The Mediterranean Pantry

The Mediterranean Pantry
Aglaia Kremezi
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 sheepโ€™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.

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24 comments

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more – book buying is an addiction. From a very young age (8 years old probably) I used to spend my pocket money on books and gobstoppers, every Saturday at the Lavington Bookshop in Nairobi. Mum would leave me there under the watchful eye of the lovely owner, while she went to the butchers and bakers. I have tried really hard to curb the book buying – but reading on the Kindle just isn’t the same. I, too, love second hand bookshops and sometimes cannot believe what people discard. Now I have the urge to visit one of them today!!

    It’s lovely that you were able to compare a visit to an old Mediterranean pantry with the book you found. And nice to know that really not that much has changed either!!

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    • Your childhood memories made me think of my own – trailing my grandfather to his favourite dusty old haunts. Our favourite was called the Book Barn – literally housed in an old red barn in the Pennsylvania countryside.

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  2. Book shop browsing is a favourite passtime for me too. I succumbed just last weekend! I much prefer a cookbook with social and cultural context, a good read as well as useful!

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    • I’m also one who enjoys social and cultural context in cookbooks – makes for a much better read and I think that since it puts food in context, you have a better understanding of it. Doesn’t prevent from experimenting and altering, but gives a framework from which to start.

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  3. Another enticing book. I enjoyed your descriptions of Cretan storerooms, I can smell the wild rigano and hanging cheeses. And your own pantry or larder sounds deliciously exotic, based on both your travels and your research.

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    • That Cretan storeroom was amazing and I was so lucky to have been invited to see it. I love my own pantry and the only qualm I have is that it is too small to house everything I would like!

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  4. Wow what a beautiful description of the storeroom. I felt like i was there with you. It sounds so lovely. I now want to see one! I can see why you were drawn to this book. I love your bookshelves! I’m trying to refrain from buying more books, but I’m obsessed too. So obsessed. Thank you for such a lovely post.

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  5. That Cretan pantry that you had the good fortune of visiting sounds wonderful. I’m afraid you’re right, though. Those days and pantries are long gone. Still, it sounds like you’ve got quite a pantry of your own. My last home had a very nice one and I sure miss it. You’re right again, though. They’re never large enough.

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    • From what I can tell, there seems to be a revival in pantries, or what we would call a larder here in Britain. However, in this modern age, people are more creative in their descriptions of a “pantry”; it could be a cupboard set aside for storing dry goods, spices, jams and jars of things rather than a separate room. I am lucky, living in an old Victorian house that has a small room (originally a little porch) off the kitchen which serves as my pantry plus a cool storage area in one of the cellar rooms. Still, it can’t beat that old Cretan pantry for ambience.

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  6. i have always loved books and used to spend my pocket money as a young girl going to the local book exchange eagerly hunting out British school girl stories- i always wanted to be a boarder in an English school and share midnight feasts.

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  7. We came to the conclusion that we were actually book hoarders a short time ago.We, too, have books everywhere,Including a few that turn up in bathrooms.)
    We’ve been biting the bullet and donating many…not that a few others haven’t found there way in here! Trust me, we’ll never b without reading material. What is incredible is the diverse subjects and levels we have.We should really live in a library with a bath and a half and a decent kitchen!

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