Η ΑΓΟΡΑ

 

 

                                       AGORA OF CHANIA

 

We close the door behind us and walk out into the dark night of Crete, the time is 04.00 and Chania is very quite. Even down by the Venetian harbour the quarters are quite. The lights reflect in the calm sea, it is a beautiful view.

The harbours, the inner with the arsenali and the outer, in the old days used by fishermen and merchants ships and vessels, were constructed over a period of 300 years. Today we are lucky that they made them with such beauty.

It is easy to imagine the busy life that went on around in these two harbours.

Today the anglers have taken over and the pace is lazier, at least in the outer harbour.

We continue our walk; some cats looking for food sneak away when they see us. There are still plenty of “delicacies” to find for them in plastic bags and open dustbins.

Halidon Street and the plateia in front of the Orthodox Cathedral, Panagia Trimartiris, are deserted.

As we walk down Skridlof Street (also called Stivanadika) better known as Leather Street towards Tsouderon Street, the barking of some dogs break the night silence.

No heavy traffic at this late (or is it early) hour, just four or five cars slowly passing by.

After a few minutes, we stand in front of the Central Market “Agora”.

 

All the big gates are of course closed but when we look through the eastern gate, we notice some lights and one or two voices from inside.

Almost every shop has its own small entrance at the backside of the building. We knock on the one to “O Zerbos”, the place of Theodora’s.

Our good friend looks at us, as if we are two ghosts, when we enter at this early hour.

Obviously, he did not believe, we were serious, when we promised him, that one day we would come to watch him prepare and cook his daily dishes and at the same time watch Agora “wake up”.

The other voice, which we heard earlier, belongs to the neighbour next door, Agapinis. He runs the same kind of business as Theodora. They are good friends, work well together, and are always ready to help the other if necessary.

When we greet him good morning, he just shakes his head. His body language speaks in a crystal clear way; “The time is 04.30, these two must be nuts?”

Ghosts or nuts, ok we can take that, but now we are here to follow a day in Agora’s hectic life.

Theodora arrived 15 minutes earlier than we did. The first to do is to put tables and chairs on the right spots. That is easy; there are only 7 tables and about 15 – 17 chairs.

After that, he brings out four huge kettles, some filled with water and some with bouillon or broth, turns on and sets fire to the gas under them.

Now it is time to cook and the first dish will be with stomach.

Oil, onions, bouillon prepared the day before, strong pepper, salt, crushed (or is chopped the right word) tomatoes and finally of course stomach cut into small pieces, all put together in another kettle. The taste will be great.

Theodora works fast and it is easy to see that this is daily routine but made with passion and finesse. Many things, like cutting the meat for stifado, vrasto and fricassee, are prepared in advance. Some of the vegetables, for instance peeling onions, have also been prepared the day before by Theodora’s mother.

 

This morning Agapinis seems to be a little ahead of Theodora and is almost ready to serve his first quests but it must still be too early for food ……or?

Loud voices are heard from outside, three women and one man are looking through the eastern gate, probably discussing how to get in or if it is time to stow away some food.

Half a minute later, they enter through the backdoor to Agapinis place. They are all in a very good mood and decide to order vrasto and krasi, the time is 04.40.

After another 20 minutes, the place is crowded. From the dialogues, we learn that some guests are on their way home after work or a late night out, some on their way to their jobs and some are silent and almost asleep.

Theodora is still cooking and it smells fantastic. He puts one dish after the other into the warm water-bath desk standing along the middle aisle of Agora. From outside you can look through a pane of glass at the delicacies and of course get tempted to have a taste. You will not regret it.

I (yes, me cook, wife only eat) learn how to prepare and to cook some of the dishes but also a few tricks, simple but very effective ones.

 

At 04.55, the western gate opens and a white covered van appears and stops in front of the first fishmongers shop. The first delivery this morning directly from the fishing-boats down in the harbour has arrived...

It brings 10 big plastic bags of crushed ice and about 8 wooden cases of fish of different sizes.

The men put all the cases on the floor in front of their shop.

15 minutes later another van arrives and unloads ice and fish.

After a few minutes, a thick layer of ice covers the big tables, and then it is time for the fishes to be placed in nice piles. The mongers work like artists, They arrange one kind of fish at a time, take a few steps back, look, make changes, a few steps back again, accept and start to arrange the next kind of fish. One hour later, the images are completed and ready to be admired by tourists, housewives and everyone else looking for fish to put into their pan or pot or only as a great snap for a tourists camera.

 

Around 6 o’clock, Agora is full of life. The butchers take out sucking pigs, sheep and goats from their big fridges and put them on hooks hanging from the ceiling.

Chops, ribs, steaks, beefs, chickens, rabbits still left with skin around their feet to show they are fresh, are placed behind the glass pans of the big stainless desks along the aisle.

One of the butchers places a big head of an ox on top of his desk and another butcher arranges some pig’s heads and feet together with some lamb heads onto a small desk outside his shop.

The activity is high almost everywhere; vegetables, fruits, cheese, nuts, olives, bread, dried fish and you name it are arranged to look as temping as possible.

