Blog-Pod – Arakás me Patátes – Braised Peas With Potatoes

 

In Greece, a country where vegetable recipes rule supreme, you rarely hear food described as  ‘vegetarian’.   The naming of someone as a hortofágos (vegetarian) is a relatively modern phenomenon, despite the fact that traditionally Greeks, especially in villages and islands, ate very little meat. Regular meat-eating came with growing urbanisation and relative affluence. But explaining that someone is a vegetarian can still receive disbelief . To quote the character  Aunt Voula from ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’,  ‘What do you mean, he don’t eat no meat ?!!’   It’s a response that’s not entirely the caricature you might think.  Classing food as vegetarian has the connotation of it being just a little bit strange and probably not from the usual Greek repertoire.  The funny thing is that a huge amount of daily Greek fare is not only vegetarian, it is in fact vegan . It’s just that it all goes under the very Greek classification of ‘Laderá’  –literally ‘oily food’; a term that can get a little lost in translation. For English sensibilities saying that you’re serving oily food would be received with a level of incredulity worthy of Aunt Voula. ‘What do you mean, it’s oily ?!’

Ladéra’  are traditional  vegetable stews or bakes – these are not cranky concoctions but the perfect vehicles for top class produce, in season and in prime condition. Whether it’s green beans, artichokes, aubergines, okra, courgettes or any number of dried pulses,  they can all be served as an ‘oily dish’  – the crucial point is that they are always meat free. The sauce can be tomato-based or just oil and lemon juice –  the key ingredient is good quality olive oil and plenty of it. Having said that, these dishes shouldn’t seem oily – instead the sauce should be reduced enough, so that the food ‘is left with it’s own oil’. As the phrase ‘happy ever after’ is to fairy tales, ‘na meínei mé to ládi tou ‘ is the classic line that ends all recipes for ‘Laderá’.

So seeing fresh local peas in the greengrocers this time  I cooked araká mé patátes – delightfully fragrant sweet peas, new season ‘spunta’ potatoes from Cyprus, fresh tomato, copious amounts of dill and a good glug of virgin olive oil. Who needs meat !? And who needs to be a vegetarian?! Just eat like a Greek !

500 gm freshly podded peas

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 bunch spring onions (including the leaves), chopped

2-3 carrots, peeled and chopped

2-3 medium sized tomatoes, grated

3 new potatoes, peeled and chopped into 8ths

150ml – 200 ml olive oil

A handful of chopped dill

Salt

Pepper

Heat half the olive in a a low casserole and sautée the onions until it is soft. Don’t allow it to go too brown.

And the carrots and cook for a further minute or so.

Add the grated tomato, the peas,potatoes, half a cup of water and the rest of the oil.

Season, reduce the heat and simmer for about 35 minutes.

Once the potatoes and peas are almost cooked, add the chopped dill and check the seasoning. Simmer uncovered for a further 10-15 minutes, ‘until the food remains in its own oil’.

Serve with bread and slices of salty feta.

 

 

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Myth, Memory and a Good Tomato Sauce

You know how it is, you’re flicking through an old recipe book, a piece of paper drops out and it’s like looking through a window into the past. There it was, stuffed into the back of my ‘Good Housekeeping Cookery Book’, a list of our favourites dishes. Just married, my husband, Mihalis, and I had drawn up a list made up of a) the things I could cook and b) the things we liked to eat. In many ways it’s a list of its time (circa 1980 I guess) so there’s no quinoa, ramen or Ottolenghi-style salads … I can’t remember the last time I made beef stroganoff, or chicken ‘Maryland’. How times change.

It was rather reassuring to see all the English and Greek classics there – roast dinners and shepherds pie sat alongside kefetdákia and spanakórizo. If we were to do the list again today, a lot of those favourites would be there – it is a bit scary to think how many times you’ve actually cooked some things over the years, the main benefit being that practice, in most cases, makes perfect ! There is one recipe that has eluded me though, and that’s a classic tomato sauce for pasta.

It is a culinary quest, as mythical and arduous as the search for the Holy Grail; I’ve tried various versions of pasta napolitana or pomodoro – I’ve cooked Carluccio’s, Jamie’s and Gennaro’s. I have invested in every volume by the ladies at River Café and scoured the internet for any hint or tip that I can find. In all honesty, my mission is probably doomed as I’m tackling an almost impossible task; I am trying to recreate the sublime without ever having experienced it. Basically the problem is that I don’t have Aunt Tatiani’s recipe.

My husband’s great aunt, Tatiani, born and bred on Kos, was married to an Italian. In those days the island, like all the others in the Dodecanese, was actually part of Italy and the influences were many. The Kingdom of Italy  brought with it civic administration, architecture and Italians.  So Tatiani learned la cucina italiana, including the quintessential tomato sauce. To this day, the whole family still talks about it but no one has the recipe. Whenever we meet elderly aunts, the question is always the same, ‘Do you remember Tatiani’s sauce ?’ And they, in turn, go misty-eyed and reverential but no one knows what made it quite so perfect.

Some say it was the tomatoes she used back then – and after all, the Italians did bring ‘Roma’ plum tomatoes to the island and Kos had the ideal conditions to grow them. By the mid-1950s – and Kos now Greek – the island was cultivating over 2,500 acres of plum tomatoes. A tomato processing factory, AVIKO, was set up and, in its heyday, it produced 400 tons of tomato purée daily, making up half of Greece’s total output. The coastal part of the town, now known for its clubs and bars, was then constantly fragrant with the smell of slow-cooking tomatoes and the sea was permanently warm from the factory’s tomatoey bi-products ! The rise of tourism meant the decline in agriculture AVIKO finally closed in 1994, leaving the factory derelict and abandoned. 

But none of this helps me with reproducing Tatiani’s recipe. I have tried fresh tomatoes and tinned ones, used onions and basil and, at other times, left them out. I saw Rick Stein add a spoonful of sugar to his once, and thought that would finally give me the answer –  but no – somehow it still wasn’t ‘like Aunt Tatiani’s’.

Whenever we meet Italians, at some point I know that Mihalis will pose the inevitable question, “So what’s your recipe for tomato sauce ?”  The latest contender has been the wonderful Matteo, il capo of the equally wonderful Bragazzi’sin Sheffield. Not only does he regularly supply us with incredible coffee and panini, he has now divulged his grandmother’s recipe for tomato sauce but he manages our expectations of success.

‘Of course, she made her passata herself, from their own tomatoes.’ He says, ‘Your sauce is only ever as good as the tomatoes you use.’    He recommends cans of Mutti as suitable substitutes.

Matteo tells us of finely chopped soffritto, from equal amounts of onion, celery and carrot, and above all hours, and hours, and hours of very gentle cooking. When it’s done there’s no throwing the pasta into the sauce – the sauce and the pasta are carefully combined in a dish, and served with ‘seasoned parmigiano’.

Armed with the tins of Mutti tomatoes and some of his excellent spaghetti, I give the recipe a go. It is tremendously therapeutic to cook and and is certainly one of the best pomodoro sauces I have ever eaten.

