The Greeks were the first Southern Europeans to migrate to Australia in large numbers, beginning early this century, and somehow or other most of them seemed to end up serving leathery steaks with an egg on top in some dusty main-street cafe. As Greece is not a great meat-raising country, the Greeks have learned to make the best of what they have rather than gloomily accept that the best is not very good and steak and eggs is far removed from the Greek scene of flavorless meat finely minced with a rich anthology of flavoring. Greek food in Greece is a vastly different proposition from Greek food in Wagga.
Perhaps the Greeks are not renowned as the greatest cooks in the world, but they recognise the place of cooking among the arts. In the Middle Ages many cooks found their way into the Orthodox monasteries, where they provided succulent dishes for the appreciative monks. To distinguish them in their work they wore tall white hats instead of the black ones of the regular monks—and this tradition of the chef’s cap is universally preserved today.
The full subtlety of Greek cooking makes itself felt through the sturdy olives that play such an important part in the preparation of the food and there is a blending of the senses when one dines with the sweet aroma of the pale blue wisp from the olive wood fire in the kitchen. It is said that man can live off these amazing olive trees.. When the heavy winter rains strive to wash the soil from the rocky land out to sea it is the olive trees that hold it, so that wheat and vegetables can thrive to provide food for man and animal. Preserved in brine and their own oil, the olive berries, black and shiny as the eyes of the women who gather them, form with the bread and goat’s-milk cheese the basic sustenance of the working people.
The oil of the olive is both food and a cooking medium of unequalled nutritive value. Dietitians are taking note of the comparative absence of heart troubles in countries where the oil of the olive tree takes the place of animal fats in the diet of the population.
The stony hillsides of Greece also supply many herbs which are gathered in the springtime and dried for culinary use. Probably the best known of all of them is oregano. Its name comes from two ancient Greek words: oros, mountain, and gamos, brightness.
And it is probably the most widely used of all the herbs in Greek cooking. A tomato salad, sprinkled with finely chopped oregano, is something quite different. A lamb chop or grilled fish will aways be served with a sprinkling of rigani, as it is known in Greece. But never use herbs with a heavy hand because they will murder the subtlety of any dish.
Bayleaves also prosper in Greece and are widely used in cooking. These leaves have other uses apart from cooking. Before the days of washing machines and indeed still in many parts of Greece today the branches of the bay are boiled and the water used as a last rinse for table and bed linen. It imparts a deliciously clean smell to the linen. Rosemary also grows very profusely in all parts of Greece, but again has to be used with discretion in cooking.
A sprig or two is usually inserted under the skin of lamb before roasting something you must try if you never have. And water in which a handful of rosemary has been boiled is very useful for brightening up a black dress after washing. Basil is confined to flavoring preserves in Greece. A pot of it is nearly always to be found growing on a balcony, terrace or in the courtyards of houses. It is said to keep flies and mosquitoes away. This is something I think all country people in Australia should try. It would certainly be cheaper than a multitude of fly sprays!
Where we tend to think of vegetables as “veg,” with often a dense atmosphere of gloom, in Greece they are regarded as a positive pleasure and they play an important part in any meal. They are nearly always eaten as a salad, either raw, or previously boiled and allowed to cook before being served with oil and lemon and they often even form the basis of a main meal.
A lovely name for a meatless vegetable main dish is “Little shoes without meat” Kolokythia Papoutsakia Horis Kreas. Top and tail 21b. of baby marrows and cook them in boiling salt water for 10 minutes. Cool and drain and then split them lengthwise and remove a little of the pulp from the centre of each half, making them resemble little shoes. Into the hollow of each one place ia little of the following mixture. Chop 3 onions and cook them gently in very little water until soft. Add 2oz. butter, 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, 6oz. of grated cheese, 3oz. of breadcrumbs and two well beaten eggs. Mix together and season to taste.
Place in a baking dish and cover with a thick bechamel sauce into which you have beaten another egg. Sprinkle with a little grated cheese and baike in a hot oven until golden.