Highway to Hellas
The word ‘home’ has always been very subjective to me. I’ve lived all over the world, from Beirut to Australia and even during my time in the UK I have moved around regularly. I went to thirteen different schools before I was 14, and home has always meant a transient short term base, where I felt I was settled for the year, month or even day. So it feels bizarre to realise that one place has been an unexpected home for the last 15 years and that place is Greece.
The first time I went to Greece, with my mother, I was aged two. After a long day of travelling to a remote island, arriving late at night, I apparently sat in a Taverna and wolfed down the sun kissed little black olives and salty feta – I instantly seemed settled.
Greece is unusual, it still has an old worldly vibe to it, and clichéd though it sounds, you know that not a huge amount has changed over the past 100 years. Crete in particular, thought to be the seat of the Minoan civilisation, has an amazing vibe; sometimes, in my teenage years I felt the sky would crackle with the feeling of ancient energies.
There is something about the stark landscape, unforgiving hills, azure blue seas and heat that makes you feel alive, and more close to humanity than anywhere else. In an urban landscape, where so many of us live, all the buildings, phones, and overloading of media, can actually disconnect us so much from really living.
We moved to a medieval village and into a completely derelict house. It used to be the old village kafenion (greek café), but it was unlivable, although it did have remnants of a bread oven, retsina pit and a selection of barns. Over the years my parents have lovingly and sometimes very stressfully renovated it, even though there is still more to do, it does feel like home. All the stories you hear about the Greek sense of time is true, if you arrange for a builder to come on a Tuesday, it is absolutely normal for them to turn up on Friday afternoon, with just ‘siga, siga (slowly, slowly) as their answer….
The running theme throughout all the years though has been the food. It has always been a big inspiration to me, years before food bloggers and health nuts talked about certain products in Crete they were used everywhere, Organic Bee pollen sprinkled over goat’s milk yogurt with raw honey or Iodine laced sea urchin pasta and quince jellies.
Seasonal cooking, farm to table cuisine and foraging is a way of life here, not just a celebrity chef led food trend. I have gone out at dawn to pick oregano, dived for sea urchins, foraged for ‘Horta’ (wild mountains greens) and I am constantly astounded at the fruit laden trees all year round. I am now used to marking the year by these trees that litter the Island, when the citrus trees are fully heavy with fruit (Winter) when my beloved pomegranates are bursting open everywhere (mid-summer) and the figs scent the air (late summer).
The Greek food can be seen by tourists as too simple, but really when you are there you need to delve deeper and uncover the dishes that the Greeks are eating. It’s an ultimately very seasonal cuisine and I am amazed by the wild herbs, smoked cured meats, seafood, cheeses and sweets I see at the different times of year.
The way of eating is also very important, you are to fill the table with little plates and the whole starter, mains, desserts doesn’t work so much; it makes me sad when I see tourists each eating a lonely Greek salad and not much else, the food is meant for sharing and the flavours merge together perfectly, little plates are to be mixed and matched. Warm beetroot with garlic sauce, goes brilliantly with Mint and feta zucchini fritters, then Ouzo fried prawns, braised wild greens, and hand cut olive oil fried chips with sea salt and oregano all collide in a perfect combination of flavours.
Eating out with families especially on Sunday is an important tradition and it’s a sign of prosperity to over order and spend all day eating. In Crete it is a bit custom to welcome guests, and show them hospitality; once whilst waiting for a taxi in our village, I was given a glass of wine, roasted lamb, bread and cheese to keep me going, by a lady to looked to be about 90 (and full of energy)
So after such a long time in Greece, I can safely say that it has influenced my cooking hugely my Roasted Courgette, Feta and Black Olive Wraps recipe was inspired by Greece as was my Lamb fillet with Pomegranate, Freekeh salad. So I hope you enjoy recreating this amazing cuisine at home and bringing in a touch of sunshine to your everyday food!!
By Sophie Michell – Merchant Gourmet Wellbeing Chef.