History of Greek Food

Recording food culture of Amari Valley, Crete

A few years ago, I gave an interview about food culture of Amari Valley (Crete).
Since we are two weeks before the 2nd Symposium of Greek Gastronomy, which will be held in Amari, you might be interested in reading it.

 History, the environment and set of cultural influences

1. Do you think a regional Cretan cuisine exists?

Cuisines are rather regional phenomena hence a regional Cretan cuisine does exist. However, considering that a) regional cuisine depends on local food production and local food production depends on local environment (people, animals, landscapes) which is changing rapidly in many cases and b) cuisine is also implicated in agricultural- environmental – political – economic realities and control, taking also in count the changing consumption trends, Cretan regional cuisine does not remain unaffected.

2. Do you think Amari’s geography gives it a distinct identity not shared by neighboring regions (no sea connection, rather abundant water supply, very mountainous, stretched out….)?

Mountain cooking is almost always conservative, passed from generation to generation. On the other hand the valley enjoys fertile soil allowing for a year round agricultural activity, so Amari’s cuisine is neither the typical mountain cuisine nor a ‘poor’ one.

3. Where are the roots of the Cretan/Amari food culture?
A) Is it rather culture bound and if so is there a link to Minoan / classic Greek culture, or you believe Byzantine, Venetian and later also Ottoman food culture were crucial to develop the traditional Cretan diet?
B) Or was the close connection to the food with its local ingredients (χορτα, olive trees, snails,…) and the local geography/the set of plants and animals provided by local environment key to its development?

Climate, geography, Cretan flora and fauna are very important elements in shaping Cretan diet. Religious rituals and traditions have heavily influenced food and social behavior. However, both historic past (Minoan, Roman, Byzantine) and the interaction with a number of cultures played their role in the complexity of Cretan food culture. The Venetians controlled Crete from 1211 until 1669, the Ottomans from 1669 until 1898. Even if mountain cuisine (and also the food of the poor) was less affected by cultural influences, in the towns and cities the interaction was remarkable, particularly under Venetians. During the years of Ottoman occupation the influence was less important, since a large number of Cretan Turks were Cretans Greeks who had converted religion in order to survive. They spoke Cretan Greek and kept their food traditions and customs.
The trade, the discoveries (a turning point in the Cretan food occurred with the introduction of the new American plants, particularly of the tomato), the settlement of the refugees from Asia Minor in Crete and their impact on the local cuisine, and the modern improvement of transportation are aslo important factors for the development of Cretan food culture.

C) Did Cretan government have an important influence on the local food culture in the 20th ct. (what is grown, number of livestock raised, provision of market access, tax…)?

Greek governments have never considered the regionalism as the most important element of agricultural economy and food culture. After World War II, Greek policies promote price support schemes that encourage high productivity and export trade. Of course high productivity cause environmental and food quality problems, since chemical fertilizer and pesticide use was increased significantly. In recent years both EU and Greek policies focusing on making agriculture competitive, decrease cultivation of traditional varieties which are considered overproductive and no competitive (for example: Romeiko grape) while new varieties of orange trees are introduced as an impulse to the export trade.

4. If Crete should be divided in regions according to food, geography and culture what would be your division and why?

Crete can best be described by dividing it into a) western, central and eastern and b) into rural (mountain and coastal) and urban. The west part is a mountainous region, with deep gorges, forests and fertile soil. Its cuisine is known for its meat and dairy dishes. Rice is in common use. Herbs, orange peel and the juice of bitter lemon flavor legumes, meat and olives. The hilly hinterland of Central Crete is well known for its vineyards. South, the plain of Messara is one of the most fertile of Crete. The east region is rocky and wild. Its cuisine includes a large number of fish -dishes. Bulgur-based dishes are very common too. Another culinary aspect that distinguishes this area’s cuisine is the use of spices (cinnamon, cumin, coriander etc.) which implies the impact of the refugees from Asia Minor. Mountainous villages are self- assured and conservative. The north coast with the big cities (Iraklio, Rethymno and Chania) and the expanding tourist areas is linked with a large-scaled tourism while the underveloped southern coastal part still keeps an older way of life.

Culture, tourism, social structure  

1. The traditional Amari valley culture with its religious and agricultural festivals, its social structure based on big families and its economic roots in agriculture is the basis of local food culture. Can traditional food be conserved even though local culture changes and does food in that case keep its identity?  

The change of cultural landscape does affect traditional food and its identity. Traditional food is intimately linked with the local culture since it reflects cultural inheritance, community’s connections and celebrations connected to food and people’s sense of place and identity. It also is profoundly linked with traditional knowledge, which, however, allows room to innovation and personal signatures. I believe that as time is passing and the older generations disappear other values will predominate which will affect the traditional food as well.

