Monday, 11 December 2017

Christmas Mince

'Tis the season of  traditional English christmas cakes, plum puddings and christmas mince pies.

I used to make a christmas cake (without the almond paste or royal icing).  I even boiled a plum pudding once or twice.  My family are not fond of raisin filled sweets.  My greek s-in-law was a bit bewildered by the cake as well.  'Vat is theese'.... sniff, sniff, put it away in a cupboard and surrepticiously give it to the dog.

The plum pudding went down easier when it was covered in custard.  

As for almond icing, it was absent from any shop anywhere, even in Athens, and my handmade icing did not look anything like the authentic smooth beige roll of paste I was used to.  Almond paste is easy to find here now, 20 years later, and if it wasn't I would just order it online.  

Mincepies are in a different sphere.  Once again, mincemeat, that fragrant mix of raisins and spices was unavailable 20 years ago but I did make my own.  Not every year though.  The last lot was in 2013 (there was a date on the container) and the leftover was stuck in the back of the freezer to be finally recovered two weeks ago.  The spices and raisins had mellowed and matured and it was a masterpiece of  culinary piquancy, with the help of a few good glugs of cheap whisky to refresh the mix

Making more of my own mincemeat

We had brought a kilo of raisins at the market so raisins it was that went into the mincemeat, without any other dried fruit.  A grated apple and the zest of a big orange.   I had cinnamon, cloves, ground ginger so in went generous amounts of those and some freshly grated nutmeg.  No lard, no suet, not even any butter.  But I did have some marge on hand so that went in as well.

It wasn't marvellous. But I had read somewhere that it needs time to mature and the different spices to mingle and mellow.  I added the last of a bottle of cheap whisky called 'Cardhu' which we have been trying to get rid of for the last three years and left it to stand for a week.

Yesterday I made the mince pies.  This new batch of mince meat was another masterpiece.  My friend J who is english and has tasted the best to be found in Sainsbury and Waitrose was very enthusiastic.  Mind you these are the only mincepies she is going to eat this Noel so she hadn't got any choice but to make appreciative sounds or she won't get anymore of my mighty mince pies

I baked them in this pan which I have had for years.  I never knew quite what sort of cakes I was supposed to bake in it.  Now I know.  Is it a mincepie-pan.  Perfect shape and perfectly non stick.

By the way, those are tomatoes behind the pan.  3 kilos of fresh, outdoor tomatoes.  They are still being grown over the back of the mountains opposite where the weather is milder and definitely sunnier.

The pastry?  I made half with the leftovers of a packet of puff pastry and then made my own mincepie pastry with a combo of recipes I found online.  Flour, cold margarine (we rarely have butter around here) and the juice of an orange.  Pat on the back.  The pastry was just as I remembered it should be.  Soft-ish, slightly crumbly and delicious.

Smothered in icing sugar the little pies are moreish.
Definition of 'moreish'
pleasant tasting and leaving you wanting to eat more

The kids would still prefer chocolate.

I attempted to make a chocolate log last year.  The cake base was hard and dry.  The filling of strawberry jam and cream though was definitely moreish, and I rolled it nicely. Teenage grandson ate the whole thing in almost one 'wolf', heavy cake, cream, jam and all (and immediately shot up a few more inches).

Friday, 8 December 2017

Pre Christmas

Our family has a plethora of Sagittarians.   Friendly, on a slow fuse, promising more than they intend to deliver, supposedly avid travellers, companions of cat and dog, droppers of bricks.  I'm one of them.  I know.  Especially about dropping bricks!  I never mean to be tactless, indiscreet, embarrassing.  It just comes out sounding not quite the way I meant it.  

 Last weekend we had a Sagittarian party.  Four birthdays, four cakes.  There are more in the family, many more.

My present
 - one of the NZ flags suggested in the recent referendum as a change from the Union Jack and the Southern Cross to a flag which represents modern New Zealand and stands out from the flag we have today which so much resembles the Australian flag and half a dozen other Commonwealth countries.

This flag has the four stars of the Southern Cross seen in the NZ skies, and the silver fern leaf which is the symbol worn by athletes and representatives of our small progressive nation.

The hardware shop down on Poros has half a dozen of these flags which were put forward as a replacement. 

