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To The Edge of The Frontier

So this is how I am going to die! It was our second day in Morocco and I was reading a travel blog over breakfast about the perilous mountains passes through the Atlas mountains. Seemingly the steep winding road through the infamous Dades Gorge that provided the route from Marrakech to the Sahara, is frequently included in the most deadly roads worldwide! Fantastic – I knew my experience of driving through Loggos on a busy August day would come in handy one day.

Most adventurers planning such an endeavour needn’t worry, as, for a price, one can enlist the help of a trusted local guide to navigate the tricky and totally unprotected hairpins of the road south. All well and good, however, we, in our infinite wisdom had opted instead to hire a car and make the journey solo.  We were due to set off later that morning on the first leg of a four hundred kilometre journey that would take us south-east towards the Algerian border and to the edge of the vast Sahara desert. Even more unsettling for both me and my travellers, was the fact that I had offered to start the drive!

Driving in Marrakech, indeed driving in Africa at all, has to be regarded as a rite of passage. Our smart little Renault Clio was handed over amidst heated debate by three local Medina boys. Signatures were required, while local street kids kicked the tyres, offering mock judgemental grins, all of this right in the middle of a busy market street off the main square. The initial three-point turn out of the narrow alley was further complicated by a rather determined and seemingly bad-tempered donkey that seemed set on a mid-morning siesta. With less than tactile persuasion, he was eventually moved on and we were away to join the traffic of the old town where intuition and ‘mirror signal, manoeuvre’ is left by the roadside! The streets were a buzz of noise and sound but slowly, slowly we escaped the medina, passed by the Koutoubia mosque and were thankful to see the road signs for Fez.

After clearing the city, it has to be said the journey was thankfully rather straightforward and we all settled in to enjoy the sights and sounds of the North African countryside. Our destination was the small desert town of Merzouga where the dunes of the Sahara rise majestically from the sand and where we would continue our journey on camel-back to a traditional Berber sand camp.  However, standing in our way was the imposing Atlas mountain range, stretching two and a half thousand kilometres, across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, it separates the coastlines of the Mediterranean and Atlantic from the Sahara Desert and contains some of the most dangerous passes in the whole of Africa.

After an hour or so the road ahead slowly began to change complexion both in its geology and elevation. The wide autoroute lying flat on the arid, red landscape was gradually replaced by a narrowing road ahead, creeping its way through the gentle foothills that sat in the foreground of the distant mountains. The road soon began ascending further, passing backwood Moroccan mountain settlements, where makeshift open-air kitchens filled with steaming tagines sat on roadside coal to welcome hungry travellers. The scenery was spectacular, a spectrum of autumn as the mid-afternoon sun splashed the mountain creases with reds and yellows. As we progressed, the imposing alpine peaks became clearer in detail, the jagged rocks and ice chiselled ridges standing in stark contrast to the road behind us. Up ahead the pass narrowed yet further, with a notable absence of barriers as the rattling little car passed precariously close to the edge. In front of us a double-decker, overburdened cattle wagon carrier occupied both lanes of the narrow pass, swaying from side to side as we tried to navigate a safe overtake. No sooner were we past him when a second one turned up seemingly out of nowhere occupying an even more precarious position and all the while taxis hurtled down the mountain passes, and through the hairpins at breakneck speed. It has to be said I was more than a little relieved when we reached our summit and began to creep down the south face. Was it over??

By late afternoon, the warm November sun had dipped low in the sky and the landscape had flattened out. The Moroccan mountains stood as remote reminders to the distance we had covered, and either side of the single road, the distant hills flanked our journey south. Looking ahead, the landscape was changing yet again, as barely visible sand dunes could be observed rising out of the barren horizon and signs for Merzouga began to become more frequent. The sun continued its descent and we charged forward to get to our meeting point before it slipped beyond the horizon and out of sight.

We were met in Merzouga by our guide Mohammad as late afternoon further slipped into early evening. The sun was casting shadows over the old town of Merzouga as Mohammad led us to our waiting transport, four patient camels that sat in the cool sand. Ahead of them, the largest sand desert in the world, the Sahara, stretched impossibly onward, neverending dunes towards the distant sun. Only surpassed by the wilderness of the Arctic and the Antarctic the Sahara is truly one of the last great frontiers. We had travelled over four hundred kilometres from the chaos of the medina, through the snow-capped ridges of the high Atlas mountains to reach our destination and there was a genuine sense of expectation as the four of us mounted our steeds, rising high above the sand and set off.

