Time was, that trying to cook Greek food in Britain was a bit of a challenge. Obviously a lot of vegetables were available at greengrocers and supermarkets but things like fresh dill were almost impossible to find and flat-leaf parsley, believe it or not, was positively exotic.Tracking down feta, filo pastry and the more unusual pasta shapes, like ‘orzo’ and ‘ziti’ (for youvétsi and pastítsio) was a real challenge. And as to being able to find real Greek yoghourt …. that was nigh impossible! As I have mentioned before, making a bowl of tztazíki back in the seventies and eighties meant starting a couple of days in advance, by straining ordinary yoghourt through muslin ! Journeys back to Greece, meant allowing plenty of space in your suitcase to bring back the missing groceries; trips to London always meant calling in at ‘The Athenian Grocery’ on Moscow Road in Bayswater – and still doing stirling work there today.
Now, though, joy of joys, there are about five types of feta available in my local Waitrose, along with fílo pastry and orzo. The advent of lots of ethnic supermarkets has meant for more diversity and a wonderful array of different types of aubergines, courgettes and peppers – my local Turkish grocer has at least three types of aubergine and even the ‘white’ courgettes that are best for yemistá. But despite all this, there are really ‘Greek’ ingredients that you still struggle to find and so, on a very frost January morning, it was a truly, wonderful discovery, , to stumble across a little Greek ‘island’ in the depths of Hackney, London.
‘Isle of Olive’ is on Ada Street, off Broadway Market in Haggerston but stepping through the door takes you right across Europe, to the shores of the Aegean. At the front of the shop are the traditional taverna-style tables and rush-seat chairs. And they’re not just for show, ‘Isle of Olive’ serves a very fine Greek coffee, some wonderful village-style pies and impressive bougátsa.
The shelves lining the walls are stacked with the best of Greek groceries – organic vine-leaves, cans of the finest olive oil and the brilliant ‘Kyknos’ tomato paste – an excellent buy, as the cans are so iconic and make great containers for… well just about anything!
No longer will I have to cram my luggage with the gorgeous herb teas from ‘Krókos Kozánis’ because here they are.
There are bags of top quality Santorini fáva, Cretan barley rusks, wonderful jars of preserved fruits and top quality Greek pasta products – a particular favourite of mine are those by ‘Ergon’, a really inspiring food business from Thessaloniki. The choice of fresh cheeses – kefalotíri, graviéra and manoúri – is excellent and the selection of Greek wine is more than impressive.
There are sacks of pulses sold village-style – loose or χύμα, as they say in Greece. I love the bunches of dried herbs, for both cooking and tisanes, stored in wooden ‘pigeon holes’ and then there is the tap-dispensed olive oil and honey. This is a shop that takes honey very, very seriously! There are about four or five types of ‘loose’ honey – thyme, fir. flower not to mention the honey sold in jars; orange blossom, vanilla fir, blossom and pine, blossom and thyme – the variations seem endless. No longer will I have to cram my luggage with the gorgeous herb teas from ‘Krókos Kozánis’ because here they are.
The owners, Paulina and Gregoris have obsessed about quality in their shop and it shows – this is a Greek deli that would sit comfortably in the smart parts of Athens or Thessaloniki. They have focussed on sourcing from independent,artisan producers and co-operatives – people with a real passion for food. They have picked up on something that, personally, I feel very strongly about, that Greek cuisine is one of the finest in the world but one that is almost impossible to experience outside Greece. ‘Isle Of Olive’ is totally genuine – there is absolutely no pandering to the ‘touristy’ stereotype of Greece and Greek food here – just honest, good Greek produce delivered with simple dedication.
So I would like to raise a glass to ‘Isle of Olive’ and say ‘Brávo paidiá’ – Well done! Long may you flourish and long may you continue to bring these glorious Aegean flavours to London.
‘Isle of Olive’ can be found at 6c Ada Street, London, E8 4QU and on line