Detour: Greece

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Yassas!  This weekend found us globetrotting to Greece. We haven’t forgotten about France, or the five other “G” countries that alphabetically come before Greece. We’re taking our first detour ever since we moved to Buffalo (and first detour since November 2015), because the Greek Orthodox church in our neighborhood, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, was hosting their annual Greek Fest this weekend.

I don’t think the expression “It’s all Greek to me” is very accurate for when people don’t understand something at all, because ancient Greek culture has had a lasting impact on Western cultures. Many people have had exposure to foods of Greek origin, like gyro and spanakopita (the spinach and cheese phyllo pie). We often see elements of ancient Greek architecture around us, like these Ionic columns (meant to evoke ruins) that are Derek’s favorite lunch-eating spot on his university campus. We use letters of the Greek alphabet in math, science, and for the names of fraternities and sororities–not to mention that there are words in the English language that have Greek origin.

I may be biased because I took two years of ancient Greek in high school–while I don’t remember that much of the language, what’s stayed with me is that you can still see many traces of ancient Greek culture today.

Greek cuisine, specifically food from the island of Ikaria, is no stranger to our household. Derek became interested in Ikarian cuisine a few years ago through New York Times feature. Ikaria is one of the world’s Blue Zones, areas where people’s life expectancies are considerably longer than other parts of the world. A major contributing factor to Ikarian longevity is their diet, which is heavy on olive oil and seasonal and local vegetables, and light on meat. Derek often uses the cookbook of Ikarian recipes that I gave him, Diane Kochilas’ Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life, Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die.

For breakfast on Saturday, we had a breakfast similar to those of Ikarians: raw honey spread on slices of sourdough, tea steeped from fresh mint, and a few dried figs (the last item was a bit of a stretch, but we piggy Americans wanted a little more).

After a trip to the co-op for a few more groceries for the weekend, we watched the Greek episode of Geography Now. 

We headed to the Annunciation Church’s Greek Fest just as it opened for the day at eleven, making a beeline for the food. Luckily, there weren’t any long lines yet.

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Derek started off with moussaka, a dish of layered ground beef and eggplant topped with béchamel sauce, and I had tiropita, phyllo pies with cheese, and we split a Greek salad.

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We went inside the church and found a cafe area, serving coffee and desserts, and a pastry shop with cookies and other sweets packed in to-go containers. We bought a small container of marble koulourakia, butter cookies shaped like twists from the pastry shop, and then went to the cafe for Greek coffee and a slice of kataifi ekmek, a pastry with a base of shredded wheat and walnuts, topped with a layer of custard and then a layer of whipped topping. (Derek had a few cookies with the coffee, and I enjoyed the custard pastry.)

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The church was also giving presentations related to Greek culture throughout the day, and we were just in time for one about iconography in Greek Orthodoxy in the main worship space. My photos don’t do the space justice.

We later wandered through the vendor marketplace, browsing Greek grocery items, wines, t-shirts and other goods. Afterwards, we parted ways–I headed home to catch up on some freelance work, while Derek stayed for a few of the other cultural presentations, one on hymns and one on trahana, a fermented staple. (The latter presentation included a tasting!) Here are a few of his pictures:

When Derek came back, we both started working in the kitchen. He made kourabiedes, butter cookies rolled in powdered sugar, and I prepared dinner, fassoulia forno, baked lima beans, and spanakorizo, spinach with rice. Both of my recipes were from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian cookbook that Derek gave me. (We don’t always give each other cookbooks, or else we’d have too many at this point.) We ate the beans and spinach with some sourdough, Kalamata olives, and goat cheese.

Derek’s cookies were a nice snack for the film we watched after dinner. (Because of his nut allergy, he used imitation almond extract, rather than real almond extract.)

The film, Rembetiko, is loosely based on the life of Marika Ninou, a singer of rebetiko, a genre of music popular in Greece during the first half of the twentieth century. Thematically, rebetiko is similar to American blues, addressing topics like crime, poverty, drugs and drinking. I wasn’t able to find an official trailer, but this short video on YouTube has some clips from the movie.

For Sunday breakfast, Derek made us matsi me gala, Ikarian milk soup with pasta, for breakfast. This was my first time drinking goat milk (though I’ve eaten plenty of goat cheese). I could see how this soup could be comforting on a cold morning.

After breakfast, we prepared our lunches for the work week. Since Derek’s workweek lunches are Ikarian-inspired–potatoes, sautéed kale, and chickpea salad–here’s a picture of the dishes he made to bring to school.

Derek also started preparing another Ikarian meal for Sunday lunch, pitarakia and marathopitarakia, hand pies with fennel and onion, and fakes salata me maratho, myrodika kai kremmydia, lentil salad with fennel, onion and herbs. Since he also made phyllo dough for the pies from scratch as well, we were quite hungry by the time lunch was ready.

We were ready to sit down for a while and rest after washing all the dishes and pots post-lunch, so it was a perfect opportunity to watch some of the videos about Greece that Derek had located. We first watched a travel documentary that showed us Athens and various Greek islands:

Then we watched a short piece on Cretan cooking, which with its emphasis on olive oil and fresh produce, seems very similar to Ikarian cuisine.

For dinner, we had more baked lima beans and spinach with rice.

To conclude our Greek weekend, we watched an episode of Finding Your Roots, which was tracing the roots of three well-known Greek Americans: actress Tina Fey, writer David Sedaris, and journalist George Stephanopoulos. Like host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., I was surprised that most Greeks can’t trace their ancestry back that far, even though Greek culture seems to be alive and well. But given the turbulent history of Greece, and the centuries it spent under foreign rule, the paper trail for many Greeks only goes back to shortly before the Greeks gained independence from the Ottoman Empire.

This weekend’s Buffalo Greek Fest definitely made our Greek detour worthwhile. Our fridge is now full with home-cooked leftovers that a yia-yia (Greek grandmother) would hopefully approve of. Efharistoomay, Hellas! Thank you, Greece!

Next, we’re going back to alphabetical order, and to another European country that has had a wide-reaching cultural influence: France.

– Jess

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One thought on “Detour: Greece

  1. We had so much fun in Greece that I couldn’t help planning a couple more Greek activities for the following weekend, too. Having already enjoyed a hearty serving of moussaka at the Greek festival, I decided to try making a homemade vegetarian version of this classic dish, using a recipe that I had found online:
    Moussaka
    The result wasn’t as rich and creamy as the real thing (maybe next time I’ll use a bit more béchamel sauce) but it was tasty nonetheless.

    After dinner, we watched an animated short called My Stuffed Granny (2014), about the difficulties faced by a poor Greek family when their deceased grandmother can no longer collect her pension.

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