How to Make A Greek Salad in Poplar in 1959

I think that we were the only Greek family in Poplar in 1959 but making a Greek Salad there in those days was different from making one today. The essence of any Greek salad is the ingredients, and the only rule about the ingredients is to use what is fresh. If there is no fresh ingredient, then do not use it. This is how we did it.

It had to be a Saturday. Saturday was for salad.

First we popped down stairs from where we lived next door to the Festive Briton Public House, walked past three corners of the pub and we were in Chrisp Street market. The first stall was run by two sisters who sold lettuce, cucumbers and other green produce on their stall which was covered with fake green grass. I used to watch them set up their stall early in the morning from my bedroom window. They waved to me, and we were, in terms of waving, quite good friends. We bought a long lettuce from the sisters; they had the best lettuce in Chrisp Street market. We also bought a cucumber and some spring onions.

Having pushed the purchases carefully into my mother’s shopping  we walked across the market, full of Saturday sounds, to the Home & Colonial shop.  Every customer was served and we all had our favourite server. Ours was called Alice, who measured out what we had ordered, packed them into my mother’s bag having first written down the price of each order in pencil on a paper bag. You could buy Feta in Poplar, so we bought Caerphilly cheese. I went through the first fifteen years of my life thinking that Greek Salad was made with Caerphilly.

Back home my father cut up the lettuce and cucumber and Spring onions very small. If we had tomatoes he cut those up very small and mixed them all together. At this stage we usually found that we had run out of olive oil. That meant running to Boots the Chemist in its shop adjacent to the market and buying a bottle of olive oil. They sold olive oil in small medicine bottles. Olive oil was in Poplar used to clean out ears, but foreign families like mine used it for salad. When we needed it quickly we bought in from Boots.

My father added olive oil to his mixture, cut up the Caerphilly and placed it on top, added malt vinegar and salt and mixed it again so that you could see beautiful patterns of olive oil and malt vinegar: that was how we made a Greek Salad in Poplar in 1959.

Of all these ingredients the olive oil had travelled the furthest, from Spain in all probability, although its origin was not on the label. the next furthest ingredient was the cheese, which came all the way from South Wales. The other ingredients travelled much shorter distances, usually from Kent or Essex. That meant that you could only eat a Greek salad at certain times of the year.

Today we cannot easily do what we did in 1959. We did not fly fresh food halfway around the world in 1959. The trip to the shop today (and it is usually one shop) needs a car or a bus. You serve yourself rather than being served. You do not need a bag; the shop will provide one. Your products are scanned and the bill is generated from the scanning. No one writes the prices on a paper bag in pencil. Olive oil is sold in all kinds of varieties each trumpeting their origins. Worst of all, you do not buy from people that you know, people with whom you have grown up and people who sell what they themselves have chosen and bought for the small business which they work.
All this makes the art of making a Greek Salad in 2013 much easier and perhaps more flavourful, but much less authentic.

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