An Athens City Centre Oasis: The Black Duck

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That’s a bottle of Kir-Yianni Paraga for 20 euro.

Summer is settling down for its long stay here in Greece and no doubt many in chillier climes will be considering partaking in the charms of beautiful Greece over the coming months. There’s no shortage of places to go, from breezy isles with clear warm waters, to cool mountains with picturesque villages and, there is, of course, also our majestic capital, Athens. Athens has suffered a lot in the crisis but some parts are slowly regenerating, especially in the centre.

At the beginning of the crisis much of central Athens, around the areas between Syntagma and Omonia, was a wasteland of failing shops and cottage industries. Dark, dank alleys that attracted neither the local revelers nor the tourist trade that sticks to the Plaka, Monastiraki, Thiseio triangle. But slowly, cafés and eateries, street food places and bars started to sprout up and it’s now one of the liveliest areas in Athens without being as pricey or touristy as Gazi.

And, nestled in central Athens by Klathmonas Square, just a few minutes from Syntagma Square, is one of my favourite little café/bistros in Athens. The Black Duck is the garden café/bistro of the Athens City Museum. It’s a secret little oasis hidden from all the chaos and noise of the city centre and a lovely place to escape to for a coffee or a glass of wine.

The museum itself is an historic building, as it was the very first home of the first king of Greece after the war of Independence from the Ottomans. Otto and Amalia set up home here and the cafe is their courtyard and outbuildings. There are lots of plants and flowers on two levels and it really makes you feel that you are not in the centre.

I wouldn’t say it was cheap. Many cafes are now very cheap in Athens. Few have surroundings like the Black Duck. I wouldn’t say the food was brilliant either, and it’s a bit expensive for what it is, which is basically tarted up sandwiches and omelettes. But a bottle of white wine is no more expensive here than in my bog standard local bar.

This is not the kind of place I would make my ‘steki’ (see the HandleBar for my regular haunt) but for a nice bottle of wine on a Saturday afternoon while uptown with friends, it’s very pleasant indeed. I think foot weary tourists might enjoy its ambience too.

 

 

Summer Fresh Tomato Spaghetti

New pan!

This is a recipe that has been adapted from a Locatelli one from a few years back. I don’t know if it’s based on anything traditional or not but it’s a really lovely, easy and delicious summer pasta dish. The recipe here is for 3 to 4 people, so you can reduce or increase amounts to suit your needs. Any vegetarians can omit the anchovies and add some cheese when serving and any vegans can omit the anchovies and perhaps increase the olives a bit.

This is a cheap meal for me because I live in the med and all the ingredients are readily available here. I buy Cretan tomatoes at 1 euro a kilo. In the original recipe, I remember that Locatelli used some fresh tom and some passata, so you can try that if good toms aren’t available. My capers I buy whenever I visit a Cyclades island. I just got some recently from Andros. If you come on holiday to a Greek Cycladic island buy some! I buy anchovies packed in salt and take them home and wash off the salt. I soak them in water for a bit and then fillet them and cover in EV olive oil. The leftover anchovies will go on top of some wholemeal sourdough toast with chopped tom tonight for a nice bruschetta for supper. The olives I used are Kalamata olives, which have a strong rich flavour. Don’t buy those plastic Spanish ones. If you can, go to a Turkish Cypriot or Greek Cypriot shop and buy olives from them. Most of the stuff in supermarkets is revolting rubbish and really expensive. The basil I grow on a window sill, next to the rosemary.

Finally, the quality of the pasta is important. I buy either M&S Italian pasta or the expensive, but brilliant, De Cecco pasta. This dish is best with spaghetti, I think, but use what you like!

Summer fresh Tomato Spaghetti

3 toms whizzed

two handfuls of Kalamata olives (about 10), stoned and roughly chopped

1 good handful of capers, rinsed, roughly chopped

5 anchovy fillets chopped

1 good handful of basil leaves torn into small pieces

5 tablespoons of EVO oil and a little extra for drizzling

1 ladle of pasta cooking water

300g of dry spaghetti

a little seasoning

Put the EVO oil, toms, olives, capers, anchovies and half the basil in a large saute or frying pan and stir the ingredients. Put a large pan of well salted water on to boil for the pasta. Add the pasta when the water comes to a boil and give a good stir. Place the saute pan with the sauce over the top of the boiling pasta pan (make sure the pasta doesn’t spill over if the saute pan acts like a lid!). The idea is to gently warm through the ingredients to release flavours. You do not want to cook the sauce or let it even get very hot. You want it just to warm up a bit while the pasta is cooking. When the pasta is cooked to al dente, ladle out some of the pasta water and reserve. Drain the pasta and add to the saute pan with the sauce. Add the rest of the basil, a drizzle of EVOO, a little salt and pepper and a ladle of pasta water. Mix all the ingredients up well and serve in bowls with a garnish of a few more torn basil leaves.