The journey was long and as it turned out perfectly timed. By the time our camels began their journey towards our desert camp the cool Sahara evening had begun its transition. The sky was a canvas of colour as the setting desert sun cast shadows of purples, yellows and reds across the silhouetted dunes. The camels behaved well enough given their excited passengers who travelled excitedly, singing Greek folk songs and took last pictures of the fading light. Within half an hour the night sky was getting darker still and silence fell as a long day caught up with five weary travellers, the steady rhythm of the camel’s footsteps the only sound. Thank goodness for our guide, as by seven pm the night sky was pitch black, and the distant light of the Merzouga taverns having slipped out of sight and the cooling desert air promising a cold, late autumn night.

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A little over an hour on camelback, we were happy to hear the faint sounds of nomad drums and the smells of cooked meat. After navigating a particularly steep dune, we descended to the sight of our torchlit Berber camp, – eight, neat, white tents, each the size of a large hut stood, as permanent fixtures in the desert sand. Small lanterns standing either side of a long traditional rug that ran the length of the camp, at the end of which a wooden pavilion sheltered five men sharing tea. They welcomed us and introduced us to Theresa, a visitor from Mexico, who made regular trips to Morocco and we all sat down and listened to their stories. The camps men were obviously enjoying the relative downtime of the offseason and after topping up our tea they laughed, danced and rolled cigarettes, never fussing over us but instantly putting us at ease.  The camp was empty and we sat for longer than we expected, picking Theresa’s brains on how we should proceed on our adventure and where to avoid. The men’s native Arabic was discarded in favour of a mix of French, Spanish and English as they kept our sugary tea topped up and offered round hashish and tobacco. Gone was the aggressive touting of the Marrakech marketplace, and it was nice to see friends in such a remote location be at ease within their own surroundings.

As the night air grew colder still, and our hunger became too difficult to ignore we decided to move ‘indoors’. Sofianne and Mohammad beckoned us into the large central tent at the base of the camp which was all set out for dinner for us. The whole experience felt more like ‘glamping’ than camping, plumbed in toilets, kitchen facilities and a beautifully laid table. Given that our hosts were unaware in advance of what we would, or would not eat, they had prepared everything and it was welcomingly received. Proceedings kicked off with harissa marinated olives and a perfect salad of finely diced tomatoes, cucumber and onions, garnished with perfumed coriander and mint. It was wonderfully fresh and fragrant paired with more mint tea and traditional wholemeal mahrash bread. To follow a simple rabartahro soup, hearty and warming, consisting of vegetables cooked slowly in bulgar wheat, perfectly spiced and warming against the cool night air, of which we all had seconds! Tagines followed, clay bowls of m’chermel chicken with preserved lemons, unexpectedly sweet sultanas and onions as well as Kefta meatballs, rich in a tomato and spice.

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After our appetites were appeased we left the chilly tent to join our chefs to construct a small fire to fight the cold night. Neighbouring workers from emptier camps joined us, treading through the night towards the flickering fire. Each one was wrapped from the elements in traditional djellabas and cloth turbans, and they carried Berber drums, bound in camel leather which they warmed and tightened on the juvenile fire.  As the fire grew they sang and played seemingly simple, but as we found out, difficult to master rhythms while the men sang out nomad songs that were obviously important to them. We attempted to participate with varying degrees of success before we all stomped around the fire kicking up the sand and falling about laughing.  We settled comfortably into each others company and I began to understand why people like Theresa, single travellers who consistently return to this country, love so much, its people and their ways. Jokes were passed around and it was wonderful to see Fotini and Eleni, so comfortable in the company of fellow travellers, relax after the baptism of fire that was Marrakech.

It was around 2am when we finally left the dying embers of the fire and returned to our camp beds. It was to be a short, deep sleep as by early morning the camp guides quietly called us outside to silently tread the desert sands in the cold morning air. We walked for five minutes, through squinted eyes, over small dunes to escape the perimeters of the camp and to the top of a large dune on the edge of the camp. As we reached the top we were glad of our decision for such an early start as the three of us sat in silence as the bland morning air was set on fire by the rising Sahara sun. No words were exchanged or needed as we quietly took in the embrace of something so special, that we had travelled so far for. Watching the African sun gradually lighting up the terracotta sands was a truly special moment and we closed our eyes succumbing to our fatigue. The road ahead promised another long journey but for now, we enjoyed our new found company in the warm embrace and perfect isolation of a Sahara morning.

