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Greek traditions

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? Well quite a lot actually if you are Greek. First names get passed down through the generations. They tell people which folk you come from, who your parents and grandparents are. Remember in ‘My big fat Greek wedding’ where all the men in the family are called Nikos?

In Rhodes a firstborn girl will take the name of her maternal grandmother, a firstborn boy the name of his paternal grandfather. The naming of a child is a given, not a choice. It’s a done deal before the baby is born. To keep all the grandparents happy you must produce four grandchildren, two of each. Then they all get to hear their name screeched across the square when its time to come in for tea.

When I was pregnant with my first child I knew I was having a girl. My mum is called Jill. Its not that I don’t like the name, but the Greeks have a problem with the pronunciation of J’s. Rather than inflict a life of ‘Tsil’ upon my daughter, I decided I would choose another name. Who was I kidding?

During the early days of my pregnancy the rest of the family were olive picking. I stayed home alone with four channels of Greek TV.

A plane had gone down somewhere in a forest in northern Greece, prompting ceaseless coverage as they searched for survivors. I was riveted, my pregnancy hormones desperate for a miracle. The reporter on the ground was called Poppy. Pretty name, I thought. Consistent in either language. I tuned in to Poppy every day. The days turned into a week and the coverage got less airtime. Tragically there were no survivors, but Poppy’s hope in the face of hopelessness stayed with me. And so did her name.

I thought my dilemma was solved. Instead of ‘Tsil’ I would call my firstborn daughter Poppy! Mum wouldn’t mind, she hates her name.

‘No.’ said the husband. ‘No?’ ‘We will call her Maria, after my mother’.

So that’s how my daughter came to share her name with half the Greek female population. And my mother in law.

My second child is also a daughter. She was born on the eve of the saint’s day ‘Kalliopi’. Kalliopi gets shortened to Poppy. Guess what I called my second daughter. For entirely religious purposes of course.

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Seeing red.

There’s red everywhere. Through the back door I see a pool of it in the kitchen sink, blotches over the worktops. And a couple of confused footprints striking out in different directions.

Something boils furiously on the hob, rattling and spitting water everywhere. I don’t have to look to know that a dozen eggs will be dashed to the sides of the pan.

‘Its ok Mum, we’ ll clean it up’.

I close my eyes. And breathe. After the supermarket ordeal I’ve just had the only red I want to see is in a glass with a long stem.

Easter preparations have begun. My daughters have taken it upon themselves to dye the eggs. The same eggs I had put aside for making ‘Tsoureki’ (Easter Bread). Never mind, I can always go back to the supermarket (slugs wine). We dye eggs red on ‘Megali Pempti’ (Maundy Thursday) so that we can have an egg bash on Easter Sunday – sort of like a conker fight, but with boiled eggs instead. The winner is the one with the unbroken egg at the end of it. The red represents the blood of Jesus and the egg the sealed tomb he was buried in.

I start a new pan of eggs. I put a couple of sheets of kitchen roll in the bottom to cushion the eggs (tip from Google) and a splash of vinegar (tip from Mother In Law). I gently boil them (no cracks on my watch) and prepare the dye. Despite the wild variety of colours and gaudy stickers now available, I have decided that we will do simple, traditional, red this year.

We mix up the dye with the water and spoon our eggs in. As we carefully take them out 5 minutes later, blood red, a wave of emotion catches me by surprise. My children are growing up. In four short years they will both have left home (or so they promise). And as if reading my thoughts Poppy says ‘we’ll always come back for Easter’. With that, she digs out the stickers from the packet. ‘Mum, can we put the stickers on too?’ I guess we are going with gaudy then.

The shiny red eggs are drying nicely. The girls have cleared up the kitchen in their own teenage way so I will finish that off later. I grab my keys to head off to the supermarket for more eggs. Outside the door I almost step on a box filled with eggs, a cauliflower and two enormous cabbages. ‘Kalo Paska’ (happy Easter) shouts my neighbour as he zooms off on his battered old Vespa.

Filled with love and peace to all mankind I go back into the house to start on the Tsoureki.

If you are wondering why I am writing about Easter now, then let me remind you that Greek Orthodox Easter only falls on the same date as Catholic/Protestant/Church of England every 4 years. We are a week later this year. This has to do with different calendars and is quite complicated, but if you are interested in reading about why, then this is a good link that explains. The Gregorian calendar

But don’t say I didn’t warn you!

In a pickle

Whilst out olive picking I surreptitiously fill a bag with olives to take home. I want to try pickling my own olives this year. My good intention is to give all my friends and family a homemade hamper for Christmas. Homemade chutneys, flavoured olive oil and cured olives. I might even marinade them.

Of course my mother in law has been curing olives for centuries years. But I don’t ask her how to do it. I ask Google. And Facebook. I don’t ask her because I’m scared she will only give me half the story. Miss out the secret ingredient that makes hers so delicious. Like she did when I asked for her Pastitsio recipe. Or the Dolmades recipe. So when I make them they turn out a mere shadow of her version.

‘What are you going to do with those olives?’ she asks me the next day.

‘Hmm? Oh yes! The olives. I meant to ask you, how do you cure them?’

 ‘Give them to me, I’ll do them for you.’ No family recipes will be imparted today. But she catches my reticence, ‘Just put them in water. And add some salt.’

 Basically, there are two ways you can pickle them according to my googled results, but I must watch out for botulism. (That wouldn’t be a very nice Christmas gift, would it?) You can put them straight into brine after slitting them. Or you can put them into fresh water, changing it every day for a week, and then put them in brine. I try both. I obsessively watch for slime (botulism) So far so good.

Lunch at my mother in laws today. Pastitsio, greek salad and a plate of olives.

‘How are yours coming along?’ she asks me. She can’t keep the smile from her face.

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