This is great served warm immediately and very nice served just slightly chilled, honest.

Athens Lost Architectural Heritage

I imagine this late 19th or early 20th century house was, once, a family country home when Patissia was still mainly farmland and countryside.

There are many reasons why a lot of the architectural heritage of Athens has been lost over the past century or so. Poverty, the second world war, the building spree in Athens from the late 60s up until the beginning of the 21st century and now the effects of the crisis.

In the past, many beautiful buildings, and virtually all of the character of central Athens, were destroyed by people such as the rich shipping family, Vardinoyiannis, who tore down the beautiful neo classical buildings of Syntagma sq and Filelinon street in order to make a fast buck in construction. This was at a time when there was no ‘listing’ of buildings for their architectural or historical importance. Now, the buildings are listed but that doesn’t solve the problem of them simply being left to rot until its too late to save them.

The EU did help Greece to save and restore much of the old historic central areas of Monastiraki, Thiseio and Plaka. There has been some excellent restoration and renovation in these areas over the past 20 odd years, which does show what can be done when there’s money to do it. There are also lots of buildings along Patission that have, over the years, been taken on by banks or schools and thus saved that way. But there are many buildings, some of them gems, that are just rotting away.

There are, for example, the historic buildings on Stadiou street that fell victim to fire during the riots of a few years back. Their shells stand forlorn and neglected as a testament to what has befallen Greece in 7 years of deep crisis and economic collapse. There are also many old noble buildings falling to pieces in areas, such as Victoria Sq and Amerikis sq, that were once aristocratic areas but now are some of the most deprived inner city areas in Athens with high numbers of poor and migrant residents, many of whom are very transient. So, there are few buyers interested in doing buildings up in areas that are so depressed.

Even in decidedly middle class areas many buildings are left to rot because it suits the owner to let them become beyond repair so they can be demolished and replaced with a new high rise apartment block. Or, the homes have been inherited by more than one heir who have failed to reach agreement on what should happen to the house.

I find it heartbreaking. I keep buying lottery tickets in the hope of winning enough to buy one of these poor homes to save. Ah, well, hopefully someone will realise  their value soon.

 

Banned From The Guardian

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UPDATE: The ban has now been rescinded. 25/5/16. So I do get to update the Rhik dossier after all.

After nearly ten years of being a sweary, argumentative, polemical, guardian BTL stalwart, they’ve finally banned me.

I’m not surprised. They have their rules and I don’t stick to them all the time. I do get very, very angry about the deeply bigoted commentary on Greece that they have a very nasty habit of letting stand. Nothing is calculated to get me swinging guns around than seeing post after post of crypto nazi crap on how Greece deserves to be poor and punished and Greek kids don’t deserve to work ever because the Greek political elite (that Germany protects) are a bunch of corrupt cunts.

Another thing that undoubtedly gets me into trouble is calling Merkel a nazi and pointing out the spread of neo nazi parties around the whole of the EU as a direct result of Merkel’s policies as the de facto head of the EZ. Not least of which was the demonisation of the whole Greek nation as nothing more than lazy, work shy, money grubbing thieves stealing from the hard working Northern European. This propaganda has worked so well and so easily that most of Europe has cheered as Greece is crushed. The same demonisation has also been let loose on refugees.

I had a blast on the guardian. In the early days of CiF there were all sorts of little wars and feuds. The I/P threads were basically all out war. The fem threads were another kind of war, full of men saying things like ‘You’re too ugly to rape’ back when there wasn’t any real moderation. So I do get the need for moderation. I also get that there is no ‘community’ anymore, as there was at the beginning of comment on CiF. Now there are too many users from all over the world, so my history on the site is no longer of any relevance. And most of those old users have in fact gone.

I think they prefer it that way. It was the same when they got rid of the talk boards. They were just shut overnight. Then they closed down You Tell Us and the old water cooler chat room was gone too. I suppose they now just want to use comment as a way to hook readers. Its not really about debate or community anymore and I suppose that’s inevitable.

Someone will have to tell Rhik I love him.. I won’t be able to…

Feta – Versatile and Delicious

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The common way to serve feta on the table – with a sprinkling of oregano and a drizzle of EVO oil.

