A few months ago, when I sat at the table with Maria Mouratidou to talk about Perek Farm near Thessaloniki, Greece I thought I would hear the story of a cooperative, a successful entrepreneurial model, which flourished in a Greece of adversity. But my conversation with Maria told me more about how food could help reframe our lives and reality. How important it is in preserving heritage, the recollection of which is starting to dwindle together with the lessons it has to offer. And how a different way of producing, farming and living could be one of the ways for a brighter personal and global future.
Greece is often branded as one of the most biodiverse, fertile and blessed soils in Europe which apparently can yield more produce per square mile than many of its neighbours. Yet it is in crisis. And the Greeks are running to supermarket chains offering them mass produced food from far-away lands. What has gone wrong?
Recently as I listened to BBC Food programme Sheila Dillon’s voice narrating the struggles and opportunities facing Greek agriculture I was reminded how hope is reborn by necessity, simplicity and through turning to the land. I come from a generation of Greeks whose parents left the countryside for a better future accessible through academic education. And here I am asking myself how many educated ‘fools’ does it take to break a country? Or could we turn our skills and knowledge to tools that could help us reframe reality for the future in Greece and around the world.
So what about Perek? Here’s my take on its story as a family business and an example of how our life, economy and nutrition could be reimagined.
What about Maria?
Maria is a sprightly, ageless lady, who left her academic career in 2003. She worked in molecular biology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Medical School. This gave her a sound basis for understanding the links between intensified agricultural practices, the use of pesticides and the increasing health impacts experienced by many of the farming communities where agriculture grew in concentrated pockets of land mass. Maria was also looking to change the pace of her life. ‘We wanted to live’, she says, ‘to enjoy the sunsets and to take time to breathe in the lavender. We never imagined that we could do so much for the people around us. We never knew’.
And so was Perek set up. Initially as a small business that produced traditional pasta and pie products typical of Northern Greece and the Pontos such as Trahanas (often fermented Greek pasta grain); Verenika (tortellini -like dumplings with various fillings encountered in other neighbouring cuisines such as that of the Ukraine); Ivristos (vegan pasta similar to tagliatelle but broken, dehydrated and toasted to enhance preservation); Perek pastry (large, thick filo pastry toasted and filled with greens or cheese or other goods); sourdough breads and specialty cakes flavoured with Tsipouro. All these goods used specialty wheat and rye varieties carefully selected for each product, grown and milled locally by farmers carefully chosen for their practices.
‘Subconsciously I looked at what my mother did’ says Maria. ‘I wanted more than just a business and to preserve methods, foods and practices from our long-lost homes in Pontos, Kerasounta’. There were many women in the area of the same micro-heritage that Maria could work with. So a workshop was set up and the reputation of its quality produce grew and grew. People visited to stock up on supplies, the place was like a magnet pulling in those seeking to reconnect with tradition and practices that Perek had to offer. The quality and flavour was unparalleled.
‘It was as if we had made a Nobel prize discovery, when all we had done was use resources grown in tune with nature. We made what we knew from our grandmothers and mothers – recipes and traditions handed down generation to generation. Gradually people started asking why they could not taste recipes with food they bought, why there was no restaurant on the premises. We were lead to growing as a business. As we say in Greece ‘the route leads the walker’.
Maria applied her scientific knowledge in seeking wheat, dairy and meat produce that was uncompromised. ‘As a scientist I felt it was essential to make an alternative suggestion to society to help rectify the damage done to our ecosystems, society and health. We have an obligation as scientists to talk about the impacts of chemicals on our food and genetics. And I wanted to also talk about the ‘science’ of tradition. To look deeply into our heritage and see how it leads us back to understanding the basis of longevity and how to enhance biodiversity’, Maria says.
‘All you need to do is watch and listen to each place (the Topos). The hint is often in the names of places, Ampelotopos or Agrampelo (the vine meadow), Karpouzlouko (the water melon field), Kapnohorafo (the tobacco plot). There is a reason for these names. People observed what grows and doesn’t grow well. Then they rested the land. They swapped crops’, she continues. ‘And you must remember, tradition does not focus on loss and profit and mass production. It is about making do, health and wellbeing’.
