As a committed Grecophile and taverna cuisine aficionado – ha! who am I kidding! In all reality I love Greek cooking, it has a basic premise that is heartfelt seasonal simplicity and I love cooking up a storm (translate = chaos!) in the kitchen. This weekend I had a friend over for dinner so decided to get stuck in and prepare a meze menu for sharing.
I read through Belinda Harley’s ‘Roast Lamb in the Olive Groves‘ for inspiration . I have struggled to find many Greek cookbooks – so let me know if you come across any treasures. It’s a very skilful modern take on some of the wonderful and traditional recipes she found during her time spent on Paxos. The island is a true jewel in the Ionian sea – we visited Paxos a couple of years ago and had enjoyed two weeks of pure bliss, walking, swimming in deserted beaches and enjoying some of the finest local cuisine. The island is a treasure – recommended to me by my parents who have only visited it in 1976, it was their first taste of what turned into a long term love for Greece. I have inherited their adoration of helios and retsina, and convinced myself in the 30 odd intervening years Paxos had changed only a little, with just the modern conveniences of wifi and imported gin as the real markers of time. But I do want to get round to writing a longer post on Paxos as it is a small island that deserves a full exploration. Watch this space
But in terms of my menu plan, the island inspired me to cook Spanakopita – a deliciously buttery feta and spinach pie.
Using Harley’s recipe for a colourful panzarosalata (beetoot salad with radish and feta) with it’s peppery taste to liven up the palate and offer a colourful visual for the meal. In my humble opinion any Greek menu is incomplete without a good basic tzatziki, served with bread and olives drizzled with lemon oil and thyme.
To add a little texture and taste I cooked midia saganaki – which is mussels in a winey tomato sauce, with an added shot of ouzo, sprinkled with herbs and feta. It’s a perfect sharing dish with the sauce just crying out for soaking up with bread.
I also grilled some simple pork kebabs seasoned with herbs and lemon, a Greek salad – drizzled generously with wine vinegar and topped with feta. There is a love of cheese throughout this menu, so I went all out and grilled halloumi to serve drizzled in honey and sesame seeds.
All served with a bottle of Retsina salvaged from Sainsbury’s and chilled to perfection. It may have been February in Kent, but we all agreed it was a Greek summer in our bellies…
Sweet peas are a favourite of many gardeners for their scent and early colour. I found growing them from seed last year was a surprisingly rewarding experience. So this year I am branching out with some Cupani and Skylark as annual and sowing some of the Everlasting perennial variety which will flower next year.
I started them off from seed on the windowsill in a plastic propagator – they tend to germinate quickly usually 7-10 days and you’ll see a bright green shoot. There are many opinions on whether you should soak the seeds overnight or chip a small cut with a knife into the ‘eye’ on the seed – I’ve tried both and am unconvinced either speed things up! Take off the cover when they are a couple of cm’s tall and just keep them watered. If you are starting them in cells – But sweet peas grow quick, I started this years first batch on Jan 23rd and they are already 15-10cms tall. Last year i just did one sowing, but this year I am doing 2 sowings 4 weeks apart to prolong the flowing season
The trick is to pinch out the stems before they get too tall and leggy, so pinch off the tops with a knife when the second set of leaves appear. This will help them grow side shoots so they produce more flowers. Keep them on a windowsill and acclimatise them to outside temps gradually. Last year I planted mine outside in mid march and they survived fine – so i think half of the battle is luck with the weather!
They need support and ties initially, but they produce little tendrils that twirl and grab onto any support (and each other) and they will support themselves after an initial leg up. We made a frame from bamboo canes and pea netting that worked a treat, although they got so tall we had to extend it! But this year I will space them out more and try them against walls and trellis to intersperse their sent around the garden.
Once they start flowering by May, I found that cutting the flowers and deadheading (feels a bit endless!) continues to encourage the plant to keep producing flowers, rather then letting them grow the seed pods (which do look like peas – the same genus. I often pottered out there on a weekend and filled jam jars, pots and vases in every room with the lovely flowers.
