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The Greek crisis seen by those who live it : chefs, vinemakers, brewers, coffee roasters and other craftsmen

I do not know what is the atmosphere during morning coffee time in ministers and party leaders HQ. For me, my half-Greek coffee is prepared as Greek but with a machine. I drink it alone in my office and I am enraged if someone (or something) ruins my first little pleasure of the day which is often the only one.

Petros Markaris, Expiring Loans, 2012.

 

Athiri restaurant in Athens, Thursday, April 9, 2015, 8:57 p.m. Out of 40 possible clients, only six people came dinner. The restaurant has a good reputation: once Michelin-starred it still holds a "Bib gourmand". It seems that this is not enough. "The economic crisis has a big impact on everybody in Greece" chefs Eleni Chliova-Bitzani and Alexandros Kardasis say. "As for us, we have tried to adapt in the most creative way possible. In 2011, we changed our menu by creating dishes by piece (2.5 to 4 euros) and declining prices in general. Of course it needs continual effort and work".

But why it has so few customers? "The mood is weird in Athens right now. There is a sense of uncertainty mixed with fear and it's true that some people are experiencing a very difficult situation," they said without explaining a lot. They very quickly want to explain that there is an other Greece. "Many people make some efforts and try to be positive. We believe this is the only way to get out of it." Specifically the quality of the plates has evolved. "Many young people often with a good scientific background are now turning to agriculture. So that we can find very good products, but we can even find better ones."

Athiri restaurant can summarize our Greece during spring 2015 : it may be the mirror of the country. Yes, crisis is undeniable. But they are a lot of people trying to get by, to bypass the difficulties, to swarm of ideas, to renew, to change their lives. If it gets stuck sometimes, often it works because they are doing what they love and they do it well. Probably we met the country best artisans, but they can show the way. During this trip in Greece last April, we traveled from Athens to Nafplio, from Kalamata to Galaxidi, from Delphi to Meteora, from Naoussa to Thessaloniki before returning to Athens in order to take the boat to Aegina and Santorini. We had contact with chefs, winemakers, wine merchants, brewers, farmers, coffee roasters, soap producers. It led to this observation: there are problems of course, but there are also solutions. According to French writer Raymond Dumay, gastronomy emerges from five geographical and social conditions that have to exist: wine, water, customers, condiment... and poverty. Without drawing a perfect parallel, we must recognize that the economic crisis is forcing Greeks to go out of their traditionnal lines and to move towards a better field.

Let's start by asking questions to one of the best ! Alexandre Rallis knows a lot about high-end Greek products. His company Profil Grec provides a wonderful olive oil and top-level citrus to the Parisian grocery Terroirs d'Avenir. Note that he was also our guide in the Peloponnese he loves so much.

His speech makes us feel optimistic on. "Our suppliers are companies that have grown with the crisis and they chose a farming and quality production. This allows them to be competitive against mass production". He talks for example about a high-end bottarga producer called Trikalinos, "one of the few producers who has a complete vision of his work, both in design and in the extreme quality of his work".

Now let's take a coffee, as a good example. Greece is an everytime coffee drinker.

The roasting company Loumidis has stores across the country. It was born because of a family split ; so not to be confused with the other coffee merchant Loumidis, very industrial, a Nestlé branch - you can recognize it by its logo : a parrot ("Papagalos"). Our Loumidis is somewhere between the micro-roaster and the big roaster: they sell 400 tons of coffee per year, it is a good deal. But the crisis is here. "It has impacted everyone. We have lost customers. Or a lot of people do'nt buy the products they used to. Concretely they no longer take 250g or 500g packages... They want coffee by weight for 1 or 2 euros only. They are looking for smaller quantities than before". In Greece, the traditional Turkish coffee, boiled and served with the mud, is called "Greek coffee" for political reasons - annexation of northern Cyprus by Turkey in 1974. Loumidis marketing officials admit they use the word "Greek" as if it was locally produced while beans come from Brazil. Moreover, in addition to the traditional range, Loumidis is looking for flavoring coffee with mastic or baklava ... Other ideas : the shops sale cakes, sweets, pastries coming from well-known Greek producers.

Giorgos Spinos is a new wave micro-roaster in Kalamata, Peloponnese. "The Greeks want a cafe with great taste and low prices." He also meets consumers who can only pay one euro for small quantity of coffee. But he wants to move away from tradition. He think about espresso and alternative ways of coffee consumption. With his French importer, he studies the geographic origin of its beans, a fairly uncommon way of thinking in Greece. In general, coffee beans for the traditional coffee come from Brazil, Rio Minas area. But our man thinks it's time to focus on something else. Besides, it leads seminars to learn chefs, bartenders and hotel workers how to serve good coffee. For 2 years, he hosted some tasting workshops for clients. And when all is about crisis, people prefer to take coffee at home rather than outside : so they buy from a roaster. All these issues make that his little shop in Kalamata does not weaken, on the contrary. But he's angry with customers who do not pay or timorous banks which do not grant loans and that's blocking some new projects.

