Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Flavours of Modern Greece

Up until a few days ago, I had very little experience of Greek food aside from moussaka and baklava, and the versions of those I tasted were mostly produced outside of Greece. In fact, aside from one afternoon spent at the home of a Greek Cypriot classmate over twenty-five years ago when I was served homemade baklava and a thick, strong Greek version of coffee I had never really tasted anything that could be remotely construed as authentic Greek food. I had never even been to a proper Greek restaurant, but I certainly made up for that this week when we visited Athens.

One of the things that has interested me most is Greek cooks’ clever use of herbs and spices, both fresh and dried, and how this lends a distinctive style to their traditional dishes as well as the more modern, fusion cooking that is becoming so popular in Greek restaurants. Greek chefs have been training abroad and bringing their learning back home with them, meaning that while traditional Greek cooking has lost none of its popularity, new and different dishes are coming to the forefront in some of the more modern restaurants too.

Authentic moussaka was lightly spiced with cinnamon and lamb and chicken souvlaki were flavoured with rosemary, thyme and oregano. Even French fries came sprinkled with delicious herb combinations. Eggs, whether they be scrambled or in omelettes, are often flavoured with herbs – especially oregano – as well. I had a veal chop served on a bed of fresh rosemary, which lent it a fragrant earthy taste. At one restaurant, my son was served a plate of over ten different kinds of salts – from a black Peruvian version to one flavoured with pink peppercorns – alongside his fillet steak.

Frankly I was not expecting pasta to be such a popular food item here, nor risotto either. However Greek chefs have found ways of making these Italian specialities their own with unique combinations of herbs, spices and other ingredients that you would never expect to find in pasta. I had an amazing Spaghetti Napolitana spiced with the faintest hint of cinnamon, which gave it a unique warming hit of flavour I found both unexpected and delightful. I also saw pasta served with the addition of dried fruits and nuts in creamy sauces, and a risotto served with parma ham, melon and red pepper cream. It sounds a bit odd, but tastes utterly delicious.

Roast vegetables are drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs – even parsley has a fresher flavour here than the stuff I have grown from seed at home. Honey is used in both sweet and savoury cooking, adding flavour to everything from vegetable dishes to desserts including the famous baklava and loukoumades, delicious yeast based sweet dumplings fried in oil. It is also used to make some versions of Greek Spoon Sweets – so named because they are so sweet they are served only by the spoonful. Chunks of orange complete with rind, plump raisins and ripe plums are soaked in syrup and served in small portions after a meal. Greek honey is stronger than many other varieties, as the bees get their pollen from thyme plants, olive trees and even pine trees. It is delicious on the many varieties of bread served for breakfast (and indeed at nearly every meal although without the honey in those cases!).

Bread is served with herb butters, whipped cheeses or taramasalta (a spread or dip made with fish roe). I have had butters flavoured with every herb imaginable, and even one rolled in pink peppercorns giving it a delicious hit of both heat and taste. One butter I tasted was flavoured with beetroot, giving it a gorgeous pink colour and a delicious earthy tang.

Dried fruit served in Greece is nothing like the versions I have had at home in England or even in North America. It’s somehow softer, fresher and far more flavourful than anything I have ever had anywhere else. As for fresh fruit – everything is delicious. Residential streets are lined with orange and lime trees, and there is as much freshly squeezed orange juice here – even now in November – as I have ever found in Florida.

Of course, olive trees are everywhere, particularly on the famous hills. They surround as you walk up the lower part of the hill leading up to the Acropolis and as you climb Lycabettus Hill opposite. As we sat, exhausted from our climb up that famous hill outside the church of St George, we watched ripe olives drop onto the pavement and roll along its sloped surface towards the edge of the viewing point, being chased by the wild cats that are everywhere in Athens. They refused to eat them, but could not resist chasing the fat dark ovals as they rolled away.

Abundance is everywhere here, from the serving sizes and hospitality prevalent everywhere we have visited, to the visible agricultural bounty growing even on the streets and hillsides of a place as urban as Athens. Greece is a delicious country to visit, and one from which I have learned many things to take back with me to my own kitchen.