"Skorda? No Skorda!"
In the very late winter of 1983, a traveling companion and I set out southbound, from beneath a grey mantle of cold rain over Amsterdam. We were in the first days of an extended European culinary tour, and we camped out, cooked, and stocked our traveling kitchen as we went. We collected baskets full of kitchen staples and packed them into our secondhand Renault along with a two-burner gas range and an odd collection of jumble-sale cookware.
We had a good stash of beautiful, rose-headed garlic bulbs from a colorful market in Provence, salt anchovies from Pisa, plus capers, rice and polenta from the Italian port city of Ancona. We carried our international pantry by ferry across the Adriatic to Patras, Greece, and then further on, down over the water and beneath snow-capped Mount Idi to the south shore of Crete. By the time we got to the pine-sheltered campgrounds overlooking the ancient harbor at Matala, our stock of garlic was rapidly disappearing.
The French garlic had become such an essential part of our cooking that, as the spring winds roared in from Africa and we were down to our last few bulbs, I began to get an empty feeling.
It was quite clear that everyone in the tiny village by the bay was holding, but I couldn't for the life of me find so much as a single garlic bulb for sale.
I was jonesing! I began to fret about all the garlic I would be needing for my skorthaliá, for crying out loud! This is not to mention all the garlic I would be needing for melitzánosaláta, fish soups, and the prodigious amounts required for the omnipresent Greek menu staple, tzatzíki.
I had been to the local grocer, searching fervently, and to no avail, amongst the hot-house tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. I had looked into every nook amidst a chaotic cluster of canned goods and behind the basket of hens' eggs. I had even gone so far as to ask for . . . The Translator.
The Translator was maybe 12 years old and had a good handle on grade-school English. His papa had summoned him up from the bowels of an archaic stone and cinderblock cavern doing double duty as home and shop-front.
"Parakaló, ehete skorda?" ("Do you have garlic?") I asked in my best Berlitz Greek.
"Skorda? No skorda," he replied simply. He replied so matter-of-factly that I felt a little silly pressing my query.
"Do you know anyone who does have any garlic for sale, or where I might find some?" I continued.
I got the exact same, straight-on "Skorda? No skorda" reply tinged with just a hint of incredulousness that a person could be so out of touch as to inquire about garlic for sale in a season so obviously bereft of garlic.
Before the light went on for me, before I began to think a little deeper about village culinary and seasonal sensibilities, I was mystified that such an intrinsic part of the local cuisine should be absent from the marketplace.
We had been directed to the market town of Timbaki set on the western side of the fertile valley of Massara. Every Saturday dozens and dozens of local farmers would set up shop along the main street to sell their goods. On two weekly visits my questions about garlic resulted in the now familiar line:
"Skorda? No skorda."
We had come to the grand island of Crete on the cusp of spring. It was in a season I now know is only the awakening time for the garlic cloves tucked away in the soil to sleep through the winter.
I had been living in the American Pacific Northwest and am a city-born product of a voraciously consumptive culture. I had come to expect a seamless and uninterrupted flow of standardized, blemish-free produce.
("The seasons be damned!" I thought. "God, Boeing, and the fruit companies have given us the Southern Hemisphere." . . . There was a certain Manifest Destiny impudence in vogue back home.)
This is simply not the way things work in rural Greece, and I found myself feeding a robust, two-bulb-a-week garlic habit on the few meager cloves I managed to beg from a kindly restaurateur. He hinted, as the Lenten season approached, that I should return to Timbaki on market day.
Imagine my delight when we found that nearly every table along the market street was heaping with bundles of vibrant green spring garlic. The same farmers who had, just a week before, told me "Skorda? No skorda," were now cheerfully and loudly celebrating the season of renewal:
"Skorda! Skorda edho!"