food

The pursuit of imperfection

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On a recent trip to Greece it suddenly dawned on me that I’ve never seen a chopping board in my yaya’s house. How is this possible? And then I remembered, she cuts everything in her hand. Holding the vegetable—say, a potato—like a cricket ball towards the body, and deftly cutting wedges. I went on to think about other vegetables, and they’re all done in the hand: grated, sliced or trimmed.

It’s such a unique thing that it made me question where this came from, and why.

It seems to me to reflect a connection with the origins of the cuisine in the home cook, rather than the professional chef. Rustic and imperfect.

But back to the chopping board. Historically there has been a dominance of French food on what is considered conventional and even good food. I think this goes back to the legendary Georges Auguste Escoffier, a French-born chef, restaurateur and food writer who popularised the cuisine nearly 100 years ago (who in turn was influenced by Marie-Antoine Carême, a Royal chef in France and chef de cuisine for the flamboyant Prince Regent in the 1860s). It is Escoffier who introduced à la carte, as well as the now common military-style set up of the professional kitchen. His influence on the palate of the public still resonates loudly today, even with the changing tides of nouvelle cuisine or street food and sharing plates.

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Escoffier-led French cuisine lends itself to beautifully ornate and extravagantly designed plates of food. It’s professional food, elevated to the heavens. Greek food is simple—maybe slow cooked—and not often that visually attractive. Which perhaps explains some of the resistance to it (and let’s not forget that stodgy moussaka from the 70s—oh the damage that moussaka has done). French cuisine also professionalised and standardised cooking techniques. The food might not completely dominate anymore, but certain habits and techniques do—in the professional kitchen or at home. If you’re to make a meal at home, you get the chopping board out, a knife, and dice the onion, finely chop the garlic, slice the carrots etc etc.

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In Greece vegetables are treated differently, using texture to create flavour. Let’s start with onion. You should grate onion, not chop. Diced onion creates a completely different flavour-base to grated onion. Grated onion lends itself to slow cooking, melting away in a pan with olive oil. You can squeeze out a lot of the liquid (and a lot is produced if you grate an onion!), and some of the sharpness goes. I remember my Great Aunt Sofia—famously one of the best cooks in our family—would even grate the onion into a bowl of water and then squeeze it out before adding to a pan. I wonder if this eccentric or quirky preparation of vegetables is connected to the fact that many people in that area of Greece grew (and still grow) their own vegetables. Everyone has a ‘katanomi’, or an allotment. Being a poor country meant being self-reliant. Vegetables grown in the garden can be tough, bitter, sour, and you need to be able to respond to what nature gives you. Take a cucumber for example. In the UK you buy a cucumber and just eat it as is. In Greece, you might peel alternating strips of the skin as it can be quite tough. This connection to the land affects the cuisine.

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This is even demonstrated in the names you might give the different cutting styles. If you are cutting potatoes into wedges, you cut them ‘kidonates’ or cut like a quince. It’s important that they’re a bit wonky—the thin bits get crispy in the oven while the thicker bits soak up the oil and lemon that they’re inevitably roasted in. To do this it’s important to use a small paring knife, and definitely no chopping board.

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Tomatoes won’t be chopped for a sauce, but grated. When you have the amazing tomatoes available in Greece why do anything else? It’s an easy way to get rid of the skin, and leaves you with as much of the juicy pulp as possible to make into one of the many unctuous tomato sauces used in Greek cuisine (for papoutsaki, imam bayildi, youvetsi, gemista, I could go on…). My yaya would also sieve this pulp to make her famous concentrated tomato puree. Making tzatziki? Don’t mince or chop the garlic, always grate it.

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You wouldn’t grate tomatoes for the famous Greek salad of course—but notice that your tomato pieces will always be wonky when you eat a salad in a local taverna in Greece. The difference in texture and the lack of symmetry gives the dish a different rhythm.

To me, this technique of clutching your vegetables close to you and deftly hand-cutting vegetables demonstrates the prominence of home-style cooking in Greek cuisine. It’s about using intuition and using your ‘mati’ or eye rather than a fixed recipe. It is not haute cuisine. It comes from the field, the farm, the sea, the home.

And it is in the imperfections that you get the tastiest morsels. Who needs perfection when you’ve got the slightly burnt crunch of a thin piece of roasted potato stuck to the pan, a mouthful of chunky tomato and unevenly sliced green peppers with hand-crumbled feta, or an oozy aubergine bursting at the seams with rich tomato sauce. Achieving great flavour and taste can be mysterious, and not easily classified. Embrace the wonky.

Further reading

I struggled to find much written on the subject (maybe a sign that I shouldn’t have embarked on this ha!). But I did very much enjoy this piece by NPR about the affect the cut has on flavour, perhaps you might too: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/11/485235765/slice-dice-chop-or-julienne-does-the-cut-change-the-flavor

yaya's yoghurt

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Greek yoghurt takes many forms, from sheeps yoghurt, to yoghurt so thick it has a skin and texture like clotted cream. I remember eating a lot of homemade yoghurt and I knew I had to get my yaya’s recipe. To do this, we had to travel to the village.

