Greece

Greece

By
Tess Mallos
Contains
90 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742704920
Photographer
Alan Benson

Having cut my first tooth on a paximathi and coped with many a childhood illness fortified with bowls of avgolemono soupa, I had taken Greek cooking for granted. When friends returned from a visit to Greece with a grand passion for Greek cooking, I began to look at it through the eyes of my non-Greek friends. And what did I see? I saw a cuisine shaped through over 3000 years of history; through the geography and climate of a country lolling in azure blue seas; through sloping mountains thrusting upwards to the heavens where humans and nature vie for control; through the people of the land whose joy for life is evident every evening at the quaysides, in the tavernas, in town squares at the kafenia.

Such vast differences in geography and climate have given Greek cookery an infinite variety, but there are still some dishes that are universally prepared and loved: avgolemono, the delightfully tangy egg and lemon combination used in sauces to bathe meats, fish and vegetables, and as a soup with chicken, lamb or fish stock, recognised as the crowning glory of Greek cooking; taramosalata, the caviar of Greece, so symbolic of the sea and its importance to the Greek; moussaka, the marrying of eggplant, lamb and a cheese-topped béchamel sauce; octopus and squid, regarded in horror by those who have not dared to taste them, and relished by those who have; spanakopita, a delightful combination of spinach, herbs, eggs and cheese, but with regional variations and adaptations; and many, many more.

While there are no taboos regarding any particular food, fasting is an important part of the Orthodox faith, and after the fasting, there is feasting! During periods of fasting, no animal products — meat, butter, cheese, milk or eggs — may be taken, so Greek cuisine offers many dishes for those who prefer to reduce the amounts of such foods in their diet.

Spanakopita is a most popular, very typically Greek pie; and not to be denied its enjoyment when fasting, it is prepared similarly to the spanakopita Peloponnisos recipe, though its final shape could be a roll, smaller rolls, or a flat pie, depending on the mood of the cook. This is a favourite of Chantal Countouri, a well-known Greek–Australian actress from the 1970s whose family came from the southern Peloponnese. Chantal frequently adds eggs and feta cheese, for yet another variation of spinach pie.

The permutations and combinations of Greek cooking are endless. If any recipe seems to be omitted, the basic recipe could be included under another name. For example, if you have tried trigona in Greece, a sweet pastry filled with walnuts, then it is a simple matter to adapt the baklava recipe. Just cut the pastry into strips, butter them, put on some of the filling and fold into triangles. Baking is quicker and the cooled syrup is poured on the hot pastries. If you prefer floyeres (almond pipes), use almonds instead of walnuts, and roll the strips into cylinders. Actually, floyeres are similar to the sarigi burma that you’ll find in the chapter on Turkey, using the alternative shaping at the end of that recipe. Indeed, any other Greek recipe you might be looking for could be in the Turkey, Cyprus or Armenia chapters.

The flavours of greek food

The flavours of Greek foods tend to be subtle rather than overpowering. Favourite herbs are parsley — always the flat-leaf variety — rosemary, dill, fennel, bay leaves, mint, rigani (a wild marjoram, not to be confused with oregano) and celery leaves. Basil always grows in Greek gardens, but was seldom used in cooking in the past, though its addition to the Greek cooking pot is increasing of late. It is of religious significance, as the Greeks claim that basil grew on the site of the Cross. A sprig is always handed to visitors on their departure as a gesture of goodwill.

Of the spices, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, masticha and mahlepi (mahlab, the kernel of the black cherry stone, imported from Syria) are the most frequently used; all but masticha and mahlepi feature in both savoury and sweet dishes.

For sweet preserves, the leaf of the rose geranium imparts a particular fragrance and often is used instead of cinnamon and lemon rind. These sweet preserves, called glyka, are made from orange, lemon or grapefruit peel; little green figs; grated quince preserve and quince jelly; watermelon rind; or green walnuts. There is even one similar to a vanilla fondant. Glyka are an important aspect of Greek hospitality: a guest is offered a glass of cold water into which the glyka is placed, adhering to a spoon. The guest sucks small mouthfuls and sips the water alternately.

Among the fruits, the lemon reigns supreme. A Greek garden without a lemon tree is unthinkable. Seafoods and vegetables without lemon? Well, almost never. Even lamb is not spared. The rind makes a superb sweet preserve and is used in most other preserves, together with the juice to prevent the sugar crystallising. Then, of course, there would be no avgolemono without the lemon — nothing can substitute for it, though it is believed that the sour sauce of Ancient Greece used the juice of the citron, since lemon was not introduced until much later.