On the table a jug of strong, vodka spiked sangria.  Out of sight two bottles of fruity French sauv blanc. 

On the menu.
Meat loaf
stuffed chicken roll
mashed potatoes
garlic bread
pavlova and cheesecake

Not a greek dish in sight!

The four of us, each with our cake of choice
Me, two grandsons and son-in-law

Once the eating was done half the table was emptied, a few leftovers crowded down one end of the table for Greek men to nibble as they continued on, as greeks do, with conversation, discussion and a glass or two

The rest of the family decorated the house and put up the Christmas tree

Happy elves under the tree.  A Coca-Cola promotion quite a few years ago

Junior the dog got decorated as well

A few streamers ended up on the ceiling beams

Others had to dig in and do the dishes, load up the washer, scrub the pots.  Not me though.  Not on my birthday!

Poor girls.  Chief cooks and bottle washers today


                           And the men partied on

Wednesday, 6 December 2017


The 'NikoloBarbara' are the three days from December 4th (St Barbara) to 6th December (St Nikolas).

This is the true start of winter.  Your wood supplies should be cut and stacked, your barns full of feed for the animals and the store rooms stockpiled with grains, the pig slaughtered and it's meat salted and packed in its fat in clay jars, dried figs, sultanas and tomatoes on the shelves, peppers and herbs hanging from the rafters, the wine barrels full and the first glasses drunk. Or so it used to be in the richer agricultural areas.

The first snow has fallen on the mountains further north and our fire is lit soon after dark to warm the house and brighten our evenings.

We have a big basket of oranges on the bench for our morning juice, a bowl of walnuts and chestnuts. The lettuces in our garden are trying to outgrow the three leaf clover. Greek tomato salads have given way to lettuce or cabbage salads, stuffed tomatoes and aubergines to stewed beans and lentils.

The tradition is that whatever the weather  between the 4th and the 6th is the weather we'll have on Christmas day.  These last few days have been cold with a little wind and mostly sunshine. Perfect weather for a family Christmas, cold enough for a fire in the afternoon but still warm enough for a short 'digestive' walk after lunch.

4 December  St Barbara
5 December  St Savvas
6 December  St Nikolas  name day of Nikos and Nikoletta. Patron Saint of the Navy
9 December  St Anna
12 December St Spyridon patron saint of the island of Corfu
13 December St Loukia  (Lucy)
15 December St Eleftherios

and these are only the most well known Saints and name days

Tomorrow we are having a visit from Turkish President Erdogan.  Athens is being shut down for 36 hours.  No trains will stop in the centre, buses and trams will take outer routes and everyone is being discouraged from entering the downtown area.  No strikes or demonstrations allowed of course.  2,800 policemen and women will be patrolling Athens streets and there will be snipers along his route from the airport to the centre.

Erdogan is bringing as well 200 of his personal guard.  He will travel in a convoy of armoured vehicles.  We haven't heard yet if he'll be accompanied by his wife, Emine, lover of antiques and French couture.   Her favourite coffee cups are reputed to be worth $1,000 each.

On Friday he goes to Thrace, an area of northern Greece with a Turkish minority.  It is the first visit of a Turkish president in 65 years.  Greece and Turkey are at loggerheads over so many issues it is hard to see any positive result from the visit.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

A Day Away - photo parade

Last year's Christmas outing was to the Anglican christmas bazaar in Athens.  Too far, we decided this year.  Also if you're not there when the doors open and the foreign hordes rush in you'll miss out on the best second hand books, clothes and you won't find a seat to drink your tea and eat your scone

The smiling girls on the refreshment stall.  Spring rolls, mince pies, hotdogs, Irish coffee or a glass of wine. All homemade by the ex-pats of Athens

Beans, split peas. lentils and chickpeas, sold by the kilo

This year our outing was to the big outdoor market, turning left off the ferry boat, round the coast, up past the oil press and down into the fertile flat lands to Ermioni, about an hour away.  The market gardens and olive groves were full of  migrant workers, mainly from India and Pakistan.  There are no villages along the way, just little clusters of two or three houses.  All the same, with so many pickers and gardeners out in the fields it was not easy to find a secluded spot for a quick pee out of the wind and out of sight.  

