A Dash of Spice

07 Apr 2005

A Dash of Spice is a clearly autobiographical film made by the Greek Tassos Boulmetis and was a record box office success in his country. It has received eight national awards and represented Greece in the foreign film section of the Oscars.

It narrates a fable against the background of various, dramatic historical events. The hero is Fanis (played by Markos Osse as a child and George Corraface as an adult) who, towards the end of the 1950s, passes the happiest hours of his childhood in his grandfather Vassilis’s (Tassos Bandis) spice shop in Istanbul. He is introduced by his grandfather to a knowledge and love of both the art of food and astronomy (“The word gastronomy contains the word astronomy”).

A few years hence, in 1964, the Cyprus crisis reignites the historical situation that has continued to dog relationships between Greeks and Turks and a part of Fanis’s family – the Greek component – is forced to seek refuge from Turkey in Athens.

The separation from his grandfather and his friend Saime – the great love of his life –generates in this seven year old an immense nostalgia for what is left behind of his childhood. He manages to attenuate this suffering, at least in part, by following in his grandfather’s footsteps and dedicating himself to cooking obsessively, despite the numerous obstacles created by his family and even the local authorities.

He passes his time by perfecting the creation of Greek-Ottoman dishes which, over and above the obtuseness of historic limitations, characterise and strongly link the two countries. On one side, dishes are called Dolmadakia yialantzi, Tiropitakia or Moussakas melintzanes and, on the other, Zeytinyagli yaprak dolmasi, Peynirli sigara boregi or Patlican musakka, but they are effectively one and the same thing with the only difference being the use of specifically local spices.

On various occasions it seemed that the arrival in Athens from Istanbul of grandfather Vassilis was imminent but, in fact, he could never make up his mind to leave, fearing he would never be allowed back in again. Thus, it is the adult Fanis who decides to make peace with his past and returns to Turkey on the traces of his dying grandfather and of his beloved Saime, by now a grown woman and a mother.

The original title of the film is Politiki Kousina, which, depending on where you place the accent, can mean ‘the cooking of the polis’ (Constantinople) or ‘political cooking’, and is infinitely more relevant than the English one, which banally evokes the well worn theme of exotic-culinary productions.

The overall framework of the film is structured around three distinct time-periods that the director has defined through the courses of a Greek meal: the starters (in a wonderful spread of plates on the table), a main course and a dessert.

Despite the narrative structure being somewhat scholastic, the director has managed to forcefully communicate his love for his country and its values through the representations of food and cooking. The dramatic historic events that involved the two nations are read without any trace of the fanatic and are caringly attenuated by the dishes that unite rather than divide.

The art of cooking is shown as a metaphor for life which, though somewhat mawkish at times, is also an effective antidote to the difficult relationship between the two communities in recent years, acting as the background to the private histories of the protagonists.

It is film packed with colours and flavours, enjoyable for lovers of good food and, in particular, for all those who continue to believe that the Mediterranean must become the crucible for culture and peace once more.

Eric Vassallo collaborates with Slow Food on its Taste education and Master of Food projects and contributed to the organization of Terra Madre.

Translation by Nicola Rudge-Iannelli

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