Owing to the fact that by accident of parental migration I reside in Melbourne, akin to the vast majority of my fellow Melburnians, I happen to be what is described in the vulgar parlance, as a “foodie.” To wit, I am familiar with the use of a mortar and pestle for the purposes of grinding coriander seeds to dust, am not averse to utilising a grater to the ultimate end of producing shavings of Myristica Fragrans, otherwise referred to as nutmeg and can produce voluminous amounts of orange zest upon the drop of a fork. Furthermore, I can, when so enjoined, gently sear wagyu beef, bake a melange of autumnal vegetables, combine, fold and whip various confections into submission, provide a frisson of seasonal fruits in sorbet form and of course, nonchalantly drizzle my fusion of Thai aubergines and fasolia gigantes with a geometrically arranged pomegranate jus. I understand the ideology of and can quote three different schools of thought regarding the noble pursuit of ‘plating up,’ to the effect that I have attempted a synthesis of all competing philosophies on the subject via the coining of the maxim – “the smaller the portion, the higher it must perch precariously upon the plate.” I have rejected nouvelle cuisine as bourgeois and superseded and in its stead, have fervently espoused the consumption of such cuisines as are alternately “wicked” or “sumptuous” and moreover, I am able to identify ten significant differences between cipolla and borettane onions. If this were not enough, the unstoppable momentum of my foodist convictions have transcended into realms traditional and hitherto untouched, leading me inexorably into the regular imbibing of feta martinis, gormandizing on ‘Cypriot’ ravioles in Byzantine sauce, banqueting on baklava soufflé while waxing lyrical on the multifarious textures of the chickpea and of course, secreting subtle quantities of aniseed into my Helleniko kafe, a heinous crime for which my incensed progenitors will never forgive me. Ever.
Admittedly, the Greeks of Melbourne where foodists long before the advent of such gladiatorial cuisine contests as My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef. In particular, for families such as mine, which arrived in these climes prior to the mass migration of the sixties, ingenuity in the way of food was stretched to the limit as inspired attempts were made to approximate ingredients that the local inhabitants had never even heard of. Such attempts were invariably accompanied by sonorous incantations as to the superiority of Greek cuisine, tracing its provenance from the cookbook of Apicius to the Greek physician Aegimus, who wrote a book on the art of making cheesecakes («το πλακουντοποιικόν σύγγραμμα,») and beyond. Yet despite the plethora of Greek festivals devoted to comestibles in Melbourne (Γιορτή του Κρασιού, Γιορτή της Σαρδέλας, Γιορτή της Φασολάδας – also known as Beanfest 2013), Greek food has not been able to tantalise the culinary tastebuds of the epicures and gastronomes of the city, or enjoy exaltation to the extent that other cuisines such as Thai and Italian have. And this in spite of the fact that eight out of ten Greek restaurants in Melbourne still faithfully maintain the tradition of presenting Greek food in the form of offerings of burnt to charcoal meat, dips and dolmades fresh out of the can, just the way I like’m. Try as we might, we lack the requisite skills to “zhouzh up” our food and make it “sexy.”
While pondering the above and simultaneously perusing a magazine devoted to food just the other day (I read it for the articles), I came across a sealed section that I coveted immediately and thus took great pains to liberate from its staples and secure secretly upon my person. The offending publication? A small, glossy, artfully photographed booklet entitled “Olives from Spain: the Art of Dressing,” produced by the Trade Commission of Spain, it presented page after page of the most unheard of and joyous possibilities vis a vis the preparation of olives, Spanish of course. Now I had known from my own masterchef of a father that olives can be salted, kept in oil, served with chilly, lemon and coriander seeds but here, as terms such as gordal olives with pesto and salt cod, black olives with spicy orange dressing, gordal olives with goat’s cheese and honey and black olives with soft blue cheese and quince paste assailed my senses and imagination, causing me to secrete voluminous amounts of saliva, I became convinced that only the Spanish, with their extensive knowledge of tapas (which if Ambrose Bierce was to write his Devil’s Dictionary in Greek would undoubtedly be defined as a degree of intoxication where enough is definitely enough) and let’s face it, an olive cookbook, knew their olives. The booklet even directed the postulate to a webpage, devoted specifically to Spanish Olive Oil and olives for the Australian market, replete with history, gorgeous recipes and stomach teasingly beautiful photographs, in which the native reader is exhorted to: “Bring a bit of Spain into your Aussie kitchen.”
Compare this with the Greek advertisement for “Extra Olive Oil” hopefully supplied herein. This advertisement, rather than exhort the prospective consumer to get some Greek into ya, proudly and somewhat wordily proclaims that: “Branded olive oil guarantees to offer consumers all the goodness of olive oil, while providing a shield of protection.” Somewhere between evoking images of cattle branding and consequently worrying about my own posterior’s protection, this incoherent advertisement, featuring two containers of unbranded Altis olive oil is lost on me. Apparently, this advertisement, rather than promoting Greek olive oil, is merely encouraging one to acquire brand name oil. As far as I know, all readily available olive oil sold in Australia has a brand name appended to it, including Italian, Spanish and local varieties. Furthermore, this moronic advertisement is published (mercifully) not in the mainstream media where its pernicious effects are thus minimised but rather, in the local Greek press, where it is merely preaching to the converted mass who utilise olive oil on a daily basis anyway. It is a bold marketing strategy, based on inscrutability, unfathomability and incomprehensibility and in a Monty Pythonesque universe, it just may work.
Whereas the sophisticated Spanish olive campaign soothed and seduced me with a silken barrage upon my senses, the clumsy Greek attempt made me feel as awkward and unsure as a fifteen year old schoolboy who has tried and failed dismally to make good an opportunity to cop a feel. One wonders the manner of market research that is undertaken by the good people in the Greek trade commission, before they solicit European Union funds before they unleash such mediocrities from their metaphorical loins. In their short-sighted attempt to protect such appellations as feta, retsina and now olive oil, the Greeks fail to realise that people do not purchase foreign foodstuffs because of their brand name but rather, because of the flavours, connotations and images they evoke. What this particular advertisement evokes is, far from a land of tastes and flavours, an immense amount of insecurity.
In the meantime, inspired local chefs such as George Calombaris and John Rerakis continue their quest to exhibit the versatility, quality and excitement of Greek produce and cuisine to an increasingly appreciative broader community, regardless of the ineptitude of the Helladitic trade commissioners, to whom they could teach a thing or two. Perhaps if these lofty doyens of commerce condescended to engage local restaurateurs and producers, they could form an effective strategy that would see Greek produce make further inroads into the domestic market, at a time when greater exports are sorely needed. Perhaps, for the story that the marketing strategy of a Greek trade delegation in China a few years ago was summed up by a delegate as follows: "Εάν ο κάθε Κινέζος φάει έστω και μία ελιά..." is less than aprocryphal.
We leave you this week, dear reader, with the following culinary gem, an ode to a certain brand of feta, featured on a certain community radio station and dedicated to the Greek Trade Commission with affection:
τη δαγκάς και στο στόμα σου λιώνει.
Απ’ το μαντρί και ως τη στάνη,
κι απ’ του Βλάχου το χαρμάνι...»
Νow THAT is advertising.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 23 February 2013