Bottles of last years wine.  2 euros for 1 1/2 litres of the finest/cheapest.  Red, white or rose sold also in a 1 litre or a 5 litre plastic bottle

Clothes for everyone

And every purse.  This pile was 3 euros a garment, 5 euros for a jacket.  Dive in and dig around

Honey.  Sold by the half kilo.  The cheapest is simply labeled 'flowers' (7 euros for a half kilo), the most expensive labeled 'thyme' or 'pine' flavour  (10 or 12 euros a half kilo).  We are allowed to taste each one with a sample of honey on a toothpick, and always buy the 'thyme' flavoured honey.  The tastes differ according to where the hives are situated, in a pine forest or on a hillside covered in thyme.

Jars of pickled olives, capers, caper flowers, vine leaves and a herb called 'kritamo'.  We were going to buy a jar of caper leaves.  They push a greek salad into the gourmet sphere.  However at 7 euros a jar it was just too expensive

Poinsettias.  The Greek Christmas flower

Packing the boot.  And this was only the first stop

On to the b-i-g supermarket.  Acrobatics help pass the time when you're young and bored

The most expensive of the (artifical) Christmas trees.  
187.90 euros.  
You must be joking.  It wasn't particularly tall, or green.  It didn't have built in snow flakes.  I wonder if anyone will buy it.

Greek lettuce salad.  Lettuce, and spring onion, which we were burping for hours afterwards.  I added the oil and lemon juice.  Far too much oil but fortunately  most of it remained on the bottom of the plate.

On to Porto Heli at the seaside for something to eat.  Even here K found someone that recognised him and come up to chat.  The guy on the meat counter in the supermarket was another to recognise and greet him.   K was one of the upper echelon of officers at the Naval Training School for  many years.  So many sailors have passed through there and K seems to have known them all and have made a good impression as well.  Not all officers were so popular.

Good for us, we have insiders wherever we go.  This taverna on the sea was one of only two or three still open for the winter.  We chose the taverna because there were already three tables full of happy eaters.  All of us learnt a long time ago that when in an unknown area you go to eat where the tables are full.   If an eating place is empty there is a reason for it.

Thick greek yoghurt, local honey and apple slices to finish the meal.  On the house, of course.

Can't remember the name of the taverna but here it is if you're ever in the area.  Enclosed in plastic 'curtains' to keep out the chill.  Nice clean loos.  Fresh kalamari, big portions of keftethes (meatballs and chips) for hungry children.  Smiling service. Very reasonable prices.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Olives Forever

The olive harvest is in full swing.  From soon after dawn on these now lovely warm days I can hear neighbours bellowing at each other as they lay netting and move from tree to tree.  Plumes of smoke rise into the sky and occasionally across my washing as branches are cut down and burnt, usually with the help of a few gallons of petrol.  Fresh green branches do not burn well.

Thicker branches are cut into manageable pieces to be hauled away for next years fires in the wood burning stoves which are now the fashion here.

I could write a post a day for the next month and not exhaust the subject of the olive tree and its drupes (bean/grain/seed).  However, I won't.  I'll be writing more about the olive this time next year and the years after.

I don't particularly like to eat olives, though there are some exceptions.  Green olives, soaked for many, many days to get rid of the bitterness and then pickled in a vinegar solution are sometimes quite agreeable,  Green olives, from a jar on a supermarket shelf, stuffed with almonds, red peppers or anchovies are even more palatable, almost addictive.

On a balmy summer's night at a taverna often the greek salad and even the tzatziki will be adorned by an olive or two.  I often  eat the decor and find it pleasing.   I can imagine the olive in a glass of martini would please me as well.  No stone for a start.

What I don't like are black olives preserved in coarse salt.  They can be mouth puckering dry or bitter and parch the roof of the mouth in an unpleasant manner.    I also don't particularly like olives in cooking though there are as usual a few exceptions.  The olive flavour takes over and smothers any other tastes, especially spaghetti sauces with chopped olives.

Olive bread can be tasty.  Tapenade (olive paste) is nice in small quantities and on the right bread.  What I like most are kalamari with chopped olives. This is a recipe given to me by the greek mother of a friend of ours when we lived in Crete.  An authentic greek recipe from a traditional greek Mama, Kyria Niki.

