tonight and you won’t be able to miss it.

There’s something in the air.
Something unmistakable assaulting your nasal passages (unless the latest flu bug to do the rounds has got there first).
It’s the aroma of burning coals and charred flesh.

But don’t worry, it’s not the scent of barricades burning, rubbish bins ablaze or the eruption of new riots. Though unrest and anger has become all too familiar in the past few years, today  is ‘Tsiknopempti’ – a day traditionally marked by the consumption of mountains of meat, ahead of the 40-day Lenten Fast when observant Orthodox Greeks are forbidden from eating any meat, fish or dairy products (though oddly, seafood and fish roe are permitted).

Those who abstain for the full 40 days are in the minority these days – but that certainly can’t be said for the Meat Fest that comes before it. Almost without exception and in spite of ever tightening purse strings in almost every household in the land, everyone rushes to prepare and enjoy their favorite meat dishes, with a strong emphasis on grilled cuts. The result is an unmistakable cloud of flesh-scented smoke hanging over each neighbourhood like a layer of fog.

In true Greek spirit, the key is excess. To quote my Mother-in-law, “If there’s not too much, it’s not enough”. And although many Greeks have tempered that philosophy in their everyday lives recently, out of harsh economic necessity rather than choice, when it comes to special food for special days, excess is still the key to success.

You won’t find any half-hearted examples a couple of bangers and a few frozen beefburgers thrown on the grill here. Oh no. It’s gotta be a rich selection of choice cuts, including spare ribs, skewered cubes of flesh, assorted offal, homemade burgers, village-style spiced sausages the size of baby pythons, massive oozing steaks, and more. There may be some chips to accompany the Meat Fest, and maybe a lonely looking salad lurking at the corner of the table – but don’t count on it.

If it were possible to measure the communal cholesterol count and blood pressure of the population of Greece on the day after Tsiknopemtpi, you’d have the World Health Organisation handing out emergency supplies of statins and blood thinners to every man, woman and child in the country. As it is, the national consumption of antacids usually spikes at this time of the year, just as it does at Easter.

So what, you may ask, is it like for the a lonely herbivore like me in Greece on this "Feast of the Carnivores"?

For some time now, I have avoided meat. Not for any pressing moral, religious or health reasons – I just felt I didn’t need it much (proven by still my healthily high haemoglobin), I don’t crave it and I'm more than happy with veggy, fishy and (especially) cheesy alternatives. Though on the seriously soft end of the veggy spectrum (actually a pescatarian if you want to get technical), I am considered something of a weirdo here, despite the fact that classic Greek cookery offers a veritable cornucopia of meat-free delights.

You may recall the scene from ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ where a concerned (horrified?) aunt asks “He don’t eat no meat?” with an arch of her perfectly plucked eyebrow, followed by a sigh of compromise followed by “No problem, I make lamb”. Believe me folks, that was no poetic license. I’ve lived it first hand.

Considering that is the day to day reality, you can imagine the response on this day of meat, meat and more meat when I try to politely decline. That’s usually countered with protests and assurance that the slab of glistening grilled flesh dripping with tempting juices and a squeeze of lemon isn’t fattening, forcing me to explain that actually I don’t eat meat. The reaction – at least on days when my ego is feeling robust – is hilarious: usually a look of surprise, bemusement and the question, spoken or simply flashing in their eyes, “How can you be a vegetarian when you’re SO…. big?”. (The answer, for the record, is “Easy as pie - literally”.)

In truth, I have no problem with Greece’s meat-loving culture. It’s part of what gives the place and its people the full-blooded personality that first drew me here all those years ago. My husband and son eat meat, and I’m fine with that. I know I’m the oddity (so what else is new?) and that’s also OK, but there are times when I feel like more of an outsider than ET desperately trying to find a call box to ‘Phone home’.

But, on the plus side, once I’ve managed to extricate myself from invitations to tables groaning with stuff I don’t eat where I’ll watch the carnivores chewing away as I nibble on a chip, I know that when I head for the gym tonight, instead of waiting in line with all the other sweaty bods at the treadmill, I’ll probably have the place to myself.

And tomorrow morning, I may be one of the few not reaching for the Rennies.

1 comment:

  1. A year ago I was a vegetarian (not a very committed one, obviously) but bacon sandwiches lured me back. Now the idea of meat festival is quite appealing.