I’m not sure the recipe is the same as Aunt Tatiani’s – for me that has taken on the status of the lost gold of the Incas – but in spirit it was just the same I’m sure. There was something of her bygone Kos in that bubbling pan and the intense aroma of slowly cooked tomatoes. More than that, this is a recipe that satisfies something beyond appetite. It is an old-fashioned recipe in the best possible way, with scrupulous attention to detail, from the quality of the simple ingredients, to the meticulous method of cooking them. It is a recipe that exudes the love of nurturing and feeding a family, and the comforting cosiness of home. Perhaps that is what makes some food so special, that seers it into our memory. It’s not just the recipe, but the love the goes into the cooking. 

 Many thanks to Matteo for sharing it with me.

http://www.bragazzis.co.uk/cafe.html  224-226 Abbeydale Rd., Sheffield, S7 1FL

Thanks to photographer and blogger, Sophia Karagianni, for the photo and history of AVIKO http://photographybysophiakaragianni.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/blog-post_4.html

                                                                                    Matteo’s Tomato Sauce

This sauce takes around 6 hours to cook – up to 8 is probably better! This quantity makes enough sauce for a kilo of pasta, so freeze half for another time.

The base for this sauce is a soffrito Ingredients – a mix of raw, very finely chopped vegetables. They are :

300 gm white onion

300 gm celery

300 gm carrots

2 tablespoonfuls butter

2 tablespoonfuls olive oil

2 x 400 gm cans good quality chopped tomatoes (‘Mutti’, ‘Cirio’ or similar)

500 gm good quality passata (‘Mutti’, ‘Cirio’ or similar)

(1 crushed clove of garlic – optional)

Salt and black pepper.

Put the oil and butter in a large pan and heat until the butter has melted and just started to sizzle.

Add the ‘soffritto’ and cook very slowly, stirring occasionally, until gooey and soft. This could take around 30 – 40 minutes or longer.  When you start,  the raw ingredients will almost fill the pan, by the end they will just about cover the bottom of it.

Now add the chopped tomatoes (NOT the passata) add a little salt and pepper and cook on a low heat for about 2 hours, stirring from time to time. Obviously it is important that it doesn’t stick.

If you want to add the garlic, do it at this point.

Next add the passata. Mix it in to the thick, tomato and soffrito mixture and again cook for another 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Check the seasoning.

Cook 300 – 500 gm of pasta in salted water until ‘al dente’. Drain the pasta but keep back a bit of the cooking water.

When adding the sauce to the cooked pasta, do this in a large, warm serving dish. Add the sauce a couple of spoonfuls at a time, along with a little of the retained cooking water until the pasta is well coated with tomato sauce.

Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Condensed Soup Not Required – Arnáki Frikasé

It was late 1975 and I was on a mission to impress my Greek boyfriend by learning how to cook some of his national dishes. This wasn’t easy then, apart from the dearth of some vital ingredients, there was really only one cookbook available and also, at that point, I had never been to Greece.  With the best intentions, my sister passed on a recipe for a Greek lamb casserole and I diligently copied it down into the back of my copy of ‘The Home Book of Greek Cookery’ – and there it still is. I think I probably cooked it once, maybe twice, but it wasn’t as authentic  as I had hoped.

It starts off reasonably enough with trimmed, cubes of lamb, ‘sprinkled with lemon juice and salt’. The addition of onion and garlic is fine too. The use of thyme, cinnamon and rosemary is probably ok but mushrooms are not commonly used in Greece. It all starts to go really weird with the appearance of a tin of celery soup (condensed) on the list of ingredients. I can safely say that as my familiarity with Greek food has grown, I have never added a can of soup (condensed or otherwise) to any traditional Greek dish. But then, this was England and it was the mid-Seventies.

Some years later, on a bitterly cold but incredibly bright, winter’s day in northern Athens, we went for a spot of Sunday lunch. It was one of those long, leisurely taverna lunches and I vividly remember a rickety building, with steamy windows, heated by a wood-burning stove – its long, metal chimney snaking across the ceiling. The meal was one of lots of different winter dishes – perhaps plates of stuffed cabbage leaves, maybe some bulgur wheat, maybe some chickpeas, the most memorable though was a steaming bowl of fragrant, creamy greens and unctuous, tender lamb. That’s when the penny dropped and I realised what that recipe of lamb and condensed celery soup, albeit in a very Seventies’ way, was trying to recreate.  It had, of course, meant to be ‘arnáki frikasé’.

You don’t need to be a great linguist to realise that fricassée is not a very Greek word. I imagine our old friend Nikos Tselementés, as part of his campaign to westernise Greek food, gave a pre-existing traditional dish a fancy European name. In classic French cuisine, fricassée is made by braising meat or poultry without browning the meat, adding some vegetables (usually mushrooms)  and thickening the cooking juices with a white, roux sauce or heavy cream. So you can see how, if you wanted to rebrand a dish of braised lamb, leaf vegetables, fresh herbs, all finished with the very Greek egg and lemon sauce, you would give it the tag of ‘fricassée’.

Although it is one of the loveliest, most delicate of traditional casseroles, it is possibly the least photogenic ! Appearances aren’t everything though and  with it you have a perfectly balanced, one-pot meal that combines a small amount of lamb with piles of braised lettuce or spinach; the creamy avgolémono sauce is a very light, low-fat alternative to cream. Combined with a side dish of boiled rice, it is one of my favourite meals for a cold winter’s day.

So this is the real Arnaki Frikasé and a can of celery soup (condensed) is definitely NOT required

Arnáki Frikasé

For the casserole

500 – 700 gm trimmed, cubed leg of lamb

1 tablespoon of olive oil

400 gm washed spinach OR  2 romaine/cos lettuces OR a  400gm combination of spinach and lettuce (The lettuce should be shredded. If the spinach has small leaves they can be left whole, if they are large leaves they also need to be shredded.)

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 small leek, finely chopped

500 ml boiling water

A handful of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

A handful of dill, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon of corn flour

2 spring onions, finely chopped

For the avgolémono 

2 eggs

Juice of 1 lemon

Heat the olive oil in a metal casserole, add the pieces of lamb and gently seal them in the hot oil, turning the pieces so that they do not over cook. Remove them from the pan and set aside.

Add the chopped leek and onion to the casserole and soften in the oil. Return the meat to the pan and turn it in the softened leek and onion.

Add about 500ml of boiling water and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 1 hour, until the pieces of lamb are very tender. It may be necessary to add a bit more water as it cooks, you don’t want it to get too dry.

When the meat is cooked, add the chopped lettuce and/or spinach, the dill and parsley and allow to cook gently until the leaves have wilted. This takes about 15 – 20 minutes.

In a cup or small bowl mix the corn flour with a little cold water. Add about a tablespoonful of the cooking liquid from the casserole and mix it well. Now stir the thinned cornflour into the meat and vegetables in the pan and heat well, until the cooking liquid has thickened slightly. Add the finely chopped spring onions and remove the pan from the heat.

Now make the avgolemono. Break the eggs into a fairly large bowl and mix well with a whisk. Bit by bit, add small amounts of lemon juice, whisking in each one well, before adding the next.

Now start adding spoonfuls of the hot cooking liquid from the casserole a little at a time, whisking continuously. Do this with as much of the liquid as possible.

Now put the egg, lemon, cooking liquid mixture back into the casserole with the meat and vegetables. Check the seasoning and stir it gently and then allow it all to rest for a few minutes. If it does need re-heating, do this over a low heat so that the sauce doesn’t curdle.

Serve with boiled rice, and bread – slices of feta are also a nice accompaniment.

