Taste of Greece

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 13:22 10/08/2012

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Grassroots garden show blooms No place like home Creative minds fill food gap What's hammering our walnuts? A cool blast from the past Look after our oldest friends Helping hands make sure hope grows Life's a bach Be on lookout for brassica wrecker Pumpkins and possums

Recently returned from a trip to Greece, Jude Gillies shares tales of family, food and the garden she found there:

Sitting under the shade of a pomegranate tree with my Greek family, conversation and laughter came easily. Even though I speak very little Greek and only some of them speak English, it was easy to communicate.

The stories and jokes were universal, of family, friends, travel, taxes and the like. And inevitably it turned to food, which, as anyone with Greek connections will tell you, is the centre of life in Greece. Forget the economic crisis and European Union bailout, life must go on, which means the moussaka and pastitsio (pasta bake, Greek-style) must still be homemade, fresh each day, with lashings of olive oil.

Although not actually related, my friend Irene and her husband Georgios, along with Irene's sister Dimitra and husband Lampros, have been part of our Kiwi family for nearly five decades.

And so it was I found myself at their home in the myrtle-lined streets of Karditsa on the plains of Thessalia for a total-immersion Greek experience as one of the family for a precious few days last month. And as always, my visit from so far away was an excuse to celebrate life and living.

For 10 days they treated me to the very best of Greek hospitality and real, homemade cooking. Irene made her special hortakopita (wild greens and feta, not spanakopita, with spinach), using, of course, her own homemade tissue-thin filo pasty, started early in the morning from flour and water and made with a lifetime of skill learnt from her mother.

She made stuffed peppers, so sweet and flavoursome they outclassed any meat dish, and cooked goat with orzo, lamb with exquisite waxy potatoes and, for a picnic day out, made batjina, the tasty Greek-style frittata.

And as if that wasn't enough to pile the Greek kilos on me, Dimitra made her own version (adding potatoes) of moussaka, pastitsio, bean soup and her irresistible chocolate, orange and custard cake while her husband Lampros whipped up homemade ice-cream to serve with Dimitra's sour (morello) cherry conserve, made from fruit picked from the tiny but productive tree growing outside the bedroom where I slept.

Although small, the garden was filled with not just a pomegranate and a sour cherry tree, but also berries, peaches, plums and figs that will ripen at the end of the incredibly hot summer and, later in winter, persimmons that were still an inconspicuous green colour.

Not yet fully ripe, the muscato grapes growing over the carport pergola provided not just welcome summer shade but also delicious aromatic treats to go with Greek coffee and the chocolate cake as the perfect wakeup after siesta.

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The grapes that aren't eaten as fresh fruit, Lampros turns into a light red wine to alternate with his dark, chocolatey shiraz.

During my stay, the homegrown pomodoro (tomatoes) ripened along with aguri (cucumbers), piperi (peppers) to mix with sweet red onions, olives, feta “from the village” and the magic elixir of life, olive oil from Kriti (Crete) for the Greek salad accompanying every meal.

While New Zealand may produce some top-rated olive oils, nothing compares to the peppery flavour and unctuous character of oil from Kriti, pressed early from olives harvested in November and shipped to the family in Karditsa in 60-litre barrels. If you ever felt alarmed about how much olive oil you use, Irene and Dimitra tell me they go through about 200 litres a year, a staggering four litres a week.

As they reminded me, olive oil from Kriti is an essential part of the diet that gives the people there such renowned long lives. It's also the secret ingredient that gives Irene and Dimitra's cooking unbeatable flavour.

And over every dish, a generous sprinkle of rigani (oregano) was the definitive, finishing touch and taste. Although similar in looks to our own oregano, Greek rigani (Origanum vulgare) has a unique mild, but sweetly aromatic flavour. Picked from the flowering tips in summer, it's dried and sieved to a fine powder for use throughout the year.

But the best rigani comes only from the mountains, as I discovered when we picked it growing wild from the woods of oaks, planes and junipers on the slopes of Georgio's village high in the mountains.

For Greeks, their classical history and mythology are a part of everyday life where the name of oregano means joy (ganos) of the mountains (oros) and rigani is a sweet fragrant herb created by Aphrodite as a symbol of happiness to be worn as garlands by bridal couples. Certainly, the constant aroma of rigani in the kitchen and cooking made me feel extremely happy during my stay.

Anything not homegrown or from the villages was bought at the weekly market in Karditsa, where produce was sold from the surrounding area and purchased by Irene and Dimitra from known growers and vendors only after intense scrutiny.

Although the daily temperature was mostly around a suffocating 40 degrees Celsius, olives will grow but not fruit sufficiently in the cold Karditsa winters so are bought from growers elsewhere.

They are the ubiquitous nibble, eaten with salty feta for breakfast to help replenish the body's salts, lost in the perspiration-packed heat.

Likewise, the combination of sweet, chilled karpuzi (watermelon) with salty feta as a welcome reviver in the late night heat, accompanied by lilting Greek tunes on the flute Georgios taught himself to play as a boy.

And, when 10 days of eating, talking, laughing and music came to an end, they packed me off with parcels of batjina and hortakopita to eat on the bus bound for Athena (Athens) along with bottles of homemade wine and olive oil from Kriti for a long life when I got back to Nia Zealanthia (New Zealand).

JOBS TO DO

  • Mid-August brings the first of the stone fruit and daffodils into blossom, a welcome change from the dead of winter but means it's game-on for the garden chores.
  • Hurry along and prune your hydrangeas if you haven't done them. Cut stems that flowered last summer down to a double bud at the base of a strong shoot and leave those shoots that didn't flower unpruned. Remove thin shoot altogether to encourage strong renewed growth from the base of the plant.
  • Feed your fruit trees, particularly citrus and also rose bushes this month ready for next month's rapid growth and high nitrogen demands.
  • Pile out the compost on to the vege garden and get sowing spring greens of lettuce, onions, radish, rocket, fennel, spinach and broad beans if you failed to sow them in autumn.
  • Likewise you can sow sweet peas now for spring and early summer flowering if you didn't sow them in autumn.
  • Wait until October to sow tender outdoor spring and summer crops but you can start tomatoes, peppers and aubergines indoors now ready to plant out at Labour Weekend or earlier if you have a glasshouse.

- Nelson

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