Greeks aren’t very adaptable when it comes to food. At least, not in the Arkadian village that has been my second home for the last thirty years, and where I’m now holidaying. Give provincial Greeks something other than their usual fare and they’ll almost certainly pass on it – as I discovered to my chagrin when hosting my first Peloponnese dinner party. The Greek guests completely overlooked the potato pizza, regarded the pavlova with total suspicion, and treated the salsa and chips with disdain. And who can blame them when their own cuisine is so utterly delicious and they are able to grow everything they require for it in their own backyards? Having decided that if I can’t beat them, I’ll join them, I’ve taken a leaf from their book and now, in my New Zealand garden, grow all I need to cook up a Hellenic feast.
Greek cooking eschews most spices in favour of fresh herbs so I make a point of growing dill (not one or two plants but whole patches or long rows of it). I give it the same conditions I would a row of salad greens by adding to the soil plenty of compost and animal manure. I want it to grow as fast as possible so I thin it well, smother it with liquid manure once a week, and water it heavily during a dry summer. Flat-leaved parsley is another essential herb but although it also likes the same degree of feeding as dill, it will happily cram in, so thinning isn’t necessary.
Grown more as a herb than a vegetable, is the Greek staple: leaf celery (and, at long last, it is available in New Zealand from Kings Seeds). Don’t expect crisp, tender stalks from this celery.It is much more about twig-sized, thin stems and loads of leaf (use both in cooking). As with its cousin, the celery more commonly grown in New Zealand gardens, it requires very rich ground which must never be allowed to dry out. Thinning is not necessary; simply sow and grow as you would a row of coriander.
Add to these few herbs some green-top onions (spring onions, bunching red onions, cocktail onions or everlasting onions), and 2-3 large bushes of oregano (provide them with scant nutrients and pop them in a dry spot) and you are set up with the flavourings you require for pitas (pastry pies), soups and stews.
Another family of veges essential to Greek cuisine is ‘horta’, a generic term for a wide range of seasonal greens which are chopped finely for use as fillings in pitas, and bulk in stews. In the Greek kitchen, these veges are also required as stand-alone greens which are boiled (sometimes to within an inch of their lives), cooled to room temperature, and smothered in lemon juice and olive oil. Sadly, silver beet, that great New Zealand stand-by, simply won’t do. Instead, for a ready supply of horta, I grow leafy chicories (sometimes sourcing the seed from farming friends who purchase it in bulk from agricultural suppliers and grow it as winter feed for their dairy herds). In spring, spinach makes the perfect horta but, unfortunately, New Zealand native spinach, which happily grows into the summer, doesn’t quite make the grade as it disintegrates very quickly with heavy boiling. Because of that, once spring spinach is finished, I always have on hand a row or two of amaranth (here in Greece it is called ‘vleta’). It requires feeding if it is to bush out rather than run to seed in the warmer months, and if the weather suddenly turns cold, I throw a plastic cloche over it.
If everything turns to custard in the horta department, all is not lost as I can still harvest wild dandelions, highly prized by Greeks as an organic delicacy. So delicious are these simple treats that the Greeks collect them by the bucketful in winter and spring, dry them (if you are visiting the country, look for them hanging on threads at ceiling level in small village restaurants), and reconstitute them for summer use. Several seed suppliers in New Zealand now stock dandelion seeds. Having grown them in my own garden, I find them to be larger and fleshier than their wild cousins, although this may simply be that they are growing in soil richer than that which supports my lawn!
Nothing beats the Greek cuisine for tastiness and simplicity. But most of all, for New Zealand gardeners, sourcing the ingredients is a breeze when you know what to grow. Check out the internet for Greek recipes, and test drive a few using your own fresh produce. And as they say here in Arkadia, “Kaliorexi” (Bon appetit)!