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.


Garden attention = blog neglect

It’s June and look where we are, just about that time us gardeners get ready to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labour. The flower shows are in full swing, inspired green-fingered folk up and down the country are watching their gardens fill with colour, fragrance and produce as the summer temperatures rise.

Well, dear readers, I’ve been giving my garden so much attention that something had to give and sadly, it was the blog. But I’m glad so much energy and attention has gone into growing – we’ve managed to transform the front space, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. The slugs and snails have been particularly invasive this year – chomping their way through whole petunias, sunflowers, courgettes, dahlias, nothing has been too much trouble for the hungry little fellas! But we do have a new raised bed.

This is netted, as well as housing the cucumber, it is has swiss chard, butterhead lettuce, Greek radish and spinach leaves. I picked out a cheeky snail that had eaten its way through the net…


The tomatoes, aubergine and sole surviving courgette are out in a mixture of patio tubs and growbags. I’m experimenting with quite a few varieties to see which thrive and fruit best.


The broadbeans have, like last year, been infested with aphids. This has attracted ants. So yesterday I soap sprayed them and then nature was on my side, as the torrential rain helped to reduce numbers. I’ll keep monitoring them. But many of the bean pods look ready to pick this week.



In other good news – the radishes are being picked as we need them and the flowers are really starting to come into their own. With the humid and high temperatures, everything seems to had a good growth spurt. Still no blooms on the sweatpeas yet but they continue to climb upwards.

I have a parental pride in the ‘foxy mixed’ foxgloves I grew from seed – it is a long process, starting them late last summer to overwinter. But they have been a true highlight since late May. Their towering tall pink spikes attracting pollinators to the garden from far and wide.

Summer is here – there is always more work to be done. But when the real working day is over, I get to retreat here and start work in the Greek Garden.



A time for patience

The week is flying by and what this means for the seedlings is that a whole load of jostling for space and attention is happening in the ‘germination station’ – aka the kitchen windowsill. The complementary concepts of planning and patience have definitely been at the forefront of my mind in the past week. We seem to have found it so commonplace to have a daily obsession with time – ‘too busy’ ‘no time for myself’ and it most often manifests in negative feelings towards time. The garden is a place with an acute sense of time but not a place to rush or be consumed with timekeeping. I am learning to have patience and wait for these rewards as I wait for the seedlings to show.

There has been big progress with the Witkiem Broad beans which got so tall with 5 weeks I had no choice but to get them planted out on the veggie patch – this was early but I am hoping i have good luck and they are hardy enough to settle. I gave the patch a good digging over first, sprinkled with blood, fish and bone powder and covered in bin bags to help the soil warm up a week before. I’ve staked all 8 plants and positioned them to maximise the sun.

Slugs are a major worry – they seem to have even managed to get into the two mini-plastic green houses I have outside. The past weekend I built the second one – and meticulously wrapping copper tape round the outside!

On the flowers front, the sweet peas had been one of the reasons I needed the second plastic greenhouse as I have got the sweet peas taking over one -getting leggier every week so I’ve ruthlessly pinched them out in the hope this will stunt their growth but encourage bushier sideshoots. I am making steady progress with Sweet Williams and Aster which are out in the ‘greenhouse – although again slugs have been snacking on leaves…

Last year I stuck to some quickly gratifying seeds, like cosmos, marigold and nasturtium. It’s more than likely I will grow these again as they are great gap fillers, but I wanted to set a challenge to grow some longer lasting perennials and a wider variety of annuals,  I have found that even some annuals can be much slower to germinate; Ageratum, Heliotrope and Verbena Bonariensis are painfully slow…4 weeks and barely two or three seedlings in each tray. The temperature fluctuations are probably not helping in the kitchen, cold overnight and on the rarity of a sunny day they will be getting very warm. But I’m determined to not give up…

I have also been germinating a few more unusual seeds from the RHS collection; geranium pratense (meadow cranesbill) which I hope will be a good shade loving plant for the front garden challenge (more on this soon!) . I have put a pot with Armeria Maritima (thrift) seeds into the central heating boiler cupboard in the vain hope that dark, warm conditions will set that off. I have two types of agastache; rugosa (korean mint) and mexicana which can take up to 30 days to germinate. But that might be easy compared with the cold stratification I am attempting with a couple of varieties; so for those not in the horticultural know, like me a week ago! cold stratification is basically faking winter to get the seeds back into life, ideally achieved by letting the seeds hang out in moist compost in a cold fridge! Clearly labelled and in protective tupperware was definitely the order – so the Camassia leichtlinii (californian white quamash) has been spending a week sidling up to the yogurts and cheese before it awakens to Spring or when i take it out and see what happens in a warm sunny propagator. Also in the fridge stratification station is Lavender seeds who might need up to 4 weeks and Chiastophyllum oppositifolium (lamb’s tail) after a 2 week chill out. I am finding this rather exciting as it the first time i have ever tried anything so ‘scientific’ so it’s feeling like a big deal for me! Berkheya purpurea takes 90 days to germinate….as does Aquilegia. They are perennials so i guess that’s why you have to play the waiting game

In terms of the veggie seeds – I am patiently watching the Aubergine seeds and willing them into life! The same goes for the chilli pepper seeds we salvaged from last years crops. One of which is from a Romanian pepper…exciting to see if this harvesting method gives us rewards. This waiting game is making me feel quite stubborn and testing my patience to get these to be a success from seeds rather than buying plug plants. Yes, the tomatoes have germinated efficiently -there is method to setting them off this early as I want to take some Tigerella, Red Pear, Roma and Cherry Tomato seedling plants to my Dad at Easter. Just to start off the inagral North versus South climate challenge. I’m feeling confident that what I lack in experience over his years of tomato growing, the sunny SE Kent weather will make up for!

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said ‘Time is a game played beautifully by children’. This gardener is happy to play a waiting game and time is on my side.

No sweat sweet peas!

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.

‘Hello little guy!’
sweet pea sowings in cells

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

reading for pinching out

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.

spaced and supported

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…12716326_10153748619351273_6919332439115505308_o


Is this Spring?

cheery cherry blossom

       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.

Bleeding heart persists in the winter gloom


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.

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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…