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Marrakech

I am forever wondering when the influence of North Africa swept through the adolescence of an inspiring amateur cook from Lancashire. There was no showstopping meal in a London Moroccan pop-up, no long-lost relative with tales of his work in the street kitchens of Fez and Tangier and no exotic ex-girlfriend that knocked up aromatic tagines on lazy Sunday afternoons. Yet despite all this, it is a flavour and cooking profile that has increasingly influenced me as I have got older. For me, Moroccan food is not one thing but rather an orchestra of parts that play to the senses. The flavours of saffron, ras-el-hanout, cinnamon and cloves, flirting together, each one not overstepping their mark and acting as the perfect dance partner. The colours remind one of the deserts as sandy yellow turmeric, dusty brick cinnamon, and paprika as vivid as the setting sun come together in perfect harmony. To the savouriness of slow-cooked meats, is added sweetness in all manner of dried fruits, quince, figs, dates, prunes and apricots with heat arriving from age-old marinades like chermoula and harissa.

I have been experimenting with North African food for as long as I have been cooking, so it made sense that eventually, I would need to make a pilgrimage to its holy centre, but in truth, it was a group decision and one based on more than just food. After a demanding season Fotini and I needed a holiday, and so it was decided on a warm September afternoon that come November we would leave Paxos behind and set off on a road trip to explore this fascinating country.

We arrived in Marrakech on an overcast but never the less perfectly pleasant Monday afternoon. After clearing the airport our taxi driver Mohammed (the first of many) drove quickly through the streets of the new town heading for the ancient Medina where we were due to stay. We had booked a Riad – the commonplace residences inside the narrow streets of the souk, where one is transported from the chaos of the marketplace into an oasis of calm. After being dropped off in the famous Jemma el-Fnaa square and our bags moved to a trolley, the local guide took off at pace into the chaos of the Medina. The square is an assault on the senses, the air is heavy with a mix of motor fuel, incense and donkeys, stop at your peril for dawdling is jumped on as an indication of interest or indecision. An idle glance to any of the many stalls selling everything from pomegranates, to ornamental camels, leather bags or sugary sweets and one is hounded with urgent beckoning with declined offers of trade backed up by hushed offers of readily available hashish. Vacant hands are grabbed, the owners of which are dragged from snake charmers to henna tattoo stands, vipers and monkeys sharing the space with the occasional horse-pulled carriage, and all this while you try desperately to keep in touch with your group.

Clearing the square, and standing before you exists a myriad of narrow streets where young boys pull barrows of fruits and biscuits, overbearing stall owners polish brass lamps and toothless old men pull at your sleeves for spare dirhams. The medina twists and turns, where dark alleys open up into new unexplored corners of colours and fragrance. Pyramids of vibrant spices on one stall, hedgerows of mint and coriander next door, old ladies perch with stone mills between their legs grinding Argan oil while traditional clay tagines are stacked precariously high. To finally arrive at our Riad was like breathing again, the girls in shock as we dusted ourselves off and gratefully accepted a pot of mint tea to calm our nerves!


Riad Samarine was a beautiful example of Moroccan architecture and the opulence of comfortable Moroccan decor. Once the heavy door was closed on the chaos of the Medina we immediately relaxed in the serenity of the spacious courtyard. Riad’s are commonplace across Morocco, – homes consisting of multiple rooms that are gathered around a central courtyard. Hand-painted blues and whites give colour to ornate vases and water features, the white stone walls of the bedrooms contrast with the rich mahogany of the traditional furnishings and the rooms are finished with Berber rugs embroidered with a tapestry of red ruby and magenta. To reach the roof in early evening, you are presented with a canopy of terraces as far as the eye can see, sheltering the living entity of the Medina below, the towering Koutoubia Mosque stands tall and authoritative in the distance, as the ‘Adhan’ or the call to prayer is blasted out through rooftop megaphones! The city is alive in a way so unique and so different to anywhere else, the smells, sights and sounds are ubiquitous and wilfully pervade the senses…escape is a futile endeavour!

After showering and relaxing, I was keen to get out and explore Morocco’s food scene. I had heard great things about the range of options available in Marrakech from the street food vendors serving spiced offal to the endless tagine and couscous options in the old town. In the end, I followed a recommendation to try the much talked about Nomad restaurant. Executive Chef Kamal Laftimi is one of the modern-day pioneers of Marrakech’s expanding artisanal arts scene, and in Nomad has created a dining option reinventing the traditional staples of Moroccan food. In a style close to my own heart he has put together a unique menu that gives modern interpretation to the heart and soul of traditional Moroccan food. I loved the look of the online menu, dishes like Cauliflower in Tumeric butter, Agadir calamari in cumin infused anchovy, ginger harissa and roasted bone marrow with preserved lemon. It was certainly my kind of food and spoke to my own translation of Greek food back in Paxos. With only one night in the City it was definitely on my to do list and given its proximity to our riad, the group was easily enough persuaded to follow my lead.