During the night, some of the products have been hidden under big covering cloths but are now exposed again.

It is an explosion of colours and smells.

 

The activity at Theodora’s place is also high; early morning guests, most of them regulars, occupy tables and chairs and enjoy the cuisine.

On the plates at this time of the hour is traditional food like patsas, vrasto, koilidakia, xoirino selino, stifado and so on. It all has quite a rapid sale. Theodora is very busy but at the same time, he looks satisfied and relaxed.

Now it is time to put the carbon into the grill, get it warmed up and ready for later guests. The day has just started.  

At the kafenion, To Steki, across the aisle early regulars discuss the matches played last evening. Some are red, Olympiakos, some are green, Panathinaikos and they will never come to the same conclusion about the game.  Never ever!

 

“PIP PIP HA HA HA” is suddenly heard in a loud and clear voice.

Down the isle comes a well-known figure, “the lottery-man”, pushing one of those string carriages (right word, I am not certain) normally used by customers in the super-markets.

He is early; this must be his first round in order not to miss the early guests.

On top of the carriage in a wooden case lies a big and heavy fish, which will be the prize of today’s lottery.

You pay for the numbers you choose and then note your name and numbers in the “lottery-mans” blue book.

It seems everybody would like to have fish for dinner today.

From almost each table numbers are yelled out and the blue book is passed around.

The “lottery-man” looks satisfied as he collects his money.

He saunters the aisle and enters the kafenion on the opposite side and again the blue book is passed from table to table.

 

The early morning rush hours are over and Theodora has time to eat and to relax a bit.

As we did not have breakfast before we left the house, our stomachs are also beginning to make some strange noises of protest.

We look at each other and I am sure my wife is not ready for stifado yet. It is still too early and we decide to pay “Iordanis” a visit. Bougatsa, phyllo pastry with cheese, seems to be a good choice; the time is not even 8.30 yet.

 

When we return to Agora 40 minutes later the commerce has begun. So far, it is only Cretans, up early to avoid the crowds of tourists, making their purchases.

The tourist shops opens up but in slow tempo, siga siga. Their international customers have not arrived yet, the first ones usually show up around 9.30 -10.00.

Unfortunately, the number of these shops increases and the number of butchers and fishmongers decreases. In the last years, at least one butcher and two fishmongers have closed down.

Of course, we want the old shops to stay; they give this fantastic market place its very special atmosphere, which we love so much.

The strong smell of herbs, the colours of fruits and vegetables, the ice covered tables painted in all colours by different small and big fishes, the smell of bread from bakeries, the look of different kinds of olives and cheeses, teasing smells from places like “O Zerbos”, the precision of the butcher cutting meat and not least the old building in itself; of course we have to love this place.

 

We stroll around for almost an hour.

“How about ligo krasi me mezé?”

“What a splendid idea” is my answer.

Best spot to follow the daily life in Agora is from the kafenion just in the centre of the building.

We find a table and order. We get fast and good service and in a minute we have a red kartoutso with local wine and a plate of small dishes to enjoy.

Now is the time when tourists flock in large numbers, often showed around by a guide with an umbrella high in the air as a sign saying; follow me and do not get lost.

Men dressed in black with muddy boots, men with paper briefcases, women with heavy bags, elegant city women, Chinese salespeople both men and women, men selling “Lotto” and many more, they are all represented on the floor of Agora.

 

Is that a bird chirping? The sound is loud, too loud to be a real bird actually.

No, the sound comes from a small plastic bird filled with water. Air is blown into it by a woman and that creates the noise. She is selling good, especially to small children.

In the middle of the aisle in front of Koukoudakis “kreopolio” stands an old butcher, dressed in a bloodstained white coat. He turns to the left and he turns to the right as if he is looking for somebody. I guess, he is just curious about the other shops and how they sell.

After a while though, he is back behind his chopping block again cleaning meat from tendons and strings. The knife looks very sharp but his hands are steady and he knows how to handle it. The old man does it without glasses. His eyes must be as sharp as his knife and very alert. Impressing!

 

The kafenion is soon crowded by thirsty tourists. They discuss the butcher’s places. Some like what they see and are very positive.  Some do not and say: “All those heads” or “What is that thing, stomach?” or “Intestines and sheep testicles” or “How can they eat that?”

Of course, they have not tasted any of it.

 

A maybe 60-year-old woman and her a bit older husband occupy the table next to ours.

She orders two frappé and four big glasses of water.

They discuss something and the husband leaves.

She is fast and orders a big glass of raki. 

“ASPRO PATO”, bottoms up at one go.

She takes it like a man.

She is a heavy smoker and crosses herself before every drag and every sip of water.

The husband returns and they have coffee together. They look happy and often give each other big smiles.

After 10 minutes, they leave holding hands.

 

There is also “the four old men gang”. They meet now and then over a glass of krasi me mezé and it is easy to see that they really enjoy each other’s company.

They play their komboloi, they tease, tell jokes and laugh, tell news and have a good time together.

I wish we had more of this in the northern part of Europe.