As a rewarding annual flower you can’t get better than sweet peas – but they do need ripping out when they start to die back and stop producing flowers – a sad sight! Let hope it wasn’t just beginners luck and this year the sweet peas are as stunning…
In an effort to give the garden a chance to come into its own this summer, without having to rely on buying in too many annuals, I am starting off some flowers from seed earlier this year. I also like to complement the flowers with the challenge of growing herbs and veg from seed too. I’m learning lessons along the way – but here is an update on my first seedlings of the year:
Herbs The first action I took in January was to sow sage, rosemary and oregano for the windowsill – last years oregano and parsley has just finished. So it’s a good investment to start them off now and have plentiful fresh herbs to enjoy throughout the year. Supermarket pots of herbs are disastrous – they are overfilled seedlings in tiny pots which the only way to make them last longer than a week or is to separate them out into 5 or 6 pots and give them extra soil and space. Once I realised how rewarding it was to grow my own herbs I promised never to buy supermarket herbs again…(I’ve relinquished on this on occasion when a whole batch of coriander was needed for a recipe, but as a rule..) I will start off basil, coriander, parsley and thyme in the coming few weeks. But space is a premium in the propagation station (aka kitchen windowsill) this all needs a careful rotation plan.
Flowers The first seed (and my favourite) flowers to get sowing in the 3rd week in January were the heady scented Lathyrus odoratus (sweet peas!). This year I’m trialling a couple of varieties; ‘singing the blues’ ‘skylark’ and ‘cupani’ which is one of the oldest heritage varieties found in the wild Italian hedgerows apparently. All will liven up the fence space and walls from May onwards. But I also plan to sow perennial ‘everlasting’ varieties later in the year which should flower next year.
The first week in February I started with some more traditional sowings of summer annuals that are new to me. Sweet Williams should work well as gap fillers in baskets and borders, (to add to my self seeding ones springing up over the winter), likewise the fluffy flowers of ageratum will work well for cutting in borders and I’m trying out Aster duchess for late season colour and height. To add some structure I’m adding some verbena bonariensis for added purple colour and spiky height which should be hardy enough to stay through to autumn. Im also trying out some heliotrope dwarf marine, which is a half hardy perennial and given its nickname as ‘cherry pie’ it’s a scented attractor for bees. Most have set off quite well the ageratum seems to be struggling in the propagators so I’ve given its tray the special treatment (a sealed sandwich bag!)
Veg The broad beans went in pairs into each pot without a cover and all 8 sprouted within a week. In my experience (from last year!) they are the easy wins of the veg plot. I’ve started off a couple of pots of heirloom tomatoes ‘tigerella’ and ‘red pear’ – less is more this year and will concentrate my efforts on quality tomatoes rather than an over abundance! I’ve also started aubergines from seed. It’s a new one for me so I’m looking forward to see how challenging and fruitful they are in containers. In the next few weeks I will start to plan out the veg beds in detail – looking at best places for carrots and parsnips, runner beans and sweetcorn.
Until the weather improves I am only admiring the garden from afar but the daffodils are cheering everything up. It seems like the 2016 season starting off rather well. Long may it continue.
I asked myself this as I walk around the garden on the last weekend in January. The cherry tree has burst open the first pink pops of blossom and there are more signs of the season changing on the way.
A few daffodils are out, this seems to be fairly universal across London. On my new route through St James’s Park, the immediate horizon of the path changed this week from grey and green green, to a sea of waving yellow heads bobbing in the wind and rain.
Although disappointed by the lack of expected order, even if it is unpredictable, I can never be disappointed to see flowers at this time of year. I expect a hierarchy with snowdrops and crocus being the early stars, followed by blue iris and grape muscari , then the attention grabbing daffodils and narcissus, with the proud tulips closing the Spring season. This spell seems to have been broken in my garden this year at least, with daffodils in January and blue iris flowering 2 months earlier than last year. But these days are so short and dark- I always feel thankful to see anything burst into flower – reminding us that winter is fleeting, soon warmer days and clearer skies will return.
There has been much in the garden out of sync – the anttirrium still haven’t died back. The fuschia have started new growth shoots and clematis are starting to bud. There is a bleeding heart flowering from the central clump of its woody form.
There is also basil and chives re-sprouting in the pots I left in the mini greenhouse. In there are the sweet william that has managed to self seed into the container we grew beetroot in last September. Nature finds a way to root through and satiate itself in strange conditions, its reassuring and reminds us about adaptation to new environments – a state we all face.
To respond to the seasonal shift, I’m ignoring caution and setting off some sweet peas, broad beans and chitting some swift early-crop potatoes. Let’s hope it pays to follow the lead of the early spring…
It’s been weeks since I came home and I am still struggling to place Athens neatly into that ‘cities I’ve been to’ filing cabinet of the mind; it is unlike any European city I have ever travelled to, part decadent grandeur, part industrial sprawl, part serene village, part modern chaos. Perhaps that’s why it struck a deep chord with me.
