An Island Lost

Using up those leftovers.

Think you’ll all know how it goes once the end of November is imminent – Christmas is coming and planning needs to start. For me, it’s the freezer to get the first survey. All those leftovers stashed away back in the summer make their second appearance. That is, of course, apart from the UFOs – Unidentified Frozen Objects. How come you always think you’ll remember what that little scoop of brown/beige/red foodstuff is?  So very certain of its identity, that you can’t see the point of putting a label on it…  Admittedly, even when defrosted, some items are even less recognisable and are consigned to the bin – where they probably should have been to start with! But at least now, there’s loads of space for the Christmas stuff and, eventually, for the next round of leftovers. It’s a definite lifecycle.

Then it’s the turn of the store cupboard. Amalgamating all those ends of packs of pasta and rice into single bags, is so satisfying. It’s good to find out that you definitely WON’T need anymore farfalle/penne/ fusilli until at least the end of next year !

So having done all this I am currently feeling very virtuous, that was until tackling the store of pulses, made me quite sad. 

Pulses are the backbone of Greek home cooking. At least once a week a dish of lentil or bean soup will be on the menu – after all fasoláda is sometimes called the Greek national dish. The Greeks don’t make hummus obviously but fáva (puréed yellow peas) is a firm favourite and really easy to cook. Black-eyed beans make a fantastic salad, and slow-cooked chickpeas are an absolute delicacy on the island of Sifnos. It was finding a bag of chickpeas in my stash of pulses that made me a bit tearful They were from one of my favourite London shops, ‘Isle of Olive’, just off Broadway Market in Haggerston. 

Paulina and Gregoris opened up this gem of a shop back in 2011 but I didn’t come across them until a couple of years later. And what an absolutely delightful discovery it was. Their remit was to bring authentic, well-sourced Greek products to the English market. They had a passion for Greece’s unique gastronomy and wanted to bring to the UK market the ingredients and flavours that people sampled on their holidays, but struggled to find here. For me this place has been an absolute life-saver. No longer did I have to fill my suitcase with fáva and hilopítes after a trip to Greece. At this ‘island’ in East London you could find some of the best Greek produce available anywhere. They introduced me to some wonderful makers –  Ergon, and Daphnis and Chloe  spring to mind. About a decade ago,they were part of the mix of businesses and chefs in London who knew the time to shout loud about Greek cuisine had arrived.

As I said when I reviewed Isle of Olive’ back in 2015,

‘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.’ 

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Last Saturday ‘Isle Of Olive’ closed for good. 

They have said that there were various reasons that drove them to this decision, but the main one was Brexit. The difficulties for small food importers have become too onerous and complex. After all, if you wanted to spend your life dealing with mountains of paperwork, I guess you wouldn’t open a deli. 

Their vision had always been ‘to work directly with small artisan producers and source unique products from every corner of Greece’. Over on that side, these small producers just don’t have the set up and wherewithal to go through all the convoluted bureaucracy to export their produce outside the EU. IMG_6965

So rather than compromise and depend on the more ubiquitous big wholesale importers, Pauline and Greg have decided to move on. There will be a lot of people who are just as sad about their decision as I am. 

Obviously, this Brexit ‘benefit’ doesn’t just apply to ‘Isle of Olive’.  The new import/export regulations apply to all food businesses. For the smaller ones, the obstacles are increasingly proving to be just too much and they are throwing in the towel. The same issues are affecting florists and nurseries too. I can’t help but feel that this is making our lives poorer. 

I can already hear people muttering that this is a ‘first world’ problem and that ‘Isle of Olive’ won’t be the only business going down in the midst of a cost of living crisis… and that there are bigger and worse things happening …Sure. 

Last day.
Happier times.

But loosing this lovely deli seems to me emblematic of our times. Starting up an independent business like this takes a lot of guts and a particular passion. You need to have a vision and belief that you can offer something different. These ventures bring us a little bit of happiness, and a sense of community that you don’t get from buying online or from a big supermarket. Being able to taste something made in some remote Greek village makes a connection – a link – that is truly rewarding and joyful. All of the process, from the efforts of the maker, to the endeavour of people like Paulina and Greg to source it and bring it to their customers in UK, is a beautiful thing. These are the businesses that bring us diversity and individualism and, let’s face it, spice up our lives. Surely, it is these small, accessible pleasures that are precious and should be cherished more.

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Back in 2015 I signed off the review by raising a virtual glass to ‘Isle of Olive’ and I do the same now.

 Brávo paidiá !’ Well done!’  Thank you for bringing those glorious Aegean flavours to London and I send my best wishes for the future. 

So I have one last bag of ‘Isle of Olive’ chickpeas to cook –  probably at Christmas. With the price of energy at the moment, Sifnian slow-cooked chickpeas is probably not the ‘go-to’ recipe for everyday at the moment… but it will be Christmas and these are….were…fantastic chickpeas. 

Here’s the recipe. 

Proper Revithada

If you're looking for the signature dish from the island of Sifnos, look no further - this is it. Chickpeas are slow-cooked, usually overnight, in a wood-fired oven. It is possible to achieve a pretty delicious version in a regular oven too.
To make this dish you need to plan ahead!! First you need to soak the chickpeas for at least 8 hours. Once soaked, they need to cook for about another 8 hours.
Course Main Course
Cuisine Greek

Equipment

  • Ideally you should use a ceramic or earthenware pot. Any ovenproof dish with a well-fitting lid will do.

Ingredients
  

  • 500 gm dried chickpeas soaked overnight and drained.
  • 300 ml olive oil
  • 2 large white onions thinly sliced
  • 1 dstspn paprika
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 dstspn salt
  • ¼ tsp chilli flakes
  • 1.5 litre hot water The amount of water will depend on the size of your pot. The idea is for it to cover the chickpeas by about 4cm.

Instructions
 

  • Take the ovenproof dish and line the base of it with one of the sliced onions and pour over 100 ml of olive oil.
  • Now add half the soaked chickpeas, half the salt and the paprika and chilli flakes.
  • Cover with the other sliced onion and the remaining chickpeas, salt and black pepper.
  • Pour over the rest of the olive oil.
  • Add the water. The amount will depend on the depth and width of the pot. The idea is to cover the chickpeas by about 4 cm of liquid.
  • You now need to seal the pot as well as you can. I have found the best way to do this is to take a sheet of greaseproof paper (it needs to be ample big enough to cover the pot). Scrunch it up and then put it under the cold tap. Give it a good squeeze and then carefully open it out. Now drape it over the pot. Take a sheet of aluminium foil and lay that over the damp paper. Next, pop the lid on and roll the damp paper and foil around the rim of the lid and the pot to form a seal.
  • Cook in the oven at about 160° for at least 8 hours.
  • If you have a slow cooker, it is probably worth experimenting this dish in it.
Keyword Vegan, Vegetarian

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