Few Greeks are left to remember what happened 72 years ago this month, when, after the Greek Army repulsed the invading Italians at the start of World War II, Nazi troops invaded the country on April 6, 1941 and entered Athens three weeks later despite unrelenting resistance and bravery that is still spoken of and heard in songs from the time.
It marked a brutal occupation of reprisals, atrocities and starvation as the Nazis stripped the land and stores for food for their own troops, leaving many Greeks on their own, and to scavenge for what became simple delicacies, such as a single baked onion shared by young friends.
The gourmet dishes during the Axis Occupation in Greece included donkey heads, stew herbs, tomato sauce and sardines, and even grass and dandelions. Within a very short time, the food disappeared and hunger became a constant companion of the Greek population resulting in approximately 40,000 deaths in the winter of 1941-42.
The current economic crisis in the country has forced thousands of people to visit food banks and soup lines again, getting their meals from charity, mainly the Greek Orthodox Church that has stepped into a breech left by the government, which offers virtually no help to those affected by big pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions demanded by international lenders in return for $325 billion in two bailouts to rop up the economy.
Austerity measures have cut into the ability of many Greeks to eat properly and they’ve had to alter their habits, and nothing is left to waste these days and leftovers have come a staple and given today’s Greeks a sense of what it was like for their families seven decades ago.
A book released two years ago entitled, Recipes of Hunger, Life in Athens During the Occupation (Oxygen Editions) presented research conducted by Helen Nikolaidou, a teacher and author of scientific books on food sources available to Greeks in Athens during World War II.
WAR FOOD RECIPES
Back then, herbs were the basic of all salty recipes, while raisins were in every kind of desert due to their high caloric value. “Take the tomatoes, if you find them, make them smooth, then boil and then add the olives: five to six olives for every family member. There, you have a a delicious soup that you had not thought of before. ” Such recipes were described by daily newspapers during the Occupation, as shortages of products, astronomical prices and the black market made survival difficult and starvation an imminent threat.
If someone had leftovers from the noon beans casserole dish, famous Greek chef Nikolaos Tselementes suggested through his newspaper column: “Chop the leftovers, pour them into the pot, add some water, put some olives and prepare the soup.” In her research Nikolaidou presents all details of the harsh daily life in Athens along with more than seventy pages of recipes that people used at the time.
Cooked beans without beans, vlitokeftedes, Viennese ‘Nockerln’ made of potatoes, cabbage with chestnuts, mashed aubergines, zucchini stuffed with trahana, spinach pilaf, orange marmalade with no sugar, tea orange are some of the recipes of the time.
All these recipes were called “war food” and helped in saving many lives. Nikolaidou consulted an extensive bibliography to complete her research including three newspapers of the time, the Athenian News, Kathimerini and Vradyni. She also recorded the key events that occurred right after the surrendering of Athens, the three governments (Tsolakoglou, Logothetopoulos, Rallis) period, the first strikes by public employees, the first partisan actions and the mass executions.
The book reveals stories from a traditional neighborhood in Omonoia Square, where patisseries sold sweets made of various dangerous ingredients. Soap was scarce those days, and crooks would sell a new kind of soap that would destroy clothes and make you even dirtier than before. At weddings people would use black koufeta (sugar coated almonds that are normally white in color) made of burnt sugar. Book prices skyrocketed, cars were requisitioned and donkeys served as the new means of transport before ending up being slaughtered for their meat.
During holidays the people of Athens would not exchange gifts but small portions of food, whatever everyone had and could give away. During the first winter after the Occupation began, cats and dogs quite reasonably disappeared from the city, while donkeys would get sold as beef meat and horses were easily included in the menu for the lucky ones.
(Original story in Greek by Nikos Ioannou, available at 24grammata.com)