You know the frustration. You’re in your local supermarket – the one that you have been going to for years – the one that you can navigate perfectly in your sleep, the one where you can find each type of pasta, or rice, or whatever, with your eyes shut. And then one day, the powers that be decide to move things round. It is most definitely a very ‘First World’ problem, but I was in a hurry and it was very frustrating. It probably shows just how quickly we adapt… this time last year I would have been absolutely ecstatic just to be going to the shops in person!
My problem was the falafel. So their place should be in the deli aisle, just above the olives and the hummus… but they’d gone! Disappeared…vanished. It turns out that in Waitrose-Land falafel have been given their own special refrigerator and are now part of their ‘The Levantine Table’.
Calling this new range of Middle Eastern-inspired food as from the ‘Levant’ is very poetic, although I do wonder if there will be a fair few people who will be a bit puzzled as to its whereabouts. The Levant is not a fixed geographic spot. Broadly, it is made up of the countries that border the eastern Mediterranean in a semi-circle, from Greece to Libya, but the more narrow definition is what we think of today as the Middle East. It is though a term that encompasses a really broad region, and probably defines more a way of life, and of eating than the food that is actually on the table. To give Waitrose their due, I think this is what they are trying to say by revitalising the term and giving this name to their new range for 2021.
Over the last twenty years or so, we have all become familiar with a more relaxed way of serving and eating food. The Ottolenghi-style ‘small plates’ to share have become the accepted way to formulate a menu, rather than the more staid, ‘Starter/Main/Dessert’ format. But anyone familiar with ‘The Levant’ will know that these little sharing dishes are nothing other than a modern, European version of mezé. Mezé are small, delectable morsels, sometimes served as appetizers and other times making up a whole meal, and the Levantines have been eating like this for hundreds of years.
The origin of the Turkish word mezé, or mezze explains exactly what it’s all about. Coming from the Persian word ‘maza’, meaning to taste or relish, and it is used throughout all the lands that once were part of the Ottoman Empire – all the way from the Balkans to the Levant. In some regions mezé are used to accompany raki, ouzo, or wine – drinking without eating is just not done. But it is also much more to do with the sociability of sharing delicious flavours and seasonal delights.
Mezés (mezédes in the plural) are a huge part of Greek food culture and can be anything from a mezedáki (a small mezé) of a few olives and sticks of salted cucumber to go with your tsipouro, to a banquet. There are eateries ,’mezedopolía’, that are actually devoted to serving only mezédes. Don’t go there if you’re looking for a plate of meat and two veg!
At mezedopolía, there are various ways of finding out what’s on offer. You can, of course, ask the waiter, and he will babble out a list that, to be honest, defies the most adept ‘Memory Man’. More impressively, they’ll take the order without writing it down. Or maybe a strong-armed waiter, with incredibly good balancing skills, will bring a vast tray of little plates for you to choose from. And let’s face it, the look of a dish is a real deciding factor. There are other places that bring you a printed pad, set out with a massive list of mezédes, accompanied by tick-boxes… you get the picture.
Choosing which mezédes to have is as much a part of the evening’s entertainment, as dissecting the latest political developments or gossiping about the new reality shows.
‘Nothing too spicy for me’.
‘But I adore tirokafterí (chilli infused cheese dip)!’
‘We’re not eating meat’
‘Let’s get keftédes (meatballs)’.
And always but seldom achieved. ‘We mustn’t order too much…’
Ordering can take a while…and inevitably eyes are bigger than stomachs. The sign of a really good waiter is one who tells you when to stop. And when the table is cleared away, there’s always a little bit of something kept back as the ‘krassomezé’ – a titbit for the last bit of wine.
Although most dishes can be served as a mezé – and it is a really nice way of serving up that last remaining portion of something super tasty – there are some dishes that you just don’t serve up at any other time.
There is no way that you’ll sit down at home for a big plate of yígantes – it’s just not a thing. Yígantes plakí is a dish that is really only a mezé. Spetsofái, the spicy sausage and pepper casserole from Pilio, isn’t going to be dished up as a single course. And obviously with, ‘bekrí mezé’, its name, ‘the drunk’s hors d’oeuvre’, places it firmly on that mezé tray. Those dips, tzatziki, etc that we have got to know abroad via the supermarket chiller cabinet, are mainly served as mezédes.
Whether you’re in a taverna or you’re recreating the experience at home, composing the perfect mezé selection is a bit of an art in its own right. A balance of flavours and textures is definitely very important. Ideally, you need to have a crispy little pie or bouréki, something like tiny filo bundles, oozing cheese, or spinach. Any sort of ‘fritter’ is always welcome – kolokithokéftedes or revithokéftedes, and let’s not forget the star turn of the mezé mix – a really perfect plate of fragrant meat keftédes.
To attain that essential balance, you need something that has a bit of a sauce too… perhaps imam bayaldi, if it’s on offer or those stewed broad beans we were just talking about. And then a creamy dip of some sort, melitzanosaláta – aubergine and garlic purée – perhaps, or fáva could make the final cut. The combinations are endless and totally delectable.
During these lockdown months, it’s this sort of eating I’ve missed most – and it’s not just about the food. It’s about that easy sociability of a meal shared with those we love. It’s conversation and laughter and wonderful flavours to help it all along. That’s what a Levantine table is truly all about. So whether you call them small plates or mezédes, pull up a chair and enjoy!