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Greece: a vegetarian’s delight

“Maybe Greece is the best country in Europe for vegetarians,” tweeted @mrjamesmack last month at the end of a visit to Santorini and Athens.

Not maybe James, definitely.

As Vefa Alexiadou, Greece’s Delia Smith, points out in her encyclopaedic cook book Vefa’s Kitchen, Greek cuisine has been based on the same staples for centuries: cereals, beans and pulses, greens, herbs, olives (and oil), grapes (and wine), figs and cheese.

No slabs of steak on that list.

Until the second half of the 20th century meat was reserved for feast days, and the Greek Orthodox Church’s tradition of fasting led to a huge range of vegetarian dishes.

Visitors today can find plenty of meat on the menu, from the ubiquitous moussaka to that most street of street food, the humble gyros. No family Easter is complete without lamb, often spit-roasted.

And of course Greece and its islands are synonymous with fish and shellfish.

There can be no better way to spend an afternoon than with a plate of freshly grilled octopus – surprisingly tender when cooked well. The octopus has to be washed down with a glass of ouzo of course.

But in Greek cooking, vegetables and pulses, cooked with olive oil, remain supreme. Even the humble potato, which was only introduced in Greece during the 1820s, is transformed when cooked with lemon and olive oil.

Local produce matters. At this time of the year, the roads of the Peloponnese are full of stalls selling pumpkins, marrows and oranges, as well as olive oil, wine and honey.

In Corinth, where we are now, grapes grow in abundance and the word currant may even be derived from Corinth. And in the Argolis, where we have just been, artichokes are the vegetable of choice.

In the introduction to her culinary bible, Vefa reminds her readers that ancient Greeks were probably the first to recognise, and crucially record, the excellence of local food specialities.

Today, the European Union has not one, but three, schemes which protect the names and status of regional produce, such as Greece’s famous sheep’s cheese, feta, and Scotland’s Arbroath Smokies.

Markets are still the best place to buy the ingredients for a Greek feast. The produce is straight from the farm, and the prices are much cheaper than the local supermarkets.

Buying local also means cooking seasonally, a challenge I am looking forward to.

There is, however, a plethora of polytunnels in rural Greece, which I presume produce the peppers and tomatoes so beloved of Greeks, and visitors, all the year round.

After all, what is Greece without a Greek salad?

Here is just one recipe from Vefa’s Kitchen, which has over 600 to choose from. I urge you to buy the book. It is a masterpiece.

Potatoes roasted with lemon

Serves 6

Ingredients

4 ½ (2kg) of potatoes, cut into wedges

5 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

pinch of dried oregano

salt and pepper

5 tablespoons of olive oil

5 tablespoons of butter

Method

Put the potato wedges in a bowl. Add the lemon juice, oregano and garlic. Season with salt and pepper, toss well and then let stand for 1 hour.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180 C/Gas Mark 4). Transfer the potato mixture to an ovenproof dish, drizzle with the oil and dot with the butter. Cover with foil and roast for 1 hour.

Remove the foil and continue roasting, basting occasionally, for another 30 minutes or so, until the potatoes are tender and lightly browned. Add some water during cooking if necessary.

These work well with some feta cheese and a crisp green salad. Or if you like meat, with roast chicken or sausages.

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