Friday, 10 January 2014

The Feta tin: a vital part of Modern Greek Culture


In England feta — the word translates as ‘slice’, from some quaint notion that it’s possible to make a cohesive slice of the stuff — comes in polythene packets. In Greece it comes in tins. The feta tin is about a foot square and eighteen inches tall. The cheese, in half-kilo blocks, is speared out from the liquid in which it swims; a viscid yellow substance into whose provenance it is wiser not to enquire. When the tin is empty it’s put on the shop doorstep, and the lucky finder takes it to the nearest drain to empty off the yellow gunge before carting it triumphantly home.

One’s feta tin, once bagged, presents infinite possibilities. Those of a horticultural leaning turn it upside-down and, with their skeparni — a primitive adze used for everything for which you don’t use a feta tin — bash a few holes in the base. Half-filling it with earth and half with copria — goat or donkey dung — you put in your geranium and add it to the row in front of the house. If you like, you can paint the tin. Blue of course; paint in Greece is blue. The other colour is white, which you get not from paint but from asvesti, of which more another time. These two national colours derive from the flag, which itself derives from Bavaria: about two hundred years ago the Greeks, short of a king, took the Bavarian one, complete with flag. Be careful to whom of your Greek acquaintance you point this out.

Or you can make a bucket for watering your plants. Find a piece of wood the same width as the tin and nail it across the top in the middle.

Building workers use them to carry mortar and concrete. Then, you must nail the handle — a bit longer than the width of the tin — to one top edge, with a supporting piece of wood inside. Filled, this is just the weight that a healthy man can heft up onto his shoulder and then carry, one arm over his head in classic water-carrier pose, from the mixer to the Mastoras; the expert who is actually laying the bricks.

If your chimney smokes, you cut the bottom right out of a feta tin, climb up on the roof, and use it to increase the height of the stack.

If you find that your roof leaks, you get another feta tin, cut out the bottom  and down one edge, beat it flat, and make a patch.

Or you can — after thorough cleaning; old feta smells worse than a dead goat — just use it to keep things in. I keep my underwear in one and am inclined to believe many of my fellow islanders do the same.

Turned upside down a feta tin makes a good stool; one might appropriately sit on one to watch a Karagiozi show. Karagiozi is the Greek equivalent of Mr Punch, but here he’s a shadow-puppet, with one arm absurdly elongated and multi-articulated which he uses to hit his son Kolitiri or his friend Hatziavatis. A few years ago I was privileged to watch a performance by Yiannis Spatharis, doyen of Karagiozi men. Each Karagiozi-thump was marked by a loud clang. How was Yiannis managing this, with no assistant, one hand occupied with Karagiozi and the other with Hatziavati? After the show I asked him. ‘Come and see.’ He took up his position behind the white sheet, and there, between his feet, ready for a well-timed kick, was a feta-tin.


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