My grandfather served in the Navy during World War Two and he told me harrowing tales of starving Greek locals whom he and his crewmates tried to feed as best they could from the provisions they had. The greatly reduced diet of locals was supplemented with foraged ingredients; the weeds and greens that grow all over the country, and whatever animals they could trap, raise or shoot.
Gathering weeds from the roadside has always been a practice forged by necessity: poverty and paucity serve as mothers of invention even when we move onto greater prosperity and continue such dietary customs by choice. We can respect the frugality and resourcefulness of Greek locals both before and after the war but let’s not pretend there was anything bucolic about this desperate fight for survival. As Angela Carter made clear in her review of Patience Gray’s book Honey From a Weed, being able to live and eat in this way is markedly different from having to.
Once, I was roundly told off by Chris Packham for using the term ‘weeds’ to describe plants in the wrong place and it is only when you visit somewhere like Greece in the months of April and May that you realise how incredibly fussy we are in our distinctions between what is desired and cultivated and what is not. Dandelions, wild fennel, salsify, mint and chicory; vromohorto ( the strongly-scented white mignonette, or reseda alba), amaranth, bitter dock and blue mallow spring from rocky outcrops, and cling to the steep gorges that cut a groove through the Greek Peloponnese. They proliferate in its citrus and olive groves, in small patches of garden, and the sinewy roadside edges, to be combined with chard, spinach, and rocket in pies, or served steamed with olive oil and lemon juice which helps to ease their passage. These wild greens are known as horta and if you like them, you are known as a hortofaga.
Their bitter edge can be a shock to our English palates, especially since we’ve neutered our own bitter vegetable – the Brussels sprout – through endless hybridising but the wonderful skill of the Greeks is in how they mix their greens so that ultimately, the end result is a good counterbalance to their well-known love of honey and other sweet syrups.
Kiveri, the village we stayed in had a wonderful bakery where every variation of greens and cheese in pastry was baked and sold and we got into the habit of stopping there first thing in the morning, to buy our lunch as well as boxes of sticky, orange-filled portokalopita, nut-encrusted baklava, and dimpled rounds of skorthopsomo. A hike up a mountain took us to Lepidas Gorge and another steep walk down to the waterfall whose milky, meltwaters we sat beside to catch our breath. It was a very hot day for early April and the recent rains had not only put the waterfall and stream into spate but had brought an early spring blossoming. The meadows, gorge edges, and winding pathways were so thickly carpeted with flowering plants, it looked for all the world as if I was performing human dressage, so keen was I to avoid standing on any of them. The air was thick with their scent, and with the bees whose hives dotted the slopes.
A sonorous hum hung heavy on the air, there were wild tortoises munching on dandelions, and everywhere the scent of thousands of flowers came in waves on the breeze.
Hunger makes the best sauce they say and sitting on large boulders in the middle of the stream, we tore into round pies with crimped edges, stuffed with aromatic greens and layered with local cheeses. Some of the pies were built from layers of filo pastry whilst others were altogether more solid and made with rough puff fashioned into a shape not dissimilar to the American hand pie of which I am also a fan.
I was determined to recreate these pies as best I could at home but it’s worth remembering that authenticity does not live in the space between what we had then and what we have now. My own recipe would not be acknowledged by the Greeks as particularly faithful to their own because like so many meals originally borne out of frugality, these pies are very much of their time and place. No matter how hot the English summer might be, we will never grow wild greens with the flavour of those which have sprung from a sun-seared Greek hillside. Wild fennel is not easily available here unless you grow it, for example. However, my taste memory is of something similar, a robust lemony, green and salty layered pie, easily eaten, and simple to adapt using whatever greens you have in hand. This version is delicious in its own right, and absolutely what I want to eat this coming summer.
A GREEK-INSPIRED PIE
Serving: six large portions or eight smaller ones
1 medium red onion, finely sliced
200g spinach, leaves and stalks, chopped
100g sorrel leaves and stalks, chopped
5 stems of well-fronded dill, finely chopped
½ tsp nutmeg
70g manouri cheese, crumbled
100g feta cheese, crumbled
430g butter puff pastry (the kind you buy in two ready-rolled sheets)
I small beaten egg
Salt and black pepper
Heat the oven to 220C/420F.
Lay baking parchment over a baking sheet.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan and then add the sliced red onion. Cook until it is completely soft.
Now add the spinach, sorrel, and dill, season with salt and pepper and sweat down until the leaves are collapsed and soft. Season with the nutmeg and set aside until completely cool.
Crumble the cheeses into a bowl then add the greens and stir until everything is thoroughly mixed together.
Carefully unroll the two pastry sheets and lay one of them on top of the baking parchment.
Dollop the greens and cheese mixture onto the bottom sheet of pastry and smooth into an even layer, leaving a clear pastry margin of a centimetre so you can crimp the edges.
Place the other sheet of pastry on top and crimp the edges to seal, brushing the pastry with the beaten egg afterward.
Place in the preheated oven and bake until the pastry is shiny, puffy and golden. This should take around 20 minutes but keep an eye on it as ovens do differ.
Leave to cool then slice and serve with a tomato salad. This keeps in the fridge for 3-4 days and is as good cold as it is hot.
FACT BOX. . .
I grow sorrel but you can buy 100g packs from Wild Country Organics who have a stall on Bury St Edmuds market.
Manouri cheese is available from good delis and supermarkets. We have two Greek delis in town who stock Greek and Greek-Cypriot products.
Patience Gray’s Honey From a Weed is a memoir-cookbook drawn from the author’s time living and cooking in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades in Greece, and Apulia.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale