The Mediterranean Diet: On Vice and Virtue
May 10, 2011 § 18 Comments
Tooling around the neighborhoods of Varkiza, Vouliagmeni, and Vari, with stiff wind blowing without let-up from high marble crags down to sparkling lapis sea, we admire the open vegetable markets with their mounds of glossy deep red tomatoes; we gawk at a wooden cart piled high with a bale of globular stemmed artichokes, each the size of a baby’s head. But most of all, what we notice is that every few blocks there is a restaurant or three reeking gloriously of greasy meat, or a patisserie that takes up half the block.
Our local bakery is vast and well-lit, open nearly all the time, and inside are half a mile of tarts, chocolate mousses and cakes, tiramisu, cheesecakes and so on, followed by another half a mile of concoctions of phyllo and nuts and honey. Across the way is an island of sandwiches, pizza, spanakopita, and croissants. To the far left is a coffee bar where coffees are served with the requisite titanic dose of sugar syrup, which seems to puncture your teeth with every sip. Behind the register is a wall of varied loaves of attractive if disappointingly scentless bread. And most of the friendly women who work there seem, for some reason, to be manufactured blondes, a trend of which we can’t approve. Brunettes of the world, unite!
Cars are parked in front all day long, doing steady business, and we thought it surely must be the only bakery for miles. Until I walked down the street about five minutes and found another just as enormous, next to a Starbucks with sweets galore, and around the corner from a cafe, a Haagen-Dazs shop, and another dessert-heavy restaurant a little farther down. More bakeries line the road up to Vari, and they are hardly lacking on the way up to Athens.
At lunch with friends, I asked, what happened to the vaunted Mediterranean diet?
“Mediterranean diet! That is no more.”
“Well, you can buy the produce and so on if you want that. We have it.”
“Yes, but everybody eats junk.”
“Look around. The Greeks are fat.”
It is true, they hardly look deprived of profiteroles.
In Vari, along Vouliagmenis Avenue (Λεωφορος Βουλιαγμένης), is a corridor of meat restaurants with spits stacked in the windows, each rod bearing the carcass of an entire beast spinning slowly on its axis, brown and dripping, in the heat. On a weekend, each of the dozen restaurants or so is full of families tearing into the feast. And all along the road are the zaxaroplastiki, a word that tickles me for its parts (sugar moulding).
Fortunately, there is a massive gym looming before them on the same avenue in reprimand. Gyms are horrid of course, but at least this one is large and Anglophone-friendly, with the usual complement of training machines damp with the sweat of some bronzed, veiny muscle fiend heaving around the circuit, treadmills facing large flat-screen TVs showing clownish bleached-blonde talk-show hosts mouthing words without sound or meaning, while pop music blares, either from an era that makes you feel old for not knowing it or makes you feel old for knowing it. Further, there’s a lap swimming pool, a full pilates studio with my beloved “reformer” machines that look like devices the inquisitor shows you to get you to talk, tennis courts, a juice bar, and full-service hair and nail salons and spa with sunbed and massage. The works. Of course, beside the swimming pool, explained the Australian-accented young woman who showed us around, was a smoking area. “This is Greece,” she shrugged sheepishly. “You cannot change them.”
The image of a chainsmoking local, crammed to the gizzards with garlicky lamb chops and chocolate, perspiring mightily upon some piece of equipment, made me instinctively note to bring some orange blossom water, to perform exorcisms upon my clothes and person in the changing room when necessary.
In the meantime, we, foreigners that we are, are enjoying the novelties of Greek produce.
There is nothing I appreciate more about Greek cuisine than its abundance of greens (χόρτα) on the menu, the heaped steaming dish of them boiled that arrives dressed simply in olive oil and lemon. It is usually some sort of chicory, bitter and fresh, which makes the wine taste sweeter and fills you with virtuous thoughts. Why doesn’t every restaurant offer such a thing? Why are you so often left with a plate of five rocket leaves covered in parmesan, or three artfully arranged sugarsnap peas decorating a steak the size of a paperback book, as your vegetable when going out?
In the supermarket, the χόρτα section is even more exciting, with bins of unfamilar leaves that resemble all manner of weeds that American gardeners are always pulling up by the roots while cursing. Each time we go, I grab a few bags of these and we try them out. Note to all inexperienced greens-eaters: three changes of water in the sink ought to wash them properly. Any less washing is for people who enjoy eating sand.
Now a question for you: what did we eat the other night? Let me know if you recognize the χόρτα pictured above. This was bought in Sklavinitis, one of the local supermarkets.
In form and size it resembled bunches of pine needles, but was pale and tender as spring grass, and after a three-minute turn in salted boiling water it had the sweet earthy taste of beets or corn, which I dressed with a little oil and a squeeze of lemon, and which was so nice we needed no other supper and went to bed on that and a cup of hot mint tea, content with our virtue, and secure in the knowledge we could go forth and sin the next day.
Update 20 May 2011: It does indeed appear to be a type of salicornia, as Elena suggested, though not the exact variety shown on the blog linked to in the comments. The name I spotted at Alpha Veta is αρμυρα χορτα.
(There, V. As you hoped, I’m writing again about food!)