Greeks Bearing Gifts

On-line exclusive: A delicious seafood stew is the reward for a good deed done by Irish cruisers in Greece

August 7, 2003

“Problem! Customs! Problem!”
It was every cruiser’s nightmare. The Greek customs officer was jabbing emphatically at the ancient welding machine lashed down under the saloon table. The two gold-braid-laden officers conferred vociferously while we tried to figure out how to explain that the welder cost $60 in 1975 and if they wanted to
Charge import duty they should just keep it.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. My partner Peter Maxwell was led
away; firm hands on his shoulder guided him to the official
vehicle. This was incredible – Greece was in the European Union! It
was the 21st century. You couldn’t be lifted for owning a subversive
welder…could you?

Mithril is a 50-foot steel ketch that we built ourselves. As she
wasn’t completely finished inside, having a welder aboard seemed
sensible. I spent an anxious half-hour tidying lines and flicking
through the Greek phrase book trying to find anything that might help us. I
was beginning to wish we’d stayed in Turkey. At last the customs car
returned, and Peter emerged – grinning hugely. “There’s a steel door
needs welding in their office,” he said. Oh, the relief!


That night we sat in the cockpit sipping cool, local retsina – a gift from
the customs men. Peter had also been given his choice from a large
suitcase of (presumably confiscated) cigarettes. We were enjoying the
sights if not the smells of the busy port of Alexandroupolis while
trying to ignore the small knots of gossiping onlookers. Minutely
they examined our fixtures and fittings, even hunkering down to peer
in our windows. Despite the large numbers of tourists visiting the
Greek islands, foreign yachts are a comparative rarity here in the
Northern part of the country, and Greeks are never shy about showing their curiosity.

Eventually, we became aware of a little old Greek lady dressed from head to toe in creased black, with a black woollen shawl draped around her shoulders. She was trying to attract our attention while struggling with a massive casserole. She must have thought we Irish were very dense as she repeatedly shouted her
message – to the vast amusement of the crowd. Finally, a small girl translated:
“You take, give box.” Hmmm. The penny did finally drop and we poured the steaming contents of her casserole into our largest saucepan. “Customs mother,” the child said. Out came the phrase book again as we thanked the old lady, whose walnut face wrinkled in an almost toothless grin as she shuffled away.

We proceeded to feast on a most delicious but unidentifiable stew; something
fishy, but what? It turned out to be octopus, which wasn’t chewy and tasteless as we’d always imagined. We’ve since found that the secret of tasty, tender octopus is to rub it thoroughly against the surface of a flat rock, sluicing frequently with seawater until the skin is no longer slimy. Then beat it repeatedly against the rock to tenderize it before cooking.


Octopus Stew

1 octopus
2 large onions, chopped
Olive oil, to taste
1 pound tomatoes (fresh or canned), coarsely chopped
Potatoes, chopped, to taste
Parsley, cayenne pepper, and salt, to taste

Pressure-cook the prepared octopus for five minutes. (Alternatively, stew in a dry saucepan until meat is very tender; octopus will release its own juices, but add water if needed to keep pot moist). Cool, then skin. Chop meat into bite-sized pieces. Saute the onions in a generous amount of olive oil. Add the tomatoes with a little water or some of the octopus cooking liquor and bring to a boil. Add the chopped octopus flesh, cayenne, parsley and salt. Simmer for 20 minutes then add the potatoes and more water as necessary. Simmer until the potatoes are tender and the sauce is thick. Serve with salad and crusty bread.


Octopus Salad

Cooked octopus meat, chopped



¼ cup olive oil
1/8 cup wine vinegar
Crushed garlic (lots!), to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste
Dash of ouzo

Chop the octopus into very small pieces. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and marinate the octopus for three to four hours. Serve as a starter with a tomato-and-onion salad or as a nibble (“mezede”) with drinks. Excellent with ouzo.

Prawns with Feta Cheese

Olive oil, to taste
1 onion, chopped finely
1 can chopped tomatoes with juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Parsley, to taste
½ pound shrimp
½ cup feta cheese

Gently saute the onions, tomatoes, garlic and parsley in the oil. Add
the shrimp (shells on or off, to taste) and simmer until cooked. Pour into a flame proof dish and sprinkle with crumbled feta. Place under a hot broiler until cheese is melted and slightly browned, and serve with crusty bread for dipping.


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