You can use either fresh or frozen squid or even squid/kalamari from a tin.  Now and again we use a tin of kalamari for a quick ouzo-meze with a squeeze of lemon juice and some olive oil.

lots of olive oil, maybe a wine glass
a handful of stoned olives (black or green), chopped
2 chopped onions
1 clove garlic, chopped
tomatoes, pureed, canned
1/2 cup of wine
chopped dill or maratho*, lots of it

Put the oil, chopped onions , garlic and kalamari, cut into rings, into a pot and fry gently till softened.    About 10 minutes.  Add the half cup of wine ( red or white), pureed tomatoes, olives and chopped dill.  Simmer till everything is soft and the sauce has come together in tasty velvetness.

*maratho is a type of dill.  After looking it up on the net it appears that it is the leafy, liquoricey, leaf of the finokio bulb.  In fact after opening half a dozen 'windows' I realised it is fennel.  Finokio is the greek name.  Down in Crete we found that the Cretans preferred fennel to dill.  There is only a slight difference in flavour.

Eat, drink and be merry

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Olive leaves for life

The olive tree provides shade, olive oil for health and cooking, wood for our winter warmth, wood for carving, olives to be cured and eaten and oil to keep the lamps alight.

These  olive wood salad servers are excellent for lifting salad from bowl to plate and elegant too.  We have a pair which came from NZ, obviously not made from olive wood.  Possibly rimu, totara, kauri or kahikatea, just to roll off a few maori words.

The olive leaf has endless health benefits, though results are still being studied.

I was reminded of them recently while watching Ben Fogle's 'New Lives in the Wild'.  He was visiting a couple living in a mud brick house in Morocco, Dina and Moustafa.  Being Morocco their mud brick house was  surrounded by olive trees and little else but dust.   Dina's chooks were dying from some sort of virus.  She boiled olive leaves and gave the chickens the resulting herbal tea to drink.  The chickens perked up and became healthy egg layers again.

Olive leaves are  -
anti - bacterial
anti - hypertensive    
  anti - inflammatory
     increase energy
promote healthy blood pressure
                improve brain function            

A few years ago the olive leaf cure hit Greece and every programme on TV was plugging them as a miracle quick fix.  We were shown how to make an olive leaf milkshake, how to eat them, drink them and add years to our lives.  I even remember  seeing a packet of olive leaves on sale in the supermarket, like a bunch of rocket. Someone was incredibly fast to take advantage of gullible consumers.

One bold television presenter had the foolishness to sell them as a cancer cure.  She lost her job and the mania came to an abrupt end.

However, there is something to the claim that they benefit our overall health.  I remember seeing olive leaf extract on sale in NZ years again.  Extract or tablets are the easiest way to take in all the goodness but if you have olive trees around you then try an olive leaf tisane.  Boil the leaves in water and drink the liquid.


Monday, 27 November 2017

Christmas Time Coming Ready or Not

First decorations for Christmas 2017 have apeared on the island.  Some of the street lights have been turned on.  A few houses high above the harbour have their Christmas lights twinkling too, wrapped unevenly around balconies.  So annoying when you see dips and bulges in the line of fairy lights.  I just want to clamber up there and push them into a straight line.  Lights out of sync are not just mightily un-aesthetically pleasing but darn right irritating.

One of the family houses has been decorated with the Christmas tree up and glowing.  Lots of hand painted pine cones, Nana-knitted mini xmas stockings and a Santa hat instead of a star or angel at the top of the tree.  Yes, for innovative change.

The Xmas tree did have an aging gilded star.  It went into the fire and burnt like a Super Nova.  I plant  a poinsettia flower at the top of our tree, which shall not go up at least until it is December.

It is actually traditional to decorate a boat here in Greece.  Our Local Council will have a small boat in the main square covered in twinkling lights along with its usual decorated tree.

This is the boat in my daughter's house.  The lights weren't working but you can imagine what it looks like lit up at night.  The tree is in another corner.  On the left of the boat (schooner?) are the family icons, some of them rather old, vintage/antique and with a silver surround.

This year they start a new tradition, a snow man on the toilet seat.

Not a Christmas painting but a wonderful wall hanging, dolphins surrounded with a frame of driftwood, made by son-in-law.

Kala Christoyenna

Merry Christmas