It feels like a city, much like its population, that refuses to be defined by expectations, nor willing to make any comprise. Athens invites you into its presence, it has a unique energy and passion, in its population and history. I expected to find a city in turmoil, political upheaval and rebellion on the streets, the way the media has reported the city’s banking crisis and influx of refugees, I was surprised to not see this impact more vividly. Athens wants to be seen and heard, but it also wants you to stay a while scratch the surface and let it slowly surprise you at every turn. It is a melting pot of old Greece and new – and I genuinely loved it.
We touched down after experiencing some awe-inspiring views of
Halkidiki, Thessaloniki and the Sporades on a clear day as the sea glimmered translucent blue. From the windows of a budget plane the view below could have been easily mistaken a hot summer day. The city sprawls out over hills spilling down, all milky white and grey blocks to the port at Piraeus, it give the impression from above of having no discernible centre or midpoint. Very few high rises by most city standards and no real glimmering skyscrapers or towering monuments to capitalism and commerce. Yet hidden in the the green pine trees are the historic monuments of democracy and trade, political foundations of the modern world. For such an old city, Athens feels like it really only got going with major suburban expansion in the late 50s and much of the development has a mid century feel to it. It surprised me how much felt so new. And I still haven’t found the answer to my long running question – why are Greek pavements so shiny?
We booked a place with airbnb, as it seemed really logical, pick an area of the city that looks central and narrow it down. Our wish list winner was this in Plaka. It was close to bars, main sights, museums and restaurants, somewhere with a view, somewhere with space for both of us to potter around and a nice kitchen, heating, as it was winter I wasn’t quite prepared for being in Greece in a season that wasn’t summer. Greeks had warned me their winters were horrible, tutting, shrugging their shoulders, “it rains, it snows”. Fair point, but I guess few of them have experienced the North East in June. It was Christmas so our travel idea was “let’s escape to see what Greece is like out of season”. The truth is Athens is never truly out of season, and we were lucky to arrive into a balmy 19 degrees and sunshine, I was wearing a Christmas jumper!
If you do visit Athens in any season I’ve got quite a few recommendations. First up on my list is Brettos, a slightly hidden ‘Hole in the Wall’ kind of place in the Plaka. But once you step over the sleepy dog in the doorway, you are greeted to a plethora of colour and light from rows upon rows of bottles, the small bar is flanked by big wooden communal tables, edged with aged Greek barrels of wine and a friendly bar man who will tell you about the 120 plus different types of wine that have on offer. They offer tasting sessions every day. The special thing here is that it’s not just any wine but Greece’s finest wine, Brettos have a long history and have been distilling their own ouzo since the 1900s – of course I sampled the blue, the gold and the red label varieties. Go there to try the ouzo and the 20 something other liqueurs they make in house, try the wine from the Cyclades like the Assyrtiko and I challenge you to not to fall in love with Greek wine. If I have one lifetime challenge it is try to slowly dispel the Greek myths about crap wine. Take everything you ever thought about that nasty cheap tasting wine you want had on a teenage holiday in Corfu in the early 90s! It is really not anything like Greek wine these days! Brettos is intimate and the music is probably too loud,, but that’s half its charm friendly its fun it’s wine what more can you need in life! Maybe that is Kefi*!
I could probably dedicate pages of the blog to Greek food – and probably will with time – but there’s a few shining stars in Athens that do get a mention. I want to be upfront firstly about how much I love good Greek food – good being the key – fresh, thoughtful, rustic and traditional recipes done well, but also I like ambition too. It’s not all moussaka and feta! We stumbled upon Tzitzikas & Mermingas (the ant and the grasshopper, like the fable!) which takes a modern and fresh approach to the traditional mezedhoplieo (house of meze, small dishes) – appreciating a little complimentary glass of Tsipouro and kourambeides (christmas biscuits covered in sugar!) whilst we waited for a table. The dishes are all seasonal and well put together, trying the chef’s special sharing plates which included pomegranate salad, baby goat in lemon sauce, manouri cheese wrapped in parma ham and drizzled with Cretan honey. Yum!
To Kafeneio is a great place to eat in a fantastic 400 year old building in the Plaka on Epicharmou Street. We snuck in late one evening (late by english standards – normal for greeks). Positioned right next to a roaring fire, we shared a generous dishes meatballs, courgettes, and a favourite was the ‘bekri meze’ – meat for drunks – a saucy beef dish not dissimilar to stifado but lovingly sprinkled with cheese and served with bread, to mop up all that booze I assume! The meal was finished with a glass of morello cherry liqueur wine – sweet, and syrupy, with a fig-like aftertaste. A perfect winter warmer.
