‘The Glorious Foods of Greece’

Over the past decade, a return to tradition has been one of the most dominant lifestyle trends, especially in this country. The rise of agrotourism, the renovation of old country mansions and, in cuisine, the proliferation of tavernas with an emphasis on traditional recipes, have all been results of this trend which, at least in respect to cuisine, has coincided with a greater international interest in Mediterranean food. But how close to the original, genuine traditions these attempts come is a moot point. When it comes to cuisine, for instance, one wonders whether the dishes restaurants offer as traditional are nothing more than pretentious concoctions used as a marketing tool to attract custom. According to an expert in the culinary field, author and food columnist Diane Kochilas, good, traditional food is mostly to be found in the small, unknown restaurants and tavernas of the Greek provinces. The lack of well-trained Greek chefs and a scarcity of restaurants in Athens that specialize in good Greek food and not just standard, cliche dishes, show that what is out there does little justice to what is otherwise a richly varied culinary tradition. It is this tradition in all its complexity and breadth that Kochilas records in «The Glorious Foods of Greece,» her third and most recent book on Greek cuisine, published by Harper Collins and William Morris in a wonderfully designed, hard-cover edition. (Her other two titles are «The Food and Wine of Greece» and «The Greek Vegetarian.») In truth, «The Glorious Foods of Greece» is much more that its title suggests. The 400 recipes included, many of them not published before, make it a culinary delight but much of the book’s interest lies in placing Greek food within its historical and cultural context, thus offering an in-depth understanding and broad appreciation of Greek cuisine, its origins, development and local variations. Food can be a most expressive reflection of culture, a point that the book’s multidisciplinary approach sets out with plenty of insightful information on the history of each region, its population and the local customs, often adopted from outside influences. Everything gels into an absorbing read which makes the book’s complete lack of images barely noticeable and, in fact, a preference that matches the book’s underlying concept. Structured by region, the book begins with the Peloponnese, the region of peasant, olive-oil-based food at its best, moves westward into the Ionian Islands where some influence of Venetian cuisine becomes more apparent, then into Roumeli and Epirus where savory pies are the reigning diet, heads on to Thessaly, the region which bridges the cuisines of continental Greece, and eventually moves north to Macedonia, home to Greece’s spiciest cuisine. It then travels to the islands of the northeastern Aegean, the spare and simple cuisine of the Cyclades and the Dodecanese, and winds up in Crete, which, according to Kochilas, offers the best example of a unified Mediterranean cuisine. Athens is treated in a separate, small chapter which deals with the city’s changing tastes and the opening of new restaurants specializing in fusion cuisine. «The Glorious Foods of Greece» is, of course, not intended to be a comprehensive survey of Greek cuisine. Kochilas has selected those recipes that she feels have symbolic or historic connections with each region and has balanced the book’s contents with food that is ceremonial and related to cultural customs as well as with more easy, accessible recipes. Her book is, in fact, the distillation of research spanning more than a decade. Kochilas, a New Yorker of Greek descent who has been living in Greece since the mid-1990s, has turned Greek cuisine into a vocation. She has spent years traveling throughout Greece, tracking down local recipes in some of the country’s most unlikely regions, meeting cooks, bakers, shepherds and fishermen in the process, and tuning into Greek cultural norms in order to obtain information that is often extremely hard to gain access to in traditional societies. Through her articles in Food & Wine magazine, The New York Times and Saveur, Kochilas has helped give Greek cuisine international exposure as well as keeping the Greek public informed through her regular column in the Ta Nea daily. Kochilas also lectures on Greek cuisine around the world and, more importantly, works occasionally as a cook. Drawing from her own experience, she intends her current book to offer more than a cultural perspective on Greek traditional foods but to serve as a practical aid for cooks. Indeed, some of the recipes seem worth trying out. Unusual dishes include chicken smothered with onions and feta from the Barthounohoria in the Peloponnese, quail stuffed with fava beans from the Ionian Islands, pork loin stuffed with myzithra cheese and carrots from Kimolos and leeks stewed with prunes and tomato from Macedonia. In each chapter, the recipes follow an extensive prologue on the history of each region and its local foods. In the chapter on Macedonia, for example, there is much information on cheese varieties, sesame and tahini and Macedonian peppers. Also inserted into each chapter, one finds sidebars with specialized information; on the Taxiarchon Monastery in Aigion and its production of rose-petal jam, for example, or the origins of the unusual practice of cooking underground in Epirus. A concluding chapter on the basics of Greek cooking includes advice on the different qualities of Greek olive oil, provides essential information for preparing different types of homemade phyllo dough, on types of trachana (crushed wheat boiled in milk and then made into pasta), as well as more practical advice on how to roast an eggplant, cook wild mushrooms or fill and roll dolmathes (stuffed vine or cabbage leaves). This vital information comes as the conclusion to a well-balanced and meticulously researched book which manages to put across the diversity and richness of Greek cuisine.

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