Greece is world-renowned for its delicious food, having a wonderful mixture of Mediterranean and Baltic flavours. One of the major icons of Greek cuisine is olive oil, made from the beautiful silver olive trees that cover the country. I’ve been to Greece a couple of times for work (lucky me!), and spent most of that time in Crete. Every time I’ve gone, I’ve left half my suitcase empty when packing, and come back with litres and litres of olive oil in metal drums. Luckily I’ve never had a spillage, otherwise I would have had to buy an entirely new wardrobe… Olives and olive oil are so important to Greek culture that there is a story in ancient Greek mythology that the olive tree was created by Athena during a competition among the gods to become the patron and namesake of a new city. Her gift was ultimately judged by the citizens to be the greatest gift to mankind, and Athens was named so thereafter. The quality of olive oil is often advertised as percent of acidity, and luckily I was recently awarded a PhD in science, so I am qualified to vaguely attempt to explain what that actually means. In a fresh olive, fatty acids are bound up into threes and only come into contact with enzymes that degrade them (releasing free fatty acids) when the olive is crushed or starts breaking down/fermenting. These free fatty acids make up the acidity measure, so good quality olive oil is made with fresh olives, handled carefully, so that fatty acids are only allowed to be released for a short period during the crushing process to make oil, and are therefore at very low levels. Internationally, extra virgin olive oil has an upper limit of 0.8% acidity, but that is actually quite high compared to what’s used in Greece. Purportedly the acidity doesn’t affect the taste, but rather it’s an indicator of the quality of the olives and oil-making process, which definitely does affect taste. When I get the chance, I buy 0.2% acidity Cretan olive oil, and I can definitely taste the difference – it’s light, smooth and somehow doesn’t taste greasy. Oh dear, I seem to have written an essay and only covered olive oil… There is so much to discuss in Greek cuisine, but let’s briefly summarise and get to the food! Other hallmarks include a wonderful variety of seafood, many types of cheese, vegetables, honey and animals that are suited to the climate and terrain, such as goats, sheep and chickens.
Souvlaki and seafood platter
These platters are my all time favourite thing to eat. I love to have a lot of variety on a single plate, and be free to pick and choose different combinations with each mouthful. Souvlaki describes pieces of meat marinated and threaded onto skewers, then grilled. This is not a modern method – archaeological digs have unearthed grills with recesses for skewers from before the 17th century BC, and skewered meat was mentioned by Homer in the Iliad. No wonder this dish has stood the test of time: it makes magic out of cheap and expensive cuts of meat alike. I made my souvlaki by using chicken breast and lamb fillet, marinating them in a mix of lemon juice, garlic, oregano, olive oil, red onion, thyme and cumin. I grilled them on the barbecue until they were cooked through and browning. I also barbecued marinated baby octopus and squid, which were flavoured with lemon juice, white wine, chilli and garlic. In Crete, I saw octopuses hanging out to dry in the sun on clotheslines before cooking. This apparently helps to tenderise adult octopuses, as does beating it on the rocks to extract the water. This is important because, if you were to grill them with all of the water still inside the flesh, it would steam and become rubbery. However, once the octopuses are dry, the grill can quickly sear them and leave them tender and delicious. Tzatziki is a dip commonly served with all sorts of meat and breads in Greece, made from yoghurt mixed with grated cucumber, garlic, salt, olive oil and lemon juice. I also made saganaki, which is literally just fried cheese, using haloumi, which is a white rubbery cheese that originated in Cyprus with an unusually high melting point. I served it with lemon juice and pepper, and it was delicious in ways that only fried cheese can be. I finished off the platter with pita bread and Greek salad and lemon potatoes, the latter of which I had previously eaten and loved in restaurants, but never made myself. You can make them either by boiling or roasting them in lemon juice, oil and stock. I roasted mine on a low heat, and they were amazing – crispy on the outside and with a fantastic lemony flavour. I found them so superior to normal roast potatoes that I will be reluctant to roast a potato without lemon again!