 

 

 

 

My Mongrel Christmas Recipe – Mince Pies with Kourambié Pastry

As a Gree-nglish family we have become accustomed to segue fairly seamlessly between Greek and English culture. There is a remarkably even-handed choice between food, customs and idiosyncrasies of both countries. Favourite family meals could be moussaká or equally meat and potato pie; our kettle is absolutely indispensable but we never use a washing-up bowl. My Greek husband loves a cup of tea – complete with milk – and I’m rather partial to a good frappé.  The kids owe allegiance to both countries but the trickiest dilemma will always be a Greece v England football match – fortunately that doesn’t happen too often ! Let’s just say that mentioning Beckham’s goal in the crucial 2001 showdown is taboo. When it comes to high days and holidays things can get a little confusing. Usually Easter is realtively straightforward – more often than not the different religious calendars mean that we get two shots at it. It’s fair to say that of the two, a full-blown Greek Easter is this family’s favourite by far. Christmas though is an entirely different matter .

Over the years our Christmas has developed into a sort of tandem celebration. We have both a Christmas tree and a decorated sailboat, ‘á la grecque’. The children used to put out stockings on Christmas Eve, with the usual treats for Santa too, but on New Year’s Day we cut a Vassilópita. It is done with all the customary wishes and the blessings for us, our relatives, absent friends, Jesus and the poor. Curiously, there is always much more excitement over who gets the coin in the Vassilópita than for the one in the Christmas pudding – I cannot quite explain why.

Out of all of this a truly mongrel recipe has been born. I worked out early on that baking two lots of Christmas goodies was unfeasible and, frankly just over the top. Melomakárona,  those delectable, honey-drenched, spiced cakes are clear favourites, so they are always present. Traditional British Christmas cake did not make it in our popularity contest and has been dropped. The Anglo-Saxon in me couldn’t bring myself to leave Father Christmas a kourambié along with his glass of sherry, so in a moment of madness the solution to that conundrum was born. Mince Pies with Kourambié Pastry.

Kourambiédes are the greek Christmas biscuits made from ground almonds, butter and finished off with a good dusting of icing sugar. Here my mince pies are made with a rich, sweet, almond pastry and the mincemeat is ‘pimped’ with chopped dried figs, dates, apricots and walnuts. For me, it combines our two homelands perfectly with flavours, resonances and ingredients from both. After all, the currants, raisins and sultanas that are the staples of British holiday baking were of course traditionally from Greece.

I couldn’t say whether this is a Greek recipe from an English kitchen, or an English recipe from a Greek one, but in our family that’s probably just fine. Happy Christmas and Καλά Χριστούγεννα !

Mongrel Mince Pies with ‘Kourambié’ Pastry

Ingredients for the ‘Kourambié’ Pastry

580 gm plain flour – you will need a bit extra as well, for rolling out the pastry.

80 gm ground almonds

340 gm butter, cut into small pieces

170 gm icing sugar, sifted

Zest of a lemon

2 egg yolks, beaten

5 tablespoons milk – and a little extra for assembling the pies.

Making the pastry

Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl, add the ground almonds.

Add the butter and ‘rub’ it in to the flour and almond mixture with your fingers, until it resembles breadcrumbs.

Add the sifted icing sugar and the lemon zest and stir in with a knife.

Add the beaten egg yolk and half the milk and mix into the dry ingredients until you have a soft dough. You may need to add the rest of the milk during mixing if it needs it.

(Obviously all of this can also be done in a food processor.)

Cover the pastry with cling film and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out.

This quantity of pastry will make 48 mince pies.

‘Pimped’ Mincemeat 

410 gm jar of mincemeat – it doesn’t have to be a very fancy one as you’re going to add lots of nice things !

50 gm chopped walnuts

80 gm chopped ‘ready to eat’ dried figs

80 gm chopped ‘ready to eat’ dried apricots

80 gm chopped ‘ready to eat’ dried dates

40 gm chopped cranberries

1 medium apple, peeled and diced

1 tablespoon brandy

1 teaspoon orange blossom water (optional)

Cloves – for decoration (optional)

Put the mincemeat into a good sized mixing bowl and add all the chopped nuts and fruit. Add the brandy and orange flower water, if using it, and mix well. This is enough mincemeat for 48 mince pies.

Assembling the pies

You will need 4 x 12 hole ‘patty’ tins. Lightly grease them with a bit of buttered paper.

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees.

Take the pastry from the fridge and put onto a lightly floured work surface.

Roll out until it is quite thin with a floured rolling pin. This is a soft pastry and it’s important not to handle it too much as it will become sticky – the stickiness can be controlled by keeping the work surface and the rolling pin dusted with flour.

Using a pastry cutter, or a glass, cut out discs of pastry approximately 7cm diameter – you will need 2 discs for each pie.

Line the patty tins with half the pastry discs and put a small spoonful of the mincemeat into each. Now use the rest of the discs as pie tops.

Brush the edge of each of these discs with a little milk before positioning and gently press them all the way round to form a seal.  Don’t brush the tops with milk or beaten egg – they do not need a glaze.

Put the pies in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes until a light golden colour.

Carefully remove the pies from the patty tins and allow to cool on a cooling rack. If required, a clove can be inserted into the top of each pie.

When they are cool, dust liberally with icing sugar and serve.

Market Madness and ‘The Greek Kitchen’

There is something about a market that draws me like the proverbial bee to the honeypot- no matter where, the mere glimpse of fresh produce on a trestle table and I am totally ensnared. Of course, some markets are more memorable than others. High up on the list is Barcelona’s  La Boqueria, with its incredible fish, shellfish and the tapas stands with the paper cones of serrano ham and manchego.

Anyone who has used Elizabeth David’s ‘Italian Food’ knows that a visit to Venice’s Mercati di Rialto is an absolute must – her description of soft-shelled crabs has been eternally etched into my subconscious. In Nice, half a day from one long weekend was spent at the Cours Saleya; lunch was an impromptu picnic of season-perfect medlars, apricots and cherries on the Promenade des Anglais.

In Rome it was the Campo di Fiori, where the baby artichokes proved to be totally irresistible. Doesn’t everyone tour the Colosseum with a bag of vegetables?  But part from the ‘celebrity’ markets, even the less well-known ones can be totally intriguing. Every Thursday and Saturday, just off the Place de Bastille in Paris, the middle of rue Richard Lenoir is taken up with endless stalls of seasonal produce, gorgeous fish, regional cheeses and more. In Amsterdam, the Albert Cuyup street market is the place for more varieties of tomatoes than you ever thought possible and, of course, bicycles – well it is Amsterdam.

The masochistic frustration of these visits is that you lust after all the goodies,  without the opportunity to cook them (or perhaps even ride them!) In Athens, a group of enterprising people with a similar passion has created the way to deal perfectly with this form of unrequited love.

In the first months of 2017 ‘The Greek Kitchen’ opened up  on the second floor of a building in central Athens. right next to the historic and endlessly fascinating Varvakeios market. They give visitors to the city guided tours of the market and follow up with hands-on tuition in the classics of Greek cooking. The success of the concept has been confirmed by its TripAdvisor status and is currently the second most popular cooking ‘experience’ in Athens. The surprising thing about ‘The Greek Kitchen’ is that it is the brainchild of two ‘ex-pats’, Stephen Akehurst, from England and Nevyana Kolarova, from Bulgaria. Stephen’s travels have taken him all over the world but Greece has always been his touchstone, with the certainty that his ultimate goal was to settle in Athens. In 2013 he started bringing groups of travellers to Greece and included a visit to an Athenian suburban street market into the mix – the concept of ‘The Greek Kitchen’ was born. Stephen and Nevyana had the vision and the dream, but they needed a skilled Greek chef to bring it to life – Vásia Sakka is that person.

