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?

Laughter.

“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.”

“Processed 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!)

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§ 18 Responses to The Mediterranean Diet: On Vice and Virtue

  • Persolaise says:

    I have no idea what your pine needles are, but they sound great.

    Re: the diet. I do my best (and often fail) to avoid resorting to stereotypes, but haven’t middle-aged Greek/Italian/Maltese/southern French people always enjoyed a gradual amplification of the waistline? I have no doubt you’re right that the famed Med diet is dead or dying (the depressing number of ‘junk sweets’ shops in France provides sufficient evidence of this trend) but I suspect the food was never overly kind to people over the age of 45.

    But what do I know?

  • vanessa says:

    Hmm…food for thought. Even 15 years ago I do remember eating a piece of strawberry flan the size of my head with a big wodge of cream on it by the harbour at Rhodes, and thinking “There actually doesn’t appear to be any aubergines in this”. “Othi lathi” is one of the few things I can say in Greek, as it happens, along with “ena soda” and the word for “room”. Nope – “room” has gone!

    I have been to Vouliagmeni and Glyfada on a school trip in 1973, though the memory is a bit hazy. Byron and sunsets are ringing a bell for some reason.

    And on the subject of desserts, I took the liberty of quoting your Flora Bella review the other day. “Silver, chilled cream” is sublime!

  • vanessa says:

    PS…scallions?

  • Amy says:

    I know you’re not meat-averse, but that description gave me a little of the blurgh. But the greens! Marvelous! I nearly stood up and started nibbling on my hibiscus leaves. (Shine seems to love them – maybe they’re delicious…)

  • Ha! Yeah, the Med diet is dying, which is why the Greek physique has drastically changed in the last 20 years (to the worse I might add!); I attribute it to adopting the 9-to-5 schedule which is so non simpatico to the climate/tempo. Like you say, there are so many options, there’s really no excuse.

    These are not scallions in the pic, which are usually sold whole (with their roots and white bulbs). They look like αλμυρήθρα/Salicornia sp. to me (see: http://floraattica.blogspot.com/2010/10/salicornia-sp.html). They’re great with salty fish like tuna and boiled potatoes, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice & zest.

    Here is a brief catalogue of all the edible greens in Greece: (It’s not in English but it would be helpful searching by Latin name)
    http://www.ftiaxno.gr/2008/03/blog-post_17.html
    One you should definitely look out for is “stamnagathi” (σταμναγκάθι) which is Cretan and is embraced by haute cuisine.

    Also this might prove of help: It’s got an English page and the recipes are good and quite authentic:
    http://www.argiro.com.gr/

    Furthermore, Γεωργίου has fresh pies good for a main dish and fresh desserts to sin out on (so many people stop and buy them after all, they have a high turnover on all of those), but for aromatic bread, always seek the small local ~within the little alleystreets~ bakeries; some still have sourbread/leavened bread, not the industrial mush.
    Plus there’s always Eric Kayser in at least two spots in the southern suburbs IIRC (Floisvos Marina, recommended stroll btw, and in New Smyrni) 😉
    http://www.erickayser.com/

    • Thanks, Elena. Good resources!

      But I don’t think that salicornia looks like what we ate. Close, but ours was in separate bunches attached at the bottom much like a cluster of pine needles is, not along a stalk.

      I usually bake my own bread, but my kitchen stuff is still sitting in Piraeus harbor waiting for customs clearance.

      • Hmmm….you’re right about the greens. It’s got to be something that’s escaping me right now. If you bought it at local Sklavenitis, how unusual can it be? *scratching head in philosophical mode*

        I know how annoying it is not to have one’s appliances or utensils by one’s side. I’m a fellow foodie. In the meantime, have you experimented with beer bread? Terribly easy for anyone who hasn’t tried it, just mix everything in a bowl and put in a one-off aluminum tin, bake like a cake; it tastes satisfyingly of yeast but I tend to further aromatize it with aniseed as well (you can buy the seeds at the spice rack at the supermarket, it’s quite a popular ware).

