Kalamata, Messene and Outer mani

Kalamata, Messene and Outer mani

Lyndey Milan
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Chris Chen

Blair and I love markets. Always have, especially when there is terrific regional food on offer. It’s one of the joys of travelling. We were in our element as we explored the outdoor and covered market in Kalamata seeing only fresh regional produce and applauding that this is the way Greeks cook. If it isn’t in season, they don’t use it. We tried everything we could from souvlaki sticks fresh off the charcoal crammed into a bread roll, chunky local sausage spiked with orange and Blair was especially excited to eat the delicious kalamata olives right there in Kalamata. We finished off with piping hot loukoumades deep-fried in olive oil and if that sweet treat wasn’t enough, we managed to eat some of the indulgent chocolate-covered figs of the area.

We were fascinated by the hive of activity and the attention to detail that went into producing first-class olive oil and figs at a local factory.

Our next injection of history was the archaeological site of Ancient Messene. What a wonder! A purpose-built city, so well preserved and complete with a stadium and a small amphitheatre that Blair longed to perform in. Later I was to cook and then we dined at Ithomi Restaurant overlooking the site. I’d never cooked cockerel (or rooster) before and the okra was so tender and sweet. Blair and I were lost for words as we tucked in overlooking one of the wonders of the Peloponnese.

The next day we made our way to the dramatic Methoni castle once occupied by the Venetians and on our long journey to our next location, stopped to challenge a local to a game of tavli (backgammon). Guess who won?

Greek olive oil and olives

Nowhere is oil loved and revered more than in Greece. It has been the most significant ingredient in the Greek diet since ancient times and is still an integral part of the Greek kitchen and rightfully celebrated on Greek tables. For Greeks cannot eat without oil. Rich, flavoursome extra-virgin olive oil is on the table at all meals: bread is dipped in it; salads and vegetables are doused with it; it is poured over soups, stews and many other dishes.

Oil is used liberally in cooking, sometimes a surprising amount is called for. ‘Close your eyes and add oil’ is the wisdom imparted by many older Greek cooks (what this means is that a good amount of oil should be added). The Greeks even have a word for dishes prepared with lots of oil: ladera (from the Greek word for oil, ladi).

The recipe for okra ladera (page 170) is a good example of the dishes made with a generous amount of oil. Use the amount listed in the recipes or your meal won’t have that authentic Greek flavour. Extra-virgin olive oil completely changes not only the taste but also the texture and richness of many favourite dishes.

The interesting thing is in Greece, the oil is virtually all extra-virgin olive oil. New season’s oil is used at the table, for salads and to pour over finished dishes while last season’s is used for cooking and deep-frying. And what a wonderful medium it is for deep-frying!

Greeks consume more oil per capita than any other nation in the world, an average of 26 litres per person, per year! Despite its relatively small size Greece is the third largest producer of oil (behind Spain and Italy), with around 140 million olive trees, which produce approximately 450,000 tons of olives a year, 80 per cent of which is extra-virgin olive oil, making Greece the world leader in this oil.

In the Peloponnese, olive trees thrive (the region accounts for roughly 65 per cent of Greece’s annual oil production), producing extravirgin olive oil of exceptional quality and flavour. Most Greek oil is extracted from the Koroneiki, which produce oil with a full-bodied, robust, yet balanced flavour.

Greek extra-virgin olive oils are often described as herbaceous or grassy in character, with notable olive fruitiness or pepperiness. Look out for oil labelled as agourelaio, it is considered the best of the best. It is pressed from the first olives harvested that are green and not very ripe. It will be deep golden green in colour, fresh and very fruity.

Table olives

Sharing olives and bread is a mark of friendship in Greece. It was very common in years gone by for olives to be served with a glass of ouzo as prosfagio (the word for a bite before your meal to encourage your appetite) before meze dishes are served.

Olives are not common in traditional Greek cooking, but they are included in some tomato-based sauces and are used to flavour fillings for pies and pastries and are used in some breads. They are an important ingredient in Greek salad. Today they are used in many innovative ways in modern Greek cuisine.

Most people recognise Greek olives by their place name or by the way they have been cured. Kalamata olives are undoubtedly the most recognisable Greek olive, with their deep purple colour and slightly pointed end and rich and fruity flavour. They are often slit so the curing brine gets well into the flesh.

Within Greece, the most familiar variety of olive is the conserviola. Large and oval, these are harvested at varying stages from dark green, greenish-yellow, pinkish-brown to black. These taste a little salty, with a red wine flavour and a slightly bitter finish. They’re softer in texture than other Greek olives and more loosely attached to the stone. Several versions of this olive have been accorded Protected Designation of Origin Status.

Fleshy halkidiki olives are pale green in colour (outside of Greece they are mostly sold as large green Greek olives). They are grown in the region around Thessaloniki and are exported all over the world. They are a very pleasant olive to nibble, firm with a yielding bite. They are the most common Greek olive to stuff.

Megaritiki olives are grown in Attica, near Athens. These are cracked, brined and packed with lemon slices.

The black, wrinkly Greek olives often seen in delicatessens are called throubes (dry olives). Originating on the island of Thassos, these olives are harvested when very ripe, sundried and then lightly salted and packed in oil. In Australia they are sold as Thassos olives. They have a very meaty olive flavour.

Recipes in this Chapter

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