Contrary to common belief, dégustation is not the hipster-bourgeois Greek-Australian term for a τσιμπούσι. Referring to the gustatory system, it is derived ultimately from the Latin gustare, meaning “to taste,” and is thus a sister word to the Greek “γούστο” meaning good taste, and to “γουστάρω” which means to like. It is also related to the English word “disgust”, referring to someone who finds something distasteful, but not to “gust” per se, which is Old Norse for “to gush,” something that aficionados of degustation apparently do quite a lot of, especially as a result of a particularly lethal combination of Moscato and Kefalograviera. In short, it denotes the careful, appreciative tasting of various food, focusing on the senses, high culinary art and good company.
There has been much degustation transpiring of late in our community. In the case of the Pammessenian Brotherhood “Papaflessas”, this was in the form of “A Taste of Freedom”, a remarkable culinary experience where a convivial company of the descendants of freedom fighters and philhellenes were treated to a carefully curated selection of Peloponnesian produce and bacchic distillations. For some reason, this tasteful and rather novel event has raised the ire of sections of the community, who accuse organisers and attendees alike of poor taste. “What,” they ask, generally in disgruntled Hellenic cadences, “do the heroes of 1821, who fought valiantly for our freedom, enduring immense privations, starvation, illness, torture and even giving up their lives for the cause.. What,” they ask again for rhetorical effect, “do they have to do with an event focused solely on the consumption of food and how can such an event possibly honour their memory? Are not their lotophagic descendants, by presuming to daintily devour delectable delicacies in the suburbs of Melbourne making light of their sacrifices and in fact dishonouring everything they stood for? Fie for shame! If Papaflessas were alive, he would be rolling in his grave!”
Asked to elaborate as to the appropriate forms of rendering due reverence, such disparagers refer to solemn parades (out, because of coronavirus and the past shenanigans of the lunatic fringe), the solemn recitation of Greek folksongs, the solemn staging of plays in which all characters wear identical foustanellas purchased in bulk to take advantage of the discount rate from the same Athenian online purveyor, and where all such characters relay their lines in a stilted but nonetheless megaphonic manner because the local brotherhood president refuses to update the sound system, and the solemn performance of heroic klephtic dances, because after all, when they weren’t despatching the evil oppressor, the hoplarchs of 1821 were known to dance with each other, in suitably manly fashion. They certainly did not nibble tibits from a plate and then feel the need to cleanse their palate with a slice of citrus between tastings.
It is not known what Papaflessas ate. We have a certain inkling as to what he wanted his enemies to eat because of the records that exist documenting the rather colourful utterances of this most potty-mouthed leader in all of the Revolution. What we do know however, is that as he travelled across the Peloponnese with his armed band, he would always be preceded by pipers and drummers. As one contemporary wrote: “The descent of Papaflessas into Messenia had a Dionysian quality about it. Pipes, women, drums, town criers, crowds attend this strange priest… In the villages, he commanded that all the frightened villages be served wine.” Indeed Papaflessas celebrated his victories with largesse in the form of feasting for it was his ability to provide his supporters with loot, wine and provender that ensued their continued loyalty. In celebrating the freedom provided by such revolutionaries as the exuberant Papaflessas, his antipodean descendants, rather than exhibiting a gentrified disconnect from his tradition, are merely following in his footsteps. If they are raising his ire in the other world, it is not because they are degustating, but rather, because they are not throwing table manners to the wind and gorging themselves with enough gusto.
Had the organisers of the event been of Central Helladic origin, their detractors may have had a point. After all, one does not honour such Central Hellenic heroes, as Athanasios Diakos, he of «Τότε τον βάλαν στο σουγλί και παν να τόνε ψήσουν» fame, through the consumption of comestibles, especially those that require roasting upon skewers. That is why the latest “Flavours of Greece” event, held at Philhellene Restaurant in honour of Cretan freedom martyr Ioannis Vlachos, known as Daskalogiannis is so courageous and why in certain circles it is considered controversial.
Encouraged by illusory Russian promises, the hapless Daskalogiannis raised the flag of revolt on Crete on 25 March 1770, fifty-one years minus two days before the deluded Kalamatans, who strenuously maintain that they among all Greeks first proclaimed the independence of the nation. Russian assistance did not materialise (a perennial theme in the Greek discourse), and surrendering at Frangokastello, Daskalogiannis was taken to Herakelion, where he was skinned alive. Compelled to watch by the Ottomans, the sight of his suffering drove his brother insane. Definitely not the sort of martyrdom you would want to commemorate by a memorial dinner of skinless chicken breast.
What the stuffy detractors of the recent Cretan-themed “Flavours of Greece” event ignore, is that just before his final stand against the Ottomans, Daskalogiannis and his men danced the Pentozalis, and the chambers of Philhellene on the night of the event in question resounded to the strains of live Cretan music, significantly, performed by second generation Greek-Australians and one particularly fluent in Greek, Australian philhellene, signifying not only how tradition is passed on, but also, how it is shared. Rather than being disrespectful, the whole scene was reminiscent of the famous Cretan Rizitko song, where the freedom-fighter implores: “Mother, when my friends come, don’t tell them that I have died, but set the table that they may eat.” In the case of Daskalogiannis, commemorating his sacrifice through song and food, is utterly fitting.
Of late, reviewing the various events that the Greek-Australian community is holding to commemorate the Revolution, there is an emerging of opinion that is beginning to appreciate just how the vision, frame of reference and values of many of those events, especially those organised by its Australian-born members are increasingly informed by mainstream Australian discourses and modes of communication. According to this analysis, what is significant about the recent “Taste of Freedom” and “Flavours of Greece,” events is it merges two great cultural traditions: Since times ancient, Greeks have always gotten together to celebrate or to ruminate over food and wine. This is what the Symposium, the historical doppelganger of the degustation and the event in which arguably western civilisation was born, was all about. It is with food and wine that Greeks have throughout the centuries bonded with each other, and still do, through mezedes, the modern counterpart to the degustation menu, to the present day, so much so in fact that we understand our Deity to transform our gifts of bread and wine into His body and blood for our consumption, as a way of communing with Him and consider this the supreme act of our worship. The fact that this worship was instituted at a Last Supper to which He called all of His disciples, should also not go unnoticed.
Viewed from this perspective, eating and drinking in memory of the dead or those about to depart is thus neither macabre, nor disrespectful. Instead, it is deeply culturally ingrained and arguably infinitely more suited to the lives and legacies of the larger than life personalities to whom we owe our freedom than any stuffy speeches or arid, ritualistic folkloric re-enactments. Graft that inherited tradition to Melbourne’s culture of food obsession and the result is an organic, hybrid, unique approach to 1821, which is not only rooted in the past but also vigorously relevant to the place in which we all live, providing easy access for even the most disconnected, to all facets of our complex revolutionary patrimony.
Consequently, both “A Taste of Freedom,” and “Flavours of Greece,” offer us a tantalising taste of the future, should we have the courage to think beyond the conventional and seek novel and engaging ways in which to maintain the relevance of the Greek discourse within the Australian context. Should we follow their innovating lead, it is a future that shall prove for our community, very flavoursome indeed.