With the help of her daughter, a food scientist who researched Meznikof’s work and returned to Greece to be part of the business, Perek grew. Today the business employs over forty people. There are at least five regular animal farmers it collaborates with as well as an array of carefully selected artisan businesses.
The Perek Restaurant, a beautiful stone building with a large cyclical fireplace/oven in the middle, overlooks Thermaikos Bay and looks at Mount Olympus. It feeds up to 2,500 people each week and is supplied by the Perek workshop which continues to provide employment to many women and communities in the area. Perek supports free range farmers whose produce it uses for the restaurant, whilst it has also set up its own small farm mainly focussing on the rearing of black pig pork, indigenous in Maria’s home land. The pies, including the amazing Perek pie, often use wild greens (Horta) such as purslane, amaranth and nettle. Stipa (Toursi), fermented cabbage similar to sauerkraut and kimchi, feature on the menu. Katsikisio tyri, goat’s cheeses from free range animals and Greek varieties of chickpeas, lentils and other pulses also feature on the menu. It is the place to visit if you want to taste the land’s flavours.
‘One of the positive impacts of the crisis, was the lack of money to buy some of the expensive, industrialised animal feed which increased productivity and commercialised dairy and animal farms. This hit farming in Greece badly. But the remaining farmers downsized and turned to grazing and traditional methods of feeding. Production rates decreased but quality improved. The taste of the milk and cheese for example is now more distinct of the land’s vegetation’, Maria explains.
With a model so successful there could be temptation for Perek to grow and expand. Make no mistake, Maria is a business woman, savvy, clever and resourceful, but her message is unequivocal. ‘We supply twenty to thirty external businesses at the most. There are limits to how far we can go without compromising quality and the ethos of our business. We will produce enough for our restaurant, our own shop and some suppliers but we cannot supply everyone. There would be costs to that and we have to be careful’.
The meaning of life…
When Maria left her academic career for a different life she was ill. ‘Cancer made me revaluate life. I asked myself why I am running around like a mad woman. Why do I never have time? Why do I struggle?’, Maria told me. Can you relate to this too?
To me Perek is more than just a food business. It is a model and a way of business the depths of which might not be appreciated by everyone but its restaurant service for example remains accessible to the average Greek living in the area. And this is what makes it so amazing. That you can have quality in flavour, produce and life. That you can support ethical practices and communities through a conventional business model which is not willing to compromise its ethos. That you are able to preserve the elements of different segments of Greek traditions and tribes which shed light into who we are, how we can live more healthily and how we can connect to our neighbours.
I am not going to demonise where we are as a global society today, it gets tiring. There is a reason we made this journey through progress and perhaps now we are better equipped to move on into the future. Take Perek and Maria’s story as an example of how our and future generations could take academic excellence, skills and knowledge and apply it towards a different direction awar from our conditioned aspirations of achievement and wealth. Towards a more meaningful future for us, our friends, our nature and our children. Just take that.
Visit Perek farm all year around from Monday to Sunday. For more information here: http://www.perek.gr/ . Visit Perek on facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Perek-Restaurant-Monopigado-Thessaloniki/387257144667373
Rosemary Baron is keeping me company with her book about Greece and its food. I love reading others’ take on Greek food and this lady being an archaeologist is a very credible, unbiased source of information. She says, ‘the ancient Greeks regarded cooking as both an art and a science and throughput the ancient world Greek chefs were accorded the status and reputation that French chefs now enjoy. The principles and practice of fine cooking and gastronomy as we know it today were first established in the abundantly stocked and highly creative kitchens of Ancient Greece, and modern Greeks still enjoy the foods and tastes that inspired the chefs of antiquity’.
Rosemary Baron goes on to talk about the height of the Minoan civilization and trade with North Africa, which helped create a small garden of Eden in Crete that influenced Hellenistic cooking. At the height of the Roman civilization Greek chefs and teachers were sought after and employed in the Roman homes and kitchens, and according to Baron it seems under their tutelage the amazing, distinct Italian cuisine developed. Then the Byzantine empire helped the influence of Greek cooking influence travel further. And then during the occupation of the Franks, Venetians, Ottomans eastern and other influences arrived, and tribes like the Vlachs brought spices like my beloved paprika.
