Georgie Oatts, Durham student and food blogger, shares her insights to indulgent, shameless Greek feasts and the secrets of eating well abroad.
Only go on holiday with people who eat, and eat well. If I was asked to give one piece of advice I’ve learnt this summer then this would be it. Where is the joy in travelling if it isn’t adorned with the local cuisine, and lots of it? This summer on a trip to Greece, I ate. And ate. When I say ate I mean we really ate. Think of feasts three times a day. There was no holding back and it was fantastic. Each meal went down in my mental list of ones to remember.
The real beauty of the Greek food is the sense of tradition. There are no frills or unnecessary fancies. The dishes are all made just the way our Greek mamas have been making them for decades. Each restaurant seems to be family run and there is real passion and enthusiasm in the selling of the dish and years of love stirred into the pots.
A team of men are usually on board to serve the customers so one assumes the women are cooking in the back. Old fashioned this may be, but it tells us the story of the Greek way of life and when the food is this delicious, who are we to complain? The complimentary ouzo while you wait for a table slightly softens the critical eye too.
Every night, alongside our compulsory Greek Salad and Naxian Salad (a Greek salad that used the island’s local soft cheese rather than feta), our table was often graced with Greek baked beans, whole sardines, calamari, a large fish, octopus, stuffed tomatoes – whatever they had that day.
Oh and baklava! How can I even begin to talk about the wonders of Greek cuisine without talking about baklava! Sweet, treacly, sticky pastry that flakes away as you wrap your lips around the pistachio-crusted exterior. The crunch of the nuts as they are pushed into the pastry and the honey oozes out is impossible to recreate in any other dish. If one was homesick for Greece, I imagine a piece of baklava would have the Mediterranean way of life rushing back to them in one, glorious mouthful. On my first night in Naxos, I was given for pudding a cross between baklava and a cake. It had a sponge base that was soaked with honey and pistachios and wrapped in pastry. My waiter, on asking, if not for the recipe, for tips on where else I could find it, told me it was a house speciality and I’d have to come back if I ever wanted to try it again. I didn’t believe him and spent the entire week seeking it out again but never did find it. Perhaps he was right…
The most spectacular meal that has to be documented is Lefteris. A family-run (of course) restaurant in the mountains. Only starting to serve lunch at 3pm in true Mediterranean style, the meat, a speciality of Naxos, was well worth the wait. A burger with a fondant centre that oozed feta and tomato when sliced into. Lamb chops the size of my head simply sprinkled with sea salt flakes. Chard leaves stuffed with veal in white lemon sauce. Potato salad with an ouzo dressing (with a kick). Aubergines roasted with I only wish I knew what that made them melt so seductively into the tomatoes. Courgette balls to die for.
I have to give Angelique, the local who recommended we book ahead and check out this carnivore haven away from the tourists, a special mention for granting us such a memorable meal. It’s a wonder we ever eat anywhere the locals do not recommend because, as we are learning more and more, the food is behind the faces. We have to understand the people before we are rewarded with the food and boy, are you rewarded.
I am currently beavering away in the kitchen trying to recreate some of the dishes we had this holiday; researching and archiving the traditional recipes until I have my satisfactory replica. I will keep you posted. In the meantime, Diana Henry in her new book, Simple, has given me a highly pleasing version with a middle eastern hit of preserved lemon. To be truly Greek, do not be shy with the feta.
Greek Baked Beans with Dill, Preserved Lemon and Feta by Diana Henry
Serves 6 as a main course
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 x 400g tins of tomatoes
salt and pepper
1 -2 tsp soft light brown sugar
2 tsp dried oregano
1 bay leaf
2 x 625g jars of large cooked white beans or 3 cans of cannellini or butter beans (jarred beans are more expensive but they are to quote Diana Henry, ‘luscious’, and that really is the only word to describe them.
10g dill fronds, chopped
100g feta cheese, crumbled
1 preserved lemon, fleshy bits removed, rind cut into shreds
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4. Heat the olive oil in a casserole and sauté the onions, carrots and celery until soft but not coloured. Add the garlic and cook for another few minutes. Add the tomatoes and bring to the boil, pressing the tomatoes to crush them. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Season well and stir in the sugar, oregano, bay and beans. Cover and bake for 30 minutes, then stir and return to the oven without a lid. Bake for another 30 minutes, checking once or twice, until the liquid has reduced and the mixture is thick. Stir in a glug of oil and dill and check the seasoning. Serve sprinkled with the feta cheese and preserved lemon. A bowl of yoghurt is lovely on the side. Enjoy!
P.S: Don’t forget to follow Georgie’s Instagram, @foodbehindfaces and if you haven’t already, The Bubble Food Instagram, @thebubble_food.