Spanakopita is a Greek pie with phyllo pastry dough wrapped around a spinach, feta cheese, onion, egg and herb filling. Its origins are unknown, but generally thought to be influenced by Turkish cuisine. Spanakopita can be made as single-serve small pastries, or as large pies that are then portioned out. I chose to make a large pie, as I think it’s better for keeping the filling moist, not to mention, much less time-consuming. I was trying to channel Aristaeus while making my spanakopita, who was a minor god in Greek mythology, and the patron of many skills useful to the culinary arts, including beekeeping, plant domestication, animal husbandry and hunting and, importantly, cheesemaking. I have previously made cheese, but feta is a little complicated for me to make from scratch, and I hoped that Aristaeus would favour me nonetheless. It must have worked because my spanakopita turned out splendidly – moist and tasty on the inside, with a light and flaky exterior.
Meze is a general term for a selection of small appetisers that usually accompany drinks, such as ouzo, at the beginning of long luxurious meals. I constructed my meze platter by starting with feta me meli. Feta me meli means “feta with honey”, and it’s composed of large pieces of feta, wrapped in phyllo dough and fried. A sauce of honey and red wine vinegar is then drizzled over the pastries, as well as some sesame seeds. This is a great mixture of sweet and savoury, and very easy to make. Next up on my platter I made dolmadaki, which comes from a family of foods common throughout the Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Middle East called dolma, describing stuffed vegetables of many varieties. I’ve always loved stuffed vine leaves and associate them strongly with sunny outdoor lunches shaded by vines in Greece. I first cooked the rice stuffing with onion, vegetable stock, lemon juice and zest, dill, parsley and pine nuts. After the stuffing had cooled, I rolled portions up into vine leaves, and tightly packed them all in a large pot lined with extra leaves. I covered these in a mix of water, lemon juice and oil to cook on the stove top. I’ve often eaten dolmadaki from a can and found them very tasty, but the home-made fresh ones are fantastic – the textures are more contrasting and satisfying and the flavours are explosive. This dish is fiddly to make, but very rewarding in the end. Next was kolokithokeftedes, which are fritters made with zuchinni, red onion, mint, feta cheese, flour, eggs and parsley. I ate them often in Crete (along with just about everything else…) and found them especially delicious with tzatziki. I also made stuffed baked tomatoes, which I filled with a mix of spiced rice, onion, herbs and mince. Finally I rounded everything off with a big Greek salad. Greek salad is so good that it’s internationally famous, and is usually a “standard” salad option along with garden or coleslaw. However, I worry that this has decreased its standard and therefore esteem, because the real deal is so much better than its reputation. It’s traditionally made with roughly chopped tomatoes, red onion, olives, cucumber, and sometimes capsicum and/or other varieties of mild local peppers. Feta cheese is added, not throughout, but in a big rectangular block on top, which actually lends itself well to keeping the salad to the next day, as the cheese doesn’t get slimy and dissolve in the oil. The dressing of the salad is perhaps the most crucial step – dried herbs (predominantly oregano), salt, a splash of red wine vinegar and generous lashings of the best quality olive oil you can get your hands on. It’s so good that I could just eat it all day with no need for accompaniments, although, I must admit, they weren’t unwelcome…
Moussaka is a dish of minced meat (usually lamb), in a tomato sauce flavoured with onions, garlic, cinnamon, bay leaf and a bit of red wine. This mixture is layered with slices of eggplant and then topped with a thick bechamel sauce and baked. Moussaka is often touted as a lamb lasagne, with eggplant instead of pasta sheets, although that seems to be a sensitive topic for both Greeks and Italians alike, so I will refrain from commenting. Moussaka was the first meal I ever ate in Greece – at the Athens airport waiting for a connection to Crete. I had little idea of where or when I was after 30 hours of flying, and stumbled into an airport cafeteria. I saw a sign that had a picture of moussaka and greek salad for a few Euros, so I gesticulated hungrily at that and proffered the alien money. The nice lady seemed to get the message and I soon had a piece of moussaka in front of me larger than my head. Perhaps it was my exhausted and deliriously hungry state, but it was one of the best meals I’ve eaten. The meat of the moussaka was rich and savoury, but it was nicely balanced by the bechamel and eggplant, with a smattering of golden-brown melted cheese on top. Heaven. My moussaka turned out very well, but it wasn’t as good as the one in the Athens airport – I doubt anything ever will be again…