In Mum’s tselemente, her cooking bible when I was growing up, recipes for ‘canapés with oysters’, ‘sausage cordon bleu’ and ‘dry martini’ can be found among its mostly Greek dishes. Named after beloved chef Nikolaos Tselementes, the father of contemporary Greek cuisine — a tselemente is a general term for a cookbook that’s used in a Greek household.
Opening it now decades later, its yellow-and-brown-tinged photos transport me back to summers lying on my stomach on the cool linoleum of our kitchen, dreaming of parties with fancy hors d’oeuvres, mint-green cocktails, and elegantly clad ladies smoking cigarettes in long holders. Hollywood movies flickered in the lounge room next door, fanning the flames of my imagination with impossible glamour.
In truth, my daydreams were a far cry from the gatherings we actually had. Instead of svelte, doe-eyed women, our inner-city worker’s cottage would regularly fill with robust aunties, uncles and cousins who came to celebrate name days and other feast days. The tselemente would come out in the week preceding our get-togethers to tell us exactly what goes into a taramosalata dip or beetroot salad; a good pasticcio and moussaka bake; or sticky sweets such as baklava and galaktoboureko. Supplemented by the lamb on the spit, our family would dig in with loud and tactile enjoyment.
Mum’s tselemente is well loved and well used. Today, its clumsily laminated cover is no longer connected to its spine. Its pages are stained with oil and egg splatters from dishes made decades ago. Little bits of paper fall out of it with handwritten recipes like ‘Georgia’skeki’ or ‘Rina’s koulourakia’. This particular tselemente, written by Professor Sofia Skoura, was a gift to my mother in 1977 on a return trip to Greece. A slimmer version of it travelled with many Greek women on their journey to Australia, ensuring that the cuisine from the home country lived on in the diaspora.
Today, its clumsily laminated cover is no longer connected to its spine. Its pages are stained with oil and egg splatters from dishes made decades ago.
I remember the tselemente would come out in the lead up to Easter, where Mum would refer to it in the making of the mayeritsa — an egg and lemon soup made with lamb’s heart, liver and entrails that marked the breaking of the 40-day fast. Cleaning the entrails took many hours and had to be done fastidiously under a tap in the back garden — it was too smelly to do inside. In Greece, it was unimaginable to throw away the offal from the slaughter of the spring lamb, where it was considered a delicacy. For me and my brother in Australia, mayeritsa had the ‘yuck’ factor. Mum always made a chicken version of the soup to satisfy our Aussie-fied palates.
In recent years, as my mother’s memory began to fade, the tselemente has helped us revive recipes together, from the sugar-dusted shortbreads (kourabiethes) for Christmas, to twisted egg biscuits (koulourakia) for Easter. Now, I place my own bits of paper in it, recipes that build and improve on the old classics from my youth.
In Greece, it was unimaginable to throw away the offal from the slaughter of the spring lamb, where it was considered a delicacy.
Recently, I bought out the tselemente to brush up on how to cook fricasse — a pork and celery stew with egg and lemon sauce. As I read through the recipe, I think about Mum’s kitchen filling with the smells of slowly cooking meat and herbs, the tangy taste of lemon sauce, and I am once again happily transported to the kitchen of my childhood.