Greek Salad and Milk Bars.
The ingredients for my Greek salad are sitting pretty on the shelves of the green grocers now. It is a favorite in our household and naturally we prepare it in the Greek cooking classes. It’s a salad mixture of the best sweetest tomatoes, the shiniest and juiciest cucumbers, succulent green capsicums, salad onions, fragrant oregano, Kalamata olives and feta cheese all doused generously with good olive oil and red wine vinegar (I like to skip a couple of countries and use Spanish Sherry vinegar).
Greek salad also stirs up mixed memories for me. My first job when I left school while I was waiting for my chefs apprenticeship was waitressing at a Greek café in Taree. The cafe was called the Plaka and was run by George Mavris and his family. It had an espresso machine that had brass pipes and I can remember that steam shot out of it in all directions. Actually I was quite scared of it as the machines weren’t common place in those days and didn’t have many safety features. I made milk shakes from the milk that came in bulk and that was stored in stainless steel containers in the bench with flip top lids and ladled out. My caramel malted milkshake addiction started there. Patrons would come for the mixed grill, rump steak, schnitzel and plate size snapper all served with a large bowl of the famous Greek salad.
I then moved on to a chef’s apprenticeship and I heard that the Mavris family moved to Sydney and operated a café in Strathfield. Sadly in 1991 the during the Strathfield massacre , a gunman opened fire in a shopping centre and murdered six people and I was devastated to hear that George was a victim.
Greeks contributed tremendously to Australian cuisine. The restaurants have exotic sounding dishes like tzatziki, souvlaki, spanakopita and saganaki just to name a few. But their real contribution to Australian culture started around 80 years ago when they introduced the milk bar to Australian country towns. That’s right – it wasn’t Americans serving coke, milkshakes and ice cream in cones it was the Greeks. The cafes and milk bars were open for long hours to accommodate all of the out of towners that came in to town for the cattle sales, the markets and to get their town business done. They could get sandwiches or a hot meal any time of the day.
Milkshakes in the US were sold in drugstores and pharmacies to help people consume their bitter medicine. In Australia milkshakes became popular but in a in a more appealing environment as they were sold in milk bars and cafes. One of the earliest Greek milk bars was opened in Martin Place in 1932 and apparently five thousand people turned up and the police had to be called in to block the roads to traffic.
Other things that I adore about Greek food is its simplicity. Garlic, lemon and a few herbs go a long way. Their filo pastry is a favorite and I use it a lot in the cooking school as a wrap, and as a simple and easy base for pies and tartlets. Spinach and silver beet are made more palatable with the addition of feta, herbs and egg in a spinach triangle. The squeaky, creamy haloumi cheese is delicious pan fried and eaten with a squeeze of lemon. If I can’t obtain my haloumi and feta cheese from Witches Chaise, I use Brisbane made Olympus brand available from IGA.
I will be making Greek salad for dinner tonight. It will be full of memories of milk bars, youth and my introduction to olives and feta. I will give thanks to the Greek community and what they have given us. Most importantly I will raise a glass to my first employer George. RIP.
March 08, 2017 / Uncategorized / thechef