National policy needed to boost national products in Europe and all over the world

Since the requisite legislation is still not in place, the term «traditional product» is being used without any checks and balances. One month before the Olympic Games, rumors are surfacing that Kalamata olives being sold as genuine on the market are in fact from foreign countries, and wholly tasteless in the bargain. This is not the first time that products are being baptized as Greek, though they are not. «We are concerned,» Vassilis Zafeiris, consultant to the Union of Greek Food Processing Companies, told the magazine Food and Drink, «over whether there will be a positive outcome from efforts to promote Greek gastronomy, or whether we will see our traditional Greek salad adulterated with Bulgarian feta, Dutch tomatoes, Turkish olive oil and Tunisian olives.» Responsibility for the catering program of the Olympic Games, according to the specifications laid down by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rests with experienced multinational consortiums which are chosen through international competitions. Those in charge of the nutritional side of the Games are responsible for ensuring sufficient amounts, standards of hygiene and for satisfying the various dietary needs of teams and officials. The major sports event, which is expected to bring 2 million visitors to Athens, naturally enough demands the existence of approved and controlled products at every venue, whether restaurant, canteen or taverna. But all possible measures must be taken to ensure that various foods are not baptized Greek at the last minute, thus bringing the Greek traditional diet into disrepute. Too late for tradition «It’s too late for what we dreamt of to happen,» said Trichopoulou, «though the Agriculture Ministry is making frantic efforts to get the best possible result. But I hope we will find useful what many groups of people have thought up for the Olympic Games and will be able to calmly and steadily apply them in the future.» Professor Trichopoulou, what exactly did you try to achieve as president of the committee set up by the Agriculture Ministry? We tried to safeguard the term «traditional» with respect to foods. Sometimes, the term is worthless, sometimes it is prostituted and occasionally, it reflects reality. Our recommendations aimed to define and establish the term «traditional» in law so that the label can be placed only on those products that meet certain preconditions. There was time to prepare for the Olympics after 2002, when we submitted the report. However, no bill was drafted, though I assure you that small, usually family, firms are making honorable efforts to preserve tradition. So the label «traditional» doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Anyone can use it. We have «traditional» products – yogurts, fruit preserves, and so on which are quite different from the real thing, both in terms of their primary ingredients and in the way they are made. This is why we, with the support of the General Secretariat of Technology and Research, and in cooperation with other laboratories, have been trying for the past 10 years to study traditional foods. We went to Sifnos, where pasteli (a type of sesame biscuit) is made in the traditional manner, to Crete for a traditional kind of bread, made with yeast from chick peas, which is in danger of disappearing, to Halkidiki, for just one kind of pie. We videotaped the elderly women making the food, so as to record the smallest movements of their hands. Otherwise, the information on techniques will be missing from the recipes. We carried out a chemical analysis of the raw ingredients and the prepared product and we saw that they contained amazing nutritional ingredients and substances, which today are advertised in pill form and which are added to various foods as supplements. It’s just another marketing ruse. We don’t need such supplements with a Mediterranean diet, and particularly with the traditional Greek diet which cuts fatalities cancer by 24 percent and from cardiovascular disease by 33 percent. At the same time, our ambition is to establish these foods, so we take a historical approach. Look what happened with feta and ouzo, which are products of Greece. Yet we had to go to court to demand the self-evident. An example is yogurt. Abroad, they talk about Greek yogurt, but we haven’t established it as a trade name. Historical approach When we talk about Greek yogurt, what yogurt are we talking about? That’s another story, a very painful one. It’s a big subject. Most yogurts on the market are desserts, they contain sweeteners, fruit, and the way they are made is not traditional. We face exactly the same problem with the way fruit preserves are made. And this is all happening when many of our products have a trade name worth millions. For example, there are the Kalamata olives, which everyone knows. What happens with the olives, how are they safeguarded, how are they promoted? I’m giving an example. If pasteli manages to pass as a snack, we must be able to prove it is Greek. To establish its history, we went to the sources. We found it in Aristophanes’ «Frogs» and afterward in the Byzantine Empire. We have arguments to establish it in the European Union as a Greek product. At the same time, we also try to say that these foods can be manufactured so that today’s man or woman does not have to spend hours in the kitchen making them. Have Greek companies expressed any interest? They have, but the appropriate legal framework is lacking. The consumer’s role is very important. Instead of constantly complaining, they should think of how careful they are in their choices, which often don’t correspond to what they say they would like. We protest when kids eat foods high in salt, or processed snacks, when we haven’t taught them to fill their pockets with walnuts and almonds, which are superb foods, or made them a sandwich with cheese, olive paste or a lettuce leaf for them to take with them. When consumers are more active in their choices, they make food manufacturers produce what they ask for. Your particular field of study is pies made with horta (wild greens). I’ve been really impressed by the inventiveness of Greeks, who, using simple ingredients – oil, flour and wild greens – can reach the heights of gastronomy. There are over 150 different pies in Greece. In a way, they are our national food. The way the greens are combined in order to give a specific taste is quite admirable. Old grandmothers know, out of 100 wild greens, that one «tempers the sourness» and the other «makes the food sweet.» Of course, not everyone can go into the fields, knife in hand. This is why today some agricultural schools have begun the process of cultivating wild greens, like the Spiny Chicory which is so esteemed by the Cretans. I think Athenians are also getting to know it. Over 30 years ago, we at Porto Rafti would buy almyrida from grandmothers in bags. There was such great demand that people in Vravrona began to cultivate it, and now I see it sold in street markets. Is it possible for the Greek pie to become the answer to to fast food outlets, which have come to us from abroad? It truly is an easy food, you can eat it during a break at work, you don’t get messy, you don’t need knives and forks. But it requires a policy, programming, and for consumers to be informed so as to encourage small food firms. The General Secretariat of Research and Technology has supported this effort, but there are many bodies that deal with food: the ministries of Health, Agriculture, the Economy. The Agriculture Ministry should cooperate with that of Health, which has incorporated the Mediterranean diet into its guidelines. But my experience in the effort to promote traditional foods was not a happy one. However, the fact that the current minister has proposed helping organic foods to achieve a 3 percent share of agriculture is a cause for optimism. For me, (organic foods) are a philosophy, but besides the point of view of the national economy, Greece is highly suitable for organic agriculture. Do you believe some general rules for institutional food are possible? Necessary. Food catering at institutions (hospitals, old people’s homes, the army, kindergartens, prisons) amounts to 40 percent of food consumption. We need to have a national policy as far as the consumption of olive oil, fruit and so on is concerned. There should be olives in all hotel breakfasts. But these should be Greek olives, not Spanish ones, which were offered until recently on our national airline, perhaps because they’re cheaper. The same goes for fruit juices. They should stop serving that yellow liquid from South America.