Up until the beginning of the economic crisis in Greece, Greeks regularly topped the table of the world’s highest cheese consumption per capita, eating more cheese than even the French. And even after 7 years of devastating economic depression, Greeks are still in the top ten of cheese eating nations. The main reason for this is, of course, feta – the white cheese in brine that tourists know from its inclusion in the famous Greek salad (xoriatiki – village salad, in Greek). It’s not the only cheese eaten in Greece, there are many other good Greek cheeses, but it’s the cheese traditionally served at the table with most meals, either in a salad or separately, drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano.

In the past, feta was an important source of protein, as people didn’t eat a lot of meat and the diet consisted mainly of seasonal vegetables and pulses. So a winter bean soup would be greatly enriched by the addition of feta cheese and some good bread. It’s a winning combination too. Even the most basic peasant dish of lentil soup attains a gourmet status with the addition of decent feta and lovely grilled sourdough at the table. Although I wouldn’t wish Greece’s economic crisis on anyone, one positive outcome has been a return to traditional foods. Greece had never entirely lost its food traditions but some were beginning to slip away under the pressure of convenience foods and a more Americanised lifestyle. So, I am happy to see a return to some basic food principles in Greece.

Another thing worth mentioning is that not all Feta is made equal and that it also has a wide variety of taste and textures. The very commercial feta available in plastic boxes from the supermarket is never going to be as good as that sold in barrels or from tin drums. The commercial type is likely to be the only sort of feta available to people in the rest of Europe, unless you can find a real Greek shop run by those escaping the crisis. Some of the feta in boxes is passable and at least it’s a million times better than the abomination sold in European supermarkets under the title of ‘Greek style cheese’. For the love of  all things food holy, don’t eat that rubbish. Support the Greek economy and get a halfway decent feta cheese.

When it comes to the taste and texture of Feta, it can range from a firm almost hard crumbly cheese with a sharp acidic taste, rather like a good Lancashire cheese, to a softer creamier cheese with a more delicate flavour. Try the Feta from Kalavryta for a sharp Feta and from Dodoni for something creamier but still with a bit of sharp after glow.

Feta is used in many dishes in Greece. Served alone, in salad, baked, used to stuff squid, in pies, in a tomato sauce with prawns for prawn saganaki, in lots of lovely dishes. I’m going to give two quick easy recipes for this short introduction to the uses of feta: a baked feta and a Cretan Salad.

Baked Feta

Take a thick slice of feta (2 – 2.5 cm thick), if you’re buying a boxed commercial feta from the supermarket it will be divided into slices, so just use one of those. Place the slice of Feta on a square of foil big enough to enclose the cheese. Place on top of the cheese two finely sliced rounds of red onion, some slivers of green pepper and a couple of very thin slices of tomato. Top with a drizzle of EVO oil, a good sprinkling of oregano and some chili flakes (optional). Twist the ends of the foil together to make a packet of the cheese and veg. You want there to be a good opening in the foil to let out steam, as feta and the veg give off liquid. Don’t completely seal the packet. Bake for around 20 minutes in a pre-heated medium hot oven.

 

Cretan salad

3 medium sized toms cut into wedges

1 medium sized onion cut into half moon slices

1 large green pepper sliced

½ a large cucumber roughly peeled, halved lengthways and cut into chunks horizontally

3 Cretan barley rusks

a handful of Kalamata olives rinsed

a handful of good capers rinsed

a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley

a thick slice of good feta cheese (about 150g)

EVO oil

sea salt

oregano

 

Run the barley rusks under the cold water tap for a few seconds to make them a little wet. Break into little chunks in a salad bowl. Put the salad veg, olives, capers and parsley in the bowl too. Break the feta* into chunks and add to the bowl. Sprinkle the salad generously with sea salt and dried oregano and add several good hearty glugs of evo oil. Mix well and chill before serving. The salad is hearty enough to eat alone as lunch or served with a chop or whatever you fancy.

  • By rights this salad should be made with Cretan ksinomezithra cheese. But I doubt you’d find it and it works perfectly well with feta.

 

 

Flora Graeca

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Acanthus Mollis growing wild in my neighbourhood. This plant is the one that inspired the design on Corinthian Capitals

While running around the leafy dales and narrow gorges of Andros, surrounded by hundreds of beautiful plants, herbs and flowers, my friend mentioned an exhibition we should see on ‘Flora Graeca’ once we were back in Athens. I went to the exhibition on Saturday.

The exhibition is in the Gennadius Library, a beautiful building, and part of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The exhibition centres around Flora Graeca, a book of Greek flowers, based on the research in Greece, in the late 18th century, of an Oxford professor of botany, John Sibthorp, and the illustrations of Austrian artist, Ferdinand Bauer. The book is magnificent and the exhibition also shows how the book developed out of other botanical books of the era and the development of botanical classification.

