Acropolis lunch and Parthenon thoughts.

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I have been thinking a lot these last few weeks about the Parthenon Marbles. Obviously,the issue has been all over the media with the recent statements from Mr Clooney and then the rather bizarre riposte made by Mr Johnson. It’s a very divisive issue, that’s for sure.For me though, I think that before commenting on this, a visit to the Acropolis Museum ( and of course the Parthenon itself) is required.

The new museum was opened in 2009, a time when the country was still basking in the warm glow left by the fabulous Olympic Games of 2004; a time before the ghastly reality of the economic crisis had really hit home.

The new museum is a stunning building in one of the most amazing settings in the world. Initial access is by means of a glass floor that reveals the excavation and archaeological remains beneath. The exhibits and displays on the ground floor are all fascinating and impressive but nothing  – but nothing prepares you for the  gallery containing the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon.The orientation of the museum is the same as that of the temple itself and the gallery, ostensibly from glass, allows you to see Phideas’ remaining friezes and sculptures in the way that they were intended to be seen; in the light from the Aegean sky and with the Parthenon in view – so close you feel you could reach out and touch it.

There is no out and out campaigning for the return of the marbles here. The campaigning is made more effectively than any banner or placard by what is missing, rather than what is there.
Along the part of the frieze still in Athens, the stark white casts standing in for the London-held pieces stand out from the honey-coloured marble originals, like poor prosthetics.  The space for the missing caryatid , wrenched from her sisters so long ago, is as awful as an amputation.

The missing caryatid

It is here, in this space, with this light and with this view of the Parthenon, that you realise the wrong that has been done here. I hope the ‘powers that be‘ come to their senses soon.

So, in my own way, I like to recapture my first visit to the Acropolis Museum in 2009. After having been blown away by the exhibits and moved by the trauma of the missing artefacts, we went for lunch in the gorgeous museum restaurant; bathed by the Aegean sun, we dined – my version is here.

Acropolis Museum Mezé

300 – 250 gm hard salty cheese – ideally  Cretan graviera – I have done it using  a good pecorino sardo

150 gm finely chopped dried or crystallised fruit, i.e.citrus rind, or dried apricots, figs or plums. Feel free to use your instincts!

Several pieces of finely sliced ‘mostarda di fruta’ – or pickled watermelon rind (see recipes ) this is not                         essential but if you can be bothered it is beautiful  (first pickle your watermelon !)

Good honey

Fresh sprigs of thyme.

Slice the cheese into 8 – 12 fairly thin slices, it’s good if you can achieve thin triangular shaped slices.

Finely slice the dried/crystallised fruit and ‘mustarda di fruta’.

Assemble the cheese and fruit on a plate and drizzle with honey.

Finish with a sprig of fresh thyme.

Serves 4

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A Surprise Meeting in De Beauvoir – Artichokes ‘City Style’

Artichokes 1

How can I put this … ? …I love going to London. Now, when you’ve heard me extolling Athens and my love of all things Greek, you may wonder what’s going on here  – but one of the things I really love about London, is the element of surprise, the element of, at any given moment, coming across the truly unexpected. Now this can come in many, many forms but this time it came in the form of a vegetable.

The perfection of Greek cuisine is that vegetable are not always a side-line – not a ‘walk on part’ – they can be the most important part of the dish. These vegetables are relished and welcomed when they come back into season, like a veteran star in a new role. Vegetables do not have to be virtuous and gloomy, they can be a positive pleasure.

We have been visiting our first-born this weekend, in London. A phone call whilst  we were en route brought about an additional feeling of excitement.

“I’m in the fruit and veg shop at Newington Green – they’ve got those small artichokes – should I get some?”

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The artichoke is the gorgeous daughter of a rather curious family – the artichoke is really a thistle – and even this line of the family can come in many forms. I am not a fan of the large, corpulent globe variety. There is too much ‘choke’ and not enough of the delicate soft flesh at the centre. My favourite is this, the slim, vibrant variety with tourmaline hues.

In Greece, there are many ways to cook artichokes. In the islands, the tiny, tiny early buds are eaten as street food – raw with salt. The slightly bigger ones can be braised with early, tender broad beans or peas. The sauce can sometimes be complemented with the addition of a few skinned, chopped tomatoes – but the best is the most simple; a little water, a little lemon juice and a significant amount of that essential ingredient – olive oil. With the addition of some fragrant chopped dill, this is one of the most elegant and most subtle of dishes.

So, in my son’s kitchen in De Beauvoir Town today, I chose to cook our artichokes ‘City Style’ – ‘Politikés’ – meaning  ‘as they would be cooked in The City’ – in Constantinople – but for us, this time, the city was London.