I am certain Greek chefs embraced new ingredients and influences from other cultures. The early Greek diet of olives, wheat, figs, grapes, wild greens, fish and a little meat was enriched with ingredients such as lemons, potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes, spinach, okra introduced by trade, but also war and occupation.
The silver lining is that even dark times of occupation were still characterized by culinary and cultural diversity. In her book Baron clearly asserts that the hybridity between Greek, eastern and even Balkan cuisine was mostly nurtured during the more peaceful Byzantine times rather than the Ottoman Empire. But I am sure that the Ottomans have helped many dishes travel through Greek chefs to new parts of their Empire where other cultures also embraced and adapted them.
What fascinates me is Baron’s explanation that during Ottoman times Greeks, who were forbidden to speak their own language, were forced to use Turkish names for dishes such as the now famous moussaka, boureki, dolmades, losing the connection of the dishes to their origins. As children we were taught about secret Greek schools during the Ottoman occupation. They were the underground hubs of language that kept Greek alive but I didn’t know that Greek chefs also took refuge in monasteries for their safety and to safeguard centuries of culinary knowledge!!! Apparently there they wore tall white toques which distinguished them from the monks – the toque is now the chef hat and symbol throughout the world.
Food and its love travel well even at the worse of times. It is a beacon of hope and should connect rather than divide. What I know as traditional and modern Greek cuisine is a real testament to that, and it is a lot more diverse than just the delicious feta and tzatziki.
You can now join my 2017 cooking classes telling you the story of my Greek kitchen. Classes include an Introduction to Greek Kitchen Basics; The Greek Flavours no one is telling you about; The Art of Greek Pie; The Magical Art of spice mixing.
Watch Rick Stein’s programme about Thessaloniki, Greece and its food to find out more about my city of birth and what you might get during our courses: http://bbc.in/2gnRaMQ.
Our time in Pelion was full of flavours, changes in scenery and surprises around each corner of its winding roads- a village, a forest, the sea, a character, some artwork. We saw Pelion’s Aegean waters tamed by heat and then turning familiarly choppy before we fled to Pagasitikos Gulf.
There is so much to tell you about Pelion. We spent nights on the beach bathed in the full moon after dining in the moonlight on the southern hill of Chorefto at Marabou – their homemade olive paste and salads are tasty and generous in portion. At the tavern Kima (Κύμα), Chorefto, we savoured the daily home cooked specials such as kanati and stuffed courgette flowers. We tasted an amazing wild green pie at Victoria’s café in Damouchari’s idyllic cove. We stayed as Foteini’s home in Damouchari who gave us herbs, courgettes from her garden to make a fresh tourlou. There we dined in candlelight, facing the lights of Ai Giannis and listening soft waves crashing on the sharp rocks, protected from the elements and civilization a little cove of serenity- I feared if we stayed there longer the mermaids would steal our minds. We discovered a stylish and creative coffee shop and art space when we found Karpofora in MIlies on our way to Afissos.
Almost three weeks ago on our way to Elitsa cove from Parisaina beach in Horefto we walked alongside olive groves hanging off the side of the mountain in North Pelion, Greece. We picked sage, bay leaves and gigantic super-lemons nourished by the sun-all two meters of Dan pulling down a branch so that I can pick the fragrant fruit. We ate wild figs from trees that fruited early. We breathed in herbs and sea salt.
We reached Analipsi beach on foot from Chorefto, passing the church and the beautiful Plimari Tavern (Πλυμάρι). We swam to Tourkolimano (accessible through water and the coastal path from Parisaina and Analipsi) and snorkeled along the rocks in the company of sea creatures. Then we fell asleep in the naturally shaded side of the beach and woke ourselves up with a swim and a coffee at the tavern. And finally at dusk we walked back to our base at Orlys and used our foraging ingredients for another home cooked dinner in the outdoor kitchen.
