Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hiding on the Pier, Laughing with Sardines.

I went to the market the other day and spotted fresh sardines. It had been years since I'd had them freshly cooked instead of eaten from a tin, adorning my morning toast.

I have a romance with food. It takes me places. Even on my travels my greatest memories are inextricably linked around food. Gelato and chianti in Roma. Baguettes, Nutella crepes and bowls of hot chocolate in Paris. The juiciest nectarines I'd ever had in my life from Barcelona. And sardines in Greece.

Cooking takes me back to these places, and buying fresh ingredients from a market is cheaper than an airfare.

Today for lunch I cooked the sardines. It reminded me of my childhood, visiting my grandparents. As Greek immigrants they'd operated a popular fish'n'chips shop in South Melbourne in the 1960s. At home they would always be cooking up fish, the pair of them dancing away at the frying pans filled with whitebait and sardines. It reminded them of their seaside life in the land they'd left behind.

My beloved Grandmother, affectionately known as Mitsa, passed away just over a month ago, at the stunning age of 92. Today I paid homage to her in my kitchen as I scaled the plump little fish, chopped off their heads and slid my two thumbs down the lines of their stomach, ripping their little guts out. I'm sure Yiayia would have been proud.

(Although, I wish I'd worn gloves. After gutting 1 kg of fish, I washed my hands with soap 3 times, slathered on antibacterial hand sanitizer, layered on lavender handcream and rinsed them in lemon juice and THEY STILL STINK!).

I lightly floured them and popped them in a pan to fry in olive oil for a couple of minutes each side until golden and, voila! Lunch is served!

Which reminded me also of the time I found myself hiding out on a pier, laughing in the company of sardines. Intrigued? Read on...

You may have heard the story of how I met my husband? I was on holiday in Greece, we met at a bachelor party? Not familiar with this romance? You can read it here.
Anyway, after a whirlwind romance, I said goodbye to my life in Australia and hello to new beginnings in a seaside town in northern Greece. For 2 years my darling and I ran a tavern by the sea. Think fried calamari, grilled octopus, saganaki cheese, chargrilled prawns, mussels poached with fresh tomato and feta cheese, fried zucchini chips, tzatziki, roasted eggplant, souvlaki skewers, I was cooking it all, baby!
By the end of our 2nd year in the tavern, tragedy struck with the loss of my father-in-law. It saw us sell the business so we could help out my mother-in-law.

Things in Greece were starting to get tough economically. Work was sparse and what was available didn't pay very well. My husband was approached to manage a restaurant at a nearby resort while I found  a job as a kitchen hand with my sister-in-law at a local beachside tavern. My wages were 18 euros a day for shifts that could last up to 10 hours. Slim pickings but these were desperate times.

My time there was joyfilled, surrounded by woman from various backgrounds. Aside from my sister-in-law, there was Georgia from the country of Georgia, a big bulky woman with short blonde hair, and Peppa, a motherly little lady with brigh red hair and blue eye-liner. She was from Bulgaria. She looked so much like Mrs Garrett from the TV show 'Facts of Life'.

Mrs Garrett from the 'Facts of Life'
Peppa had hands that must have been made of iron. When it was time to change the oil, she would grab the searing hot frying pan, lunge it into the sink and wash it while it must have been a million degrees. "Peppa!", I'd exclaim, horrified, "How can you do that? You'll burn yourself!" She'd laugh, exposing her teeth with gold fillings."Peppa, strong! Best way to clean pan is when hot! See?!" And she was right. The muck would just slide right off.

One afternoon, the tavern's phone rang. It was another restaurant warning the owner that inspectors were in the area checking for illegal workers. Everyone that wasn't on the books or insured by the restaurant owner had to flee until the inspectors left the area. I wasn't an illegal immigrant like Georgia or Peppa, as I had dual citizenship, but I wasn't on the proprietor's books so he wouldn't have to pay me insurance.

So there I was. Hiding out on a pier like a fugitive, among the bobbing little boats and sunkissed, stubbly fishermen. Peppa, with her radiant auburn bouffant, had smuggled out cucumbers and was offering them around. Georgia was puffing away on cigarettes and flirting with the fishermen. 
And me? I was dazzled by pools of shimmering sardines, golden flecks beaming in the sunlight, the situation was comedic. Crunching on a cucumber I laughed joyously to myself, "Only in Greece......".

Have you ever worked overseas? Any crazy stories to share?
Do you love sardines? How do you like to eat them?

1 comment:

iliana said...

OMG! This post started so yummy, switched to curious and ended refreshingly mischievous :) I love sardines - grilled, then sprinkled with olive oil, lemon juice and fresh parsley :) As for working overseas - yes, ever since Christmas Day of 1999…time flies, and yes, lots of stories to share, but none so colorful and fun :)

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