Vásia learned to cook at her mother’s side but with her parents having their own business,  Vásia took over the daily cooking from a young age. This was by no means a chore for her;  food and shared meals were, and still are, at the centre of family life. Years of  professional cooking honed her skills and has forged her into this new role as teacher. Vásia has hit her stride and seems to have found her true calling. The cookery lessons are mainly done as group workshops but individual or smaller classes are available too. Either way the concept is for the participants to have a real ‘hands on’ experience – ‘I’m here to give instructions, not a demonstration.’ Vásia insists.

My visit to The Greek Kitchen  was on a day when Vásia was doing a one-to-one class; her pupil, a young American traveller,  Alex. The lesson for the day included, spanakórizo, melitzanosaláta, braised peas with potatoes with the ‘core module’ being a  Greek salad. When I arrived the peas were cooked, the spanakórizo was simmering on the stove and Alex’s garlic chopping technique was being monitored by her eagle-eyed tutor, Vásia . And Vásia is a great teacher, although she freely admits that at first it was all a bit daunting – you get no inkling of this from her easy manner and confident English.  A class at  The Greek Kitchen  is definitely a fun experience, not a challenge.

This ‘private lesson’ had started some 2 hours earlier, with a shopping trip to the market and the perfect opportunity for Alex to learn how to select prime ingredients. Alex, on a three month trip to Europe from Mississippi, said that she had chosen to do cookery classes in each of the countries she was visiting as a way to get behind the tourist facade and experience a bit of local life. What better way can there be to achieve that than shopping and cooking like a native?  Vásia emphasises this is as one of The Greek Kitchen’s main goals, ‘It’s all about transferring culture through food.’ Following on from the classes, the participants are emailed the day’s recipes, so they can cook them again when they get back home.

With the aubergines pounded to a paste and the finely-chopped garlic added, it is time for Alex to put the final dish together and it’s a classic Greek salad. Vásia gets Alex to recite the ingredients and then it’s back to the chopping board. With everything in the bowl,  Vásia shows her how to finish it off with salt, (definitely no ground pepper) olive oil and feta; nothing is left to chance – the sequence for adding the feta and oil is crucial. If the feta is crumbled, then the oil is drizzled last – if the feta is left as a whole slice, then the oil goes on before. I revel in the attention to detail. Then it’s one teaspoon of oregano,’  she insists, ‘We need to have balance in our spices.’ 

At the table on the open-air terrace next to the kitchen, we sit and share the dishes that Alex has prepared. Impressively, for a self-confessed non-cook,  Alex has made tasty, traditional Greek dishes that are absolutely authentic. Sharing a meal at the end of the class is an integral part of The Greek Kitchen experience, in exactly the same way that it is an important part of Greek life. However busy she is, Vásia says that a four hour Sunday lunch with her own family is still absolutely essential. Around the  dinner table is the best place to catch up on news, gossip and crucially, to set the world to rights.

The talk turns to Greece, travel, traditions and the future for their cookery school. Despite the challenges of the Greek economy, things are looking very good with bookings all through the winter and well into next year. It is the combination of this kind of imaginative ‘start ups’ and a really vibrant cultural scene that has set the media calling  Athens the new Berlin – I throw this observation into the conversation.

No!’ Says Vásia, ‘Not Berlin ! It’s the new Montmartre !’      Now there’s a thought !

Find ‘The Greek Kitchen’ on 2nd Floor, 36 Athinas Street, Athens  Tel.:+30 699 387 1820

https://www.greekkitchenathens.com

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g189400-d12118522-Reviews-The_Greek_Kitchen-Athens_Attica.html

Photos copyright  The Greek Kitchen or Kouzina Cooking

 

 

 

 

Athens in autumn – with a souvláki on the side

Autumn in Greece arrives surreptitiously – it creeps stealthily through September and most of October with such a gradual readjustment of temperature and sunlight that summer feels almost endless. Spending this time in the southern Aegean we have been truly spoilt – swimming in warm seas well into the second week of this month – but our time is up and home beckons.  The flight from Kos to Athens takes only forty minutes but it seems to have transported us, not only from island to city, but from summer to autumn too. We land in rain and our lightweight island clothes seem incongruous; our Athenian friends are wearing coats. We change and bring out the jackets that we last wore in England four weeks before. There is another season in the air and it is not entirely expected or welcome. 

The next morning though comes with golden light and balmy warmth – the rain has gone , the sun is shining and our summer clothes again feel right. This is a perfect Athenian Sunday, a day for meeting friends for lunch, for walking and talking. A walk round Pláka is suggested and there can be no better day for such a thing. We meet in Monastiráki Square and it seems that all of life is here. There are fruit sellers, with barrows full of grapes and figs and even the first clementines; balloon sellers, beggars and buskers; the old, the young, those who know where they’re going and others studying street maps. Above it all, of course, is the Parthenon.

Pláka is one of the ‘must see’ places for most visitors to Athens; with its narrow streets and  nineteenth century, neo-classical buildings it gives us a glimpse of an older version of the city. It has though been a victim of its own popularity and in the days of high summer the streets are busy with tourists. For me there are too many shops selling the ubiquitous souvenirs and too many waiters calling out for you to sit at their tables. But on a sunny, Sunday in October, with the streets a little quieter, this is the perfect time to see the place;  even so we leave the shops and tavernas behind and make our way up the hill of the Acropolis. There can be no greater delight than finding something new in a place that you think you know well. There is an obvious pleasure in revisiting favourite haunts but finding new ones is truly gratifying. On the foothills of the Acropolis of Athens, on that bright Sunday in mid-October I came across my new favourite place in this city – Anafiótika.

The story goes that in the early 1830’s, when Athens became the capital of the brand new nation of Greece, builders and stone masons were brought in from the tiny Cycladic island of Anáfi. These Anáfiot craftsmen set to work building the palace for the Bavarian prince, Otto, who had been shipped in to rule the Hellenes. In the daytime the builders worked at the palace, but in the evenings they built homes for themselves. Of course,  they built homes that reminded them of those left behind on their little island, so many miles away. So that is how, just a ten minute walk away from the busiest, most urban parts of Athens, you find yourself in a little ‘island’, amongst pretty whitewashed houses with brightly coloured shutters. Ambling along these meandering lanes, overhung with bougainvillea and jasmine, it is hard to believe that you are not far away from the city, on an island in the Aegean. It is charming, genuine and peaceful; a true oasis in the metropolis.

We go for lunch back down in Monastiráki Square, the venue is one of the homes of the kebab, ‘Sávvas’. It is a shame that for the British, kebabs have become synonymous with the conclusion to boozie night out. In Greece ‘souvláki’, real Greek kebabs that is, are a delicacy in their own right. Of course, you can have some pretty grim ones – just like fish and chips in England, quality is everything. There are innumerable souvláki restaurants around Monastiráki and, a bit like football teams, each one has its followers and people are incredibly loyal. You either have your souvláki at Bairaktíris, or Sávvas or Thanásis – we are usually in the Thanásis camp. Today we are overruled – we are supping with the enemy it seems, so Sávvas it is !

