It’s hard to believe the changes that have taken place in Athens since my last visit in June. The whole city is for rent, prices of soft commodities are 3 times what they are in other countries (6 organic eggs €4.60 versus €1.55 in Berlin). Tax after tax is thought up and levied, the newest one – a 4 per square meter property tax paid yearly, if your flat is 100 sqm, you pay 400. That is on top of car taxes, pool taxes, VAT of 23%. I’m even at a loss for my fictitious “if I lived here, I would open a…” scenarios. Right now, there is nothing I can imagine opening. Sure, every other shop is for rent but let’s say I opened a cake shop, a Victoria Sponge would cost me about €8 euros to make, if I were to then apply the industry standard mark up of 3x, I would have to sell it for €24.I invited my girlfriends over for lunch, like I always do. The mood was sober, these are young, talented, intelligent women who went to the same international school as I did. They were not / are not trying to cheat the system, a simplistic retort that people like to throw around in tandem with “Well, whatchadya expect?”, but they don’t have a single opportunity. To the point that one even closed her Etsy shop because she couldn’t afford to pay the taxes, on her Etsy shop! The mind boggles.
In the once boisterous coffee shops, people talk in hushed voices, even the motorcycles are quieter, it’s eerie. I find the Greeks themselves softer, like they’ve spent an extended period of time being rolled back and forth in the waves until their sharp edges have been filed down to smooth curves, like a sea glass you want to run your fingers over.It’s only at the beach that the mood lightens up. Avlaki beach, the same beach I’ve been going to since I was a little girl. With a mountain range that looks like a reclining dog, minus its head. Not a thing has changed in 25 years (except for the prices and that people now smoke rollies instead of Marlboro or Camels), they still sell greasy cheese pies and Frappés so strong they give me heart palpitations. There are fat, thick legged children building sand castles as best as they can with the impediment of arm floaties. Whole families show up, grandmothers with epic breasts and backsides and, if they’ve survived 50 years of hen picking, their usually emaciated husbands, a few sprightly hairs dancing around on their otherwise bald heads. This is the Greece I remember growing up in.
I’ve got the chorus from Eddy Grant’s song stuck in my head right now, except instead of Joana, I’ve substituted Pandora. It totally works. Try it. “Gimme hope Pand’ora, hope Pand’ora,’Fore the morning come, Gimme hope, Pand’ora, Hope, Pand’ora. Hope before the morning come..”
What can I say? In times of crisis, all one can do is be silly and bake and think of this (now) humourous story my sister read to me from The Secret Lives of Buildings that illustrates the tenacity and pride of the Greeks:
“The Acropolis was besieged twice during those fourteen years; and it is said that during one siege the Turks, searching for iron to make bullets, started to break open the remaining marbles of the temple, hoping to find the metal clamps with which ancients had bound the stones of the building together. The Greeks were so horrified at this violation that they sent their enemies a consignment of ammunition, so that they could continue the battle without despoiling the building.”It’s coming to the end of fig season here, my sister and I foraged quite a few from overhanging branches in the neighborhood, they were small, red, the color of aged beef, hard to improve on in their natural state.
For my girls, I made a simple cheesecake with Greek yogurt and Philadelphia cheese. This cheesecake with a fresh curd cheese, like the one we used to get from The Dairy House in Weobley at Melrose and Morgan is pure ambrosia but it’s impossible to come by, even in the UK. Philadelphia cheese on the other hand, has taken over the world. I think right now if you’ve got some money to invest it should go into Gold, the Swiss Franc and Philadelphia cheese, in that order.Gad! Am I prone to wander! Can you imagine me in my senile years? I apologise in advance to my future minder, who will have to chase me, as I run around bare bottomed with my adult diapers on my head.
Cheesecake. I stewed some fresh figs in orange juice and sugar, until they turned jammy. I stirred those into the tops of my unbaked cheesecakes. Baked them until they were just cooked and then served them with quarters of fresh peeled figs, a drizzle of Greek honey, slivers of toasted almonds, a spoon full of Greek yogurt and a few tiny flowers from the wild flowering basil the lady had tucked gratuitously into my bag at the market.
It ended up looking pretty fancy, which is what I was going for. It’s a good recipe to have on hand when you are cooking in someone else’s kitchen and missing most of your kit. You can eyeball the quantities of the cheese and yogurt. At a push, you could whip up the mix by hand, as long as everything was at room temperature. For best results, substitute whatever soft or stone fruit is in season.
Hopeful article in Time magazine: When Economies Fail: Inside Greece’s Great Urban Exodus
Fresh Fig Cheesecake
(Makes 10 individual cakes in a muffin pan)
40ml butter melted, plus extra for tin
70g digestive biscuits , made into fine crumbs 1 tbsp sugar
5 figs and a further 2 per person to serve fresh
1/2 a cup orange juice
3 tablespoons sugar
450g full fat soft cheese (Philadelphia is good)
125g caster sugar
1 & 1/2 tbsp plain flour
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon (about 2 tsp)
1! tsp lemon juice
2 large eggs
100g Greek yogurt
1. Take all your ingredients out and let them get to room temperature.
2. Meanwhile, peel and chop the figs, add them to a small pan with the orange juice and sugar and simmer until they just start to fall apart and the liquid thickens.
3. Position an oven shelf in the middle of the oven. Pre-heat the oven to fan 180°C. Brush a 12 hole muffin pan with melted butter. Cut out 10 large strips of baking parchment, and position into the depressions so that you can use them to lift out the individual cheesecakes afterwards.
4. For the crust, melt the butter in a medium pan. Stir in the biscuit crumbs and sugar so the mixture is evenly moistened. Press the mixture into the bottom of 10 of the muffin pans and bake for 5 minutes. Cool on a wire rack while preparing the filling.
5. With a mixer, beat the soft cheese at medium-low speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low, gradually add the sugar, then the flour and a pinch of salt, scraping down the sides of the bowl.
6. Continue by adding the vanilla, lemon zest and juice. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl and whisk at least twice. Stir the 100ml of yogurt until smooth, but don’t over-beat. The batter should be smooth, light and somewhat airy.
7. Pour in the filling – if there are any lumps, sink them using a knife – the top should be as smooth as possible. Add a spoonful of cooked figs to each cheesecake and swirl. Bake for 5 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to fan 110ºC and bake for 10 minutes more. If you gently shake the tin, the filling should have a slight wobble. Let cool to room temperature and then leave in the fridge overnight.
8. To release, run a knife along the side, going all the way down so you also loosen the biscuit base, and use the parchment paper to gently prise out each cheesecake
9. Serve with peeled and quartered figs, greek yogurt, honey and toasted flaked almonds.