For those of us who are hobby cooks, or even food-bloggers, there is a shiny alternative reality where, in one blinding moment, we have both won Masterchef and our freshly published cookbook lies on the kitchen table. For Irini Tzortzoglou that parallel universe has become the one she lives in, and there are few people who so justly deserve these twin achievements.
Anyone with an interest in Greek cuisine was totally enthralled with Irini’s progress through Masterchef 2019. It was almost like watching a film with partial subtitles; only the people who were totally fluent in her culinary language knew exactly what was going on. For us philhellenic foodies, the use of fava in a British cookery programme was like a breath of fresh air.
Let’s face it, there is something totally fascinating about someone who has the inspiration, confidence, and sheer guts to use trahana in a Masterchef final. So it was an absolute pleasure, when a few social media exchanges about moussaka, led to a chat with Irini Tzortzoglou. Truly, I’d love to say that we sat in her beautiful kitchen in Cumbria, nattering over a cup of coffee – but this was June 2020 and the best we had was Zoom. Despite that, Irini couldn’t have been more welcoming.
It’s pretty well-documented that, after stepping back from a career in banking, the combination of needing a new challenge and a deep knowledge of, and passion for, Greek food, triggered her application to Masterchef.
‘Cooking Greek’ for Masterchef.
‘The lady who interviewed me really loved what I took for her to eat… and she said ..’ if we do invite you, will you promise me that you’ll cook Greek..?’
This wasn’t the straightforward suggestion you’d think. ‘After all,’ Irini says, ‘You’re not going to win Masterchef with a plate of fakés (Greek lentil soup) … but what an opportunity! I realized I had to cook food that wasn’t totally foreign to the judges and critics. But it gave them the opportunity to talk about Greek ingredients.’
And her passion for Greek produce and ingredients is at the heart of it all.
The main thing about Greek food, ‘Its saving-grace, its beauty, the whole premise has always been the fantastic ingredients.’
In fact, a lot of the Masterchef dishes weren’t actually Greek, ‘But they had one Greek element..a mavrodaphne jus… or ouzo gel. It was enough though.’ And we all know how ecstatic Greg Wallace was over that ouzo gel!
For Irini, ‘It was important to talk up the ingredients and Greek cuisine… even off-camera. Telling them all that they’d not experienced real Greek food.’
However, getting that experience isn’t always easy. Mass tourism has brought about ‘very standardised meals’, with taverna owners going for the safe option by catering for international tastes. This has done little for the reputation of Greek cooking and has made the genuine article harder to find.
‘Those people, who were very lucky over the years …who sat outside somebody’s house, thinking it was a taverna and being brought food for them to eat.. out of hospitality… They had the best impression of Greek food.’
A ‘Magic Moment’ for Greek cuisine.
But things are changing and there are young Greek chefs who don’t see their careers just based in ‘All-Inclusive’ hotels.
‘They are passionate and arty and I’m seeking them out…It is the young people who will bring the change.’
She talks with passion and enthusiasm about producers in Greece that have revamped their businesses to produce exciting new ingredients using very Greek produce. One of her favourites is a traditional sultana producer, Papadimitriou, who now makes top quality Greek balsamic vinegar. And this has been one of Irini’s goals. She sees the Masterchef win as having given her ‘a platform to talk about the ingredients and to get some less well-known products to market’.
Indeed it seems that we’re at something of a magic moment. There’s a combination of the receptiveness of people to new flavours, along with the increasing profiles of acclaimed Greek chefs. Asimakis Chaniotis, head chef at the prestigious ‘Pied à Terre’ in London, is the first Greek to win a Michelin star outside Greece. Irini feels that things are snowballing and her Masterchef success has helped to play a part.
‘It’s my turn to teach people about manouri, graviera, trahana.’
In the UK, ‘..over the last 20 years, who knew all the things that we have learned ..so many exotic flavourings ..zaatar, sriracha… We have allowed so many products to reach us from much further afield? … But you know, my turn has come now to teach people, manouri, graviera, trahana. People are ready!’
Undeniably, she is more than a little frustrated that Greek traditional products haven’t made their way onto the international market before now. For sure, it is high time that Greek cuisine came out of the closet. Irini has been working with some brands like ‘Odysea’ who have been persistently developing relationships with the big supermarket chains. For years they have been promoting Greek cheeses, oils, and preserves – happily, they are making headway. Certainly, there is a noticeably greater variety of Greek ingredients in mainstream UK supermarkets. Irini is convinced that this is a turning point. We all know ricotta, how about we try mizithra now instead ?!
Irini admits to being quite forceful in her insistence on ‘staying away from Cypriot produce and recipes’ in her upcoming cookbook, ‘Under The Olive Tree’. ‘There are lots of books out there about Greek Cypriot food and it is different.’ People in the UK may be familiar with halloumi but it isn’t Greek.
Inevitably we end up talking about the pandemic. Early March saw Irini laid up with COVID 19 but after three weeks in bed, she was back in the kitchen, trying out new recipes. There has been no recourse to comfort food, ‘We haven’t eaten the same thing twice.’
And as for the hot topic of the pandemic, making sourdough bread..? The answer is a very emphatic ‘No’.
‘To be honest, I had enough of hearing about it from friends…and the internet was full of bread… there’s nothing new here… You know, the bakers have to make a living too!’
A passion ‘to educate, engage and entice.’
Talking to Irini Tzortzoglou, it was very clear that she is intensely passionate about good food and especially good, Greek food,
Furthermore, she wants to use her profile to ‘educate, engage and entice’ people. Her book is the exciting next step in this mission.
‘Under The Olive Tree’ is a very evocative title for a Greek cookbook. We can see ourselves there in the dappled shade, with the sound of the cicadas and the table spread with glorious food. Weeks before the release, the reviews have been exceptional and I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.
‘Under The Olive Tree: Recipes From My Greek Kitchen’ by Irini Tzortzoglou (£25 Headline) comes out on 23rd July.