Although they have been cooking kebabs in Athens since 1922 it is only since the turn of the millennium that Savvas moved into the multi-storey premises on Ermou Street. This is truly the cathedral of the kebab. The place to be, of course, is on the top floor with its roof-top terrace and views of the Parthenon – at Sunday lunchtime it is incredibly busy. The clientele are from all classes, and are of all ages, and such is the prestige of the place, that there are even families here for celebratory meals. Forget those greasy UK kebabs served on polystyrene trays at 2am, this is ‘souvlaki’, a real dish in its own right.

Even though Greeks have been cooking bits of skewered meat over charcoal for thousands of years, most of the kebab houses in Monastiráki owe a lot of their culinary tradition to the cooks that came from Asia Minor in the 1920s. They introduced different versions and mixes of meat and spices, bringing some eastern flavours to the cooking and serving of souvlaki and also the word ‘kebáp’ (κεμπάπ).

Whenever ordering a kebab in Greece there are some basic things you need to know. First of all the choice will be between ‘pieces’ (komátia), small cubes of meat, or ‘mince’ (kimá), a long thin sort of burger – both will be served chargrilled.  Next, you can have either type ‘wrapped’ – this means that the meat will be wrapped in a soft pita bread. By the way, real Greek pita bread bears no resemblance to the ones found in UK supermarkets. Along with the meat there will be all sorts of other things included in the wrap. If you go for ‘everything’ (ap’óla) , this will be sliced tomatoes, onions, chopped parsley, tzatzíki and even chips. The more sophisticated version (well that’s how I like of think of it) will leave out the chips. Souvlaki can also be ordered as a ‘portion’ (merída), here the meat will be served on a plate, on top of the pita and with less of the other bits and pieces.

All that is just the basic souvlaki order -and at ‘Savas’ there many, many types to choose from. I am rather partial to  yaurtlú kebáp’, grilled minced meat souvlaki, served with pieces of pita bread and all topped off with yoghourt and spices.  The side dish of wafer thin courgette fries was extremely good and incredibly moreish . At Sávvas, as at all the most reputable kebab houses, the meat is the key, and whatever you have will be grilled to perfection. This is honest, food, cooked well, served without any pretension and enjoyed by all, regardless of class or age – a truly democratic dish in fact.

Sávvas,   Ermou Street, Athens. http://www.savvas-restaurant.com/

It is almost pointless to try to recreate this dish at home – disappointment is almost certainly guaranteed. If you do want to have a go, this is a good mix for the mince version.

Souvláki (with mince)

500 gm minced beef – or a 50/50 combination of minced beef and pork, or beef and lamb. Don’t go for extremely lean meat – you need a bit of fat to keep it moist.

Salt

Ground black pepper

Quarter of a teaspoon of ground cumin

Put all the ingredients into a bowl, mix well with your hands.

Shape into sausage shapes and grill or griddle cook, until cooked.

Serve in pita bread with with sliced tomatoes, onions, chopped parsley and tzatziki.

(Greedy people can add chips.)

Little Odysses and ‘Business’ Lunches – Nisyros and Kalymnos.

What is it about glimpsing an island on the horizon that immediately fills you with the need to go there and get a closer look. The compulsion to travel to lands that we can merely glimpse from afar must be one of the oldest desires of mankind. I defy anyone to resist that simple urge to go to that hazy bank on the other side of a river, or to some barely visible shore across the sea. Our natural human curiosity cannot, it seems, be suppressed and it always drives us across any stretch of water to explore that place ‘over there’. Stand on any Greek harbour and, more likely than not, there will be a boat to take you on to the next port in the seemingly endless chain of islands. On Kos where so many other islands and, arguably, even another continent, seem just an arm’s length away the temptation to travel is irresistible. We succumb and board a boat to Nisyros.

Nisyros lies just off the southern coast of Kos and after an hour’s boat trip, the traveller finds herself at the island’s port, Mandraki. It is a delightful town, with winding streets and a hilltop castle and the chapel of The Madonna of the Cave set deep within. 

With waves breaking on the rocks close by, we find a baker with freshly baked pies and kouloúria – a quick bite and a coffee set us up for further exploration. Sat on a doorstep a lady is peeling plum tomatoes.

’For sauce?’  Is the question.  ‘No, for a spoon sweet.’ She replies. Domatáki Glykó is a delicacy of these islands; syrup-preserved and almost caramelised, the plum tomatoes take on the texture of candied fruit.

This is an island forged from stone and magma, in fact the centre of the island is a vast, volcanic caldera which is still seething and active. No visit to Nisyros is complete without a trip to the volcano’s biggest explosion sink, ‘Stefanos’. It is an almost lunar landscape, with fumaroles venting boiling steam and a sulphurous atmosphere. In the crater it is hot and in the midday sun the utter whiteness  is blinding. In search of respite we make our way up the mountain to the village of Emborió.

Emborió teeters on the edge of the caldera, clinging to the rocks with true hellenic tenacity. The word Emborió has the same roots as the word  ‘emporium’, and tells us that this was once a vibrant place of trade and business . Now though there are too many abandoned houses; we pick our way through shells of family homes which, in a curious way, have become as picturesque as the well-maintained ones. Personally, I would prefer to see them all lived in and that Emborió was as busy as its name implies. Walking through its narrow streets you are certain that you could be nowhere else in the world; it is a quintessential Greek village, with whitewashed walls set against a cloudless, azure sky.

Lunch is at the village’s only taverna, a rare place of business these days, ’Tó Balkoni tou Emborioú’, with its tables set on the balcony and an unsurpassable backdrop. Overlooking the caldera, we dine on tiny stewed okra; the skill of the cook meaning that they are still intact and none of their gluiness has seeped into the sauce.

There are ambelofásoula, fresh black eye beans complete with pods, but these aren’t just boiled – here they are braised with oil and spring onions and delicately flavoured with dill. The stuffed courgette flowers and vine leaves are culinary masterpieces and the signature dish of crisp, light, chickpea fritters, revithokeftédes are absolutely faultless. This is the most perfect of lunches; talk and laughter and food and wine, all framed by the most incredible of views.

We meander and marvel at this most beautiful of islands until our time is up. Our boat is in the harbour and the journey back to Kos is accompanied by the setting sun.

‘Come with us to Kalymnos!’ Our friends propose a few days later and, of course, we offer no resistance. From the beach where we swim most days we can see Kalymnos, fawn-coloured and dry, emerging from the sea like some vast basking creature; obviously we need to visit it. Again the journey is only an hour but this time we go north. Kalymnos is an island of sheer rock faces, of bays and fjord-like inlets, rock-climbers and sponges. We drive along the coastal road until we come to a seaside village and it’s name is Emborió.

Like its namesake on Nisyros, this Emborió would too once have been a place of business and commerce, with the wealth of Kalymnos coming from sponges and the fearlessness of her skilled sponge divers. Now Emborió  is a charming little harbour for sailboats and yachts to drop anchor for a while and the business comes from the fish restaurants on the beach. At the taverna ‘Captain Costas’,  we chat with the eponymous captain for a bit and he tells of his years at sea, first as a sponge diver and then as a fisherman. We get a lesson in choosing a good sponge – not the lacy ‘kapádiko’ type, the unbleached ‘fíno’ variety, with tight pores, he says, are the best.

