Food and seasonal eating

How have I been here this many months and not talked about food as often? Given that it is the one thing that is forever on my mind, I am surprised.

Daily ‘bread-gate’ is just a fact of life here. By way of explanation, this is is the bread delivery at the village mini-market, which took me a while to figure out the intricacies of its schedule with a few questions and observations. Bread gets delivered from the bakery in town at around 8am – but if you leave it to after 9am to try get some they may have sold out, leaving you at the mercy of buying long-life sliced bread (acceptable only for cheese toasties in my view). Trick is it to get there at 8.15 in a scrum of elderly villagers to get the choice of loaves; wholewheat, seeded, crusty white, something ciabatta-like, sesame etc etc. Sunday is the day of rest so no bread deliveries at all, meaning people buy double quantities of loaves on Saturdays. Got it? G refuses to even participate in this ritual – he sees it as a weird thing ‘bread is bread’ (he would be happiest eating white sliced bread that tastes like cotton). But I stick to my principles in fetching in the bread, because fresh bread matters to me!

This week I have dedicated a lot of time to food, no I don’t mean hours gorging on it, well not ‘hours!’, but  time spent wandering around markets and shops, and looking for recipes. Last week I made Halva from a really simple 1 2 3 4 recipe (based on 1 part oil, 2 parts semolina, 3 parts sugar and 4 parts water) I kept it simple and omitted the raisins and almonds. But it was a tasty sweet treat and one I’ll make again.


In a bookshop in Ermoupoli I bought a really facinating cook book from the Women’s Agrotouristic Cooperative of Syros who run the To Kastri Taverna. Enchanting Food Tales from Syros is exactly that, as it narrates short tales from 3 generations of the same family as the shared recipes are passed down. The stories are wonderful slices of life as they centre on seasons or local celebrations throughout the year, and the corresponding recipes are very seasonal: it includes everything from Magiritsa (Easter soup) to Vasilopita (St Basil’s new year pie), as well as favourites like Greek salad and stuffed courgette flowers. Loads of dishes I can’t wait to try out.


This week we finally had one ripe red tomato that made it into a salad. Yes, it was unarguably the best tomato I have ever tasted. Despite the odds of a challenging garden and the climate,  it might be one of the few we manage so has to be enjoyed! On the plus side, my hand pollination of a courgette has led to one being a substantial size and ready for picking! Vegetable celebrations all round.

I think the seasonality of local fruits and vegetables has been what really interests me in cooking in Greece. When we first arrived we had fresh strawberries cheaply available, then Cos lettuces, followed by courgettes and local cherries in May and Apricots in June. Availability and price follows the seasonal harvest in a logical way. Its not impossible to get things from the bigger supermarkets here and you can get imported goods from all across the world should you need them. I can genuinely say I have learnt to appreciate this at the fruit market – scan around for the seasonal stuff and adjust recipes to match. August is great for nectarines, figs, peaches and melons are abundant , but you won’t find a strawberry for love nor money! By eating seasonally when produce is at its cheapest it does make a big difference. I am finding that the tastiest recipes always benefit from ingredients when freshly harvested, in the right season and are much cheaper than the UK.  I’ve made a lot of aubergine and courgette bakes with Kefalotyri grated and feta cheese on top – just fry the veg first in olive oil, throw in some garlic and chopped tomatoes, bake in the oven for 20 mins until the cheese melts and gets crispy. Perfect with a salad and fresh bread…I am obsessed! (it finds a way into every food photo)



I am also in a phase of reading about the history of Syros, I ploughed through Sheila Leceours fascinating study of Ermoupoli during the Italian occupation, ‘Mussolini’s Greek Island‘ which reveals the mechanisms of Italian occupation and the tragic famine which resulted in nearly 6,000 deaths. It helps you to see Syros in a different light from the beauty we are shown as visitors, and understand its social and cultural complexities. Visiting the Industrial Museum last weekend also added to my enthusiasm. The museum houses a fascinating collection of tools, machinery and artifacts that show how advanced manufacturing, printing and textile trades were in this once flourishing town.


Given that a plan to electrify Ermoupoli in 1900 was underway at a time when most towns across Europe were decades away from such modernity. It has really interesting history that is being brilliantly preserved and celebrated. It also has copies of Cicladi the daily paper printed during the Italian Occupation.


