The path to paradise begins in hell. -Dante Alighieri
Each time I go to Greece it's as if I fall under a magical spell. It's a place of pristine blue skies, endless sunshine and food that fills both my heart and my belly with nothing but joy. I feel like myself, as well as a better, more relaxed version of myself; I swim laps and count my bania (swims), wear little to no makeup, constantly smell of sunscreen and sip icy chocolate drinks on the beach. Last summer, my time there was the high point of my vacation and, this summer, I can't help but feel the same. It is the country where I bid farewell to my dissertation once and for all; although I have many reasons to love Greece, for that reason alone it will always be one of my favorite places.
While I'll admit that it's rather unorthodox to go on vacation with one's dissertation, this was never really part of the plan. Circumstances transpired to make it necessary, so I really had no choice but to roll with the punches. And, to put it mildly, there were a lot of punches in those final weeks. At first, it seemed horrible to me to have to write and work surrounded by so much beauty. I quickly discovered, however, that there was something to said for taking your work on vacation; I had a responsibility to try and enjoy myself. There were few opportunities to wallow; I couldn't let things bother me as much as they might have had I been sitting in a library. Plus, there was a certain freedom in going for an early afternoon swim and then returning to work (of course, I missed many a siesta opportunity, but I've always been a bad napper anyway. Even once I finished, while the Greek and his family would sleep, I chose to become lost in Tudor England thanks to Wolf Hall).
In a way, in the final days of dissertation writing, I achieved the kind of work/life balance that I've always wanted for myself. Greece should find a way of working this into its tourism ads; I think many a dissertator would happily succumb to its magic. As it turned out, the summer house in Pteleos/Ftelio, which I wrote about last July, proved the ideal place for relaxing and working. There were daily breakfasts of sweet and savory cheese pies on the veranda, post-swim afternoon lunches of fresh fish at Ourania next to the beach and then my nightly sojourn onto the patio to try to capture the scenery. I don't know how many sunsets or dusky seaside evenings I snapped photos of, but the view never got old.
At the summer house, I also did my sole bit of "cooking." I use quotation marks because what I prepared was a fruity summer drink--a Watermelon Mint Shrub--which is not really cooking at all. It was, however, my only opportunity to play in the kitchen and one that I relished. Although a Persian recipe from one of my favorite and most used cookbooks of the year, I felt that Greece, the land of watermelon, was the right place to try and make it; the drink was everything I had hoped it would be: light, refreshing and a pleasant combination of sweet and sour. The appeal of the shrub is that it's alcohol free and simple to make (I will provide the recipe at the end of the post); once you have the fruity base, you can just mix it with ice and water. Of course, because I was in Greece and Pteleos is a small seaside village, I had to make modifications; I used plain old apple vinegar instead of cider vinegar and, unfortunately, the local grocer, Giorgos (a linguistic fun fact: this name is pronounced Yourgos; in Greek, a Gi/Gy sounds like a Yi) didn't sell any in his shop. As a testament to the kindness of the Greek people, he brought some to us at the house from his own personal garden. It wasn't a full cup--not even close--but it gave it an herbal twist all the same.
All good things must come to an end, however. After four glorious days at the summer house, we left and headed to Thessaloniki. At this point, I was still not done with the dissertation--not even close. Although one committee member liked the first draft of the introduction, the others felt it wasn't up to snuff. So before I would go anywhere or do anything, I would sit at the house, writing and revising; come evening, after a new draft was sent off, I would go with the Greek and meet some of his old friends. One day the Greek, his parents and I went to Chalkidiki, to the second of the three "legs," Sithonia, to visit the summer house of a couple that that Greek's parents are quite friendly with.
This day was a true highlight. We went out on the couple's boat to swim in some of the bluest water I've ever seen. It was so peaceful and quiet there; with the wind whipping through my hair and a collection of seashells in my lap, this was one of the most carefree days I've experienced this year.
Our lovely hostess, Fani, is an avid swimmer and was determined to find some fresh oysters for us to sample. These oysters were orange, vibrant and unlike anything I had ever seen before in the world of oysters; I imagine that, even if I live to be 100, I will never have such fresh oysters again. She shucked them for us on the boat, cleaned them in her goggles (this is her routine and one that serves her well), pulled a lemon out of her bag and voila, the oysters were served! This is why I feel so fortunate whenever I go to Greece; I am both a tourist and a kind of insider. I feel like I get to see and experience things that are not part of the average trip to Greece.
Even after we got off the boat, the day continued to feel more than a little enchanted. The Greek's mother had told Fani that I was interested in Greek cooking; this bit of information led to the best moussaka, eggplant casserole, that I've ever eaten in my life. I've never featured this recipe on this blog and I don't think I could or would--at least not until I've gotten Fani's recipe. She made three different versions in one pan in my honor: one with mushrooms and peppers, one with minced meat and one with potatoes. And the moussaka was just the icing on the cake; there were cherry tomatoes from her garden, tzatziki, an eggplant and feta salad, bread and Rapsani wine, which complemented the richness of the meal perfectly. A picture of our feast in all of its glory is the first image in this post.
There was a lot of laughter that afternoon and, too many pieces of moussaka later, it was already dusk. I felt a bit like poor Cinderella, whose carriage was about to turn back into a pumpkin.
I still feel in a celebratory mood. I understand that it may sound dramatic, but believe me when I say that my liberation is complete. Cheers to freedom--either with this lovely pink watermelon shrub or with whatever your drink of choice is on this summer Sunday afternoon!
Watermelon Mint Shrub
As I mentioned earlier, cider vinegar is preferable for this recipe. If you don't have it on hand, however, I suggest adding a little more honey or sugar to sweeten the drink.
While I liked the taste of the final product as it was, the three Greek recipe tasters all wanted a sweeter drink; the Greek and his mother both added some additional sugar to their second round of tasting and I think they preferred this version to the first. If you're not a fan of vinegar in any form, like the Greek's father, this drink may never be for you, although I still think it's worth a try.
I also think that a full cup of freshly chopped herbs (the original recipe calls for mint, but basil, lemon thyme or even lemon verbena might make for interesting substitutes) offers a welcome boost of flavor, but, again, be creative with what you have on hand--even in terms of fruit. I used three tablespoons and was satisfied with the result. As I see it, the shrub is eternally forgiving.
As for what you can do with the pickled watermelon, I suggest tossing it into a salad with arugula and feta and making a dressing out of the shrub concentrate, olive oil and maybe a tablespoon of creme fraiche. Why let it go to waste?
3 cups water, plus more for serving (when serving, sparkling water can be substituted for still)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup good-quality honey (plus 1/3 cup more, or a few tablespoons of granulated sugar, if you like a sweeter drink)
6 cups coarsely chopped watermelon
1 cup freshly chopped spearmint
1 cup cider vinegar
ice cubes, for serving
-In a small saucepan, bring the 3 cups water and sea salt to a boil. Add the honey, stirring until dissolved and then remove from heat.
-Combine the watermelon and mint in a large bowl, then stir in the contents of the saucepan. Let cool to room temperature.
-Once cool, add the vinegar and stir. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and steep in the refrigerator overnight.
-Strain the mixture into a jar or pitcher and set the pickled watermelon aside. The mixture should keep for up to a week.
-To serve, pour 1/4 cup of the watermelon concentrate into a glass filled with ice and dilute with 3/4 cup water (still or sparkling). Garnish the glass with fresh watermelon and/or cucumber and mint.
-Enjoy on a hot day and feel pleasantly refreshed!