March 25th: Greek Independence Day.

"I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania some time of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight"

Midsummer Nights Dream by William Shakespeare (Act 2 Scene 1)

It’s odd isn’t it, how ones friends share similarities? Or maybe it isn’t odd at all – maybe we just choose the friends we like and they are thus cast in a similar mould, I don’t know.  Anyway I have had in my life three good female friends, totally unconnected with one another, and all Greek. So as a gesture to friendship and in memory of dear Alkistis whom I shared a flat with a long time ago - and because it’s Greek Independence Day, let’s talk Greek food.

Of all foreign cuisines, the food of the Eastern Mediterranean region is my first love. So put me down in Greece, or Albania (where the food can be really good) or in Lebanon or Palestine and I’m a happy eater.  Greek food is often criticised for being oily, stodgy and all too often cold when it should be hot, but I love it and I’ve never had a disappointing meal there.

My first Greek experience was a spur of the moment trip to Crete one spring.  The next morning we ducked out of the welcome party and set out on our own in a tiny hired Fiat that made a noise like a lawn mower and wasn’t that much bigger. About a mile down the road we stopped to admire the view and I opened the car door; brushing it against the proverbial bank where wild thyme grows I fell in love with Greece at that moment.  Even now I can open a jar of dried thyme or oregano and give it a good sniff and I’m there.

This is the harbour at Rethymnon in western Crete where we stayed.

Things happen to me in Greece. That holiday I encountered a Cretan shepherd brandishing a very large knife and since then I've been plied with ouzo at the insistence of an over-hospitable supermarket owner (who kept the bottle in the freezer between the bags of frozen peas) and I've fallen under the spell of a darkly handsome waiter who looked like the picture of Jesus on the wall of my Sunday School.  I love Greece; adventures just wait around every corner.

The shepherd with the knife who was dressed in the traditional black shirt, boots and sheepskin jerkin was not as fearsome as he looked.  I was photographing a tumble down cottage almost obliterated by wisteria blossom when he emerged from nowhere and pulled a huge knife from his belt. Before I could faint away, he had chopped off a branch the thickness of a man’s arm and bowing presented it to me – ‘to put in the car for the scent’.

We carried on driving and under an olive tree at a little roadside stall had a simple lunch  - Greek salad, floury bread, a terracotta saucer of yoghurt and honey, a glass of cold water, a thick treacly coffee, a Greek cigarette - absolute heaven.

Since then I’ve eaten in Greek bus stations and tavernas, helped Alkistis cook in her tiny kitchen in the middle of Athens in August, gorged on figs in the Peloponnese, eaten grilled lamb on a table plonked down in the middle of the road at midnight when the restaurant was so full there was nowhere else to sit, and I’ve munched olives at dusk in the unexcavated ruins of Sparta to the sound of goat bells. I've seen uniformed policemen dance in cafes with their arms entwined, I’ve been drunk in Delphi and I’ve been terribly ill by the side of a Greek lane after eating a bad orange. The food might be simple but it’s the lack of pretention that I love the most.

So when we hear about Greece and discontent and debt and disaster, let’s remember that the Greeks invented civilisation as we know it and that it is a country of beauty, culture and generosity and it will always hold a special place in this girl’s heart.

 I’ve never made baklava before so here goes. Thanks to my friend Donna for the recipe, which is slightly different than the usual in that you make a coil rather than a square - it's much easier to cut.

My Aunt’s Baklava

Buy good filo pastry, preferably a Greek or Turkish brand. Serves 6

275g golden caster sugar
, 1 tsp lemon juice
, 1½ tbsp each rose water and orange blossom water, 
200g walnuts, finely ground, 
¾ tsp ground cinnamon, 
6 sheets of filo pastry each measuring 46cm x 31cm
75g melted unsalted butter. More walnuts or pistachios to decorate.

 Put 175g sugar in a saucepan. Add 75ml water and place the pan over a medium heat. Bring to the boil and let the syrup bubble for a few minutes. Add the lemon juice and a half tablespoon each of rose and orange blossom water.

Take off the heat. Let it cool. Mix the walnuts with the remaining sugar, rose and orange blossom water and the cinnamon. Pre-heat the oven to 220ºC. Brush a 25cm round baking dish with a little melted butter. Spread one sheet of filo on your work surface with the long side facing you – keep the others covered. Brush with the melted butter.

Arrange one-sixth of the walnut filling in a thin line across the sheet, about 1cm inside the edge nearest to you. Fold the filo over the walnuts and roll tightly into a thin sausage. Coil the roll and place in the centre of the baking dish. Repeat with the remaining filling and pastry, coiling each “sausage” around the initial coil until the dish is completely full.

Brush the top with melted butter and bake in the pre-heated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven. Pour the sugar syrup over the baklava and let it cool. Cut into bite sized pieces and serve at room temperature.

The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,---
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet...

 From 'The Isles of Greece' by George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)


Helen said...

Baklava is one of my very favourite things in the world. And I agree completely about eastern Mediterranean food. If I had to eat only one sort of cuisine for the rest of my life (heaven forbid!), that's what I'd choose.

Gerry Snape said...

super post...lets hope that the Greeks can make it as we need their history and of course ...their food.!

Mary Beth said...

Liz, I love hearing about your travels- so evocative! Ever think about writing a memoir of those times? I am also interested in hearing more about Albania. My sweet mother-in-law was Albanian- her family members were Albanian expats living in an Albanian community in Italy. They had preserved their language and customs, although with an Italian flavor as well. "Nonni's" conversation was peppered with Albanian words and phrases. She was not a cook, and as such did not have recipes to share with me, but did talk about some of the foods they ate. There is a lack of information online still about Albania, although it is improving. So, I'd love it if you would put that idea in your queue of blogtopics!

Liz Woods said...

Mary- Beth
I had two wonderful weeks in Albania in the 80s, and the food is indelibly fixed in my mind - especially a yoghurt and walnut soup called tarator eaten in Gjirokastër and a picnic near Butrint...I will try and find a suitable occasion! Leslie Chamberlain's book 'The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe ' is a good source of recipes...I must say too that the people we met were overwhelmingly kind and hospitable and the scenery and old towns were spectacular...

Mary Beth said...

Oh, thanks for the info "teaser" about Albania and the book tip. I will be on the lookout.

Christine Natale said...

William Wordsworth
Complete Poetical Works


THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Liz Woods said...

Thank you Christine - one of my favourites....x

Pilgrim said...

It all sounds delicious. I can see being there and eating the food in its homeland beats having it in a cafe here. :-)

Mary Beth said...

Dealing with long coils of flaky pastry makes me think of another pastry that I have longed to conquer but not yet tried: strudel. Every time I have seen these gorgeous sheets of dough rolled and stretched on some cooking show here in the states, I want to stop what I'm doing and try it myself. Out of curiosity, Liz, have you tried your hand at that yet?

Just call me hopelessly addicted to all things floury and baked!! (Or steamed, or grilled, fried, boiled, etc. etc.)

Liz Woods said...

Yes I have made strudel - I love it and you can buy filo and strudel paste here quite easily, but I've never been brave enough to make the pastry myself. What do they say ? It should be thin enough to read your love letters through it? Maybe it's time to try - I'd have a problem trying to find a recent love letter though....