Lunch is eaten on the beach and starts with the house ‘Kalymnian Salad’ – ripe tomatoes, pungent olives and crisp cucumber, on a base of crunchy, ‘kouloura’ and topped off with a mountain of creamy, fresh, home-made cheese. In such a place as this our main dishes obviously come from the sea; grilled octopus, the season’s tiny fried whitebait and fragrant, red mullet, all just caught and all cooked to perfection.

Our time on Kalymnos comes to and end too soon and the ferry awaits. Watching the harbour, with its houses stacked up on the hillside recede, it strikes me yet again that no two Greek islands are ever the same – each has its own individual style, its own features, its own culture, cuisine and traditions. These three island that are so very close together could not be more different. You could not mistake Kos for Kalymnos, or Kalymnos for Nisyros. There is no ‘best’ island and there is no definitive Greek island because they are all so different and idiosyncratic. And there it is, the reason for that compulsion to get to the next one and the need to discover more. For this stay,  we’ve probably run out of time for anymore little odysseys,  but then who knows where temptation leads ?

Find ‘To Balkóni tou Embrioú’ in Emborió, Nisyros and at  http://balkoni-nisiros.com/1/

‘Captain Costas’ is in Emborió, Kalymnos and at  https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g189439-d4760323-Reviews-Captain_Kostas_Restaurant-Kalymnos_Dodecanese_South_Aegean.html

 

Myths and More -and a bit of kolokithópita

For someone who is an extreme Philhellene, I have a confession to make. Don’t worry – I’m not about to admit to a deep dislike of sapphire seas and sunlit vistas. I am not going to ‘fess up to an antipathy to the fruits of the olive tree or, an abhorrence of the aubergine. The reality is that my familiarity with Greek mythology is, at best, hazy.  Not having benefited from a classical education, I am a bit bemused by it all. For starters there’s Zeus and his predilection for dressing up in the bedroom. I mean – honestly – who would be seduced by someone assuming the guise of a golden shower ? Then he prances about, got up as a white bull, to have his wicked way with Europa, like some sort of lad on a weekend away.

Moving on, after an awful lot of shenanigans, he begets his favourite daughter, Athena (fully formed – that seems to be significant) from having his head split open by any number of divine or demi-divine culprits. And that’s just Zeus ! But believe me, I do try to get a handle on all of this- then I came across Eridanus. Now, Eridanus is one of those curious mythical entities that is both an almost person and, well, something else too. I’ll give you the gist of it all.

There seemed to be some sort of family fracas between Helios (the Sun god) and his offspring. Somehow one of them, his son Phaeton, phell into a river in the phar north and that river morphed into Eridanus, which became  the source of amber – the amber being formed from the tears of Helios’ grieving daughters. A truly beautiful explanation for the creation of amber, to be sure; and of course amber is mainly found in northern Europe. It’s a lovely tale. So you see, I spend a lot of time (when not cooking, of course) reading up about all things Greek and over the last few weeks it was almost impossible not to miss two very Greek stories.

One that really hurt was the demise of an ancient Athenian institution. On my very first visit to the capital, on a meltingly hot day, I was ushered down subterranean steps into a sparse interior. It seemed incongruous to seek refuge from the searing heat in a shop whose only means of cooking was frying; frying above and frying below. And then I was given a plate of edible, amber balls. Not real amber, of course, these were crisp, honey-gilded doughnuts. Not large and bready, like the western variety, these were just big enough for a couple of bites and as light as amber. The colour was pure gold and the flavour was honey; if you could eat amber, I think it would have tasted so. I had eaten my first loukoumádes in their very temple; we were in the home of the loukoumás – the confectioner,  Aigaíon.  http://www.loukoumades-aigaion.gr/

It seems though, that Agaíon has become another victim of ‘The Crisis’, or maybe shifting habits, but after almost 100 years, the iconic home of loukoumádes has announced their closure. Situated close to the university, and en route to Omónia Square, I imagine that in the early Twenties and right through to the Nineties, they were situated perfectly. There would have been hungry students, workers, business types and shoppers, all ready for a sweet fix at any time of the day. Now, although loukoumádes have ditched their prosaic image and are found in even the swankiest of Greek restaurants, it seems that Athenians are seeking sweetness elsewhere. Aigaíon has closed their doors and I, for one, was very sad to hear it. They are of course not alone, in the last decade some the most famous names in the panoply of Athenian eateries have disappeared. The restaurant  Ideál, a neighbour to Aigaíon, was the best place to get a home-cooked meal outside the home – we were very disappointed customers when we turned up to a dusty sign and closed shutters a few years ago. I lament the loss of  the iconic café Brazilian whenever I walk over the name set in the pavement on Voukourestiou Street. It felt so much of another time to stand and drink a strong coffee at the brass rail there, rubbing shoulders with ageing writers and artists; it was a very unique place. The coffee was perfect and their cake was to die for.

We may still have the name of  Zonar’s but it is not the Zonar’s of the past – it’s just another glitzy restaurant. Gone is the haunt of artists, actors and composers, and the rainbow display of macaroons – buying  a box of fancies from Zonar’s did feel very special. If we ever lose Ariston and their tirópites, I may actually weep.

So after the shock of all that, there was another Greek story in the news, and, blow me, but who pops up again but Eridanus.

Of course, I can only assume that it is after the mythical river that the German supermarket chain, Lidl, decided to name their brand of ‘Greek’ products, though the spelling is slightly different.  The northern river offering valuable gems must have seemed like a good patron for this project. The problem is that, in the same way that you can’t designate orange plastic as genuine amber, you can’t say food is Greek just by putting a Greek-sounding name on it.

OK they do the feta, the olives and the oil, I guess those are sourced in Greece – hopefully. But the the ready meals are just totally invented. Is there anyone that knows of a thing called ‘Gyros Rice Dish’ ?

Let me explain, gyros is the Greek name for a doner kebab – it’s grilled meat, thinly sliced and eaten as a kebab, in pita bread. It’s street food. It is not shreds of protein mixed into rice. Ever.

But the thing that really got the goat of the Greek people was the marketing. The packaging of all Eridanous products is adorned with glorious photos of the blue domes and the white walls of Greek churches, identifiably from the very real island of Santorini. You need the blue and white thing of course – they are ‘Greek’ products and after all, blue and white means Greece.

But because the marketing team have no idea about Greece, Greek culture or Greek sensitivities, they decided to air-brush the crosses off the domes of the churches, to make them religiously neutral. They actually thought it was ok to represent a church as religiously neutral. Their disdain for reality tells us everything you need to know about the whole project. Just as they have airbrushed the photos and the sanctity of the images, they have airbrushed the food culture too. What they have made is a fake – a mere pastiche of package-holiday Greece. This is not a myth, it is bogus and anything but Greek. I normally welcome heightened awareness for Greek food and culture but it’s real Greek culture I’m after – the  authenticity that gave us Aigaíon, Ideál and Brazilian,  not a marketing strategist’s plastic, photo-shopped Greece.

So as an antidote, here’s a real Greek recipe.