Small distillers are not really touched neither. A Nafplion, Yiannis Karonis confess to be one of the few to benefit from the crisis. Before, the most consumed alcohol (by far!) was whisky... Today Greeks turn to cheaper spirits as locally produced ouzo, tsipouro, mastiha and other liquors. But the problem is about unofficial distillers. They can be winemakers who kept a distiller privilege (a remainder of a XIX century law) or rookies who want to make money. They hardly pay (sometimes not at all) taxes and can sell in bulk at low prices. You meet their ouzo or tsipouro in touristic restaurants. The European Union has tried since 1989 to do solve the problem, Greek governments are too shy and fiscal injustice remains. It is often said that tax evasion is the Greek national sport, this is obviously not true for everyone... So if you want to support real independent distillers who pay taxes, simply consume ouzo and tsipouro sold in bottles !

Those who only export are doing well too. The best example is winemaker Thymiopoulos Apostoles, the xinomavro king. Since Naoussa, one hour from Thessaloniki, he sends 95% of his production to North America, Europe, Japan. Some Greeks are not hanny : a wine shop manager in Thessaloniki says she has tasted the Thymiopoulos xinomavro nature (no-SO2 wine) only once and it was... in France ! But we bet that local market will grow in the coming years. But nowadays Thymiopoulos is a model: he has chosen quality over quantity. His father produced grapes but sent all to the Boutari brand cooperative. In recent years his son Apostoles has decided to bottle his own production. He works closer to Mother Nature and has developed a clear line. And it works: today 16 parcels cover almost 28 hectares, he employs 8 people and two horses. He think about a new winery, wants to experience Aidani grapes on a hill. Don't we feel crisis here? For him it's ok. But he is very close to his neighbors who still sold grapes to Boutari. Until recently. But Boutari has no longer paid the winemakers for 3 years. The cheated winemakers want an other system. Of course Thymiopoulos speech about quality knows increasingly echo: he advises, makes them forget productivism, shows them the way of organic, biodynamic products, buys their grapes, thinks about new plots. We see the vines flowering again; the "good wine solidarity" is on its way.

Another place where crisis is not big deal is Santorini. This wonderful island beats records with tourism. A group of friends has also launched their own beer, Donkey Beer which quickly became something big on the island. If taste is good, there is too much marketing with too many derivative products. So let's go somewhere else.

Reality is more difficult for Delphi Beer. Pantelis Avramidis work with his two sons. He praised the importance of tourism without forgetting it's something changing, volatile. During winter you don't see a lot of tourists in Greece. So the Delphi Beer brewery is closed for off-season, for 3 months. Yet this great beer is really a model to follow. The boss used to work in clothes industry before beer. Then with Italian friends, he has developed a strategy based on a face : Greeks consider beer as a common soda, as a refreshing drink. But another beer is possible : a gastronomy beer ! They are inspired by wine world and their exceptional product is still in its infancy. During our visit, there were bottles waiting to be sold. What a waste !

All artisans met during my stay in Greece had a moto : quality rather than quantity. For example Marina Coriolano-Lykourezos, a soap producer (Cool Soap). She used to live in Athens and she decided to moved to Aegina, a popular island, one hour away from Piraeus. Her idea is to change her life, to work differently, to be in soap production and to be consistent with ourselves. But here the reality is bitter too. "This is the crisis, everyone is doing as he can. So Aegina we develop barter. I often exchange soap with vegetables. We are tired of giving our money to supermarkets. So we do everything ourselves, by hand, like our anti mosquito-windows in our workshop". Above all, she developped a way to do well. "Greece has great products but has recently realized that it need a better packaging: the idea is to show that under the pretty package hides a quality product. Before you had a unfinished product, that's a bad ad for Greece. People are willing to spend a little more money for a completed product". As a slogan, Marina says she makes handmade soaps "in order to give a better image of Greece. The only solution is to respect yourself."

As Marina, Perry Panagiotakopoulos is one of the Greeks that make us forget the endless headlines about the poor health of Greece. Just go for a drink in his Kantina, Kalamata to regain hope. Perry, one of the finest connoisseurs of Greek vineyards, is in the same dynamic. He sums up what we want to explain today. " Our belief is that if you do something with love and strong belief in what you do and you are always fresh with new ideas, you will stay alive. You have to insist in quality though. It is much easier nowadays to find good products because a lot of people after the crisis started working on quality products and how they produce and present them. We should always remember that our country has some very, very nice products that we can use easily and which are not so expensive. You just need to find your way and stay faithful to your plan". 

But optimism should not prevent us from being lucid. This self-respect, but also respect of beauty and respect of traditions are greatly threatened by the crisis. Petit George, the man of the Helession association which wants us to drink the wine as the ancient Greeks did, sums up the danger facing now. He talks about this danger regarding wine, but it's the same for coffee or all food and drinks. That is to say taht food and drinkd are only pretexts to have extensive social relations. So let Petit George conclude : "Wine is something very traditional in Greece. We drink it daily, at restaurant and with family. This is not something for fashionable parties or for claiming his social social rank. But the crisis changed our habits, it prevents people to meet with others".

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