HEALTHY EATING

 

During World War ll, when Hitler's armies and Axis powers occupied Greece and its islands, they more or less stripped the whole of Greece of its food, with most of it being sent to German soldiers on battle fronts across Europe. By the end of the war, at least a quarter of a million Greek men, women and children had died from starvation.

 

In Crete three years after the war, American scientists and doctors amongst many others, arrived to help rebuild the island. The survivors of the war were still scraping by on the smallest portions of food, and these professional experts were amazed by what they saw. Most of the Cretan people were in excellent health and they found no malnutrition, which would have been expected to have existed. The reason was, that they were still able to produce everything they wanted within the years following the liberation or the island.

 
Growing and eating seasonal foods which they and their ancestors had always done. They of course had no luxuries of supermarkets, electricity and their only means of refrigeration, was  burying their food in hollows, often hanging their yield in sheets that were suspended from rods across the top of their wells this kept things cool and away from animals. Allowing them to eat well but to a lesser degree.

 

The rural Greek diet is very different to that of the larger cities, where consumer products are widely available, and with the introduction of pre-packed world cuisine a diverse eating pattern is slowly taking over. However, the general diet on the island and in the country regions is very much a seasonal thing, being almost totally dependent on what local produce is available at certain times of the year. The seasons also play an important role in the way meals are cooked. It has been well documented, spoken about and debated that the Greeks living in the mountain regions lead a completely different life, breathing in clean fresh air, eating food with no additives and the natural exercise of walking everywhere.

 


Even the coastal communities of fishermen and lowland farmers on the seacoast work physically hard every day and eat what they catch or grow. They are not seized in the rat race of having to work in the confined spaces of offices, shops or factories.

All of this of course is a factor in living longer and healthier as we all now know, the other thing that has been noted over the years is the consumption of lots of olive oil. The process of collecting and pressing the olives and other seasonal jobs such as the collection of the almonds and walnuts, again whacked down from the trees are all arduous and time consuming jobs. The picking of oranges and lemons, the collection of the grape crops, all exhausting. physical and for what?.....Food.
 

You find that most people have land with olive trees, some fruit and almond trees and keep chickens or rabbits for the family table. The daily eating of meat is considered unimportant and is mainly kept for high days and holidays. Even in today's society most only eat meat two or three times a week, certainly not everyday. Vegetables and bread are a different matter. Vegetables or greens are eaten twice a day whilst bread is eaten virtually non stop, from being picked at by the ladies as they carry it home from the local bakers, warm and fresh. 

 
To the shepherds pulling out a chunk from their jacket pocket. It is of course eaten with every single meal. The table is regularly full of simple dishes, always salads with whatever is available or in season, you might have tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions and olives, or just a plate full of lettuce, raw cabbage and carrot. Beetroot tops are cooked and eaten as well, spinach is a favourite along with wild greens picked straight from a nearby field or boiled courgettes all covered with lashings of olive oil. Garlic is a firm favourite, eaten raw, whole or cut up and sprinkled on top of the food, as well as used in cooking. 
  

Whatever time of year you will always find cheese on the dining table. There are an immense amount of different types of cheese which are mostly made from sheep or goats' milk, but the most common are feta and mizithra, a soft cheese made from ewe's milk. It can also be made of goats milk (in which case it is called 'katsikithia') and often home made, and the harder kasseri and kefalotiri. Graviera is similar to gruyere a standard hard cheese locally produced. Anthotiros from the words 'anthos' and 'tiros' meaning 'flower' and 'cheese' is a very mild, soft, spring cheese made when the sheep pastures are still full of flowers. Its closest counterpart would be ricotta. Many times you will just find someone eating nothing more than a fried (in olive oil of course) fresh free-range egg with a large chunk of bread and a small piece of cheese.

 

 
There will always be seasonal fresh fruit on the table for after the meal, and not the sticky, gooey honey coated cakes you find on display in the shops, once again these are normally kept for special occasions. What you will find covered in honey is yoghurt, either eaten for breakfast of after a meal.

Dried beans, chickpeas, lentils and broad beans are used for various dishes. Pasta is eaten a tremendous amount. I would go as far as to say as much in Greece as it is in Italy, either plain sprinkled with grated kefalotiri cheese, or with a tomato sauce, sometimes a little minced meat is added, pasta and rice are also used a lot in soups.

Potatoes are often baked or boiled and served with salt and olive oil, or steamed with other vegetables as well as served cold as a salad. Sometimes potatoes are fried, but not the obligatory chip, just cut up into bits and fried in oil in a shallow pan. However what you will find are a few goodies that we as foreigners often find a little disconcerting to our palette, pig's and sheep's heads, intestines, tripe and other offal served up in many different ways. Fish is always cooked whole with the bones and head of the small varieties always being devoured. The heads of larger fish are considered a delicacy, with the flesh from the cheek being the sweetest of all.

 

Fish and meat are preferred grilled or cooked in the oven. Barbecuing is the favourite but is generally reserved for eating out. No elaborate sauces are used only olive oil, lemon and herbs, garlic optional. Chicken, steaks, lamb and pork chops are all cooked in the same way. In winter, dishes were, and still are in many households, cooked on top of the fire, it's on anyway to keep you warm, as most fires are wood burning stoves, much like a small Arga, the job is made easy. Anyway, stews and casserole always taste better cooked the day before. Casseroles are easily cooked Greek style, the base is always tomatoes, garlic and onions, with either vegetables or dried beans, salt and herbs.

  

Egg and lemon sauce is amongst the finest flavours in Greek cuisine, especially when made using freshly picked lemons and golden-yolked free range eggs, and is used for a number of dishes, which include either vegetables cooked in stock, fish or chicken. Then of course you have the pies, again mainly vegetables, such as courgettes or wild greens, cheese, meat or fish, and not forgetting the stuffed vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, aubergines all stuffed with well seasoned rice, sometimes meat is added and all are often topped with béchamel sauce.
 
The Greek rusk 'paximadi' is a perfect supplement to the famous Mediterranean diet. It is used at breakfast time, at dinner and lunchtime next to the cheese plate, and as a treat to the afternoon tea or coffee. It is also perfect as a healthy snack throughout the whole day.
 

Most of the traditional recipes are kept for feast and festival days, either religious or personal such as name days for instance, this is the time when families eat the most meats, such as fresh lamb, goat or suckling pig. What Greek meal would be served without wine, other than breakfast, albeit Greeks very rarely eat breakfast, they will normally have a snack at about 11-12 o'clock, to see them through until lunch which is the main meal of the day at about 2pm.

 
 
 

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