        Since you mentioned Chrome having an enhanced translator function, some other nice blogs/sites on food, if you will please allow (non affiliated with any):
        http://www.athinorama.gr/umami/ (guide to food from the Athens Guide magazine, Athinorama; in Greek)
        http://piniatatsinonas.blogspot.com/ (in Greek)
        http://kalofagas.blogspot.com/(in English)

        and a site I think you need to check, both as a foodie and as a fumie.
        http://www.mastihashop.gr/EN/home_en.htm
        I believe you may find a Mastiha Shop in the southern suburbs (?). There’s definitely one on Panepistimiou avenue smack at the city centre (almost across Grande Bretagne and the Parliament)

        Also do yourselves both a favour, get off the Vari meat-joints (trashy flashy, although decent meat) and take your husband from the arm and go to the Blue Hytra at the Westin. “You will remember me” (θα με θυμηθείς!) as we say here when suggesting something good. You don’t have to tell him I suggested it, just surprise him. 😉
        http://www.westinathens.com/en/bluehytra

        PS. Do try to try out the fish and the seafood (especially urchin salad which is rare and unknown to most). You will find fish by the kilo even in open air markets, just get there early because after a while the heat gets to them. Fish and seafood is as Greek as it gets.
        This is a good restaurant for that sort of thing, though, if you’re in the mood for going out:
        http://www.varoulko.gr/uk/varoulko.html

        Phew….lots of things. Feel free to follow whatever suits you, naturally.

    • PS For anyone who would like to look at pages that are in a language you don’t read (like Elena’s Greek pages here), I recommend using Google’s Chrome browser. It has a setting that will automatically translate all text to the language of your choice. It doesn’t translate text in images or flash/javascript menus, and of course it is an automatic translation with all the tone-deafness and blind spots you would expect, but it is a vast improvement over total incomprehension.

    • Update: it is in fact the salicornia, aka armyra, aka sea fennel! It was just cut differently and at a different growth stage than the picture in that blog.

      • Ah…I was starting to think I’m losing my marbles or something! THANK YOU!
        Yes, χόρτα αρμυρά is very close to αρμύρα (they mean “salty weeds/greens” and “saltiness” respectively because they grow by the sea), so it makes sense. Funny that the taste is not really salty, as you have already witnessed.

        BTW, I forgot to mention this before, but in case it’s of interest: ζαχαροπλαστική is the equivalent of “pattiserie”, while ζαχαροπλαστείο is the actual brick & mortar shop that sells patisseries (Yeah, I know, Greek is rather tough and I applaud you for your patience in learning it). In fact the -είο suffix almost invariably denotes the place where some activity is being performed. There are places without that particular suffix though. (nothing is perfect!)

  • Victoria says:

    Delightful! I could read your food thoughts for hours and ask for more!
    When I was traveling recently in CA (and following my Lenten fast,) I realized that there was pretty much nothing for me to eat besides sushi at most restaurants. Vegetables came suspiciously scented with butter and chicken stock. Cheese was always hiding someplace. I missed my usual boiled greens simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Now, most people would cringe, but when the greens are perfect (not some old broccoli or spinach that is better traveled than I,) it is such a delicious dish.

    Your salad of chickpeas and tomatoes never leaves my repertoire though, Lent or not!

    P.S. On your mystery greens, I’ve asked someone who is quite an expert on such things. Let’s see if she recognizes them.

    • In California, of all places! But I’m really surprised. There are so many vegans making elaborate restaurant demands in California that most places in the SF and LA areas have gotten used to accommodating them. You were in the wrong place

      I suppose US restaurants don’t sell greens because people don’t order them? I’m always disproportionately thrilled to find some sautéed escarole as a side dish, and I even welcome lowly spinach if fresh. I used to order regularly a plate of pea-pod stems that cost more than the main dish at our favorite Chinese restaurant in Boston, because in my opinion it was the most delicious thing on a not-too-shabby menu.

      • Victoria says:

        I just happened to be with someone whose tastes were diametrically opposed to mine, so that was a bit of a problem. In the end, on my own, I discovered lots of interesting places in SF (and of course, I called my dad on regular basis to suggest dinner menus of things I was craving.) It helps to have family all over the place. 🙂

        I am discovering lots of interesting greens in the Union Square market. There is a stall selling buckwheat greens in season, which taste absolutely delicious. Also, borage! Have you tried it? It tastes like cucumber, with a musky undertone. I mixed some chopped flowers into the drained yogurt, and the combination turned out be to be delicious–fresh and green. Later, I read in one of Elizabeth David’s books that it is a classical English pairing–creme cheese and borage flowers.

        My expert is stumped by your greens, btw! I am very curious, and I would love to know a Greek name, at the very least.

      • I went back to the shop yesterday. The greens are called χορτα αρμυρα but I have no idea what that means.

        Never tried borage. Sounds delicious.

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