Kolokithópita – Courgette Pie

6-7 large courgettes (preferably the ‘white’ variety)

OR  1 medium sized marrow (approx 750 gm to 1kg)

180 gms peeled butternut squash (optional)

1 large leek

1 small handful of flat leaf parsley

1 small handful of dill

2 eggs, well beaten

3-4 tabs Greek yoghourt

150 gm feta, crumbled

Salt

Ground black pepper

1 packet (approx 250 gm)  filo pastry

Olive oil

Sesame seeds and or nigella seeds (optional)

Into a colander, grate the courgettes/marrow and the butternut squash, if you have chosen to use it.

Sprinkle with a little salt and leave in the colander so that the liquid starts to leach – it’s a good idea to stand the colander on a plate to stop the liquid going all over your worktop !

Finely chop the leek, parsley and dill and place in a large mixing bowl.

Next, one handful at a time, take the grated courgette/marrow and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Add the squeezed, grated courgette/marrow to the chopped leeks and herbs.

To this add the beaten eggs, the yoghourt and the crumbled feta, a little salt and black pepper and mix well. Remember when adding the salt that feta is quite salty in itself.

Now, take a medium sized roasting tin and brush with olive oil.

Line the tin with a sheet of filo pastry, allowing the surplus to fall over the side of the tin. You want to have flaps of pastry that you can fold over later. Depending on the size of the tin and the size of the filo sheets, you may have to lay the sheets in the tin ‘portrait’ way up rather than ‘landscape’. If you do this overlap the sheets, so that there is no way for the filling to seep out.

Repeat this 3 times, brushing each layer of filo with plenty of olive oil.

Now put the courgette mixture on top of the filo and then fold over the flaps, and cover the filling with another 4 or 5 sheets of filo pastry, tucking it in around the edges and brushing each layer, including the top one, with olive oil.

Pat the whole thing with a little water and with damp fingers push any surplus pastry into the sides of the tin, so that the pie is sealed.

Take a sharp, sightly wet knife and score the top of the pie, just deep enough to go through the first few layers of filo.

Sprinkle with sesame or nigella seeds and bake at 180 degrees for about 35-40 minutes, until the pie is crisp and golden.

Keeping It Real – Pastitsio

There is always a conundrum if you are a bit of a creative cook – do you stick with the absolutely traditional recipes or do you try to ring a bit of a change? Things cannot be fixed in aspic – and after all, who eats aspic anymore? I rest my case. In a way, food is very similar to language, it adapts and moves, shifts and changes according to taste and fashion; it is a totally natural process. A change in slang and idiom is as natural and refreshing as an avocado and quinoa salad; it is after all evolution and no one would want to stop that. A new recipe is a new recipe but some things are so absolutely right as they are, that you can’t possibly mess around with them. It makes me think of Google translate – it’s fine if you want to get the gist of something but it’s never going to make you sound like a native.

In a way, part of my gripe is with the celebrity chefs. They set out on some sort of odyssey to discover the real food of a region or nation and it’s all fine until they set foot in a kitchen. Then there is Jamie Oliver cooking a ragú al fresco in Tuscany, or Rick Stein rustling up curry in a jungle bungalow. It is all great and I am definitely a sucker for it too. It’s  just that when they start to cook food from foreign parts that you know intimately, you realise that it’s all going …well… off piste.

So there’s Rick in a gorgeous kitchen in Symi. We catch a glimpse of the Aegean – a splash of an ultramarine bay glistening through the half-shuttered windows – and he cooks the classic of all classic, Greek dishes, avgolémono soup. Avgolémono is a made from chicken broth, with a  little rice in it (NOT orzo pasta) and is thickened with a creamy emulsion of eggs and lemon juice. I hate to diss Rick; above all I love his enthusiasm for simple, authentic Greek food. So why then, and since when, did avgolemono soup EVER have a whole poached egg in it ?  Rick, get a grip !

Greek cooking is in the limelight in a way that, as an ‘old timer’, I have never seen before. It’s good to see manoúri cheese in my local supermarket, I can buy several brands of feta just about anywhere and kalamata olives are accepted as the go-to of the fruit. This is a fantastic development that philhellenic foodaphiles have been waiting for for years. But Jamie, you can’t put pistachios and chilli in Greek stuffed vegetables, and Yotam, I know you want to make your mark, but I don’t want turmeric in my fáva !

So , I am in my local Waitrose and I catch sight of a ‘ready meal’ that I was not expecting – pastitsio. Closer inspection brought nothing but total  disappointment and, to be frank, outrage ! Let me just explain about pastitisio.

Ask any Greek to name their favourite home-cooked dishes and pastitsio will always be on the list. Admittedly its provenance is not entirely Greek. Let me put it like this, I’m certain that neither Socrates nor the mountain Klephts would have been putting this on the table. Pastitsio  is in the same class as modern moussaká, it’s a mongrel dish with elements taken from Italy, the Middle East and tweeked by our old friend, Nikos Tselementés. In the same way that kedgeree, chutney and curry became quintessentially English foods, pastitsio is a Greek classic. And here’s my point – classics are classics

I’m not going to make  paella with pasta, and I’m not going to make toad in the hole with chorizo sausage. You wouldn’t make shepherds pie with pork mince, so why did the chefs at Waitrose think that you can possibly make pastitsio with lamb ? Oh, I forgot !  ALL Greek dishes are made with lamb !!!    Well, that’s only if you have absolutely NO idea about Greek cuisine.

Pastitsio is made from a ragout of beef mince, flavoured only with sautéed onions and parsley. It includes tubular ziti pasta, arranged in an absolute linear fashion, and fragrant, cinnamon-infused béchamel sauce. That’s it.

So, chefs, celebrity, supermarket, or otherwise – stop it ! Get your hands off the classic recipes and just cook them as they should be. Then I might possibly consider buying a Waitrose pastitsio.  In the meantime, here’s the real recipe and lamb is not on the list of ingredients.

 

Pastitsio

Pastitsio is made up from three separate elements, meat sauce, béchamel sauce and cooked pasta. It makes things easier, if you can, to make the meat sauce the day before assembling and cooking the completed dish.

Meat Sauce Ingredients

750gm beef mince

1 onion, finely chopped

2 tabs olive oil

3 tabs finely chopped parsley

300ml tomato juice – or 2 tabs tomato purée diluted in 300ml of water

150 ml red wine (optional)

1 bay leaf

1 small stick of cinnamon (about 3cm)

Salt and pepper

 

Making the Meat Sauce

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan, add the chopped onion and cook until it has started to soften.

Add the mince and cook until it starts to brown, stirring it all the time so that the mince breaks up and doesn’t cook in lumps.

Add the tomato juice (or tomato purée and water), the wine if you are using it, the chopped parsley, bay leaf and cinnamon. Mix well. 

Season with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat down and simmer for about 35 minutes. You want to end up with a fairly thick meat sauce.

 

Béchamel Sauce Ingredients

1.5 litre milk

1 bay leaf

A few whole black peppercorns

150gm butter (you will need a little extra butter when you assemble the pastitsio)

100gm plain flour

Salt and ground  pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

150gm grated kefalotyri or parmesan. You will need an additional 100gm for topping off the finished pastitsio.

3 eggs, well beaten

Making the Béchamel Sauce 

In a large pan, heat the milk, along with any spices or seasoning . If you have the time, it is good to do this a little ahead and heat the milk with a bay leaf and some whole peppercorns. Allow it to steep a little; the added fragrance is worth the effort.

