The Mediterranean Pantry
Artisan, New York: 1994
There is no prevaricating – book buying is an addiction. Despite the fact that I now purchase e-books (mostly for fun fiction reading), bookstores are still favourite haunts of mine. I especially love used bookstores with their dusty smell of old paper. You never know when you are going to discover a gem in the stacks of discarded, recycled books, especially that chance find you are NOT looking for. Serendipity, it is called. One such gem is my copy of The Mediterranean Pantry by the Greek food journalist, Aglaia Kremezi.
I snapped it up based on the title alone. I was curious to compare the book version of a Mediterranean pantry with one I had been invited to view many years ago – a traditional Cretan pantry or apotheke (which is more accurately translated as a storeroom) in a small village in the South Central part of the island. It was one of the two rooms in an old flat-roofed, one-storey house. On the earthen floor of the apotheke was a small circular stone hand mill along side sacks of grain to be ground. Cloth bags of the Cretan dried barley rusks (paximadi) hung from hooks. Lining the shelves along one wall were bottles of glyko (fruits and nuts preserved in syrup), small pottery pitharaki for storing brined olives, and other home grown and preserved foods to last the family through the winter. Stacked on the side were large square tins holding liters of their own olive oil, and phiali (flasks) of home produced wine and the distilled raki (a local “fire water”). Dripping into a small enamel bowl was the whey from the suspended cheesecloth of curdled sheep’s milk. Pervading the room was the sharp smell of the sour milk mingling with the aromatic aroma from the bundles of dried mountain sage and oregano hung from the cedar beams of the ceiling. This type of traditional apotheke is a rare thing today. It is a thing of the past that is more likely to be seen reconstructed in local folk museums. The image of that place, however, is still fresh in my mind and I am glad that I had the opportunity to explore it when I did.
The pantry described in Aglaia Kremezi’s book is more modern and encompasses produce from the entire Mediterranean. However, since her Greek products are the backbone of the book, it comes as no surprise that her book discusses many of the same basic preserves contained in that old Cretan apotheke. Vegetables and fresh cheeses are smothered in fragrant newly-pressed green olive oil or acerbic wine vinegar. Aromatic dried herb mixtures and herbal teas are put into boxes. Flavoured wine vinegars and sweet cordials are poured into bottles, and jams and pickles packed into jars. In fact, the book is organized by bottles, boxes, jars – complete with lovely photographs and instructions on how to make your own condiments and spice mixtures. The ones I am most drawn to as things of beauty are in bottles – the peach and rosemary vinegar, quince ratafia, morello cherry liqueur and almond syrup. Boxes contain Cretan barley rusks, dried apple peel tea, spicy North African meat rubs, and sesame-studded sweet biscuits. Yet, the recipes I use most are those in jars – pickled grape vine shoots, grilled red peppers in oil, pink pickled turnips and beets, Harissa, and preserved lemons. In addition, Aglaia Kremezi provides recipes using these pantry ingredients. One of my favourites is the Tunisian carrot salad which uses both the Harissa and the preserved lemons.
There is something satisfying about a well stocked pantry, particularly if the bottles, boxes and jars are decorative as well as functional. My pantry contains spices and dry goods (beans, seeds, pastas, grains and flours), all sorts of herbal teas, homemade preserves from my garden, pickles and fermented vegetables, home made liqueurs and flavored oils and vinegars. Some, in fact, originate from the pages of this book. Although my pantry is unique to me, it shares an affinity of spirit with The Mediterranean Pantry of Aglaia Kremezi. And, I am so glad that I discovered it on the shelves of that dusty used bookstore.
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Also see my review of Honey From A Weed by Patience Gray.