A Greek Story – Part 1

Posted by admin | Just Food Articles - writers invited | Monday 14 November 2005 2:07 am

When I visited Greece more than 2 years back, it wasn’t about the food. I didn’t even know much about it. If I thought olive oil it was only connected to Italy. If I thought of fried potatoes it was about sin or at best McDonalds. I’d heard about Greek salad, and my mother occasionally made some strange egg-plant thing called Mousakka which until then I thought was her invention. But I hadn’t heard of Tsouvaki or Spanakopitta or Gemista. In a way, apart from putting on 4 kilograms, Greek food was the beginning of an education and a curiosity beyond the palate.

oliveoilGod Poseidon and Goddess Athena clashed in a contest over who should rule the City of Athens. Poseidon, the God of the Seas, presented the Greek people with a salt-water well. Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, stabbed her javelin into the holy rock of the Acropolis and the world’s first olive tree flourished. She told the Greeks that the bountiful tree would provide them with fruit, oil, and wood. The people chose their winner and the City of Athens was named after her. Just one example of how everywhere in Greece, history and mythology intertwine so strongly it is impossible to separate the two.
There is a single olive tree atop the famous Acropolis of Athens. The guide smiles and tells me it is the original one.

To this day, the olive tree is a mainstay in Greek culture. They proudly claim that you can use every part of it. The oil alone is used for cooking, – for deep-frying, for dipping your bread in while you wait at the table for dinner to be served and for drizzling generously all over your salad, your Kakavia Soup, your already deep-fried potatoes. And incidentally for light, cosmetics, soap and medicine. Olives are eaten, the leaves used for tea, and the wood for kindle. It was originally used to make dishes that are very similar to those that now form part of the Mediterranean diet. At first sight, unimposing, a short stumpy tree with shiny, long and narrow, dull green leaves. But what’s stunning is that wherever I go hundreds of olive trees dot the landscape. It is widely cultivated but also grows wild as far as your eye can see. The sun shines brightly and the hillside seems suddenly to have turned to silver. Harvest season begins in November when I’m there, and everywhere black nets were spread out on the ground under the trees for the picking season. Not just under trees that have been grown commercially. Locals with 4-5 trees in their backyard collect the olives and take them to the local factory for preparation of their own years’ stock of olive oil.
On one long drive someplace, our guide handed us an olive off the tree to taste. It was disgustingly bitter! I discovered that in general, olives are not edible whether raw green, or ripe black so they have to be processed to remove the bitterness. In Italy or Spain, they’re treated with lye and/or cured in brine or dry salt before being edible.
Greek olives are strong tasting because they are just packed in dry salt, or pickled in brine for months and then finally packed in fresh brine.
It is believed that the Greeks took the cultivation of olives to Italy. The Romans invented more efficient ways of storing, distributing and streamlining the management of large quantities of olive oil produced in their colonies. Unfortunately that still holds true. The Greeks don’t profit half as much, nor are they known half as well for their oil as the Italians.

Read Part 2

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