Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Greece and the Balkans

Greece, an archipelago of over 2000 islands in southern Europe, is a nation full of mystery and culture. The mountainous terrain and chalky soil provides perfect conditions for growing the olive tree and grape vine. In ancient times, Delphi, a city near the coast and home of the famous Oracle of Delphi, was the navel center of the world. The Greeks spread the vine and olive tree throughout Europe, while other nations, such as the Balkans and Northern African nations brought grain and other resources to Greece. It is suspected that the eggplant and fig was carried into the Mediterranean area by the Arabs in the Dark Ages. The tyrant Pisistratus rebuilt the ancient Greek world with new temples, reforming the legal system, and introducing cash crops. The ancient peoples lived mainly on seafood, wine, grapes, olives and its products, bread, and honey as well as many other native foods. The ancient people enjoyed their last meal of the day together as a family or with groups of friends. Sharing food and drink whenever family or a group of people gather around a table is typical of the traditional Greek way of life.

Greece can be divided into several regions: Peloponnese, Ionian Islands, Thessaly, Macedonia, North Aegean Islands, Cyclades, and the Dodecannese Islands. The climate in these regions lends itself well to the production of olives, grapes, and cheese. Other staples of the Grecian diet that come from these areas include dried fruits (i.e., prunes and cherry plums), cured fish, and lamb, pork, and sausage. Interestingly, in 1950 a man named Merlin planted the first kumquat tree in the Corfu region of the Ionian Islands. The Grecians insist the only reason for continued kumquat production is for the tourists and sales.

Olive oil, wine, vinegar and cheese production continue to be associated most with Grecian culture. Bread also plays an important role in predictions and celebrations. Bread based pies are baked early in the season and tradition states that if the crust comes out a golden brown color, the harvest will be plentiful. Bread is also used to announce engagements, weddings, Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations. Easter involves the use of dyed red eggs which symbolize both Christianity as well as the blood of Christ. Bread and other foods play a significant role in the Grecian lifestyle and culture.

The Balkan Peninsula is in the southeastern portion of Europe and consists of the following countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and western Turkey. This region is made up of mountains, valleys, plains, and plateaus. Countries that share a boarder with the ocean usually experience a Mediterranean climate, while the majority has a more temperate climate.

The first occurrence of farming cultures in Europe was in the Balkans. Taking place in the Neolithic Era, this culture arrived from the Fertile Crescent bringing with them the practices of growing grain and raising livestock. Pre- Roman Empire, the Balkans were inhabited by Thracians in the south. These people, being vegetarians, cultivated crops such as grain and vines for wine making. During the Roman Empire, Slavs are noted for their impact on the processing of milk into milk products; cheese in particular. The Ottoman Empire had a major impact in this region and by the end of the 16 century had control over this area. It is during this time that Turkish cuisine was introduced into Eastern Europe. Through a shared history of both migrating people and ruling empires, there are similarities found in the Balkan diet.

The food of the Balkans contains a variety of unique ingredients. The main staple is the wheat, which is used primarily to make bread, but wheat dough is also turned into savory pies and turnovers. There is the traditional turnover burek in Slovenia or boereg in Bulgaria and in Romania, which can be filled with meat, cheese or vegetables. Fruits are consumed for desert and snacks. These include apricots, cherries, grapes, melons, pomegranate and quince. In the fall, these fruits are turned into jams and compotes to be eaten during the cold season. Eggplant is the most popular vegetable, but cabbage, consumed as sauerkraut in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Romania, is equally popular. Dairy is well liked, with feta cheese and kaskaval being the favorite cheeses of the region. All types of meats and seafood are served, preferably lamb and pork. Olive oil is not popular; it is only used for cold dishes or for frying fish. Some of the drinks in the region include coffee, tea, wine, beer and high proof brandy made out of plums. The most important holydays are Easter and Christmas, and this is a time when the entire family sits down at the table and enjoys a festive meal together.

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