Matthew Denos of WeightLossTriumph.com is a biologist who lives in Greece. He enjoys the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle after spending 6 years in the US working as a research fellow in academia. He believes that health is our greatest resource and therefore it’s worth keeping it optimum. When he doesn’t review diets and gourmet food delivery programs he is outdoors biking, mountain climbing or windsurfing.
Farmers Market Update: Pteleos, Greece
by Matthew Denos
I am blessed to live in Greece. Yes, the economy sucks, unemployment is at an all time high, the cost of living is expensive, and basic salary is a joke. Yet, I wouldn’t trade the Greek islands, the beaches and the mountains for any of the strong economies up north or overseas. I wouldn’t trade the Greek food, either—the healthy Mediterranean diet. The extra virgin olive oil, wine, feta cheese, seafood, olives, unique herbs and spices—the Mediterranean lifestyle in all its forms has a top place in my heart.
Fortunately, the Greek food chain is not as industrialized as it is in other Western countries. Of course, food is nowhere what it once was. But Greece is a relatively small market in Southeast Europe (the gate to the East), and, thankfully, has not yet totally assimilated the Western diet. Our traditional diet still holds strong, and healthy soils abound, especially in Greek islands and villages.
Last summer I spent a few weeks in my grandfather’s village in Pteleos, where I had the opportunity to visit the local farmers market. Pteleos is a picturesque village nestled among curvy hills on the west side of Pagasitikos Gulf, in Thessaly, Greece, not far away from gorgeous beaches facing Aegean Sea. Thessaly is the birthplace of Greek hero Achilles (think Brad Pitt in the movie Troy).
Olives and olive oil are the farmers’ main produce in Pteleos, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise given that there are over half a million olive trees planted within a radius of 3 miles from the village center. The village is basically embedded in a huge plantation of olive trees. The local farmers, which are mostly olive oil producers, own the plantations. Yet, it’s impossible for them to harvest all these fields by themselves, which is why each year in November, when the olive tree harvest begins, they hire workers from Bulgaria, the neighboring country, to help them out.
As I headed to the market that Wednesday morning, I was excited to meet the farmers. It was my first visit ever. Some of the farmers live and work in Pteleos while others come from nearby villages (Sourpi, Valestino, Almyros). Most of them have their own plantations and are proud and passionate about the quality of their products. Others are simply re-sellers of produce they bring from distant parts of the country. Farming is for them a family business. One can sense the care and passion that goes into cultivating the land, sowing the seeds, growing, protecting, and harvesting the plants, and finally selling the product. It’s a long and strenuous process which the family is proud of.
The market takes place outdoors in a car park every Wednesday. It starts at 8am and goes until noon. It’s worth getting to the market early, so at 9am I was there, with my Olympus Stylus Tough 8010 in hand, greeting the first stall owner with a smile.
He thought I was a tourist and greeted me in English. Pteleos, and the broader area, is a popular summer vacation destination. When I told him I am just taking pictures for an article I am going to publish at a California-based health site, he gladly pointed me to his colorful and fresh produce. I loved his beautiful array of groceries of the nightshade family. Peppers of different shapes and colors drew my attention, as well as the shiny, ovoid, dark purple eggplants. I bought two pounds of peppers. Pepper is part of my daily high-protein, veggie-rich omelet.
A little further down there was a stall full of melons. The football shaped ones are called “Thrakiotika” (Thracian), because they grow in Thrace, the northeastern section of Greece, bordering Bulgaria to the north and Turkey to the east. I bought one and it was really sweet. In the summer, production of watermelons is in full swing. The stall owner was thirsty this sunny day and was feasting on a half watermelon.
Across the way was a stall displaying a beautiful assortment of apples. Did you know that green apples have fewer calories than red? 30% less to be exact. This is because they contain less sugar. The same holds true when you compare the green and non-green version of almost any fruit or vegetable. Green olives have 38% fewer calories than black olives. Green peppers are 29% less calorie dense than red peppers.
As I had approached the apple stand, thinking about the calorie content of green and red apples, the farmer behind it greeted me. I introduced myself as a reporter for local Greek farmers markets. “Can you take a picture of me, too?” he asked. “Certainly,” I replied, “people in San Francisco and around the world will be glad to see your produce.” Another lady from a nearby stall heard the conversation and came along for the shot.
As I wandered around the stalls, picking my weekly groceries, I stopped to buy some tomatoes. I love tomatoes, especially if they are produced organically. This was not an organic farmers market (like the one I visited in Patras), still the farmers try to use as little pesticide as possible to grow their produce. Some grow the produce in their backyards without using chemicals at all, mainly for their own household’s needs. They then sell what they don’t consume themselves. Tomatoes sell for 1 euro a kilo (USD 59 cents a pound).
In general, organically produced tomatoes are less attractive than conventional ones. Take a look at these two photos below and compare the looks and the taste. Well, you cannot actually taste them, but I did. The difference is like day and night.
The ones on the top tasted much better and were full of flavor. If you look at them you will notice that they are not as pleasant to the eye as the ones beneath. They are not evenly colored. They have patches of green. They have scars, too. Obviously, in the absence of pesticides and other chemicals, appearance is compromised in favor of taste.
At this point, I heard somebody coming from behind me and I turned around. “Take a look at these gigantic beets! You should feature them in your report,” a vendor said as she held these huge beets proudly in front of my camera. Her request was hard to beet.
Peaches, nectarines, and vanilla plums make it to the list of my favorite summer fruits. Their distinctive aroma and color drew my attention. The ones I purchased had really juicy flesh. They were highly flavored and had a sweet and sour taste.
Potatoes and onions are always displayed together in any Greek farmers market I have visited. I like onions because they add to the tastiness of many foods. I eat one a day as they are one of the healthiest vegetables. Being aware of the enormous health benefits onions, famous American chef Julia Child once commented “I cannot imagine a world without onions.” I got a few from the stand below.
As my Pteleos farmers market trip drew to an end, I looked around for grapes. Grape is regarded by many in Greece as the king of fruits. Here grapes support a vibrant wine industry which is rich in native varieties. Grapes are a seasonal fruit that is available in the market only from August to November. The variety I bought is called “σταφίδα” (stafida – raisins) because it is the variety used for the production of raisins.
I was about to leave when I noticed two of my favorite medicinal herbs. Mountain tea (sideritis) and oregano. Both are native plants. They grow in Greek mountains. The vendor opened a bag where he kept the oregano, and the aromatic oils, which are strong enough to numb the tongue, filled the air.
The farmers market in Pteleos is a lovely place to go shopping if you ever happen to visit Thessaly, the homeland of hero Achilles.