At Pouri village we woke up everyone when the dogs detected our mid afternoon entry. We climbed to the Nikolaou square, one of the tallest spots of the upper village, and the view took our breath away- the coastline all the way to Horefto where we started out from lay beneath us. Just as we were about to leave what seemed to be a closed coffee shop/tavern the jammed door open ajar and out came its smiley owner, Babis Lagdos.
At Babi’s ‘Balcony of Pelion’ in Pouri we had locally made Greek spoon sweets, cherry and walnut flavours. Greek spoon sweets are preserves made with local fruits (mostly whole), after their the seeds or stones are removed (e.g. cherries, apples but also baby aubergine). Otherwise citrus fruit with their peel and unripened nuts and seeds such as walnuts and figs are also used to make spoon sweets. Spoon sweet are called so because they are served and eaten with a teaspoon. If you go to Pelion or other Greek countryside places and you do not try the locally produced spoon sweets you should be punished! Not only would you be testing a local delight but you would also be supporting women cooperatives and local producers in the area. A spoon sweet is delightful with dark bitter coffee, on yoghurt or on fresh buttered bread.
We met and saw people who survive the changes of seasons, governments and life- reaffirming the inevitability of joy if your heart is open to it. Poets, cooks, wild campers, yogis, entrepreneurs, chilled locals, young hippies. So I cannot close this blog entry without mentioning Popotech (Ποποτεχ) and Gemma and Gerry.
About five minutes after leaving Pouri we drove past a big red sign and a man with a cap looking like a modern Sheppard in front of a red vehicle in what seemed a movie still or a scene that dropped out of the page of a book. In the backdrop I saw sunflowers, artefacts and colorful metallic structures dancing in the soft wind. We turned the car around and stopped on the road side. And so we met Gemma and Gerry and Popotech their art space, workshop and gallery. They live and work there summer and winter. In the past year they moved from Pouri and built their home on their own land on a hillside. They grow some of their food on the land and their inventiveness in structuring their workshops and house on a hillside is inspiring. The place is serene and beautifully wonderful, like an art playground for grown up children. Their company is a delight. And now that I think of it they must have lived in Greece longer than I have as I have been gone for sixteen years. I have no more words to describe Popotech and its two curators. This is their life, not just a transient show, and I would love to spend more time with them soon again. Take the road to Pouri from Zagora and keep your eyes wide open so that you don’t miss Popotech’s red signs on your left hand side. You won’t regret it.
Lia’s random facts and tips
- Kanati is a slow cooked dish with cubed beef and pork with some tomato sauce, lemon and herbs
- Make sure you try kreetama (coastal wild green) but also tsitsiravla (hill wild green) for a meze and a glass of cold tsipouro
- At every tavern or restaurant you visit always ask for μαγειρευτά (mageirefta), the daily home-cooked specials, to make sure you try the fresh local specialties and what is in season.
- If you drive to Elitsa or Analipsi it’s best to use the main road past Zagora. The ‘coastal’ road just about fits one car if there is oncoming traffic and it’s not a local you may be stuck for a bit.
- If you walk to Elitsa or Analipsi (Tourkolimano) go to Parisaina beach from Horefto (at the end of the Horefto beach to your left as you are facing the sea there is a small footpath). Then at the far left side of Parisaina beach look up to one of the beautiful house hanging of the cliff and you will see a cobbled road winding up the hill. I suggest you wear steady foot wear or at least shoes that cover your toes for a better grip.
- Parisaina is a wild camping beach that gets busy with people who still respect nature and their surroundings. There is a beach bar , Kripti, on the hill that offers water and drinks, but this is not a beach resort or lido. Please do not visit of you expect that. And also be prepared to through away your swimsuit. No-one will judge you if you don’t but I hope you feel comfortable to take it off and enjoy a nice swim in the crystal waters.
- You can also access Elitsa or Analipsi (Tourkolimano) through the local (dirt) road at the end of Horefto beach. It is also a beautiful route and perhaps longer but more shaded.
- Visit Pelion’s east side at full moon and watch the moonrise either from Parisaina beach or enjoy at Pouri, at Babi’s Balconi of Pelion tavern. If you are carnivorous he does a mean goat slow roast.