Artichokes ‘City Style’  – Anginarés Politikés

6 small artichokes – the frozen artichoke hearts (available at ethnic supermarkets) are also an alternative. (See ‘Hints and Practicalities’ for how to prepare the fresh ones)

1 medium sized onion, finely chopped

3 – 4 medium carrots

5 – 6 smallish new potatoes

5 – 6 small shallot onions

Fresh dill

Juice of 2 lemons

150ml good olive oil

Salt and pepper

500ml warm water

Have ready a bowl of fresh water and add the juice of one of the lemons and a desert spoonful of salt.  First of all prepare the artichokes. Remove several of the outer leaves, until the pale inner ones can be seen. Slice off the tip of the bud. As you prepare each of the artichokes, place them in the bowl of lemon/salt water. This stops them turning brown.

Now chop the onion and peel the carrots, potatoes and shallots. Cut the carrots into thick slices and halve the potatoes.

Blanch the shallots in boiling water for 5 minutes, drain and set aside.

Drain the artichokes and squeeze slightly to remove any of the soaking liquid.

In a large casserole heat 2 – 3 table spoonfuls of olive oil , put in the chopped onion and soften until translucent but not too brown.

Now add the shallots, turning them in the oil for a few minutes. Add the carrots, potatoes and artichokes, again turning them in the warm oil for a few minutes.

Add the warm water, juice of half a lemon, 2 tablespoonfuls of chopped dill, the remaining olive oil, salt and pepper.

Simmer on a medium to low heat for about 35 – 40 minutes. Check the seasoning – some more lemon juice and salt (and perhaps olive oil) may be needed. The sauce should have reduce and thickened. Finish with a few more fronds of fresh dill

Serve with crusty bread.

 

A Recipe From Nisyros – Revithokeftéthes.

Revithokeftethes

One of my favourite recipe ‘discoveries’ was made on the gorgeous island of Nisyros, a couple of summers ago. We were on holiday on Kos,  late in the ‘season’ – at the point when there are fewer tourists, the weather is cooler and the sun is hanging just that bit lower in the still perfectly blue sky.

Across the bay, barely 20km from our hotel, sitting calmly in that glorious sea the colour of sapphire, was the island of Nisyros. We were bitten by the bug that has afflicted all travellers in Greece – the bug that drives you to the next bit of land on the horizon. To see what is over there….

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Nisyros is not quite what you expect from a Greek island – for a start, it’s main attraction is that it is really an active volcano. So of course, any visit has to include a trip inside the caldera. Sulphuric and gently hissing, this is a lunar landscape. The rocks are tinged lurid lime from the steam that puffs up at intervals from the ground. We take a few citrus pebbles away as souvenirs.

Caldera Nisyros

Back in the car, we travel higher up, to the village of Emborió, to get a better look at the crater – what a treat! Absolutely stunning views across this curious landscape but also one of the most perfect tavernas I have ever come across.

It is called ‘To Balkoni’ – ‘The Balcony’ – and it is a balcony. A few tables on a terrace and a few more on the balcony  hanging over the edge of the cliff.To Balkoni

As if the view wasn’t enough to satisfy the senses, here we find a most talented chef. Working in a tiny kitchen, Kyria Katina produces some of the finest of Greek traditional dishes. We eat fabulous chicken – cockerel actually – gently baked with squash, a plate of golden, stuffed courgette flowers (ανθούς) and the pièce de résistance ‘revithokeftéthes’.

How can you possibly translate the name for these beautiful morsels as chickpea patties, or chickpea rissoles!! For goodness sake ! These are golden quenelles of finely ground chickpeas, flavoured with diced spring onions and dill. They are crisp on the outside but soft and fragrant on the inside – in the local dialect they are called ‘pityés’.

After a bit of ‘kitchen talk’, I persuade Kyria Katina to identify the magical, mystery ingredient. So here is the recipe – I can give you that, but for the amazing view, you have to go to Nisyros….

Revithokeftéthes

1 tin of chickpeas (drained weight 240gm)

1/2 medium raw  butternut squash, grated

1 small onion, grated

2 heaped tabs chopped parsley

2 heaped tabs chopped  fresh dill

1 egg, beaten

A small piece of feta cheese (maybe 30 – 40 grammes)

A little plain flour

Salt

Plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil for frying

Take the grated squash and squeeze out as much of the moisture as you can. I do it with my hands, but you can do it in a clean towel if you prefer.

Grind the drained chickpeas in a food processor until they have the appearance of fairly fine breadcrumbs.

In a bowl mix the grated squash, grated onion, chopped herbs, egg and crumbled feta. Season to taste, remembering that the feat will have given some salt. Add a little plain flour a bit at a time to help bind the mixture. It should be a fairly soft mixture but still have a consistency that can be shaped by hand. The ‘pityés’ should be about the size and shape of a small damson.