We arrived without a reservation and told they were fully booked inside, which turned out to be fairly serendipitous as we were led to an available table on the roof terrace…perfect! After the initial dismay regarding their absence of any alcohol subsided (Eleni was still in shock and in dire need to dull her senses somehow), we settled into an aperitif of sweet mint tea to enjoy our position amongst the rooftops of Marrakech. The setting was wonderful, small tables, lit just enough by traditional lanterns. A sophisticated city crowd of French and Spanish visitors conversed comfortably in the cool November evening. I got the sense that there was more than a smattering of return customers as there seemed to be a sense of collective confidence concerning the menu, a sense only given weight by the fact that the Cauliflower in Tumeric Butter and the Bone Marrow were sold out …damn!

In the end, I opted for the braised Lamb shank with cardamom, orange and star anise. The description sent a shiver of expectation which was quite separate from the increasingly cool late Autumn evening. This was certainly my kind of food, gentle reassuring spices I am so fond of in cardamom and star anise paired with orange – I wish I had thought of it! The others played it safe with the Nomad burger option but Fotini was persuaded to plump for the Calamari option – good – I was fascinated by its flavour profile and how anchovy and ginger would work with the cumin-infused sauce.

It has to be said the mains were not without their faults. I think I probably put the food somewhat on a pedestal after being completely charmed by the menu and the modern eclectic twists on such traditional ideas. The lamb was beautifully cooked but for some reason, the meat had been removed from the bone. I couldn’t help but think of what ceremony could have been added by a frenched shank standing high on the plate, jewels of star anise and orange zest clinging to its frame. The Calamari lacked texture and colour, it was pale to the eye, the tentacles shied away rather than being front and centre. The sauce, however, was on point, sharp with anchovy and ginger and perfectly balanced, warming and complex and like something I had never tasted before. For all the little niggles on the aesthetic, it has to be said the flavour across all four of our dishes was excellent. Mine had all the punch and fragrance of a traditional tagine and was one of the best-tasting lamb dishes I had enjoyed in many a day, and the burgers too were perfectly spiced kefta meat with a terracotta coloured harissa mayonnaise that acted as the perfect accompaniment.

The dessert menu was simply too good to pass up on and for once I was glad I had not decided to go for a starter. Dishes like Saffron scented Moroccan Date Cake with caramel sauce conjured images of reinterpreted sticky toffee puddings but in the end, I decided on the flourless orange cake with cardamom and ginger. It was, it turned out the perfect second act to my lamb and certainly the best dessert I ate during my time in Morocco. Decadent yet refreshing, the cake cut like set custard and the spice profile danced across the palate posing questions and providing answers in the same mouthful. It was just great!

We descended from the roof terrace happy and full, Nomad, apparently the perfect potion to settle into life in the Medina. But alas our trip was nearing an end, or should I say part one was, for the next day we were set to leave the all-penetrating city and start on a new journey. An adventure that would see us travel across the length and breadth of this mysterious country, exploring new cities, traversing desert sands and mountain passes on a quest that would give us just a taste of what this unique country has to offer.

Giving Gyros a Go!

In a few days I will be leaving the short overcast Ionian days for some final summer as I  embark on a culinary tour across Morocco. From there I will travel to Geneva for a final city break before moving to the Giffre Valley and the old stonemason village of Samoens to begin my winter skiing in France. However before all that I have decided to spend some time back in Athens, to take in the Greek capital and all that it has to offer. It will be five cold months until I will return, hopefully in time for Pasca, so it’s my intention to immerse myself  as much as possible in Athenian life and to get my Greek fill, before departing her shores once again.

I last visited back in April and spent five happy days strolling around the main squares and enjoying the late spring sunshine. This time around my agenda is a little different, as I am keen to explore the exciting street buzz that has exploded onto the Athenian food scene. Traditionally, the street food scene in Athens was limited to Souvlaki stands, (nothing wrong with that – if I could I would eat a pita every day!). But recently its rule as the best street food in Athens has began to become challenged with innovative startups bringing a new spectrum of flavours to the City.  While I am arguably more inspired by the creativity of these new ‘on the go’ concepts I just feel the pita is a national institution in Greece, both on the islands and on the mainland. Never have I been more aware of a fast food so warmly embraced by all sectors of society. Even in the smallest of Greek mountain villages, look hard enough and you will more than likely find a locally run souvlaki hut shop serving hot gyros long into the night! So as I sat on the ferry returning to Paxos on Wednesday afternoon I made the decision to give the humble Gyros a go.

