Greeks Bearing Gifts

Adam’s introduction was a godsend for two weary travelers with no itinerary, not much money, and nothing to lose by taking a wrong turn. We had been on the road for three months, in that time after college and before serious career or family commitments. We explored the roads of France, Spain, Morocco, Italy, and now Greece in a Volkswagen station wagon that sometimes doubled as living quarters. We were seeking sun and a hospitable place to settle for at least a week or so.

So it was our chance meeting with Adam Hopkins, a British journalist whose car had run off a desolate stretch of road on the Isle of Crete, that brought us to Sitea. It was a picturesque town of stucco villas stacked over a barren and hilly landscape that plunged to the Mediterranean. He told us where to find lodging there. “Just go to the barbershop and ask for George.”

George, an aspiring real estate developer in Sitea, was married to Katina and rented rooms in their home to the occasional tourist who, like us, stumbled onto this bucolic village. Their two daughters and all their family, for that matter, lived within a ten-mile radius of the town.

How two scruffy young Americans came to be adopted by these Greek Orthodox parents owed a lot to the native and lavish generosity of the people of Crete.  Adam’s arrival a day afterward was another help, as he provided a rich introduction to Greek history and culture and very handily did all our translating for us, albeit sometimes with a little mischief. One night, as we groaned in protest over third helpings of homemade macaroni and grilled redfish, Adam repeatedly whispered to our hosts in Greek that we were still hungry and were just being polite.

Dinners at George and Katina’s pension and feasts on the beach with the entire extended family were awesome. Everyone thought we were too thin. And that, coupled with a Cretan’s sense of self-respect measured by how much he could feed his guests, led to massive indulgences on our behalf. I remember one Sunday dinner that began just after church, with our gathering of dandelion greens and fresh herbs on a sandy hillside above the sea. Sea urchins were pulled from the azure waters, while all of us pitched in to make enormous bowls of fresh tarama salata, fried sardines, bitter greens, and artichokes.

Besides fattening us up, Katina tried a number of ploys to turn her stray Americans in proper Greeks.  She took me to church for Orthodox services where I stood devoutly among rows of women in black dresses, my jeans camouflaged by Katina's oversized coat. She taught me how to make her special dolmades and homemade macaroni using only a quick roll of my fingers across her floured wooden table.  Katina took me shopping and introduced me to all her friends at the market. And, as would any self-respecting Greek mother, she took to begging us to "make a baby" at the pension, a request always punctuated by raised eyebrows, a knowing smile and a finger pointing to our upstairs room above the kitchen. And again at breakfast, there was the questioning look we avoided while we sipped our heavy Greek coffee.

Between meals we explored the island, often with Adam as our expert guide. I recall the vivid color of the sea, the bright bright sun, and the brisk breeze against my face as we sat among Minoan ruins and listened to Adam conjure the mystery and  sense of impending doom as he recounted the story of the sudden demise of this ancient civilization.  Only the distant sound of goat bells punctuated his mesmerizing tale.

One evening on our own, Buck and I went to a local bar to sample raki, the local equivalent to moonshine - another one of Adam's introductions.  We had learned that ten cents would bring a drink and several small plates of fava beans, artichokes, potatoes or olives to feast on for dinner.  We invited a local fisherman sitting nearby to join us and bought him a drink and tried out our limited Greek in conversation.  When he had finished his drink, he bade us farewell, only to return shortly afterward with a small brown bag.   He offered it to me and puzzled, I opened it. Inside I found a pair of shoelaces to replace the worn and broken ones on my hiking boots.  His gift of welcome to me was typical of this generous community.

One afternoon, George offered to take us up into the mountains to meet Uncle Manole and Aunt Kaliope while he delivered some meat from the butcher for them. George’s “truck,” clad in dented, faded blue metal, was actually more like a three-wheeled motorcycle with a makeshift cab attached in the back. I rode the harrowing hour-long ride over mountainous dirt roads, clinging to the door frame. Buck and Adam followed in our dusty trail in the Volkswagen.

As we parked our vehicles and dusted off in Aunt Kaliope’s yard, I thought I had come upon the landscape of a fairy tale. Perhaps it was the magic scene of a stucco cottage nestled in the hillside among fenced garden plots, grape arbors, and olive trees. More likely, it was the enchanting presence of the aging Kaliope and Manole, with their weatherworn faces and hands, their diminutive size, and their welcoming smiles. Since neither of them reached five feet in height, everything in their home was sized for them. Even the fireplace that heated the house was a miniature. We gathered in front of it at their table in the cozy, low-ceilinged room.   

Since our visit was unexpected, Aunt Kaliope was deeply concerned that they would not be able to feed us properly. She and Manole repeatedly apologized as they set their offerings before us, beginning with bowls of homegrown almonds and olives. Whenever someone asks me about my most memorable meal, I always return for a moment to that scene of us sitting at their handmade wooden table, our faces lit by the fire’s glow and me speechless and practically weeping over their food.