Shallow fry in olive oil – don’t have the oil too hot as you want the ‘pityés’ to cook inside whilst being golden and crisp on the outside.

Serve at room temperature.

The Culinary Joys of Winter

                         Lahanodolmades

When you talk about Greek food, usually people conjure up images of all those fantastic dishes using all the wonderful summer vegetables – the dishes familiar to holiday makers – moussaka, stuffed tomatoes and peppers.

Greek cuisine – kouzina – is extremely seasonal. There is always a real joy and sense of expectation for the next season’s ingredients. After the shiny, voluptuous tomatoes, courgettes with their delicious, delicate golden flowers still intact, aubergines of all different types – the big and bulbous, the long and stripy, the elongated purple – after all of the Summer’s glut there is a real pleasure when the autumn and winter produce starts to appear in the markets. The dishes forgotten since the previous winter, return to the cooks’ repertoire and there are some real gems.

So now in the heart of the winter, I love to cook and, above all eat, some of my favourites. One that I have really been hankering after is the wonderful dish, lahanodolmades or stuffed cabbage leaves.

Why do the English translations never do justice to these recipes! Stuffed cabbage leaves conjure up dreadfully dull and horribly virtuous chunks of soggy boiled cabbage!

But these Lahanodolmades are a sort of wonderfully fragrant vegetable wrap. The filling is made from rice and a little minced beef, flavoured with dill and parsley – the dish is finished with creamy egg and lemon sauce. The cabbage really has to be the ‘Turkish’ type found in ethnic grocers. These are very different to our English green or white cabbages – ours are too dense and ‘tight’ and it is impossible to release the individual leaves. The ‘Turkish’ variety is loose-leafed and the leaves are thinner. Some recipe books suggest that savoy cabbage is a suitable alternative, I disagree. The savoy cabbage is too strongly flavoured and will drown the subtlety of the dish.

A word about releasing the leaves – a task much easier than it sounds. First, with a sharp knife, score around the stem of the cabbage and ease out a bit of the core. Next, put he cabbage upside down in a large pan or bowl and pour over boiling water. You will see that the cabbage appears to ‘blossom’ and the leaves start to separate from each other. After a minute or so, carefully transfer the cabbage to drain in a  colander until it is cool enough to handle. Your leaves are ready to fill.

Ingredients

1/2 kg minced beef

250 gm long grain ‘easy cook’ rice (uncooked)

1 medium onion very finely chopped

2 tabs chopped parsley

2 tabs chopped dill

salt

ground black pepper

1 medium tomato – grated with the coarse side of a grater

1 medium tomato – coarsely chopped

150 ml olive oil

100 gm butter

Mix the mince, the rice, onion, parsley, dill and grated tomato in a bowl. Mix it well with your hands and add the olive oil and seasoning – about 2-3 teaspoons of salt is about right.

Put a small spoonful of the mixture at one side of a cabbage leaf and roll it into a bundle.

Do this until all the mixture and leaves are used up.

Butter a deep metal pan (it’s good to line the bottom of the pan with a leaf or two) and pack in the cabbage bundles – there must be no space between them. Place a few leaves over the top of the parcels.

Slowly add enough cold water to cover and also the chopped tomato – dot with any remaining butter. Carefully, place a heat-resistant plate on top – this holds everything in place whilst cooking.

Simmer, gently for about 40 minutes, ensuring that there is enough water in the pan so that it doesn’t boil dry.

At the end of the cooking time, gently lift off the plate and peel back the covering leaves. Lift out a cabbage parcel to see if the rice has cooked – a little more cooking may be needed.

When they are cooked allow to cool slightly while you make the mixture for the egg and lemon sauce.

Beat the eggs in a fairly large bowl with a pinch of salt. You need a good sized bowl as,eventually you will add most of the cooking liquid – not yet though !

Next gradually add the lemon juice, beating all the time. Now gradually add the warm cooking liquid to the egg and lemon mixture, beating all the time. This is really crucial as you don’t want the mixture to curdle. Beat in as much of the cooking liquid as possible.

Finally, pour the egg,lemon,liquor mixture back into the pan with the cabbage parcels and leave to stand – this will allow the sauce to thicken.

The only accompaniment you will need for this are slices of feta.

A Day in Aegina

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The Greek Islands are scattered across the Aegean Sea like handfuls of semi-precious stones. Each one with its own individual form and colour. Looking out to sea at any given point, there is always another destination on the horizon; another journey full of promise and expectation to be had.