The Challenge…

Now, I fully understand this is no small challenge, take any dish so nationally recognised and easily available and try to reinvent it – is often to do so at your peril. No one after all goes to a Chip shop anywhere in the UK and asks for tempura cod, polenta fries and pea puree! No, if I was to do this it had to a. not simply simulate the humble pita and b. add something of value to the idea. It was my intention rather then reinventing something solely for the sake of it, to instead elevate and reclassify the dish to something dinner party worthy. I started the process by looking at the component parts and what I considered to be essential in their inclusion.

The Pita…

I have been experimenting with bread all summer, its a growing private indulgence to grab a mixing bowl, open my kitchen windows and bake some warm bread and I have had great success with stuffed flatbread utilising seasonal ingredients like figs, aubergine and feta. For this recipe I decided on a Rosemary grilled pita, the rosemary is everywhere on Paxos, resilient and woody and is such a reassuring and pleasing note when added to warm bread, plus it would compliment my chosen meat perfectly.

Grilled Rosemary Pita Bread, by Make Life Lovely

The Meat…

After much deliberation on the relative merits of chicken or pork I eventually decided to deviate from both, opting instead for lamb. The reason being was two fold, firstly and simply Lamb is my favourite protein and quintessentially Greek, the second reason is there is a good amount of fat content which is so essential to the finished product ad rather lacking with chicken or pork fillet. I headed to Lakka to purchase a boneless leg of lamb from Akis. With the bone already removed I was able to butterfly the leg out creating one long piece of meat and with a little tenderising got it to about an inch thick and around a foot and a half in length, layered in rich fat. The Lamb was flattened, bashed and slashed, the intention to create as much opportunity as possible for the lamb to take on flavour. After that a mix of Mediterranean flavours, onion and garlic powder, ground cumin and coriander, cloves, all spice, and a blend of dried parlsey and oregano were brought together with plenty of lemon and olive oil and the lamb marinated overnight.

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The Other Stuff…

With the meat marinading, I turned to my sides. There seems not too much subjectivity when it comes to these. Any gyros stand serves up your pitas with tzatziki, onions and tomatoes. Tzatziki is one of my all time favourites but I often avoid it as the raw sharp garlic can sometimes be a bit too fierce. To combat this I decided to make Roasted Garlic Tzatziki, the garlic mellows and sweetens in the oven and adds real complexity to the finished product and its a totally different flavour profile.

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With the onions again I wanted to do something different than simply serve them raw and went back to tried and tested recipe of the summer – my picked radish and onions. A simple pickle is made from sugar and white wine vinegar and to that finely sliced red onions and baby radishes are added. once cooled they go a magical bright pink and taste sweet and sour all at the same time – I could eat a whole batch of them on their own!

For the tomatoes I decided to make a relish that incorporated the bright juicy flesh with fresh parsley, and mint. The herbs grow wild all around the island and the crunchy fresh herbaceous notes are the perfect compliment to the already assembled players. Finally I decided to roughly slice some fresh courgette and simply griddle them dry in a screaming hot pan.

To cook the lamb I wanted the authenticity of it being cooked on an open flame rather than pan fried. I was keen to impart a smokiness to the meat and a charred crispy texture to the outside to keep it authentic to the texture so familiar with takeaway pitas . The meat is cooked over white hot coals to an internal temperature of exactly 54 degree centigrade before being taken off and wrapped in aluminium foil. After being rested for ten minutes, the lamb is sliced as thinly as possible and I am more than relieved with the result – perfectly cooked medium rare pink lamb, with a crispy outer flesh of the gyros seasoning. I know purists will question sliced lamb leg but after trying the alternatives I just feel lamb and such a fantastic cut elevates the dish beyond takeaway food, and anyway, surely I am allowed a little personal interpretation!

This is al fresco sharing food, served family style with the component parts dotted across rustic platters up and down the dining table. Its restorative food and brings back images of warm Sunday afternoons with a cold beer. It’s gyros…it’s pitas but its healthy and Greek to its core, and in my mind, something every but as special as your Sunday roast. Warm and fragrant fresh pita bread, perfectly pink lamb, crispy and charred  on the outside, cool sharp tzatziki, sweet pickles, and crunchy fresh vegetables. This is fajita night for the modern Greek generation! Pass the pickles!

 

 

Posh Pitas??!!