On second thoughts, the lemon does not reign alone, for without the olive, would there be a Greece? For countless centuries the olive tree has been an enduring symbol of Greek life. The fragrant oil, from earliest times, has sustained the people, been used in trade and has given Greek cooking its essence.

Meals Greek style

Greece is a country established in the European cultural traditions, and with a lifestyle similar to that of most countries bordering the Mediterranean; eating is a very social occasion, reminiscent of the symposiums of Ancient Greece.

To the Greek, food is incidental. What is important is enjoying the company of friends, discussing a wide variety of topics with much gesticulating — with the occasional pause to dip a piece of bread into taramosalata or pop an olive into the mouth and sip an ouzo or a beer. From midday onwards, this scene is enacted in a wide variety of locations. It could be at an outdoor restaurant, in the town square, in the colourful Plaka in the old part of Athens, or at a waterfront tavern anywhere in Greece. Such occasions can extend far into the early hours of the morning. This basically is how the Greek regards eating, as just part of the happy business of living.

The main meal of the day is taken at midday and the food is served in a Western manner; that is, at a table spread with a cloth, with china, cutlery and glassware. The food is placed in its dishes on the table at the beginning of the meal. There could be a roast leg of lamb with potatoes that were cooked in the same dish to absorb the flavours of the meat with its rigani, lemon and olive oil. A Greek salad — a mixture of sweet red tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and capsicums, feta cheese and olives — would accompany the meat course. Bread is served with every meal and is used to soak up the salad dressing or meat juices. A wine, more often than not a retsina, accompanies the meal. Quite often other dishes could be served, such as one of the vegetable stews for which the Greeks are famous.

Dessert is seldom served; if it is, it could be a simple bowl of yoghurt or rizogalo (creamed rice). Fresh fruit and cheese complete the meal. In summer lunch is taken outdoors on the terrace, patio or balcony or in the garden.

After lunch it is time for siesta, and even if there are guests present they are offered pyjamas and a bed. Very hospitable! After siesta is the time when the exotic sweets and pastries are likely to be eaten, if not at home then at the local zaharoplastio, which is similar to the French patisserie.

Early evening sees a repeat of the symposium-type gathering described earlier, which often suffices as the evening meal. The variety of mezethakia served in Greece is limited only by the imagination of the cook and the availability of ingredients.

Where an evening meal is served, it could be taken at any time from 8 to 11 p.m. and is generally a lighter meal. More often than not, particularly in the summer months, it is taken at a restaurant or taverna. Early bedtime for children during summer vacation is seldom demanded, and even more seldom obeyed — there is too much living to do.

Cooking methods

Greece is more Western than Eastern, and even the humble village home has a modern stove. Even so, sometimes in cities as well as rural and island villages people take the midday meal — ready prepared in its tapsi (round baking dish) or tsoukali (casserole dish) — to the local bakery so that the kitchen will not become hot from the heat of the stove: a very popular practice during the summer months. Women who hold a job also take advantage of the baker’s oven and deliver the prepared food on their way to work, to be collected at midday. The baker tends, checks, stirs and turns the food. After the early morning’s bake, the food cooks slowly in the residual heat of the oven — a marvellous service for little cost. Slow cookers will never take off in Greece while the baker is so obliging.

Kitchen equipment is as modern as any, though you’ll find traditional items such as the pestle and mortar, a briki for making coffee, tapsi and tsoukalia (mentioned previously), saganaki (two-handled frying pan), a long piece of wooden dowel used as a rolling pin for pastry, and perhaps a kakavi, a large copper pot once hung over the hearth for cooking, now seldom used except for ornamentation.

Ingredients for Greek cooking

Fortunately, you can buy anything you might need at your usual market, and any particularly Greek ingredient is available at Greek, Armenian and Middle Eastern food stores. Rigani is a must, as are feta cheese, olive oil, fillo pastry, macaroni and pulses (dried beans, lentils and peas). But why list them here? The recipes are self-explanatory and the introductory passages and glossary will fill in the gaps. It is evident that you do not need to chase around for the ingredients for Greek cooking — you probably use most of them already.

Pronunciation

Recipe names have been transliterated from the Greek. Pronounce each syllable with equal emphasis, for example do-ma-tes, with ‘o’ as in ought, ‘a’ as in past, and ‘es’ as in esteem. Pronounce ‘e’ as in egg, ‘ou’ as in soup, ‘i’ as in sit and ‘y’ as ‘i’ when between consonants, and as in yes or your when followed by a vowel.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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