Monday, February 15, 2010

Dinner with Nancy . . .

. . . . and Despina….. and Nikolas… and Spyros….. and Ekaterina. . .

Food is an essential part of community and family life here. As a solo traveler, the danger becomes in hiding out in my apartment and not participating in life. Sundays are the best days to wade in and this particular Sunday – February the 14th – is prime. Why? Well, it’s Apokreas or Carnivale – the last big hurrah before the hard work of Lent sets in. For the devout: this means 40 days of no meat and some even forego ANYthing from an animal – dairy, cheese, fish, oil…
In any event, this past week has been a festival – with parades, parties, firecrackers, and kids in costume (pirates fore the boys; princesses for the girls) face painting for the teenagers – devil horns, angel wings and large phallic looking plastic clubs for whomping hapless passersby with – for reasons that escape me – but which I’m sure has some ancient meaning.

So today, knowing that I’d be in for some hard feasting, I did a brisk hour long hike along the 14th century Venetian ramparts that run along the sea coast…. Very bracing. Duty done, it’s now time to settle in for a serious nosh.

Sunday morning – church of course, then the leisurely parade or “volta” along the waterfront – kids in their Sunday best….the remnants of last night’s Carnivale parade on the streets… streamers, confetti, spent firecrackers. Now, at 2pm, it’s time to select a good taverna to settle in for the afternoon meal.

Rule of thumb: (1) Avoid places that boast of a “turstica menu.” And (2) go to where the Greeks are. Otherwise, be prepared for vin that is ordinaire, fish that is frozen, and McCains fries. Count on mediocre food but bad service, unless – like me – you are a goddess and the waiters are slavering to fill your every whim.

**Travel tip – it helps being 50 – you don’t take these flirtations seriously – there was a time when I wasn’t, I did, and they meant it. Now… it’s all in good fun. Oh – don’t be so snotty!! The same thing happens at home and you know it!

In Chania, all the tourist literature warns you to stay away from the harbour front restaurants and tavernas and I expect they are right - in season. This time of year, however, few are even open, and the ones that are seem to be stuffed with Greeks, so I think they are a safe bet.

This being the first day of Lent, meat dishes aren’t big on the menu – but there are some for us sinners. Out of respect (and sheer gluttony), I order cheese saganaki – and plaster a slab to each hip, to avoid the middleman. This is a slab of sharp cheese fried up sizzling hot and crispy, best eaten with generous squeezes of lemon. Then, horta – fresh greens gathered this morning from the mountains, oodles of lemon, bread still warm from the oven and dolmadakia. The taverna I am in is stuffed to the gills – live music inside – and I feel guilty hogging a whole table, Soon, however, I am taken into the loving and exuberant embrace of a family that insists I sit with them. The Greeks are fascinated that I travel alone. And to dine alone is an anathema, so I get adopted fairly often. Happily, I dive into this, as it means a gateway to seeing what a REAL Sunday dinner looks like – it is a Greek version of dim sum – platters of nibbles keep appearing – zucchini croquettes, potatoes fried in olive oil, fried cheese, fresh salad, calamari, gigantes… and so much more. Taverna kids wander through the place and much of my meal is spent dandling a two year old on my knee whilst slipping calamari bits to the street cats, who know an easy touch when they see one.

Meal done, the last of the fish bits fed to the cats, time for a tsipouro ( a local white lightening digestif) and perhaps a plate of ice cream or halva. And good lord – it’s nearly 6pm…. Only time for a wee nap, an evening stroll and then dinner!

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