2. What are the most important food festivals/rituals in Crete (religious, agricultural, private)?
Religious festivals are very important [Easter, the feast of Assumption on August 15, Christmas, the feast of the Annunciation on March 25, Saints’ name day (particularly the name day of St. George, St. Nikolaos, St. John the Baptist etc.), Carnival, Shrove Monday, feast days of churches and monasteries and Lenten periods]. Many religious festivals are connected with agricultural rituals (For example, during the feast of Savior Christ / September 6, the first grapes of the season are brought to the church and awaited for the priest to bless them. After the liturgy they are offered to the congregation). Celebration of name day, weddings, recreational events, sheep sheering, grape festival etc. are also occasions for festive or ritual food.

3. What is the role of tourism as influence in local Cretan food culture?

Although the island has always been attractive to visitors, during the last 40 years there was a robust expansion of tourism industry, which has resulted in changes in local economic activity and food culture.  For many years, the coastal part of northern Crete had an obsession with tourism. Hinterland land uses changed, farmers decreased, while the touristic enterprises increased. Local agricultural production could not provide the quantity of demanded food and many foods began to be imported. The local population started to demand imported products which replaced the local ones (beer and whisky instead of wine and raki, Parmesan cheese instead of kefalotyri, mozzarella instead of malaka cheese in kallitsounia etc). Last years, the impact of tourism combined with the impact of a wide food market is larger on teens and very young people. American type snacks and fast-food meals, pizza  and the infamous souvlaki often replace family meals.
However, home cooking seems to be important for the ages 35 – 40 and up. Gourmet cooking, cookbooks etc. are more popular than ever. What is new since late 1980ies: the growing attention to the diversities and specialities of regional cuisines. This regional consciousness opposed to the imported food habits, is a growing phenomenon among Greek food-professionals, cookery writers and many consumers. Of course, appreciating the value of local food as a cultural and economic force they also promote the connection between food and agriculture and contribute to the improvement of the quality of food as a touristic product. Moreover, the ‘consciousness‚ might indicate the decrease of traditional cooking know-how.

4. Do you think that the changing role of woman in Cretan society (part of the workforce) is a big influence for food culture?

The cultural gap or/and clash between traditional mother and modern daughter brought considerable changes in the transmission of traditional food culture since techniques of the past implied learning through observation and practice, apprenticeship to a female relative or neighbor. Modern women work away from home, they have reduced their customary domestic food preparations (preparation takes place in factories rather than the home) learn through recipes and don’t know cooking techniques of the past. However, many Cretan women, being proud of their traditional cuisine, found ways to save time in cooking time- consuming traditional dishes. For example they buy phyllo for pies from the shop instead of making it themselves. As a result, they are trying to adapt traditional food culture to the demands of the modern way of life. On the other hand many men, particularly the younger ones, have accepted some of the responsibility for daily cooking, preparing a light local meal or  a special, often gourmet, dish.

5. Can the trend towards urbanization explain the watering of traditional food?

Urbanization profoundly affects traditional food patterns. The change of lifestyle, the spread of mass media, the increased variety of food- ingredients , both local and imported, the modern methods of food storage and preservation and the unfamiliar cuisines which are available to those in the cities cause change in food preferances. Moreover, cities’ production and consumption patterns have a wide impact on the rural areas around cities which demand for a wider range of foods. On the other hand, country people who have moved to cities include many recipes of the homeland in their diet. (They also often feel the need to describe in full details the dishes that theirs mothers used to make.) Many of them retain plots of land in their villages of origin where they grow vegetables and olives. Thus, urbanization does not necessarily alleviated them from agricultural activities and traditional foodways. Actually, culinary culture and foodways are in constant flux as people are expanding their culinary vocabulary, as well as their palates.