From Athens, the island of Aegina is only an hour away by boat and is the easiest of these gems to visit in a day.
We left from the port of Piraeus and it is almost incomprehensible that within 65 minutes of leaving that hi-rise skyline behind, you will be arriving in the tiny island harbour with its backdrop of pastel coloured , neo-classical buildings.
Travelling by ferry in Greece is a bit like travelling by train in Britain. This is not a service just for day-trippers – this is a practical means of transport, vital for both the inhabitants and the businesses of the islands. Here are young women shopping in Athens for a special occasion and people going to the mainland for medical check-ups.
On both legs of our journey that day, we had a group of young Greek Orthodox monks in there tall black caps and long black robes.
The real joy of travelling by boat
in the Aegean, is the sight of more shades of blue than you ever thought possible to see. The glistening dark indigo of deep water, the bright cobalt of the sky – even in January. We are followed closely by seagulls and the foaming white, wake of the boat cutting through the sea.
Arriving in Aegina,we wait for the ferry to dock and the passengers, cars and trucks to head out. There is the usual mild confusion of an island harbour -disorientated visitors,others with eyes scanning hordes of strangers for the familiar, long-awaited face; arms raised to attract attention; hand-shakes and embraces. But we are soon out exploring this gorgeous place.
Out of the town, the land is green this time of year – bright green and the citrus trees are heavy with oranges and lemons. This though is not the best season to see the island’s most famous crop. In Greek, pistachios are called ‘peanuts from Aegina’ (φυστίκια αιγίνης ). and everywhere you look there are the grey, skeletal outlines of the pistachio trees, now dormant. It must be a true marvel to see them in blossom and later in fruit.

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Back in the town we stop for lunch. There are two tavernas right at the back of the fish market – we chose ‘Yeladakis’ (Γελαδάκης)

The taverniaris offers us a variety of different fish – small fresh cod, octopus, whitebait, to name a few. We settle on squid and a type of red-mullet called ‘koutsomoúres’ (‘flat-faced’). They are both served fried to perfection. The squid is soft and tender; the mullet so fresh that the bones can be gently pulled out by the tail. Our side dishes are a crisp cabbage and carrot salad,dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and fried potatoes, sprinkled with oregano. A small carafe of local white wine is the perfect accompaniment.

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Too quickly it is time to take the ferry back to the city – there is a brief stop to buy a bag of pistachios from the local co-operative before we’re back on the sea again. This time we don’t go on deck. Tired and well-fed, we close our eyes.

Happy New Year – Καλή Χρονιά !

Vassilopitta 2014

So, ten days in and it’s  been a busy culinary year already. Of course there was all that cooking and baking over Christmas – I do both the Greek and English traditional sweets – just can’t stop myself! So there were melomakarona, kourabiedes and mince pies – not to mention a new favourite, white chocolate and dried cranberry cookies!

It’s from Yotam Ottolenghi’s first book- love them!
The pièce de resistance of the whole holiday season has to be the Vassilopitta or St Basil’s Cake. Traditionally this is cut on New Year’s Day – but in Greece every company, organisation or society will have an official ‘cake cutting’ event all thorough January. The whole point is to find the coin hidden within the cake – a bit like in a Christmas pudding. However, there is more of a ritual with the Greek version.

The head of the house will mark a cross over the cake and then cut slices for Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the ‘poor’, family and friends. The person whowins the coin should be lucky all year !have an official ‘cake cutting’ event all thorough January. The whole point is to find the coin hidden within the cake – a bit like in a Christmas pudding. However, there is more of a ritual with the Greek version.From the traditional Greek sweets the melomakarona are always the most popular.I love baking them – they have all the elements of Christmas just about anywhere; the mix of spices, delicious sweetness and walnuts. My sneaky, secret ingredient though, is the addition of Chinese five spice powder. I can see Greek cooks shaking their heads  in disbelief but,honestly, it gives a warmth and fragrance which is really special.

There are many and varied recipes for Vassilopitta, some with yeast – producing a ‘brioche’ like cake. Others are on the line of the German ‘bundt’ type cake. I prefer a good sponge-type cake made with butter. The essential element though is the flavour of orange zest and a little juice.

So with all that in mind, I thought we should start the year with some healthy and hearty dishes. The perfect food for a cold, winter’s day is the fabulous lentil soup, ‘fakés’ (φακές). How anything this simple can be so tasty and satisfying is a true wonder of the Mediterranean !

A good soup of brown, green or even the French puy variety – ‘ the caviar of lentils’ – agood amount of tomato purée or juice and some fragrant bay leaves and dried oregano and of course olive oil, work their magic.

Fakés

With fakés you always need a good side dish or two. Traditionally, it’s anchovies or a little grilled kipper (yes kippers!) and olives. This time I tried something new, a little bowl of parsley salad (μαϊντανοσαλάτα) – a cross between a sort of parsley pesto and a dip. along with some griddled long, green peppers, it was a pretty healthy start to the year!