We arrive at 9pm, and see a smattering of people (mostly portly men) in the square chatting and watching the England vs Russia match. There’s a strange atmosphere in the village this time  lonely, nostalgic, isolated. We’re told the village square now has free wifi (incredible to believe!) but that they turn it off evenings and weekends...

Throughout the evening we talk a lot of ghosts and dead relatives. We bump into the local drunk, who’s nickname is 'Phantagma', a play on the word 'phantasma', which means ghost. We call to an old lady on the street, ‘Thea!’ (which means 'aunt' – a word you use for any older lady you address), who hobbles past us and tells us his sad tale of alcoholism, how he became a shell of a man and ghost in the village.

That night I think I see someone walk past my bedroom door.

The next morning we sit with my aunt and uncle drinking greek coffee, eating 'bougatsa' (bougatsta is a kind of custard filo pie with cinnamon, but deserves a post of its own), and continue our discussion about the ghosts in the house. We all agree that the female ghosts stay upstairs where the bedrooms are, whereas the male ghosts congregate in the small living room at the front of the house. The house is heavy with the past. Generations have lived and died there, most recently my grandfather.

In the midst of this, my yaya gives me her yoghurt recipe…

ingredients...

Full fat milk
A tablespoon of live, raw yoghurt – kefir or rennet might do
Muslin

method...

  • Fill a medium pan three quarters full with the milk.
     
  • Slowly bring it to the boil, stirring well and making sure it doesn't burn. Then cool until it’s lukewarm.
     
  • Add 1 tablespoon of the live yoghurt and stir well.
     
  • Cover with a lid and lots of blankets to keep it warm.
     
  • Leave it for at least four hours, or until it has a skin – yaya starts the process in the morning and it's usually ready by the afternoon. But Greece is a warm country so this may take longer in the UK...
     
  • Remove the blankets and leave it to go cold – do not any this point cut up the yoghurt/skin.
     
  • At this point, you can put it in the fridge to cool and set further. If you’d like to make strained yoghurt, i.e. Greek yoghurt, strain it through some very fine muslin until it drips no more before you put it in the fridge.
     
  • Once it has gone cold, it's ready to eat.

On the way to our next destination (the seaside town Kavala), we buy sour cherries from the side of the road near a village called Gazoros – where they hold an annual cherry festival in celebration of their prized produce. My mum tells me that the village was originally called Porna and its where Darius stayed on his way to Athens from Iran. It was given the name Porna as it was the place to get prostitutes – also the origins of the word ‘porn’.

We buy the cherries from a woman selling them next to an abandoned petrol station, which feels lonely and bleak. She’s there for three months of the year, day in day out, selling produce to passing traffic.

In the car we look out to the valley while listening to Pondiaki music – the Pontos people coming from the Black Sea and speaking a unique dialect none of us can understand; a mix of languages from ancient Greek and modern Greek to Turkish, Russian and Persian.

I feel ready for the fresh air of the sea.

Part of a series of blogs I'll be writing about my visits to the family home in Greece.

our first ever supper club!

A huge thank you to everyone that joined us for our very first supper club on Wednesday 13 July - we can't believe we did it!

From the first shots of ouzo to the greek coffee and spoonful of cherry preserve, the night flew by in a blur. We were so honoured to be able to serve our menu to our guests and see them enjoy what was just a vision in our minds until then. A special thank you to Nanna's as well for providing the perfect setting for our evening. 

our menu

For those of you that weren't there, here's our menu from the night:

The menu was inspired by a desire to replicate the ethos of eating with friends and family in Greece, which is that your table should have great conversation, dishes to share, tasty food and lots of it! We wanted to introduce certain traditional Greek dishes from my childhood with hints of contemporary flavours and techniques. 

To start with guests were given a shot of Ouzo 5, my pappou's ouzo, with ice. This accompanied homemade koulouri (sesame seed pretzels usually found on the streets of Thessaloniki) for dipping in tzatziki and eating with sardines and olives.

This was followed by a variety of side dishes including a fava bean dip (a recipe from the islands in Greece), long green peppers in tomato (my yaya's favourite) and roasted aubergine with pomegranate, plus larger dishes of chargrilled octopus, meatballs and lemon potatoes, and spinach and rice with dill and lemon.

To finish we served roasted figs with greek yoghurt, walnuts and a slice of revani (a traditional semolina cake), and finally a small cup of greek coffee with a spoon of cherry preserve - something my yaya would always serve guests on a pretty glass dish placed on a doily.

In the coming weeks I'll be posting some recipes from the night so watch this space if you want to bring a little yaya into your home!

what's next?

We had so much fun we're doing a second supper club at Nanna's on Wednesday 24 August. We hope you can join us!

In the meantime, here are some pics from our first night...