Kaliope served us each a large flat bowl of fresh snails gathered that morning from her garden, simmered in homemade red wine, garlic, and herbs and ladled from an iron pot in the fireplace. We tore off chunks of a hot, crusty loaf to sop up the sauce and washed it all down with Manole’s rich red wine. I don’t know how long we lingered at the table. I for one did not want to break the spell. And if ever I felt the restriction of language, it was then. I simply couldn’t thank them enough.

It was not long after that and at the end of another daylong food orgy that ended in a restaurant with dancing, singing, and a few thrown plates (a customary show of approval), that Buck and I decided it was in the interest of self-preservation that we move on. Breaking the news to our hosts was painful. They protested that Easter was only a week away, and we had to stay to eat the lamb that we had been helping them fatten. Finally, as our resolve convinced Katina that we were in fact leaving, she left the kitchen table and began rattling around the stove. I walked up behind her to give her a hug and saw that she was cooking us yet another meal, a farewell gift in a frying pan of hot olive oil and garlic. I watched in silence as each large tear rolled down her cheek and sizzled into the pan.

 

 

Katina’s Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

 with Avgolemono (Egg Lemon) Sauce

 

Spending time in the kitchen with Katina was always a treat- even though our commandof each other’s native language was minimal.  But the language of food never seemed a stumbling block to our time together. After all, cooking is so physical and direct and the expressions of delight easily understood.

 

½         pound               ground beef or lamb (I prefer lamb)
½         medium            yellow onion, minced _about 1/3 cup
1          teaspoon          fresh oregano, minced or ¾ teaspoon dried
1          tablespoon        fresh parsley, minced
1          tablespoon        fresh mint leaves, minced
1          cup                   long-grain rice, uncooked
                                    salt and freshly ground pepper
1          16-ounce jar     brined grape leaves , or fresh if available

16        ounces              chicken stock, preferably homemade

 

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl mix together all the ingredients except the broth and grape leaves. If using fresh grape leaves, pick only the most tender and uniformly sized leaves. Rinse each and place them flat in layers in a bamboo steamer basket.  Place the basket above one inch of water in a pan large enough to hold the basket.  Cover and steam the leaves over medium heat until they soften and turn bright green, about 3 minutes.  Rinse the leaves carefully with cold water to stop the cooking process. If you are using canned leaved, rinse off the brine before proceeding.The next step is the same for canned or fresh leaves.

Separate the leaves, placing them individually on clean towels or wooden boards with the shiny sides face downward and the bottom of leaves toward you. Place approximately one teaspoon  to one half tablespoon (depending on the leaf size) of the rice and meat mixture close to the bottom of each leaf.  Carefully fold the bottom and 2 sides to cover the stuffing, and roll the leaf into a cylinder.

Place the stuffed leaves in an oven-proof casserole dish and cover with several of the remaining grape leaves. Cover completely with stock and place in a preheated 350 degree oven to bake for 1 hour.   The stock should be mostly absorbed and the rice and the leaves tender when the dolmades are done.

Either carefully pour any remaining liquid out of the pan into a bowl or use a turkey baster to remove it without disturbing the dolmades. Make the sauce and pour over the stuffed leaves or pass the dolmades and lemon sauce separately. Leftovers will keep better that way. You may serve them immediately or at room temperature as an appetizer or mezze.

Serves 8. (About 4 dozen dolmades).

 

Egg Lemon Sauce (Avgolemono Sauce)

3                      egg yolks
1/3       cup       lemon juice, strained
¾         cup       hot broth from the casserole or add more hot chicken broth as needed

In a small nonreactive saucepan, whisk the egg yolks until pale and frothy. Slowly add the lemon juice and whisk for another minute. Place over low heat and very slowly add all of the broth in a steady stream, constantly whisking. Take care not to get the pan and mixture too hot as it will cause the eggs to curdle (scramble). When the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove from heat and pour over the dolmades.

 

 

Greek Coffee

           We were always served this intense Greek coffee both after dinner and for breakfast with hard crusts of bread for dipping. Sometimes leftover marinated cold sardines and grrens showed up in the morning too. It is a fool-proof and refreshingly simple “low tech’ method to make coffee.

 For each cup of coffee:

6          ounces              water
1          teaspoon          dark-roast coffee, ground to a very fine powder

1-1/2     teaspoons       sugar

 

          Place the water into a small saucepan and  heat over a medium flame. The Greeks use a “briki,” a traditional long handled bronze saucepan. Add the sugar and coffee. Stir, and as soon as the mixture rises to a boil, remove from the heat.  It will have a frothy layer of bubbles on the top.  Pour into demitasse cups and serve.  Remember that the sediment that settles to the bottom of the cup is not to be drunk.