In another pan, one that is big enough to take the warm milk, melt the butter. Lower the heat and now add the flour, stirring constantly. Over a low heat,  allow the flour to bubble a bit but do not stop stirring – it burns very easily.

Take the butter/flour combination off the heat and gradually, one ladleful at a time, add the warm milk, incorporating each spoonful before adding the next.

Once that is done, return the pan of milk/butter/flour mixture to the heat, stirring constantly until it thickens to the consistency of thick custard.

Remove from the heat and add the ground cinnamon and ground pepper. Add the grated cheese and stir well. Put the pan to one side to cool. This is your béchamel sauce.

When it has cooled down really well, add the beaten eggs and mix well.

The Pasta

750 gm ‘ziti’ pasta  – This is the long tubular pasta. It comes in different thicknesses, which one you go for is your choice I tend to use a medium sized one. A word of advice though, ’bucatini’ won’t do, as it is way too thin.

Cook the pasta in plenty of salted, boiling water until ‘al dente’ – it really mustn’t be over-cooked. Drain and set it to one side to cool – you need to be able to handle it ! It’s a good idea to toss it with a little olive oil when it’s cooling to stop it sticking.

 

Assembling the Pastitsio

Take a large, fairly deep, oven proof dish – a large roasting tin is usually the best thing. Rub round the inside with some butter.

Line the dish or roasting tin with the strands of pasta, they need to be in fairly straight lines. Once you have covered the bottom of the dish spread about a third of the béchamel sauce over.

Now add another layer of the pasta strands. All the béchamel layer needs to be covered.

The next layer needs to me the meat sauce. Spread this over that layer of pasta.

(A little tip is to sprinkle each layer with a little salt – it helps to make sure the pastitsio is well-seasoned).

Top off the mince layer with the rest of the pasta, until it is completely covered and top with the remaining béchamel.

Sprinkle with the grated cheese and bake in the oven at 180 degrees for about 45 minutes, until it has set and is fairly firm.

Allow to cool slightly before serving, so that the pieces of pastitsio hold their shape. Serve with any good green or tomato salad.

 

 

Food Fights Back (and a bit more meráki)

When you think about the reasons why Greece, and particularly Athens, have been in the press over the last few years, Oscar Wilde’s well-known maxim may not be the first thing that springs to mind. Famously he said ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’ and I am beginning to think that he was probably right.

Admittedly, in the last few years Athens has been in the international spotlight mainly for all the wrong reasons. Everyone knows about the economic meltdown, occasional civil unrest and the refugee crisis. All are still there to some degree or other, and it is hard to see how they will totally disappear anytime soon. Times have been, and still are, incredibly tough for most Greeks. But for whatever reason, the eyes of the world have been turned on Athens, and it seems that familiarity has bred respect rather than contempt. The rest of the world has just twigged something that most of us Atheno-philes have always known, that Athens is a very special place. Google  ‘Athens’ these days, and instead of being about about a city in deep trouble, we are more likely to find articles about ‘the new Berlin’, a ‘capital of culture’, or a ‘mecca for street art’ and, something that I can vouch for, a foodie destination. The glib analysis might be ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ But that belies and belittles something really remarkable that has been going on since 2010.

In a country that has been crippled with desperate unemployment rates (an average figure of 23% and one of 45% for the under 24s) there has been a movement to self-employment and a burgeoning of new, small businesses, most of which are food-based. I would be lying if I said that all these were total success stories; the really sad thing is seeing a little café or eatery start up, with hope and enthusiasm, only to see it fall by the wayside some months later. But a good many are making it and, in certain parts, Athens is definitely buzzing. What is truly remarkable, is how traditional Greek foods and ingredients are being given a re-vamp and a totally new lease of life. Loukoumádes, the traditional Greek donuts, have been around forever and a day, but at ‘Lukumades, near Ag.Irínis Square, the whole concept has been given a makeover.Without sacrificing anything from the usual recipe, or dressing these fabulous golden, sticky balls as anything that they are not, a culinary storm has been created. The loukoumádes are exceptional, the style of the shop, a mixture of contemporary with a wink at retro, is perfectly pitched and the queues are round the block !

We hadn’t been in town since last autumn and all through the spring I had been hearing endlessly about a new super-deli, Yoleni’s that had opened up. So back in Athens  a few weeks ago, it was one place I had to visit.  I admit, I was containing my expectations – I am a massive fan of ‘Pantopoleíon’, on Sofokléous Street, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of all good things Greek. I was a bit worried that the swanky Kolonáki location Yoleni’s had chosen would mean the shop might have compromised on its Greekness, however, I was not to be disappointed.

The first thing that greets you at Yoleni’s is a clay oven and a couple of bakers rolling out the pastry for traditional Greek pies, ‘pités’. Of course, you can find tirópites and spanankópites all over the city but at Yoleni’s they are baked to order and the choice of filling is more or less endless. Of course they don’t stop at making just pies, bread is baked throughout the day. With an eye to the health benefits of Greek produce and the mediterranean diet, they also serve Greek yoghourt and fresh juices and smoothies too. And where better to enjoy all of these, than at the delightful garden café at the rear.

The shop is spread over four floors – on one there’s a butchers counter and grill bar. You choose your cut of meat (Greek of course) and have it grilled for you. On another,  there is an educational zone for children and on the next is a cookery school for adults and a very cool bar. Well, let me qualify that, this is a bar with a difference. Sitting on one of the high stools and soothed by the subdued lighting, don’t expect to order a cocktail – this is an olive oil bar.

Taken in hand by the delightful Maria, she explains about the concept of the oil bar. Here, they want to showcase through tasting events, the different types of olive oil, not only from all the regions of Greece but from the enormous variety of olive trees too. Softly-spoken,  but exuding passion for her work, Maria talks about the exceptional quality of the olive oil that Greece produces and the amazing different flavours. We talk about food and food producers too and, of course, we touch on ‘the crisis’ and her conviction that top quality food production was part of the solution.

In the basement deli she shows us some of her favourite products, a range of top-notch vinegars, made by the Vaimakis family in Epirus. The different flavoured vinegars are aged for 5 years in oak or chestnut barrels and, apart from the usual uses, are of such quality and mellowness that they can also be drunk as liqueurs.

The range of products Yoleni’s stocks is vast, both fresh and those for the store cupboard. Fruit and vegetables, herbs and pulses, jams and honey, they are all here; everything from a premium tomato juice, ‘perfect for a Bloody Mary,’ Maria says, to cheeses from every corner of the country. All produced in Greece.

Needless to say, I am enthralled by the dedication to quality and the simple love of doing something right – another example of meráki obviously – meraki that untranslatable devotion to doing something ‘just right’. Yoleni’s exudes meráki at every turn, from their own dedication to product, style and hospitality, to the meráki shown by all these amazing producers. It takes a special tenacity and passion to focus on every detail required to produce perfection at the best of times, let alone in times of adversity, and Yoleni’s is providing an excellent showcase for some of it.

I may be a bit of an optimist but perhaps meráki just might be Greece’s saving grace.

Visit Yoleni’s at Solonos 9, Kolonaki, Athens and on line  http://www.yolenis.com

Pantopoleion at Sofokleous 1, Athens   http://www.atenco.org

Lukumadaes, Aiolou 21, Ag. Irinis, Athens    http://www.lukumades.com

BBC ‘Food Programme’ – ‘Greece:Return to the Land’ (Broadcast 24/07/17) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08yltqv