6. Did food culture in your area change while you can remember?

Until middle 80ies, rural families were provided with fresh and seasonal food-ingredients (mostly from their gardens or from nature), made their own pasta and cheese and very few goods were imported (rice, sugar etc). The extension of the road network and the increased car ownership broadened the possibilities to travel to cities and created a better access to all kinds of goods. Today, country people buy foods (frozen vegetables, out of season fresh vegetables, pasta etc.) instead of using home- made products or of botanical origin.
Contrary to rural cuisine, the urban cuisine was combined with the introduction of new imported products and out of season, imported or greenhouse vegetables and fruits, though local ingredients had always a hit. However, under the impact of healthy eating and organic foods it’s no longer so cool to serve imported strawberries in the middle of the winter but rather something local and seasonal. On the other hand, cities and towns are overflowing with pizza shops, chocolate shops, fast food places etc. In the city of Chania, there is still the impact of Nikolas Tselements on the cooking of women aged 45-50 years old and upper. Tselements was a Greek cook from Sifnos island who worked in St. Moritz hotel (NY) and Sacher (Vienna). In his book he assembled European (mostly French) and American recipes along with the Greek ones he considered important. He identified the demand for modernization with westernization. His books had an enormous impact on middle and upper classes. The most complicated dishes became an expression of public image. Even in nowadays we use the word ‘tselementes’ instead of the word ‘cookbook’. Tselementes’ and his followers’ ideas had influenced not only the home cooking but the professional cooking too. However, the everyday Chaniotiki cooking was, and is, a combination of rural and urbanized cuisine.
In villages nearby Chania what has almost totally disappeared (since early 70s) is the use of pork fat, though mountain village families still preserve pork meat in it. The memory of very ‘poor’ dishes (pulses, kinds of legumes etc.) had been lost before they became known in restaurant culture in recent years.  There is a considerable increase in meat consumption and the harvesting of wild edible greens is no longer indispensable, since people have the opportunity to buy their cultivated types.
In urban cuisine, there is a considerable decrease in butter, margarine and crème fraîche consumption, which were fashionable ingredients during 70s.

7. Did the way people shop change while you can remember?

Of course it did. In the1970’s the trend toward convenience brought many canned foods and packaged mixes (mashed potatoes, ice -creams, baby-food etc.) to the urban consumers. Frozen vegetables, meat and fish were also available. Cook-books and women’s magazines of the period featured recipes using them. It was very fashionable to cook those canned, frozen and powdered foods! However, the daily diet of urban families was mostly based on seasonal food. Traditional grocery stores claimed 100% of Crete’s at-home food purchases, since supermarkets didn’t even exist. Today, people go to farmers’ markets for fruits, greens and vegetables and to large super markets for shopping food-products from around the world and convenience food. Despite the spread of soupermarkets there is not a shift away from local shops such as butchers, bakers and fishmongers. Though many consumers do not seem to be aware of the meaning of healhty nutrition, they are very receptive to products of Cretan origin. There is also a trend towards gourmet and ethnic products. Last decade, people who are concerned with food safety and quality and are able to pay the higher price, prefer organic products.

8. The meat consumption in Crete increased dramatically in the last 25 years. Just a result of the growing economic possibilities people have at their disposition or expression of a broader change in peoples food culture?

Young Cretans left their villages for the northern coastal cities, where they adopted more westernized food habits. As Crete became more affluent, meat gradually begun to play a significant role in their everyday diet. As you know, apart from poverty and the different way of life that made the meat a rare festive dish in most parts of Greece, there was also another reason for the reduced consumption: religion. Christian religion imposes abstinence from meat and animal products for a specific period. Thus Greeks did not ate animal – foodstuffs on Wednesdays, Fridays, for the 40 days before Christmas and Easter etc. Today, even faithful Christians don’t abstain from meat for long periods.

The food

1.What are traditional local products?

Traditional local products are agrofood products which contain traditional ingredients, they are processed according traditional ways and recipes, are linked to their locality and have existed for a long time. They are a result of a stock of knowledge and collective memory of community although they allow room for creativity and improvisation. What Jean Pouillon had said about tradition fits here too: A traditional local product is also ‘’ a point of view we adopt today on what has preceded’’.

2.What products tend to be most likely regional on Crete (bread, pastries, pies…)?

Rusks, festive breads, hondros, olives and olive oil, small pies (kallitsounia), greens, cheeses (myzithra, anthotyros, malaka, graviera, kefalograviera etc.), snails, honey, cherries from Gerakari, oranges, tsikoudia, wine….

3. What newly arrived products are important parts of local food culture now?

The tomato and potato… though not really newly arrived. Avocados and kiwis are quite recent; there are extended cultivations of them but their fruits are used mostly in urban diet. Whisky, beer and beer and beer, pizza, hot dogs, sandwitches, donuts and for the kids cornflakes in the morning and snacks.

4. What are traditional local dishes and why?

They are dishes for which geographic location, technical system of production and interpersonal social relations are deemed to bestow their specific or unique quality. They play a prominent role in the development of cultural identity of the community both by their production and consumption. However, if you’ll ask people what they would name as traditional local dish, they will probably cite their mother’s and grandmother’s specialties or those associated  to festive occasions. The answer also will vary according the age, rural or urban origin, social class and cultural implication. Hence, a “typical traditional local” dish is also an image which varies according situations and can also be emotionally affected.

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