Although not a committed reader of restaurant reviews, I recently stumbled across an interesting, if not entirely complimentary piece by The Guardian critic Jay Rayner. The review was regarding one of London’s modern Greek restaurants that have started to appear in the capital over the last five or so years. Despite not showering the establishment in question in praise, what it did do was bring into focus the idea of sophisticated modern Greek food.  Growing up in the UK I watched the mainstream UK TV chefs, so prevalent to Saturday morning cook shows rather look down their noses at the relative culinary merit of Greek food. They regarded the likes of retsina as undrinkable and dismiss the wonderful meat dishes as heavy and laden with oil. It seemed that the idea of elegant Greek was traditionally a non – starter in the UK  – but why so?

Perhaps the best way of answering this questions is to consider Greek food in the context of the modern revolution that is sweeping capital cities like London. Over the last ten years, London, like many other European centres of culture, has undergone a food enlightening. Michelin star chefs crafting their trades have had their presence elevated through the mechanism of television and  a younger millennial society has become more aware and connected with what they eat. After ten years living in London as part of this social rising I can speak first hand as to the growing accessibility of fine dining. Working in the West End of London I saw the increased visibility of Michelin starred chefs offering reasonable lunchtime menus and ‘early bird’ specials and on many occasions I slipped out of my city jobs at six on the nose to reach my 6:30 reservation at the likes of Maze and Pollen Street Social. Furthermore it was a revolution not just limited to West End dining with fantastic regional restaurants opening in commuter towns in Greater London. Concept restaurants, pop ups and the growing trend towards street food started to change how we think about different cuisines and given the uncertain economic climate such avenues of eating out became more and more in vogue.   

Now it would seem that Greek food has been swept up in such a revolution, with modern Hellenic restaurants opening up with interesting concepts on taverna classics. But perhaps and certainly according to Jay – some at least – are missing the point. The question Rayner posed – was it possible to have a great upmarket Greek restaurant in our nation’s capital. An opening gambit that more than a little annoyed me, but reading on I can understand the dichotomy. It seems that that the aim of such establishments is to sophisticate Greek food – a problem Rayner takes issue with on two counts. Firstly to dismiss Greek food as unsophisticated belies a fundamental understanding of the complexity of its tradition. It’s already sophisticated…the distillation of thousands of years of culture and lifestyle, a rustic, essentially domestic culinary tradition with a virtue of its own. And secondly such endeavours to ‘glam up’ Greek food, more often than not comes across as overworked and missing the point. How does the old saying go…If it’s not broke why fix it.

It’s an important reminder to me and anyone trying to learn more about this unique food tradition to know your place and respect the past. This is not cuisine of reconstructing, deconstructing or molecular practice and, if you are going to mess around with it, whatever you do, do it right. If we are to build this case around the simple point that Greek food is in its history already sophisticated then recreating these classics needs to be done with care. One must be acutely aware of tradition and if possible find yourself an opinionated Greek girl to tell you exactly what you are doing right or wrong.

This weekend I was fortunate enough to join said Greek girl and a number of her close friends on a trip off the island. After a wonderfully consistent October it seemed that Autumn was finally catching up with us and it was decided to take an extended trip taking in some of the sights of mainland Greece. We travelled by car across Greece, visiting the Aegean city of Larissa, the mountain villages of Makrinitsa and Portalia before returning to to the eastern seaboard and finishing on the Ionian island of Lefkada. It was a fantastic and much needed break, one in which food was  a happy constant. Morning, lunch and night we sat down together, menus were never needed as everyone shouted out almost simultaneously, horta, tzatziki, giouvetsi, stifado. They were the requests of business owners, Paxiot born and and bread who were used to producing and serving good food. They were not looking for fancy presentation but that’s not to say their expectations were not high. There is a delicate balance achieved in the slow production of these pot classics and if the finished result was off dishes were politely put to one side while additional plates of others were shouted out.

I feel so lucky that this last season I have been afforded the opportunity to cook for the  first time here in Greece. It has been an experience that has undoubtedly ignited a passion for learning more about what modern Greek food represents but more than it poses the question, what does it represent here on Paxos. To take the ingredients and tradition that are so prevalent in my favourite dishes and interpret them in a personal way – while of course not detracting from their original value – and therein lies the challenge.  To do so is no easy feat especially as a foreign alien on an island where one is surrounded by the countless examples of how simplicity rules the roost! But that being said, to live here, you are also surrounded by inspiration, from the fruit on the trees to the fish in the water and if I am to stay here it would be a shame not to at least give it a go!

