Bean Soup Welcomes a Stranger

 

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Bean Soup Welcomes a Stranger

 
In a manicured backyard garden of Mill Park lined with neatly pruned roses and an assortment of succulents, there lies a small canopy.  It is an ordered, multipurpose little space with comfortable cane chairs encircling a table.  Above is a single clothesline, strung haphazardly with a pair of pyjama bottoms.  To the right is a spa with its own canopy.

There’s a relaxed, festive feel about this place.

Next to the table is the cooking station- a recycled kitchen from a renovation of 15 years ago.  A pop-up kitchenette decorated with colors of orange and brown, this little unassuming, semi-contained cooking space is used for dishes that require slow cooking, so their aromas don’t linger into the house.

It is also used by Con when he makes his favorite bean soup “Fasolatha”, a traditional dish from his northern Greek township of Florina.  Accompanying him today, is his age old friend and “patrioti” (town patriot) Chris, who is taking advantage of the opportunity to savor Con’s hospitality, of cooking him a hearty bean soup.

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“What else do you cook here?” I ask curiously, surveying the ingenuity of this backyard space that has been appropriated for cooking purposes.

“Oh,” Con says, “Aside from the Fasolatha, we cook “yemistes” (stuffed capsicums with rice), we also fry fish, as we eat it a couple of times a week.”

He then begins to chop up the vegetables.

A large Bessemer cooking pot rests on the stovetop.  A bright orange vessel, it sits camouflaged against the orange laminated wall.  Bessemer pots commonly feature in backyard kitchen set-ups because of their hardiness.  They can only be bought from itinerant sales ladies at hosted Bessemer parties, who sometimes offer to read your future from your Greek coffee grounds, as a side entrepreneurial venture.

Chris tells me that this soup was traditionally cooked in an outside hearth in ceramic pots.  The pots kept the soup warm during times sans electricity and modern conveniences.  From clay to Bessemer.

I learn that there is a lot of cultural history associated with bean soup underscored by the sentiment of “philoxenia” –  a Greek term meaning “welcoming a stranger”.  When Florina was liberated from the Turkish Occupation in 1912, freedom fighters marched through the township, victorious and hungry.  The community rallied, collecting beans from their larders and cooked up a magnificent soup, feeding the soldiers from a communal pot as an expression of their gratitude.

This bean soup has travelled far to get to this little cooking station in Mill Park.

While there have been a lot of variations to the recipe, Con is adamant that his traditional recipe is the authentic one.

He explains, “We spoon out the foam of the first boil, rather than strain it, as it forms part of the stock of the soup.  It also has a warming function”.

As the Fasolatha comes to a slow boil, the aromas waft deliciously into the atmosphere.  Con adds the red sauce cooked with red chilli flakes and capsicum into the stock.  The longer the soup cooks, the richer and denser the aromas become. “It takes a lot of time to make the soup and the younger generations don’t take an interest, because they don’t have the time,” laments Chris.

“Eisai kalos mageiras,”  (You’re a good cook) Chris jokes with Con.  Chris laughs at the irony of his comment and Con replies that his wife made him learn.  It is obvious, that behind a good cook is a good mentor and out comes Con’s wife Kitty, hospitable as ever, offering us a plate of “kourambiethes” (Greek short bread) covered in icing sugar.

Con and Chris are very passionate about maintaining the tradition of welcoming a stranger.  They are both part of a social club, famous for hosting an annual Fasolatha Festival.

One year I was lucky enough to be invited to the festival.  The experience is akin to a democratic feast.  Everyone is fed.  Maidens in their aprons busily dish out the soup from a giant vat where litres of of it have been cooked on a slow boil overnight.  There is a long queue of people holding empty bowls, waiting to be served the warm soup, whilst hundreds of people are seated at tables consuming the Fasolatha, relishing its hearty goodness.  There is music too and people dance, in keeping with the custom of expressing joy in being liberated from the Turks. And there is no end to welcoming strangers and the not so estranged, as they line up to be served seconds and thirds.  Without question.

The sentiment of hospitality however, is not so different from being served Fasolatha in this little kitchenette.  Once the soup is ready and garnished with parsley, it is promptly served.

Chris admits that he too has wanted to construct a kitchen in the garage so he can cook Fasolatha, and not make a mess in the house.  Yet he seems to enjoy being nourished in Con’s little external hearth out back, eating warm bean soup with good company and so further putting his building plans on hold.

I rapidly devour the soup.  It is a delicious fusion of creaminess and spice.  As a welcomed stranger, having finished my first bowl, Con shows no signs of reluctance in filling my bowl again –  a continuing gesture of hospitality, in this pop-up kitchenette set in a manicured backyard garden of Mill Park.

 

Bean soup recipe

 

 

 

 

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