As it was Christmas we reserved a table at the impeccably swish Strofi – all white table cloths, moonlit acropolis views and a tuneful greek songstress. Despite its touristy appeal, there were plenty of locals celebrating their Christmases, up dancing and showing off their accomplished knowledge of dance steps from the more traditional bouzouki songs. Opa! The atmosphere was divine and the service was impeccable, we started with ouzo, followed by a delectable wine from Samos and after a divine chocolate and chestnut dessert, we rounded off the meal with Greek coffee’s before stumbling off into the night.
If you fancy lunch with a view the taverna on the square Argyropoulos was perfect for a light lunch. We enjoyed a Greek salad, meatballs, tzatziki (and the company of some friendly Athenian cats) whilst overlooking the Tower of the Winds.
One of my favourites was Estiatopio on Nikos street, near Syntagma Square – a real family run place – the whole family were in there catching up after the holidays. There were the proud grandparents being shown the girls school report and chattering loudly in the corner. Amidst this lovely atmosphere this tavern had two highlights for me – one it was the only place in Athens we found Horta on the menu. Countryside greens – served with a generous glug of olive oil and lemon juice, similar in taste to spring greens and spinach but slightly peppery, traditionally horta is picked by the ladies of the village and includes whatever is in season, dandelion leaves, kale, nettle, fennel. Secondly, the ‘waiter’ was possibly the only person I impressed in the city with my language skills, I eloquently ordered our dishes, ordered water (signomi, efharisto, the loumena boukari nero parakelo) and even the bill (par logarithmo parakelo) He was the owner’s son – we bonded and at 11 years old he spoke better english than I can ever aspire my Greek to reach!
If you don’t want to linger over a taverna and need good food quickly, Athens is your perfect city. But even if you have time, its well spend waiting for a gyros at Kostas. We waited in line for 30 minutes in the very fashionable Agias Irinis Square foot honestly the best gyros pitta ever…and i have tasted quite a few. Tangy tzatziki chicken meat, hot and fresh from the grill, layered in a wrap with melt in your mouth tomatoes and tangy sauce sprinkled with the sweetest red onions. Kostas has been serving and slaving over the same grill since 1946, passed down through a few generations I imagine we were served by Kosta’s Jr. I of course couldn’t resist a wander round the hardware shop over the square selling seeds and gardening tools…
Although there seems to be limitless streets of history to wander through in Athens; it really pays to plan out your days. Walking up to the Acropolis and seeing the Partheanon is a must – re-enacting the Athena and Posiedon battle at the site of the olive tree is optional of course! Take in the view after climbing 15 minutes to the peak of Mount Lykavittus, spend time wandering round the ancient agora, visit the Greek Parliament to see the changing of the guard. The precision movements of the soldiers in this dance of military honour is admirable (and can you imagine they do the same routine in every season including August, when it must be at least 40c!) Wander through to the Monastiraki Flea Market and people watch amongst the antiques. Some of the world’s best museums and preserved monuments are in the city, including the Acropolis Museum which is a beautiful architectural feast of well curated pieces.
You will find a real-life best discovered by walking, getting lost and just wandering. Nowhere felt particularly unsafe or salubrious – just take your time and see the city, it’s chic, smart and full of graffiti and tiny orthodox churches – political slogans carving out the human side of the euro crisis – showing a city alive and ready to shout out its politics. Although the metro system is great too – only a bargain 8 euro ticket for the 40 minute journey from the airport to Syntagma Square. Its clean, air conditioned and not particularly crowded, one of the legacies of hosting the Olympics in 2004.
Take the locals approach and spend a few hours lingering over a coffee – we sat in a cafe in the Plaka, the old quarter overlooking the choragic monument of Lysicrates – listening to the familiar click/clack of the kolymbari watching the locals debate and greet one another. The ever familiar tourist shops we passed to get there made me feel as if we had stepped right from the heart of a city into the slow pace of Greek island life in a matter of minutes.
If you do get to explore the Plaka make sure you wander around the area of Anafiotika. A sleepy, almost uninhabited area on the steepest slope up to the Acropolis, It was built by the workers who came to Athens from the Island of Anafi in the cyclades during the Ottoman empire. In just a small expanse of streets you can be transported – the tumbling houses retain their white-washed cycladic charm, cats bathe in the sunshine and geraniums grow in feta cans. Some house looks empty – the graffiti even sets a contracts, others done up but a nice bridge between the old and new, island nation and city states.
Athens I think you have Kefi* (the ill-defined Greek word for reckless happiness and spirit) – You certainly have left me wanting more…