Just two weeks ago, to cap off a busy season and to usher in the hot, hot summer months, we had a Greek TV film crew in our kitchen here in Athens. As far as locations go, it seems we have one of the few untouched late 19th/early 20th century kitchens (at least the bare bones of the kitchen, certainly not the appliances!) to be found in Athens. Actually, the kitchen, indeed the house, was designed by a British architect/classical scholar and built in 1886. To my mind, it has more late Victorian British features than Greek. However, it was deemed prime location material for the filming of a segment dealing with the history of Greek cookery. This particular segment dealt with the famous late 19th – early 20th century chef, Nikólaos Tselementés.
Nikólaos Tselementés (Νικόλαος Τσελεμεντές) (1878 – 1958), a Greek chef, trained in France and other Northern European countries, wrote what is thought to be the first comprehensive modern Greek cookbook, originally published in 1910, Odigós Mageirikís (Οδηγός μαγειρικής) which simply translates as ‘Cooking Instructions’ or ‘Guide to Cooking’. One fashion he introduced were rich French sauces such as the creamy bechamel. He was also a great advocate of the use of butter versus olive oil. Tselementés rationalised this fracophile stance by claiming French food had its roots in Greek cuisine – a somewhat misguided and simplistic notion, but true in his mind.
Many years ago I came across Tselementés in an academic article that appeared in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies on the historical and cultural significance of his cookbook. It is, in fact, not the first published modern cookbook in Greece, but was preceded by a cookbook in 1828, translated from Italian by an anonymous author. This earlier volume, however, did not receive the same popularity (possibly because illiteracy was much higher in 1828 than in 1910) and contained a hodgepodge of Italian, French and local Greek recipes. Tselementés’ book, on the other hand, became the first successful modern Greek cookbook . It had a great influence in turning Greek cooks away from ‘peasant’ cuisine and turn them towards more sophisticated (Western) practices. Tselementés sought to purify Greek food from its ‘barbaric’ Turkish elements. This paralled trends at the time in literature, folklore, linguistics, history, etc. – aligning the relatively young nation-state of Greece to Western Europe and cleansing it of its Eastern roots.
Aglaia Kremezi, a cook and culinary historian whose opinion I value, also voiced some of these same issues in her book The Foods of the Greek Islands and in an article in the proceedings of the 1995 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Kremezi pointed out that Tselementés was chauvanistic (teaching only male chefs) and had elitist tendencies (focusing on haute cuisine). She also taxed him with influencing the way in which Greek food became more standardised and took a turn away from healthier, regional and varied ‘peasant’ foods. These latter types of foods, of course, are what Kremezi excels at. As many of her cookbooks grace my kitchen shelves, it is apparent that I prefer this type of Greek food as well.
However, it was interesting to see the TV crew filming. Though, I will continue to resist to pile an inch or so of buttery bechamel on my moussaka – exactly what is about to be done in the segment filmed below.
Some of the props the TV crew used looked so familiar. In fact, I owned many similar items – from my Grandmother’s kitchen to mine. The crew was here only one rather full day, a whirlwind filming: makeup in the courtyard, dressing room in our dining room, canteen in the forecourt and filming interviews on opinions of Tselementés and Odigós Mageirikís in the garden and at the front door of our house. I have to note that the two filmed interviews were by women, so perhaps the female perspective will have the last word. The filming was exciting while it lasted, but exhausting simply watching the action.