Friday, September 19, 2014

Food of Europe: Of Cucumbers, Smelt and Miracles

I have had a love-hate relationship with cucumbers for as long as I can remember: I loved to hate them. I have often joked that I can’t stand to be in the same room with a cucumber. Ha Ha. Ha. 

My antipathy probably dates to when I got married. This vegetable had never been served on a plate before me - to my recollection - until I got married. (I am pretty sure that this fact is attributable to my father who no doubt despised them. He had a somewhat limited palate. Even though he was raised on a fruit farm, he never ate cherry pie (!) until he was in the army.) My former wife loves English cucumbers. They were introduced to my environment and, truth be told, I somehow felt inferior because I didn't like them. My antipathy only deepened.

But on our first night in Greece, a miracle happened: I ate cucumbers (!) ... in a Greek salad. (My children will appreciate the significance of this event.) And they weren’t bad. The miracle occurred just down the street from our hotel (see picture below). We headed out that evening for something to eat after having cocktails in our room. We asked the front desk clerk if he could recommend a place that was close by, somewhere where we could get a salad.

He sent us to a small taverna half a block away. Between the hotel and the taverna, however, was another small restaurant on the other side of the street. A man whom we assumed to be the proprietor tried to get us to eat at his place, but we went with the desk clerk’s recommendation. We would later learn how displeased the man was with our decision.

Meanwhile, we arrived at the other place and sat down at a small table on the sidewalk. As far as I recall, we were the only customers there; but perhaps it was early by Athenian standards. 

There were no English menus. In fact, there were no menus. Mark told the man we wanted a Greek salad. He nodded in recognition, but waited while we told him what else we wanted. Seeing no response forthcoming, he took the initiative and started questioning. “Fish? Meat?” Somehow or other, Mark communicated that we’d like fish. As the man walked away into the bowels of the restaurant, I asked Mark what kind of fish we were getting. His response: “I don’t know.”

Mark went down the following morning and took this picture of our taverna and its proprietor (standing).

Shortly, we were presented with a standard Greek salad: tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese and … cucumbers. The miracle likely would not have happened had I not had a stiff cocktail beforehand. I started eating and said, “What the hell,” and bit into a cucumber. I waited for the retching to start, but it didn’t. In fact, the cucumber didn’t taste too bad. I had another piece. No bile rising. Hmmm. I felt a small stirring of victory and pride in myself for having ventured where I had never ventured before.

Then the fish arrived. Sardines. Or at least that's what I thought at the time. I learned later that they were smelt, or marithes (in Greek). Breaded and fried. It was time for the second miracle.

I don’t believe I had ever eaten a sardine before. (This is what was going on in my head at the time, but I would have felt the same way about smelt.) In fact, I’m positive I had not – unless it was camouflaged in something else. I’m also positive I could not have eaten those fishies had I been cold sober. As it was, I plunged in with gusto, and I loved them! I commented to Mark at one point that eating them was kind of like eating French fries. As I look at the picture now, I wonder whether I could do it sober. That will be my next challenge.

Two nights later, we were getting ready to leave the Greek island of Santorini at dusk. I’ll leave a description of our experience on that island to a later post. For now, I want to continue with the theme of food. There were lots and lots of restaurants up on the plateau of Santorini, but our cruise coordinator, Nadia, recommended a simple tavern down on the pier below, close by where we would catch the tender boat back to our ship. 

The food was amazing. I had chicken souvlaki – which was delicious - but what I couldn’t get enough of was the Tzatziki that was served with dinner. The concoction of yogurt, garlic, cucumbers and olive oil was so good that I asked for more. This, too, was a miracle because I had always turned down tzatzikii at the Salt Lake Greek Festival when ordering gyros. (What was I thinking!)

Mark took a picture of the grill out back

Nadia, our cruise director, and I discussing Greek food

What a revelation. I guess it took coming to Greece for me to learn to like cucumbers, sardines and Tzatziki.

1 comment:

  1. For the one time that I had that kind of small, fried fish (called "merida" in Greek, or smelt in English; I don't know if that's different from sardines or not.) the very kind woman who made them for us said, "These help your eyesight, because there's phosphorus in the eyes." It was tough to just suck it up and eat the whole thing - fins, bones and heads, but I did. And she also told us that she's never satisfied unless she can eat them with her fingers. How perfect is that?

    I love those people.