- Damouchari feels like an island and it’s definitely worth a visit but be warned it is on the more touristic side, in a tasteful way albeit.
- Damouchari is a good place to explore the many footpaths in the area, e.g. to Fakistra beach but also to the beautiful and large village of Tsagkarada. Be warned it is steep but worth every drop of sweat. You can hire a guide at Vistoria’s guesthouse and café.
- Horefto is the seaport of Zagora, Damouchari is the seaport of Tsagkarada so if you head for these destinations you will see sharp turns towards the sea.
- Originally we went to Pouri in search of locally produced cheese after locals told me there were some sheep owners and cheese producers there. Don’t expect little Deli’s and stalls in Pouri. My advice is to go to Babi, the owner of the Balcony of Pelion, when you arrive as he can source the cheese for you and a couple of days before you leave you can pick it up from the tavern.
- If you would like to stay at Foteini’s place in Ntamouchari get in touch with me. It is a unique experience sleeping at the wave at an old house with an interesting hostess.
Spoon sweets and Pouri
Damouchari and Milies
My pilgrimage to the sun begun last week. I am in motherland.
I am currently in Pelion, Greece, the land of Argonauts and Centeurs, the land of mountain and crystal blue sea.
I thought this would end up a food pilgrimage with many food photos to share but nature has won me over. I bathe in the sea and walk up the steep hills with the excitement of a newcomer, as if I have never encountered such beauty before. As I write this we are getting ready to set off on a coast path hike to the beach of Elitsa (little olive).
I have no phone signal here but last night after wild camping in Parisaina cove Dan and I rested in a house (Orlys) overlooking the Aegean. So no phone signal but wi fi yes! Lucky you!
Last night in the outdoor kitchen we used giant ripe tomatoes to make a cinnamon and olive pasta sauce. We ate this with χυλοπιτες (hilopites) , short tagliatelle-like greek pasta flavored with saffron and paprika. I got very tipsy on chilled local rose table wine (non pretentious nectar-god I ve missed Greece and how it does not need to feign gourmet grandeur to offer you its delights).
And this morning our landlord , Rony from Tel Aviv, offered us γλυκο σύκο (fig sweet) which we spread on maize flour bread with yoghurt butter for breakfast.
To this day in Pelion these are my humble food highlights together with the salad of κριταμα (kreetama) , coastal greens, and κανάτι (kanati which means jug), slow cooked pork and beef in a light lemon and tomato sauce.
But as I am setting off to new coves and hills who knows what awaits me.
I am just so happy to be home.
No food today folks…
Today I saw photos of soup kitchens in Greece, again, with long and growing queues: this is not news it has been happening for a long time now, did you know about it? I heard about how small business owners gone bankrupt keep silent about their unemployment, too ashamed of the stigma. The stated unemployment percentage in Greece must be inaccurate with so many people keeping silent: there is no hope of help or social welfare. Not to mention the taboo of accepting charity help. In Greece, just around the corner from you, there are more and more stories on the steep increase of homelessness; parents giving up their children to social services; suicide on the rise. I saw images of protest on the streets of various cities in Greece on 10 February 2012 and massive protest banners adorning the Acropolis . And everyone if gearing up for massive protests.
When I left Greece 15 years ago, for what I thought then would be 3 years of British education, I could not have imagined this fate for Greece.
My parents were annoyingly hard-working. I remember their frustrated conversations about growing tax evasion and their comparatively high tax bills: they felt naïve and were sometimes mocked for their lack of ‘courage’ to evade tax. Do I believe that tax evasion is the only reason Greece is where it is? No, I think it was a symptom as well as a cause.
