Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tastes of the Mediterranean

Oregon is stunning
during the summer and
fall months and while it is
THE best time to be here,
having been more home-bound
this past year, I am missing the
sights, smells and tastes of
the Mediterranean~
specifically Greece.
Give me those white-washed walls,
churches and walkways,
the dusty sweetness of wild rosemary
and thyme on the warm breeze--

I'm a sucker for those Greek salads with shiny, fresh peppers, tomatoes and cucumber and huge blocks of feta cheese sprinkled with lemon juice. The thick, rich local olive oil can be purchased in large, plastic jugs at small road-side farm stands. (FYI: These stands are also an inexpensive way to buy the local wine. And yes, also in plastic jugs!)

Every meal for me must be accompanied with the simple but inspiring tzatziki--the tangy yogurt and cucumber dip with plenty of garlic. While Ed sometimes tires of it, I can never get enough, slathering it on my bread, salad and every kind of meat. He often suggests we try something new in place of it while I suggest we try something else to accompany it.

What a Greek menu calls a salad can also be a pureed vegetable mixed with garlic. Eggplant salad (melitzanosalata) consists of blended eggplant, olive oil, lemon, yogurt and garlic while Fava salad uses pureed split peas and onion with garlic and fresh oregano. Greece's famous garlic dip (skordalia) can be made with garlic, almonds, lemon and olive oil including bread crumbs and/or mashed potato. One feels just a bit foolish at first smearing potato on bread but once tasted, that feeling dissipates. And like the tzatziki, it goes well on vegetables, fish and red meats.

Ed prefers the hefty, meat-filled dishes like Stifado--a thick beef and pearl onion casserole, Pastitsio--baked pasta with a spicy meat sauce-- and any braised meat dish with the local olive oil, herbs and spices. My favorite dishes are of the lighter fare: salads, fresh fish, the local greens, souvlaki--chicken kabobs with yogurt sauce--and octopus spritzed with lemon and dipped in tzatziki.

Octopus, when done well, is fare for the Gods here thanks to the age-old tenderizing process we've witnessed in several Greek ports: leathery hands and face hunched over a rock, cigarette with its long ash dangling from his lips, the fisherman slams the hopefully already-dead critter against the rock or cement--over and over, maybe to make sure there are no brains left. Octopus in the States (and even in some of the more touristy Greek restaurants) can be rubbery and chewy but when cooked right after this relentless texturizing process, is tender, moist and divine.

Anchovy and sardines are fish I rarely touch in the States but served fresh in Greece, yield an entirely different experience. And while I've never been a fan of okra, I am now a convert after tasting braised okra with tomato, onion and garlic at a little Plaka restaurant in Athens. One might think it was just a case of grateful tastebuds after a long day treading in the ancient footsteps of theater performers and goddess-worshipers but having now tried the dish in several Greek locations, I am a dedicated follower.

In Nafplion, where we like to spend time with friends, most of the best fish restaurants are out of the town, away from the touristy areas and a short drive to nearby beaches. In Greece, the fish is to be eaten whole, heads and all.

Been there & done that--but after consuming my share of fish brains (just enough to say I've eaten like a local!),

I prefer to leave them for the school of cats that endlessly hang around every eatery waiting for just such a morsel.

The French find that Greek cooking leaves something to be desired but for me that something is encapsulated in the magic of every day in Greece; in walking ancient archaeological sites; pondering lives long turned to dust; traditions and cultures barely known to us; scents and tastes married to a harsh but exquisitely beautiful land albeit a beauty in which one must frequently overlook the blight of man.

But the taste
is on the wind.
It grows in groves,
in the wild mountain greens
and rocky hillsides
and it feeds
on the view,
overlooking the waves
of endless
mythological lives.

Photographs copyright: Kirsten Steen

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pain Poilane

One of my favorite boulangeries to walk past in Paris' 15th arrondissement is Poilane on Boulevard de Grenelle (pronounced: Pwa-lan). Usually with a line of Parisians gathered to pick up their daily bread or pastry, it is one of two storefront locations of the late Lionel Poilane's dedicated attempt to carry on the family tradition, started by his father, Pierre, in 1932. The front and corner windows are lavishly decorated with ornate furnishings made of, what else? Bread crust.

Over the years, I've witnessed an array of astonishing ensembles looking like ice sculptures of golden dough. Giant flower arrangements, the petals, stems and vase all crafted and baked into varying shades of crusted-honey hues, call to bees and bread patrons alike. Chandeliers, books and dishware are just a few samples of the edible decor that pleasantly shock passersby with what is possible when a little flour yields itself to an artisan's hands. Poilane's alchemists spin yeasty gold out of pixie dust and tap water. During Paris' Fete de la Musique, a music festival held every June 21st when Paris holds its street music festival on the day of the Solstice, Poilane's window displays sing with their own musical instruments.

Unlike many other boulangeries in Paris who flout their patisserie pretties and chocolate delectables in perfectly-lined rows along street-front windows, Lionel opted to keep his daily output to a small assortment of traditional breads, tarts, gateau and punitions (small, thin, butter cookies known as "The Punishment"~the recipe of which can be found in Dorie Greenspan's book Paris Sweets).

My favorite is the simple and plain-looking Gateau Basque (almost like a custard pie with a densely-thick, not-too-sweet center) which I am compelled to buy every time I see it in the window. Ed's favorite is the early morning, tender-yet-flaky brioche to go with his coffee. While their pastry shelves are not lined with the busy colors and shapes of other windows, they always have something you want.

According to Ron Lieber (, Lionel's motto was, "Do things with intention, not with extension." Lionel's intent, after taking over the business from his father in 1970, apparently became a treasure hunt for THE best traditional French bread (Lieber states that according to Poilane, France's popular baguette actually came out of Austria). Poilane, with some help, interviewed over 10,000 bakers for their 2 francs worth and then created and revitalized what was once the most common bread in France: the dark, round, peasant bread of the region made in the traditional fashion using wood-fired ovens. The original boulangerie started by Pierre is still located on Rue du Cherche-Midi in the Latin Quarter where Lionel kept an office.

While those dark, fat, rounds nearly lost out to the flashier, skinnier, fair-skinned models (who are most often spotted tooling along French sidewalks canoodling in the arms of Parisians busily chewing the baguette's missing tip), Poilane saved the dark, regional manna from heaven. And he found his own patronage. In an interview, Lieber quotes Poilane as stating that one of his most dedicated followers paid him a large sum to keep his children and grandchildren in weekly shipments of bread for the rest of their days.

Next time you are in Paris visiting the Eiffel Tower, walk down to Blvd de Grenelle (3 blocks from the Champs de Mars) and on your way to the Metro (directly between stops Dupleix and Bir Hakeim), stop and marvel on the latest creations gracing the windows. And have a gateau for me!

If you have any trouble finding it, mention one word to any Parisian on the street: Poilane. They will point you in the right direction.

(Sadly, Lionel Poilane died in a helicopter crash in Oct. 2002 in Brittany)

Photographs copyright: Kirsten Steen