A guardian of Greek food traditions

We meet at the office in the Hellenic Folklore Research Center, a part of the Academy of Athens, where she served as director for 40 years. Aikaterini Kamilaki-Polymerou’s specialist field is Greek nutrition, its history, recipes and cooking techniques, and she is an authority on the subject today.

“I have been studying nutrition since 1980,” says Kamilaki-Polymerou. “I have designed an extremely analytical questionnaire – of more than 30 pages – on issues of nutrition, the cycle of life and time, symbolic foods, production, cooking and consumption, which also became the impetus to archive the center’s huge collection of material.”

Kamilaki-Polymerou explains how the center has studied over 600 product identities since 1980, many of which have now acquired protected designation of origin.

“Others, like wild greens, were practically unknown back then and I must confess that many thought them redundant. In my hometown in Pilio, I listed a green called tsitsirafo, the fresh shoots of the wild pistachio tree (known in Crete as adramythia), which make a wonderful snack when pickled. I also added the nettle as an edible green, especially in pies, as well as the young shoots of black bryony [avronia], which today are well known and very expensive.”

Another key part of Kamilaki-Polymerou’s work was traveling to medical and nutritional conferences to talk about the database being compiled by the center and inviting professionals to make more use of it.

“There is no real cooperation between all the bodies involved, mainly ministries and other research centers,” she says. “And this comes at a price. For example, different ministries may run separate programs that ultimately have the same goal in mind. They have never put their heads together to talk about the subject of Greek nutrition. This would concern the ministries of Agricultural Development, Education, Tourism, Culture and Development. I have never heard of a joint program, so how can they possibly coordinate the findings of research and draw a plan of how they can be best utilized? Each works on its own and in the end we need a body that will make an assessment and draw conclusions concerning the results. The way things are now is inefficient and ineffectual.”

The issue of cooperation is important to Kamilaki-Polymerou, who cites the example of a series of conferences and exhibitions on the olive and olive oil.

“We did three international conferences on the olive and olive oil and, to be fair, the Ministry of Agricultural Development did publish a report on them. Among these was an exhibition organized by the Academy of Athens in 2004, which was also the best of the lot, as it examined the product from antiquity to the present, through a historical, medical and nutritional perspective. It was a success but nothing really came of it in the end. The exhibition later traveled to New York and did well, but again nothing really happened on a long-term level. The ministry’s report was translated into Chinese and even though the country is trying to increase export of olives and olive oil to China, no one thought to use the report and the other available material to this end. We could take the exhibition and set it up in any country that we are hoping to make an importer. It is scientific and attractive, and, more importantly, it’s there, ready to be used.”

Kamilaki-Polymerou says that she is currently in talks with the ministry to have the report printed in multiple copies so that it can be used after a Spanish authority asked her for the right to use the material and have it printed in Spanish and English, and use it all the time.

“When we’ve broached the issue of its more widespread use, we have been accused of crossing disciplinary boundaries by presenting archaeological content when we’re a folklore center. Of course, no one cares to find out that the bits on antiquity were written by archaeologists. Basically, they couldn’t forgive the collaboration,” she says.

Another problem for the center is its lack of media access, and Kamilaki-Polymerou believes that this is because the overwhelming perception is that the work being done is, in short, dull.

“Just look at our website []. We have digitized more that 100,000 pages of material. We get visitors from all over the world, even Turkey. We have a comprehensive archive of folklore history, complete with photographic material. Who knows about all this? Every year we send teams all over the country to continue the research. We have created two museums in 15 years – the Bread Museum in Amfiklia, central Greece, and the Olive Museum in Kapseliana on Crete – which are fully operational and have enough revenues to cover their costs. But, unfortunately, no one is interested in promoting them.”

Despite all the problems that Kamilaki-Polymerou has encountered over her career and the feeling that a wealth of material has been neglected, she remains optimistic that the day will come when the authorities and the public sit up and notice the invaluable work it’s doing.

“The website has improved the odds,” says Kamilaki-Polymerou, who since January has served as honorary president of the center after retiring and ceding the director’s chair to Evangelos Karamanes.


* This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of Gastronomos magazine.

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