Truffle Oil, Trahana and the Oracles of Delphi
How the Request for a Greek Breakfast Menu Turned into a Mirror of Misguided Intentions at the Delphi Economic Forum
Every morning when I walk my dog, fortunate enough to live in one of the more affluent suburbs of Athens, I see, without fail, an old person searching through the garbage. Sometimes there is more than one, at different bins.
They are mostly men, decently dressed, and they remind me of my 91-year-old father-in-law, a former lawyer who is blessed with good genes and a diminishing pension, which he is still able to live on because he is alone and lives very frugally. While he doesn’t need to support us, many of his peers, indeed, do support a network of younger family members who are unemployed. Stretched to the breaking point, the old scour the garbage for recyclables that might bring in a few extra euro or maybe even some food.
I am always tempted to talk to them, but am as embarrassed as they are to engage. Instead, we avoid eye contact and I concentrate on the pooch and the winter sunshine and focus on the day’s to-do list, glibly counting my own blessings.
So it was that on a recent morning, pooch in tow, I returned to find an interesting invitation in my inbox, from a young woman involved in organizing the forthcoming Delphi Economic Forum, a much-touted event here in Greece that brings together Greek and international luminaries in the fields of economics and politics. That this enlightened lot is largely the same cast of characters who brought Greece to its current abyss seems have gone largely unacknowledged by the organizers let alone by the speakers, but that’s a matter for another commentary altogether. This year’s theme is “Outlook for Greece and the Region Vision [sic] 2020 – 2030.” The subtext of the annual conference, a four-day affair, is the effort to address emerging challenges for Greece, influence the national and regional agendas and promote sustainable and socially responsible growth policies.
I was called upon to provide the most important meal of the day, breakfast. The mandate was simple enough: “We want the breakfast to be really high end and based on traditional Greek products from Delphi,” the young woman noted. Traditional, high-end food seemed like an oxymoron to me, but I figured I’d work it out. After all, one thing almost everyone here agrees with, from pundits to the hoi polloi, is that Greek food is one of the potential areas that might catapult (or nudge) the country out of its current mess. Highlighting local products at a gathering where participants offer their perspective on the solutions to Greece’s plight sends the right kind of message. “Local” also most often means sustainable, so the menu would be right on target.
Delphi was the center of the world to the ancient Greeks. The site was dedicated to Apollo, who was said to have killed the dragon, Python, there. It was home to the famous Oracle of Apollo, Pythia. The ancient world’s elite, before going to battle or establishing colonies, for example, sought her advice, which she parsed out in enigmatic hexameters, possessed by Apollo’s spirit, most likely as the result of inhaling an intoxicating brew of trance-inducing vapors.
Today, Delphi and the Temple of Apollo are one of the centers of Greek tourism. The region is also home to pastoral traditions manifested to this day in its food culture. None of these is remotely “high-end.”
Stretching out below Delphi is one of the densest, most renowned olive groves in Greece, a million trees strong, carpeting a gorgeous, lush valley. It is here that one of the country’s most famous and commercially important table olives is produced, the Amfissa, the predominant variety of the region, plump, greenish-brown, and juicy.
Delphi is in the heart of Roumeli, central mainland Greece, not too far from the Gulf of Corinth. Husbandry has been the main profession for centuries, and in nearby towns such as Livadia, once-itinerant Greek shepherd tribes settled. It’s the land of spit-roasted lamb and goat, innards decked with oregano and glistening on an open fire, savory pies, the culinary jewels of shepherd cuisine, cheeses, and various pasta products. Hilopites, or Greek noodles, are a tradition here, paired beautifully with some of those roasted lambs. Amfissa, nearby, produces the most goat’s milk of any region in Greece. In the summer, traditional cooks busy themselves with an ancient preparation, trahana, best described as a kind of sour-milk or yogurt-based dried granular pasta. Greens abound. Feta is the king of the local cheese world, usually referred to simply as “cheese,” so prevalent is its place on the table. Graviera, a mild, nutty sheep’s milk cheese, is also produced, and in nearby Arahova, now a chic ski resort, the cheese of choice is the mild, cylindrical formaella, bestowed with Protected Designation of Origin status.
Believing these to be the ingredients I was to work with, I set about creating a breakfast menu. A few savory pies were on it, in particular one favorite, called Avgopita, or Egg Pie, a combination of eggs, graviera cheese and feta, wrapped in comforting phyllo pastry. I thought to the breakfasts of yore, before the advent of EU subsidies made shepherds lazy by rewarding them with a per-head grant and industrial feed for their animals. Waking before dawn, these hardy men once needed hearty sustenance and the traditional breakfast was a porridge of thick, deliciously sour trahana, enriched with feta or their own sheep’s milk yogurt. I suggested the same, with a smattering of garnishes that included some of the local olives creatively mashed into high-end fodder with the help of some herbs.
I recalled one of the most unusual baklava recipes I’d ever encountered, from nearby Itea, which was an ersatz, poor-man’s version, made with chick peas instead of pricey nuts. It was delicious and ingenious, but too far a leap for this crowd, so I settled on a baklava-inspired topping for oatmeal instead. In some subconscious corner of my mind I must have been thinking that wheat, a calming food, would be welcomed among these high-stress, high-end pundits.
My menu then veered to more modern traditions, make-your-own omelets with an array of local ingredients as filler, from olives to cheeses, herbs, local sausages and seasonal vegetables. I wanted to install a Greek yogurt bar, yogurt being the best-known Greek food abroad as well as inherently local in these parts. Seasonal fruits, nuts, raisins from Corinth across the Gulf, and a spin on the local olive in candied form were some of my suggested toppings. An assortment of breads that would have taken their cue from local traditions as well as various classic and borderless egg dishes rounded out my ideas for the breakfast of champions.
I pressed send.
A few days later I was surprised by the reply and request of the newly minted young professional who had originally communicated with me.
She asked if I could produce a different, particular menu, the contents of which she included. It was a selection of very specific plates, obviously someone else’s creative work. I guessed that this unidentified creator must have asked for a pundit-sized compensation. As a matter of principle, sorely lacking in her email, I declined, of course, but couldn’t help peeking at the “other” menu, which included ingredients only an inhalation of those Delphic vapors would make anyone imagine as local. Chanterelles, blueberries, avocados, asparagus, and sweet potatoes baked into muffins, all on the list, are produced nowhere near the ancient center of the world.
The clincher though was a very Gallic tarte with sautéed mushrooms, chevre and truffle oil. Nary a truffle near Delphi, let alone a facility for turning it into oil. Divine justice be praised, most of the stuff sold as truffle oil is not made from actual truffles. Instead most truffle oil is a synthetic product, in other words, a fake, but a high-end one. Befitting for such a gathering perhaps?
As for me, my pooch and the fertile ground that garbage bins provide, this morning I cooked up some porridge of the traditional, nutritional kind and I left it discreetly, in a small container, still warm, at the side of a bin with a note to any potential taker to enjoy and share it if possible. When I returned, dog in tow, it was gone.