 

Two o’clock we return to Theodora’s and are lucky to find a free table.

We greet O kapetanio Georgos, Christos, Manolis, Kostas, Stelios, Manouso, Michalis, the little boy who loves liver so much, and many more in “O Zerbos” fan club.

The atmosphere is as always very friendly and welcoming.

We order paidakia, brizola and xoriatiki. Unfortunately, today there is no kokoretsi, which is one of my absolute favourites.

To drink of course we order wine, kokkino. This local wine (from the barrel) to the food is like man and wife of an old married happy couple; made for each other, faithful to each other and in love with each other, a splendid combination.

All kinds of meat, sausages, intestines, liver and so on are kept in a big fridge standing next to the back entrance door.

Theodora brings out two pieces of meat to his chopping block and starts to cut paidakia.

It is amazing how he handles that big mixture of an axe and a knife. He has been here since 4 o’clock this morning and really has to focus on what he is doing. He still has all fingers left…….on both hands.

He places half a kilo of paidakia and a giant brizola on the grill, spreads salt and rigani and then it is only to wait. In the meantime, we enjoy the xoriatiki, so well done by Theodora’s mother.

The “lottery-man” returns and the early morning procedure is repeated. There are not many numbers left and soon someone will “let chance decide” who is the winner of today.

Theodora brings the plates, brizola for my wife and paidakia for me and of course lemons. Kali orexi!

The smell and the taste ........simply magnificent.

 

People come and leave and they all seem to know each other. Stories and jokes are told. Food, wine and beers are ordered and as the custom bids, the neighbours at the next tables now and then invite you to share a bite of their food or a glass of their wine.............and soon we have more wine in our glasses and more food on our plates.

We of course follow their custom and do the same next time we visit Theodoras.

It is just a simple gesture but it really appeals to us.

Life is fantastic, if you just let it come to you!

 

Tourists pass in a slow going stream on the other side of the water-bath desk. Some of them stop and with big eyes look at the food behind the panes, then at the guests and then back at the food again……and continue their walk.

Some stop to watch Theodora cut paidakia or brizoles. They shake their heads and continue to a safer place.

They do not know what they just have missed.

 

The “lottery-man” is back again. He announces the winning number and the name of the lucky winner, who today is the owner of nearby situated cheese shop.

Suddenly there is commotion and voices get louder. What now?

The guests at the next table stand up and they all have money in their hands. It is time to pay and they all argue to pay ….for everybody around the table

Money is thrown on the table, protests of course; money is taken from the table and put back into a pocket, new money on the table, new protests. This goes on for minutes and suddenly the bill is paid for. By whom, do not ask me.

By the way, I cannot understand how it is possible to come up with a bill at all. Theodora is satisfied and so are the quests and it is calm again, for a while. Soon this episode will repeat itself.

The table is cleared and new guests arrive.

 

15:30 Theodora starts to clean. The dishwasher is switched on, the tables and the chairs are piled up again.

The water in the warm water-bath desk is emptied. Much of the equipment is made from stainless steel and is very thoroughly cleaned and washed. He uses a lot of water all over his place.

The grill and the fan (outside and inside) take half an hour to clean.

A mechanic plane is today used to clean the hard surface of the chopping block, which is made of eucalyptus.

As we look down the aisle, we see cleaners everywhere and they work hard and fast.

There is the man, who sweeps the floor and collects rubbish from the shops into his dustbin. A black cat with a white moustache looks at him and gives a big yawn. It looks as if he has enjoyed the day as much as we have.

The cat and we have one more thing in common; we feel the same way, sleepy.

The time is 17:45 and Theodora is still cleaning but in half an hour he will be ready to go home.

It is time to leave. We have really enjoyed every minute of this fantastic day.

I have learned new recipes, new ways and new methods to cook.

I will not give them away though, that is strictly between Theodora and me.

 

Thank you very much Theodora, friends and Agora for a great

happening.

 

A couple of months later we experienced Agora during Christmas and New Year. What happened there and then is a memory, which is holy and sacred in our hearts. Need I tell that “O Zerbos” was involved also then, I don’t think so.

 

Kriti and Agora stis kardies mas

lars kai Sofia

 

                                         

                                

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                          

 

   

  

Photobucket

Agora in the old days  

 

 

 

 

 

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.....and today

 

 

 

 

 

Photobucket Agapinis looks worried

 

PhotobucketAgapinis is serving early morgning guests

 

 

Photobucket Theodora in full action

Photobucket  04.55 Photobucket A fish arrangement PhotobucketThe butchers are ready for the customers Photobucket The product unexposed again Photobucket The lotteryman and his fish 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PhotobucketThe commerce has begun

PhotobucketAgora, a place to love PhotobucketView from the kafenion Photobucket The old butcher PhotobucketHead for sale PhotobucketMezé me raki Photobucket...or wine PhotobucketUnfortunately no kokoretsi today PhotobucketNo worries mate...... Photobucket........I fix a nice brizola.Endaksi; PhotobucketTheodora Photobucket Interior PhotobucketTime to clean and go home after a very long day Photobucket