Oxtapodi

Pan Fried Octopus, ‘Ktipiti’ Puree and a Feta and Hazelnut Salad

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Octopus or Oxtapodi is one of those dishes where a chef’s intuition is left at the door. Tough and slimy tentacles, that when just caught are muscular and alien. To simply grill it without prior preparation is not advisable, the lean muscle contracts and turns into leather making for a chewy and unpalatable dish. Instead one must tenderise the beast. Cue images of athletic young Greek fishermen taking out the frustration of the day by beating the cephalopod against the rocks. However you choose to tenderise it is an important first step and one that simply cannot be overlooked. But the reward is bliss, a true taste of the sea and a real island dish that we could not wait to get going on.

I remember fondly my first season on Paxos, with very little by way of entertainment offered I had decided to take up fishing. So one cool Tuesday in early May I made my way, rod in hand, past the little fishing boats and on to the Port to see what could be caught. I like to think it was a slow day, but more than likely it was just sheer inexperience as by the time the sun had dipped into the sea and the stars were out I frustratingly had caught nothing! As if to compound my misery. a large fishing boat laden with fresh catch rounded the port wall and made its way in to the harbour. Hundreds of hungry gulls followed it and as it pulled up almost beside me the seasoned fishermen grinned at my empty bucket. I looked on rather sheepish, but misery and embarrassment quickly turned into surprised delight as the old fishermen flung two large Octopi at me! I thanked him and scooped up the slimy sea creatures and returned home triumphant that at least I had not finished empty handed.

Cooking the things was an entirely different challenge and after making a huge mess of the first one I enlisted the help of my friend Fotis who assured me he knew just how to cook them. Later that week Fotis and I enjoyed a fantastic meal of beautifully tender octopus, cooked with small macaroni like pasta and a rich tomato sauce. It was a triumph and I immediately began reading up on what else I could do with them.

Three years on and the dish has finally come together, a spicy, sweet and salty gathering of ingredients with crispy grilled tentacles at its centre. As it turns out Octopus and hazelnuts turn out to be a wonderful combination – who knew! … and we had decided that these two ingredients were to be the bases of our dish. We had practiced this recipe on more than a few occasions, alternating with different purees and ultimately not getting it quite right. Initially we were keen to play on the idea of the Octopus ink by having a black puree which was made by making a homemade tapenade with – of course – Paxos olives. However in the end, the dish with the addition of feta just proved too salty. What the dish really needed is a natural sweetness and it was a revelation when we tried the finished dish with a sweet roasted red pepper puree or Hipititi as the Greeks call it. The hazelnuts were toasted to release their nuttiness and incorporated into a simple salad of roughly chopped parsley, crumbled feta and just a hint of red chilli

Ingredients: Serves 3 …ish

1 large Octopus, frozen and defrosted
Handful of Hazelnuts
1 small bunch of parsley
1 red chilli
Small piece of good quality Feta
3 medium sized red peppers
Sweet Paprika
Olive Oil
Garlic
Bay leaf
Peppercorns
Orange
Spring of Thyme
Onion

Method:

  1. Freezing the Octopus cuts out all that arduous tenderising of having to beat it against rocks. The freezing process breaks down the fibrous tentacles meaning its ready to work with.
  2. Once defrosted fill a large pan with water, adding half an onion, bay leaf, orange zest, peppercorns and thyme.
  3. Bring the stock to the boil before reducing it to a simmer and adding the Octopus
  4. Cook the octopus for between 45 minutes and an hour and a half depending upon the size. It will be ready when a sharp knife pierces the flesh and the octopus easily slides off.
  5. Allow to cool in the water for about an hour and in the meantime prepare the puree.
  6. Take the peppers and add to a small roasting and put in a hot oven with a little olive oil and a few whole cloves of garlic.
  7. Roast for around 45 minutes until the peppers and garlic have started to char. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  8. Next prepare the salad. Take a hot dry frying pan and carefully toast hazelnut halves, being sure not to burn them.
  9. Roughly chop washed flat leaf parsley, feta and a little finely chopped chilli add to it a mixing bowl.
  10. Into the bowl add a drop of white wine vinegar and a splash of olive oil and season to taste.
  11. Once the peppers and garlic have cooled, remove the seeds and skin and pass through a food processor together with a teaspoon of sweet paprika and a little olive oil.Puree until smooth before passing the mixture through a fine sieve.
  12. Next cook the octopus. Remove the cooled tentacles from the body by cutting with a sharp knife. You want three tentacles per person so a whole Octopus will make 2 mains dishes (and perhaps a smaller helping)
  13. Season with salt and pepper and a little lemon juice and fry the tentacles in a hot pan until crispy.
  14. To assemble the dish, spoon the puree on to the plate and place the tentacles clumped together on top. Finish by scattering the salad on top together with some grated orange zest.

