CULTURE

Delectable secrets from old cookbooks

Two old cookery notebooks, masterpieces, have come into my hands: large, with thick covers, written in blue ink with a fountain pen and wonderful calligraphy. The pages of each are numbered from 1 to 200, and one even has a contents page. The others contain pastry and cake recipes. The inscription «Amarousion 27 May 1936» is entered on the last page of the first notebook, with an illegible signature. The recipes are written in alphabetical order in an old-fashioned style, with little bits of information dotted here and there: «The soda which we use in many cakes can also be used for stomach pains. When poured into a lemon drink, it creates a froth.» This was in the days before tinned carbonated drinks, and I remembered that my grandfather always carried a little envelope with soda in his pocket. Whenever he had dyspepsia, he would dissolve it in lemon juice. It would froth immediately, and he would drink it just like that. Greek and foreign There is something quite interesting about this jumbling of information tidbits and recipes – which are not all Greek but can be found in old cookery books published at the beginning of the 20th century. Well-known Greek recipes, such as artichokes a la polita and fricassee with endives, can be found next to eggs au gratin, braised lamb and even roast piglet. It is intriguing to imagine why the secrets of the omelette are noted in minute detail over two and a half closely written pages. One also wonders why there is such an analytical description of how to boil sugar. Why would the average housewife need to know such things? These details are probably only of concern to professional confectioners. Then I thought that the good housewives in the old days prepared many sweets themselves; they did not like to buy them. There was great competition among upper-class ladies over issues such as pound cakes, meringues, and spoon sweets. Many discussions took place over tea and pinochle about the indolent who couldn’t even make a decent sugared bun. I don’t know if the scenario that I have scripted for these notebooks is exact, but I like the idea. I can imagine, in 1936 Maroussi, a beautiful lady with her hair in a bun, wearing a ruffled skirt and an old cameo pinned onto her blouse, sitting at an elegant writing desk made of rosewood next to the piano, and writing with her fountain pen, the inkwell open in front of her. Next to her is a little silver vase with a bouquet of violets. She is certainly literate; perhaps she was a pupil at the Arsakeio school, because in neither of these notebooks with their wonderful calligraphy is there a single mistake in the spelling, grammar or accents. And errors Among all this fascinating information, there are also some errors – probably due to lack of information – as you can see from the two excerpts below. Shrimps: «We are all familiar with the crustacean that appears in great numbers along the Greek coasts and which is such a flavorsome edible. Shrimps are most commonly boiled, without this excluding the possibility of them being fried in butter or grilled. They must, however, always be fresh. This we can tell from their color. Fresh shrimps are generally dark. «The stale shrimp is reddish, regardless of whether it reddens as soon as it boils. Shrimps are done (boiled or roasted) once they are well reddened. We must, then, avoid buying shrimps of reddish color (when they are raw) and choose those tending towards a light blue.» Eels: «It is said that the eel is born from the dampness of the ground, or from maggots or their coupling with morays, snakes, etc. All these are myths. The only indisputable fact is that the eel lays 5-10 million eggs. Every winter countless very large eels descend from the rivers to the sea, and then immediately disappear. Despite persistent searches, not a single one is to be found. Only in the spring do we see the small ones returning again to the rivers. «Consequently, the large eels descend to the sea only to lay their eggs and then die, as do so many other animals, after labor. If we were to put an eel into a tank and prevent it from going to the sea, after two or three years it becomes distressed, it seeks to leave, it jumps, it wants to leap, but it does not lay eggs. It eventually calms down and, as they say, it can live for 100 years in there. From all this, we learn that if we want a big eel we should look for it in rivers.» This is what the lady from Maroussi wrote in her charming notebook in May 1936. Sweetly jumbled inaccuracies and truths. Myths which resided for years in the kitchen drawer, giving a charge of mystery to the delicious delicate taste of the eel, cooked on special occasions with onions and bay leaves. Wonderful Shrimps Here is a recipe for shrimps. It is best to use fresh ones, in which case you will remove the shell and the intestine but leave the head and tail for flavor. You can also use frozen shrimps, which may already be cleaned. The recipe is from my book «Crocus – Saffron.» 1/2 kilo shrimps 3 small green spring onions 1 clove garlic 4 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 gram saffron 2 spoons coriander seeds 2 pinches cayenne pepper salt and pepper 150 grams yogurt 1/2 teaspoon cornflour 1 cup water Clean the shrimps well and allow them to drain on kitchen paper. Finely slice the spring onions and soften them in the oil. Add the shrimps and fry a little more. Quickly add the crushed garlic and the saffron. Mix and add salt and pepper. Pour in half the water, the freshly chopped coriander and the cayenne pepper. Dilute the cornflour in the remaining water and the yogurt. Beat well so that they mix properly and add to the shrimps. Mix well and cook until the water has evaporated.