Can I comment about what is happening in Greece today? Unlike other Greeks all I have only been a professional adult in Britain; it is only through my parents, family and friends’ experience that I can comment. When some of my Greek friends, having been educated or worked abroad for a while, started making their way back ‘home’ in the early noughties-to make art; be lawyers, doctors, teachers; start businesses, or families; or just be with their families, or just to be-I stayed on. My choice until recently baffled quite lot of people but nowadays no one asks me why I am here. No disrespect but there is not much I will bother saying about my choice: it has been personal and therefore right; and had nothing to do with jobs, status and money, or indeed this crisis. Of my Greek friends who have returned to homeland, very few had a painless transition –sometimes being treated harshly for their choice of foreign education, and faced with nepotism and lack of meritocracy, even gender prejudice-and now they are getting this: an undignified financial junta, a monetary dictatorship, the loss of their dignity, a situation that seems to be going nowhere. Has part of the problem been that many Greek families and people contributed their money to the foreign economy through, e.g. education, rather than investing funds and skills in Greece? Some think so… I have reached no conclusion, and if yes I have contributed to this problem.
I am trying to understand what a solution to Greece’s demise might be: is the only dignified way out to default? I honestly don’t know, but it seemed to be the better choice for Argentina.
Still, I am particularly angry that my 75 year old father is at risk of being deprived of much deserved security in his older age: a man that has been working since he was 13; and who already experienced 2 recessions; a civil war and the end of the Second World War in Greece.
But as allegedly the UK is also entering another recession phase and unemployment in Wales particularly, but also across the UK, is rising, I once again conclude this is a global problem not one of or caused by Greece: to think otherwise is naïve and insulting to one’s intelligence! And I wonder what is to hit the UK too, after all the other countries queuing up for harsher times: after all personal debt in the UK is a lot higher than that of the Greeks. The past few years here seem resonant of the decade Greece went through before recession; there is a welfare state, but the family structures are not as tight. Once I swore never to make the mindless sacrifices to my personal life that my parents made for me. Ironically I now find myself working to pay hight taxes, a ridicuous mortgage, and bills; and not being able to entertain even the thought of some these mindless sacrifices.
So the question I pose to you wherever you are is:
How is it that across this world we accept to be governed by an incomprehensible force of fictional markets, a system that made very little sense until its collapse, and still remains nonsensical and ludicrous? It feels like a live version of monopoly, where countries like Greece are waiting for a get out of jail card…in vain.
My father stoically says that we will all be ok: I can hear him smile when he says this to me on the phone. On 12 February 2012, Greece will see mass protests. Tonight we all get on with our moods and lives as always: we will be ok but this does not mean we remain unaffected and indifferent. So that you know…
‘The Argentina experiment’, an excellent documentary made by the Exantas team in Greece who visited the country ten years after recession and in the depth of the Greek Crisis.
For the Greeks: Pandespani blog’s fantastically sarcastic and intelligent entry
As usual Kostas Kallergis site about the Greek Crisis: When the Crisis Hit the Fan
My previous blog on our crisis: a recipe for destruction.
By now many of you will have travelled near or far to be with loved ones. You might be opening the doors of your home to loved guests as I write this. You might even be in full gear for the preparations of your festive dinners. I am one of these fortunate people who because of the geography of my heart I find myself in celebration at regular intervals at my various homes.
The day of ‘our Lia’ or Lia mas my own very special Cardiff celebration this winter at the start of early festive season. It was named so by loved ones when we organised a festive dinner on 10 December-my Christmas is being spent with family in Greece.
As I write this on a Christmas Eve, I can’t help but think that there has been much change this year. The world has growing pains and our transition is reflected in the hearts and minds of many. It’s scary, exciting, disappointing and exhilarating at the same time: the great unknown. Do you feel it?
Companionship, love and friendship help through any transition and to make sense of it all. And to celebrate and be celebrated is the best gift of all.
My early festive dinner was my gift: it filled our bellies with good food and our heart with warmth. I think this is the true meaning of nurturing.
I hope you all have a nurturing and warm Christmas close to those you care about and with no troubles. Love to you and your loved ones….
Our ‘Lia mas’ festive dinner consisted of roast goose with chestnut stuffing, fennel ham, roast potatoes, cumin and orange root mash, smoked paprika Brussels sprouts and a special ‘drunken’ trifle contributed by a very generous Ms Sarvani who had probably used a whole bottle of limoncello to soak the sponge fingers.
 Lia mas literally translates to our Lia in Greek.