Wake up and smell the lemons
An extract from Costa Ayiotis’s new book: Greek Taverna — From Diplomacy to Ouzo
Hout Bay, 1997
A little lemon juice makes everything taste better— Unknown.
When life gives you lemons, you start cooking. A French cook will take a basket of lemons and make a sublime tarteau citron with a flaky crust and a custard filling that finds the perfect balance between the tart and sweet notes. An American cook will make a refreshing lemonade to quench her thirst on a hot summer’s day and a lemon meringue pie to go with her afternoon coffee on the veranda. Give an English cook lemons and she’ll make a lemon syllabub. If she’s had a tough day in the kitchen, she’ll pour herself gin and tonic with a twist of lemon. Or if her grandparents had grand colonial pretensions from the last convulsions of the Raj, she’ll pour gin, lemon juice, syrup and egg white into a cocktail shaker and top it with club soda to make a refreshing gin fizz.
This was the drink that cooled down the wilting memsahibs among their transplanted rose gardens at the hill stations in the foothills of the Himalayas, where they went to escape the oppressive summer heat. An Italian cook will first think about which antipasti can be served with lemon, and which pasta will make a perfect second act, before finally preparing a classic veal scallopini piccata while sipping on a homemade limoncello.
What does a Greek cook do? He makes an avgolemono — egg and lemon soup, also known as yiayia’s penicillin — and then does what crosses the mind of every Greek at some point in their life. He throws caution to the winds, opens a Greek taverna in a sleepy fishing village on the southern tip of Africa and calls it Lemonia.
For most cooks, the holy trinity is salt, butter and sugar. For Greek cooks, it’s olive oil, oregano and lemon juice. Greek cuisine would be unthinkable without lemons. They provide a distinctive flavour, along with olive oil, oregano and garlic. The Greeks may have had an ancient and enduring love affair with lemons, but they’re also prone to exaggeration and spontaneous passionate outbursts.
Once upon a time, a brave young man had the audacity to blurt out to a Greek taverna proprietor: “I don’t like lemon in my food!” The proprietor was stunned, as if he’d been struck by a lightning bolt unleashed from Mount Olympus by Zeus himself. It would have helped matters if he had the aloofness of a ballerina or the dignified, mournful detachment of an undertaker, but he didn’t. He was Greek, and Greeks are temperamental and volatile by nature. Their blood boils over like an unattended copper briki of Greek coffee. The proprietor threw his hands up in despair, just like Zorba the Greek would have done, and gave full vent to his feelings.
“What do you mean you don’t like lemons? Greek cooking is unthinkable without lemons. Sun-ripened lemons give flavour to fish, calamari, lobster, crayfish, sausages, vegetables, dolmathes and chicken. Lemon rind lifts the flavour of sautéed vegetables. On grilled lamb chops, the acid cuts the fat. Lemon peel with baklava cuts the sweetness of the syrup. It even goes with fried cheese — saganaki. Lemon sorbet is the best palate cleanser in the world after a greasy meal. I could go on and on. Not to mention the many health properties of the noble fruit. The list of pairings with food and drinks is endless. Why, lemon goes with everything under the sun!”
Then his monologue meandered into one of his favourite subjects, ancient Greek history. In his biased mind, anything that had its origins in the cradle of Western civilisation was sacrosanct and could not be challenged by other cultures. “It was none other than Alexander the Great who, after invading Asia, discovered the lemon fruit called citron and sent samples back home to his tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. And the rest is history. Mediterranean cuisine was changed forever!”
Like a tortoise sensing danger, the young man tucked his head in a few notches, seeking shelter from the madman in front of him. He had touched a raw nerve! That madman was me. It was a tactless tirade in an unhinged moment, unworthy of a former diplomat. Unable to curb my enthusiasm for lemons and contain my frustration with a fussy customer, the urge to berate him like Basil Fawlty often did in Fawlty Towers became irresistible, which is never a good idea if you want repeat customers.
The television comedy that paid homage to sarcasm, manic chaos and farce helped me blow off a little steam when I felt overwhelmed and thought that things were spiralling out of control. Restaurants, like life itself, are sometimes theatres of the absurd. Sybil, Basil’s long-suffering wife, reprimands him after one of his manic outbursts: “You never get it right, do you? You’re either crawling all over them licking their boots or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puffadder!” To which he replies with indignation: “I’m just trying to enjoy myself!” Fortunately, my Fawlty-like outbursts at the tables were rare and never motivated by malicious intent. Most of the time, diplomacy reigned supreme and suppressed my more theatrical and anarchic urges, which were largely confined to the kitchen.
Young Stelios, my beloved only son, became my most difficult customer. One day, after I squeezed lemon juice over sizzling hot, charcoal-grilled lamb chops straight off the fire, he complained, “Baba! I don’t like lemon juice on my chops! In fact, I don’t like lemon on anything!” I was rendered speechless for a moment, as if I’d been slapped in the face with a wet octopus!
Then, to rub salt in the wounds, he added: “And I also hate olives!” It’s a sad fact of life that those closest to you hurt you the most. When I recovered my composure, I asked him: “Are you sure your taste buds are Greek? Your mother’s Dutch genes are responsible for this defect!” Even when it came to cheeses, young Stelios preferred mild soft cheeses like gouda to the sharper, harder cheeses from Greece and Italy. To redeem himself, he loved eating creamy feta and grilled halloumi — and all was well again in the realm.
To make sure that no-one could question my loyalty to the versatile lemon, we planted two lemon trees in large terracotta pots on either side of the entrance to our restaurant. We filled a large Santorini-blue glass bowl with lemons and placed it on a blue metal taverna table at our front door to greet our customers. That is how our restaurant, Lemonia Greek Taverna in the Republic of Hout Bay, got its name.
In planting the lemon trees, I was following a family tradition started by my father. He believed every home needed a lemon tree to provide lemons for the kitchen, an olive tree for peace in the home and a pomegranate tree to bring wealth and abundance. “Lemonia” has two meanings in Greek. If the accent falls on the “a”, it means the lemon tree; if the accent falls on the “o”, it means lemons. Our Cape Anglo customers, who were more English than the English from Brighton, added an extra vowel. On their languid tongues, it was drawn out to “Lemoania”.
Repeated attempts to correct them proved futile. This made me smile and think of Sybil’s whining voice. It’s exactly how she would have pronounced it. When I felt exhausted but content after a busy night in the taverna, I would stand outside on the veranda to cool down in the fresh evening breeze that came off the ocean. I would hold some freshly cut lemon peel or a crushed lemon leaf in my hand. The hit of citrus scent would give me an instant energy boost, and the occasional ouzo on the rocks would take off the edge. Sometimes I would squeeze a lemon repeatedly like a stress ball to release the cares of the day, which reminded me of a line from the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles: “One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day has been.”
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