Saganaki

Saganaki! What a thing! It was a revelation upon arriving here, on taverna menus everywhere – fried cheese on a plate, crispy and gooey, doused in lemon juice and black pepper…proper comfort food! Here on Paxos there are many variations where said cheese is laid on top of all manner of ingredients, – just try Taverna Vontza’s Artichoke Saganaki! But for me there is nothing quite like a Prawn Saganaki as this one’s all about the sauce! Rich, with tomatoes spicy, sweet and smoky, accentuated with Ouzo, garlic and roasted peppers. It all comes together in the pan, with complexity added by a good prawn head stock that you have painstakingly prepared beforehand.

There are many optional extras to this sauce but for us the Ouzo is essential, the theatre of starting the process off with flambeed Ouzo and the release of the aniseed notes within a hot frying pan. With the stock simmering, the wonderful bisque like smells of prawn shells emanate around the kitchen, reminding one so vividly of the bouillabaisse’ of southern France or the paellas of Spain, but this is Greece and this dish is Greek to its core. Garlic and onion is softened in the pan with yet more familiar aromas released into the kitchen, and to that sweet cherry tomatoes and two types of paprika. Heat is built through fresh and dried chilli, with a dollop of local honey to provide balance and complexity. Into to that, our homemade prawn stock is added, slowly and carefully. Think risotto, standing over the pan, watching and smelling the flavours develop, this is not fast food! As the stock reduces we add the peppers. Slowly roasted in a hot oven until blackened and smoky, they are simply blended with quality olive oil into a thick wonderful puree.

The sauce is now coming together, and it’s time to add the cheese, salty crumbly fine feta, cascaded into the pan with fresh oregano, now it’s really coming together! With the sauce almost there it’s time to dig out the prawns. We use fresh local prawns, with their body armour removed, the heads and tails remain intact. The prawns are marinated in more Ouzo and pan fried in a hot pan until charred and crispy, the flesh reddened by the heat but never overcooked! The dish is finished by more aniseed in the form of a simple dill vinaigrette to add a touch of herbaceousness and a much needed dash of colour as well as blow torched local anfotyri scattered on top. And that’s that, the simplicity of fresh ingredients with complexity of fresh ideas!

 

Full recipes on all recent entries will follow in our new modern Greek Food Blog, launching soon!

Cake from the Garden

A really simple cake recipe born from the smells and colours of a Paxos summer garden. By the time the season hits mid July here only the most diligently attended and carefully looked after gardens will have survived the hot Ionian climate. Water is found in scarce supply with a notable absence of rain, sometimes for weeks on end, and it’s all too easy for vulnerable plants to wilt and surrender to the imposing summer. The early spring harvest of sunflowers collected for my tortoises in early May are nowhere to be seen by high summer and only the woody resilient herbs and plants are left fighting for survival. That said, there does exist, amongst the sun scorched plantlife villa gardens in full bloom. Irrigated and carefully attended to by those diligent souls who rise early, and stand bare skinned under the morning sun, hose in hand to ensure their survival.

One such pioneers is Andy, the owner of the beautiful Villa Spiantzi on a unique headland just south of Loggos. Most mornings he can be found, under a huge floppy sun hat, happily hosing the garden beds,  giving life and hope to the young flowers. It’s fair to say he has been rewarded with a beautiful bounty and to walk around his grounds is to bombard the senses with the smells, sights sounds of a Paxos garden. Perfumed Masticha is everywhere, punctuated with the fragrance of fresh rosemary, thyme and wild lavendar. Multiple varieties of mint, lemon verbena, passion fruit and greek basil all grow unihinbited and happily!

Undoubtedly this idea was born from my first stroll around his flower beds and by doing so we developed a recipe that elevates the humble sponge cake into a slice of Paxos heaven with the herbs, oils and fruits of an Ionian garden front and centre. The cake is a lemon cake at its core, and for this vibrant waxy lemons are picked zested and juiced. Lemon Verbena or Louisa grows out of pots in my own garden and this unique herb joins the concerto of lemon bringing delicate and perfumed notes. Fresh rosemary that has flourished over the winter months is pruned and the resilient leaves finely  minced under a sharp kitchen knife. Peppery Paxos Olive Oil and fresh lemon juice add moisture and richness while a Greek Yoghurt mousse with the calming addition of fresh lavender adds complexity and sophistication.

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