Apart from the chance to look at beautiful illustrations of the lovely flora of Greece, there was also lots of other interesting items to see. I knew that the Goulandris family (big shipping family) were very involved in the art world and I’ve been to an exhibition of Surrealism in The Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art in Chora, Andros, but I had no idea about the Goulandris Natural History Museum in Kifissia, Athens. Niki Goulandris is a renowned botanical artist and the Flora Graeca exhibition features a Hermes scarf with one of her Flora Graeca designs, as well as some water colours.

The other items I found fascinating, being a massive fan of Byron’s works, life and letters, are the Byron memorabilia, including a funeral laurel wreath made for him here in Greece after his death in Missolonghi, as well as some writings from his friend John Cam Hobhouse when , as a young British toff, he took part in the Grand Tour with Byron.

It’s bit odd going to an art/botany exhibition in a working academic library with people poring over great tomes around you. Of course, you also have to be very, very silent. But it was lovely to get away from all the frenetic activity in the centre and escape the turmoil of protests against a new batch of ever tougher austerity measures. If I must acquiesce to Greece’s fate as a vassal state of Germany, I’m going to do it running around fields of Greek flowers, either on my hiking walks or on the pages of these fantastic botanical works of art. I highly recommend the exhibition to anyone interested in Greek history and botany. It’s lovely and it’s free.

This weekend I’m going to go and check out the GNHM in Kifissia. Sunday is International Museum day, so if you’re in Greece, there’s a wealth of fantastic museums to choose from and if anyone wants any pointers about museums in Greece, just ask. But, wherever you are, make sure you visit a museum this weekend. Support the work of museums, big or small.

Alternative Tourism in Andros, Greece

Andros is known for its lush greenery, abundance of flora and fauna and interesting architecture.

The first of the Cycladic islands, Andros, is but a 2 hour ferry journey from the port of Rafina, just outside of Athens. The island is also known as Mikra Agglia (Little England) because of its wealthy ship owning families’ relationship with Britain. Andros has never succumbed to mass tourism and has only recently started to develop more alternative forms of tourism, especially for those interested in bird watching and rambling/hiking.

Andros has managed to escape the fate of many other islands that have been ruined by tourism because of its close connection with the Greek shipping industry. Some of the biggest names in shipping come from the island and many of the inhabitants earned their livelihoods as sailors for many generations. The main town of Chora, Andros, is testament to the wealth of the shipping families as it’s a neo-classical gem. It also has a great museum of Modern Art, set up by the Goulandris foundation (shipping family), which has some very interesting exhibitions.

Apart from the beautiful neo-classical architecture of Chora, Andros has some fabulous medieval villages from the Venetian period, with some fantastic Tower mansions and hundreds of beautiful dovecotes, especially in the area of Korthi Bay. The village of Aidonia is well worth a visit, for its beautiful spring, its fabulous architecture and for also having the only school for environmental studies in the Aegean area. The school teaches courses on environmentalism to school children from throughout the Aegean and also helps train tourism professionals on issues about the environment.

That Andros is such a hiking paradise is down to the work of volunteers on the island, who have spent the past 2 years clearing the ancient footpaths and sign posting them. Information on the project can be found at the Andros Routes Website and the project has also compiled a special walker’s map with all the routes on it. While I was there, at Easter, one of the best routes I did was the Frousaios walk along a small stream full of old abandoned water mills. The work the project has done to clear the paths and organise events, which are inclusive of locals and visitors alike, is just brilliant. I can’t recommend the Andros Routes project enough.

Another project on Andros, which is set to finish this summer is the LIFE project. It’s an EU funded conservation project mainly set up to help protect the rare bird species on Andros, foremost of which is 2 pairs of breeding Eleonora’s Falcons. The project has also set up a seed bank of varieties of agricultural produce particular to Andros. A visitor to Korthi Bay can pop into their office in the town and get lots of interesting information from the people involved in the project. Hurry though! The project closes down in August this year.

Although the island doesn’t have any big hotels or resorts, there are plenty of places to stay. Batsi is the main tourist area. It’s a nice little fishing village with some lovely, easily accessible beaches, especially the ones to the south, which includes a small nudist beach too. But the very best beaches are not easily accessible. They are reachable only by dirt roads or boats. If you like (I do!) getting lost on dirt tracks up mountains and ending up entirely where you didn’t expect to, Andros is great! But whether you plan to go off road or not, Andros is impossible to see without transport. The main roads around the island are very good and its easy to hire a car. Hardy cyclists might enjoy the mountain roads too.

So, if you’re looking for an alternative holiday experience and especially if you enjoy hiking or sight seeing. Andros is a gem of an island.