Conversations about Herbs

When I was growing up there was only one herb in our house: oregano.  It was never fresh and it always came from Greece, harvested in the harsh Arcadian mountains around the village.

Whenever my father returned from a trip to the homelands, as he used to call Greece, he would bring a gift, a bag of sweets and a bag of oregano. Sometimes the gift was a CD or a small ornament. The sweets were always made by Greece’s equivalent of Cadbury, Ion. I only found out after many packets of sweets that in fact Old Man Simbonis used to give my father money to buy me sweets at the airport.

This year, three and a half years after my father died and stopped supplying oregano, we finally ran out of stock of oregano. So did most of my close family. So it fell to me to get the herb. I went into Tripolis once while I was there last month, walked around, sat and had a breakfast of Greek coffee and loukoumades, did some shopping but forgot to go to the market where they sell so much oregano the smell overpowers any other produce they hold in the small open square. I eventually bought some at the airport.

I remember opening the packet of gifts, already with an aura of the mountain aroma, and then decanting the oregano into a glass jar, where the strong reminder would remain for a few weeks in the cupboard until it faded. Each time I opened the jar to use the herb the heady mountain smell would jump out and fill the kitchen. As it baked or grilled the smell would sweeten and finally when I snuck a piece of food to taste I would be transported back to my grandmother’s house, and her cooking. There was only one herb in her house as well!

When I married into an Italian family and dinners were shared by both families I remember my father picking at the Sweet Basil, because his Greeks never ate that stuff. They only kept buckets of it potted around the houses and courtyards to keep the flies away. It was also useful at the Epiphany for the priest to bless the congregation and their homes.

Rosemary was someone’s name; although it featured in church as incense, we never cooked with it. Now I have rows of bushes growing in the garden, ready for use. I remember walking the streets off the strip in Las Vegas and brushing my hands against the oily rosemary the city had growing as hedges and ground cover along the sidewalks.

Dagga was legal up to the forties in Greece. Much like it was in South Africa. You could buy it in the corner grocery store. It was an herb that never featured at our house.  I wished it did recently. A friend’s mother who was having chemotherapy called me up to ask how she should use it to control her nausea. I had no idea, but the internet provided some answers. In the end she just needed one puff to halt the waves that overcame her.

Spring wild flowers in an Arcadian Valley

Conversations on Coffee

Tea and coffee. I have written about tea, and have mentioned my father’s black instant coffee in the early morning.

Greek coffee is different. Foreigners who have had a cup always warn of the sludge that lies waiting to choke you in the bottom of the cup. Greek coffee is Middle Eastern. They make the same coffee in Turkey and Lebanon and even further east.

Greek coffee was colloquially known as Turkish coffee in Greece until 1974. After the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey, Greeks banished the Turkish descriptor as if that would stop the colonial prowess of their neighbour. They should also have come up with a new name for coffee as well, because coffee has its origins in the Ottoman vocabulary. The term coffee found its way into European languages in about the 1600’s, most probably from the Italian term ‘caffe’ which was derived from the Turkish pronunciation ‘kahveh’ of the Arabic ‘qahwah’.

Greek coffee is not bean specific, although I should imagine they used Arabica beans in the beginning. It should be ground from freshly roasted beans. The grind is a very fine one. Most European commercial grinders cannot grind coffee fine enough for this coffee. It is best done by hand, or other wise use a Turkish hand or commercial grinder.

To make it one needs to decide on the sweetness required before. It can be plain,  medium or sweet depending on how much sugar is added. A teaspoon of coffee is added to the briki, a small inverted conical pot, preferably in copper. Water for each person is measured with a demitasse cup and sugar is added as desired. The mixture is stirred cold then brought to heat (preferably gas) but not to boil. Stirring stops once all the components are dissolved. A fresh  grind will allow a rich froth to develop. This froth can be improved by lifting the briki off the heat and keeping it from boiling. The very hot mixture id poured into thin walled cups. If the height of the pour is increased it can add to the froth, but too high, like boiling, adds bigger bubbles.

Its best to wait a bit before drinking as it is hot and will always burn your lips if rushed. It is always served with a cold glass of water to rinse the palate afterwards. The grounds that remain can be turned upside down into the saucer and tell your future.

I never saw my father drink a Greek coffee. I know he would not have delved into reading of  the future. He made his future.

Coffee table at Aegina in the seventies