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The Greek War of Independence in 5 minutes (and my Skordalia recipe)

Today marks 200 years since the start of the Greek war of Independence on the 25th of March 1821, so for this week's blog post I'll be sharing a bit of a history lesson (don't worry, if you make it to the end there will be a tasty recipe!)

Greece as we know it today is only a fraction of the size it used to be. The Byzantine empire at its height stretched as far as Italy, the Balkans, Asia Minor and North Africa. This is one of the reasons why Greece's struggle for independence and expansion lasted over 100 years. Greece still has beef with a few of its neighbours even today and occasionally still comes close to kicking off with Turkey.

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, which marked the fall of the Byzantine empire. Greeks still refer to Constantinople (Istanbul) as "i poli"- meaning the city, and this is where the name Istanbul actually came from. This is still a sore point to some Greeks even today, as they consider the city to be the rightful capital of Greece, and Greek tour guides will walk out of Hagia Sofia and literally pretend the Blue Mosque doesn't exist!

Although it obviously sucked to be under Turkish occupation for 400 years, the Ottomans were fairly tolerant of their subjects as long as they stayed in their lane. Greeks were defined by their religion rather than their language, and national identity wasn't really a thing at this point. Greeks called themselves Romaioi (Romans) and were ruled by the church.

The church was basically complicit in keeping the Greeks subdued, and told them that the Ottoman occupation was punishment for their sins. Another popular one was that the Ottoman Empire had been sent by God to protect the Orthodox church from the heretical Catholic church. They even shared a prophecy that Greece would be saved by the Russians, so that they wouldn't bother uprising. It was probably out of self preservation rather than loyalty for their captors however, as the church leaders were the first to be killed when the revolution kicked off.

Despite the Orthodox churches pretty strong Stockholm syndrome, the Greek revolution is strongly tied to religion, as they chose a religious day (the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary) to mark the start of the revolution even though the fighting had started a few days earlier. While most of the war was fought by local warlords and bandits known as Kleftes (remember Kleftiko?) the revolution was started by the Philiki Etairia (the friendly brotherhood- don't they sound like the world's cutest insurgents?) a secret society that was set up in Odessa to overthrow Ottoman rule. The society claimed they had Russian support, so maybe the church was right all along!

It wasn't just the Russians who were showing an interest in Greek independence. Going to Greece on the grand tour and picking up bits of antiquities was like the 19th Century version of going to Thailand on your gap year and coming back with a bamboo tattoo. All the English toffs were at it, and their primitive travel blogs held a lot of sway back home. Lord Byron and Percy Bysse-Shelley were two prominent Philhellenes (people who love Greek culture) and are credited with playing a big part in the Greek revolution. Shelley believed that 'we are all Greeks' - that civilisation owed so much to the Greeks that now would be the time to pay it back. As well as drawing attention to the cause with their Romantic poetry, Byron financed the struggle and actually fought on the ground alongside the Greeks, dying in Messolonghi of a fever during a siege. This is why most cities in Greece have a street called Byronas.

His fellow countrymen weren't so convinced however, and didn't believe that the Greeks were capable of ruling themselves. Their greatest fear was that France or Russia would gain influence in the region (sound familiar?) So after much diplomatic territorial pissing the three 'great powers' decided that the best option for everyone (apart from the Greeks obviously, but who cares about them?) would be to give Greece a German king. Ironically called Otto.They also gave Greece massive disadvantageous loans, and then seriously breached Greece's financial sovereignty when they couldn't pay. (I'm still talking about the 19th century here, by they way, but yes, it definitely sounds familiar)

As anyone who has ever watched the news will know, having different sides with different motivations backing different factions in a war that doesn't concern them is not a great idea, and this lead to a series of civil wars and a 'national schism' that tore Greek society in two and laid the groundwork for a military dictatorship in the 60s. (Also that German king didn't seem like such a good idea once the World Wars started kicking off!)

While Greece officially declared independence in1830, partly thanks to the allies annihilating the Ottoman fleet at Navarino, less than a third of its population actually lived in the 'free' territory, and what followed was over a hundred years of struggle, massacres and infighting.

Things got so brutal between the Greeks and Turks that by 1923 they decided that the only way around it was to have an exchange of population, with Greeks living in Turkish territories being forced to move to Greek territories and vice versa. As I mentioned earlier, national identity was a fairly new concept and people were defined in this instance by religion rather than language, so many of the 2 million 'Greeks' forcibly moved to Greece spoke Turkish and had Turkish customs, while the 'Turks' who had to leave their homes in Greece had lived among Greeks all their lives. This traumatic uprooting and the refugees coming from the East enriched Greek culture with Rembetika music -which expresses the culture's pain and nostalgia usually played in a cloud of smoke and alcohol fumes!

While that would be a great way to celebrate Greek independence today, Greek celebrations on the 25th of March tend to be a lot more dignified. I learnt the hard way when I ordered a cocktail at 10am while watching the parade and saw the disgust on the waiter's face. I guess I'll have to wait for Welsh independence for a proper all-dayer.

Not to say the Greeks don't go wild today, they do break the strict fast of lent to allow themselves to eat fish whilst celebrating, but this isn't actually linked to independence but to the religious day of Annunciation. Today Greeks eat bakaliaros, salted cod, with skordalia which you will recognise if you tried my Greek fish and chips. Skordalia is a Greek dip more potent than tzatziki, (if you can believe it) and made with either bread or potatoes and a lot of garlic. I make mine as a kind of potato puree and add (don't tell the Greeks!) butter instead of olive oil to make it extra creamy. It goes really well with any kind of fish, or just as a dip with crusty bread.


Boil some mashing potatoes until they are soft, and then drain and mash with a scoop of butter, a dash of milk and some salt. Add chopped garlic (as much as you can handle!) and then blend with a hand blender (if you don't have one just use a garlic crusher and mix well) finish off with some lemon juice, fresh parsley, a drizzle of olive oil and black pepper.

I will not be open for takeaway this weekend so why not try out some of my recipes instead? I'd love to hear how you get on! Let me know in the comments, and remember to like, share and subscribe!

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