Its not all textbooks and cookbooks, I have also been reading a lot of ex-pat books about Greece. This is a whole genre – one you buy one, Amazon then makes a point of telling you about the 100 more they recommend, having read a few, I can say they are of varying quality and intrigue. The latest one by Rob Johnson  A kilo of String is quite a fun and informative book about how he and his partner, Penny moved to the Peloponnese to buy an olive grove. All very fascinating vignettes about the tribulations of the olive harvest (horrific, back breaking work apparently!) As the title reveals, string is another thing bought by the kilo here in Greece. Like wine and olive oil – measured out in a fashion that closely resembles a litre (almost but not quite).  Anyway what I liked about Rob’s book is that he references a great motto which I think sums up Greece for a lot of people who live or spend time here. “Everything is difficult, but nothing is impossible”  Its a nice reminder of just getting on and focusing to get through the difficult bits of life. It’s also a bit more optimistic than a Greek saying “Τι να κάνουμε” – which translates as “what can be done?” Often overheard when Greeks talk about difficult challenges, and politics, more often than not accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders to display the futility of it all…

As the season winds down and the yellow glow of August light fades, whatever happens after the summer is likely to be difficult. Until then we have each day – the sun will rise, I will fetch bread, we will eat and enjoy the fruits of Greek life at its fullest.

Like growing the courgette and tomato on a barren patch of land, however difficult, was not impossible after all.


A lazy sunday dinner

I know you probably think weekends and weekdays don’t have much difference here in Greece, you’d be wrong. Not only are weekday’s marked by working and tapping away at a laptop, they are also days to GSD (Get Sh*t Done), whether that’s gardening, food shopping or just tackling things to do. So then the weekend is freed up to relax and explore. Weekends do feel different here in the village anyway, Friday afternoons are slightly busier on the beach as people head down after work and then everywhere fills up with weekenders from Athens and people exploring the island. It’s funny as we have had such crazy heat for the past week that the beach has been absolutely packed as people jostle for shade and space to cool down. This was even worse on Sunday when temperatures soared to 40c – it was like an oven when you stepped outside into what the weather man called ‘African wind’. This is why I am thankful of our little house, its windows don’t get the blazing sun and it stays relatively cool all day – although now we are now using the air-con at night we are reusing all the water the A/C pumps out to water the garden. We stay cool and the veggies get watered!

On Sunday I wanted to make a big one-pot dish to last us a few days – deciding that a traditional Greek Stifado perfectly suits the hot weather. Yes, stew in summer too! I started cooking on Sunday morning which was lucky as by the time the stew had just cooked we had another power outage. So happily went to the beach to swim. But then there was another cut when we returned from the beach. When walking down the street home our neighbour helpfully suggested we just went straight back to the beach as it was too hot at home! “To paralia, pame” (the beach, just go!). It turned out the the islands electricity plant was unable to cope with the heatwave’s extra demands on services like A/C usage and was implementing rotating powercuts across the island to help ease thr pressure. I understand that Kini fared quite badly in the timetabling of these, as the 3 powercuts we had all coincided with major times the taverna’s and cafes’ should have been serving hot food and cold drinks to all the beach customers. By 7pm I was getting antsy – “what if it doesn’t come back on, the stifado could do with cooking for another hour” I whinged at G while lying prone on the concrete terrace with the cat in an effort to stay cool. I started to mentally count the number of tealights we had and wonder if we could eat the contents of the freezer before it all spoiled.

Boom! 8pm and the power was back. I was so happy and celebrated by switching the air-con down low and boiling vegetables to accompany the decliciously slow-cooked stew. I might have sweated in that kitchen – but the effort was worth it.

Here is the recipe for my version of beef stifado (there is probably many takes on this and I wont claim any originality here, but this is tried and tested)

750grams of beef (any cut that’s good for stewing)
4 onions chopped
6 shallots peeled and whole
4 gloves of garlic (or as much or little as you fancy)
1 jar of passata
2 generous spoons of tomato paste
4 bay leaves
1 tspn of cinnamon
2 tspns of dried oreganp
Salt and pepper to taste
300mls of red wine (I used the 1euro bottle from the supermarket)
50mls of red wine vinegar


My method is simple and takes no prisoners of perfection: seal beef in a pan with a big generous glug of high quality olive oil, add onions to fry along. After 10mins or so medium heat, add tomato passata and paste, red wine and vinegar.


Perhaps a cup or two of water to loosen the sauce. Add herbs and spices, adjust accordingly to taste but should be sweet and tomatoey, with a hint of cinnamon and bay. Simmer on a low hob heat for 2 hours, or transfer to an oven pot with a lid and cook on low for 2 hours. The beef should be meltingly soft and the shallots squishy. Keep the sauce moist by adding water/wine as it cooks.

I served this with basil mash, homegrown carrots (from the landlord) and green beans.


Once you have enjoyed one dinner from this dish and have leftovers, its easy to add orzo pasta (the Greek pasta that looks like rice), mix half-cooked pasta in with the leftover stew and then cook in the oven with cheese on top for a whole new dish. This is what we did last night with fresh crusty bead to dip in and green beans on the side. Frugal and fabulous cooking at its best!


Inspired Greek Cuisine from the islands

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.

almost ready – midia saganaki
My love of olives

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.

Just like a taverna

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…