Figs, Fava & Feta with Everything
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
A Culinary Postcard from Patmos
I grew up in a Grecophile household. My father’s interest in the classics didn’t end with his graduation. Instead, it continued to permeate his life, and shaped my education.
Each summer we'd go to southern Italy, where we’d visit the ancient sites – Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum – that were relics of Campania's past, first as a Greek colony and later as part of the Roman Empire. When you're six, scrambling over sun-scorched ruins is much more fun than trailing round galleries, so I used to enjoy these trips (until it came to the archeological museum – invariably dingy, occupied by dismembered statues and meaningless temple fragments). There was usually a cat to pester, and lunch eaten beneath a pergola, with grissini in paper sheaths and lemon sorbet scooped from a real lemon.
Come my early teens, my father planned a family trip to Greece: a greatest hits tour of the ancient civilisation I’d been reading about in the Classical Greek classes he gave me on Saturday mornings. (What eleven-year-old girl reads Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon? How could I have ever hoped to seem normal at school?)
That was my first experience of Greece, and it made a huge impression. In Athens we stayed in a hotel high on the Lycabettus – one of the seven hills on which the city is built – where I was introduced bewitching concepts such as room service and bathroom miniatures. I remember the electric thrum of the Plaka, the villagey district of cobbled streets packed with bars and restaurants. That summer we also visited ancient Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia, Sparta and the seaport town of Nafplio. We ate tangy yoghurt ribboned with golden honey, bubbling prawn saganaki with feta, smoky lamb souvlaki with tzatziki. I was hooked.
Greece has been a habit ever since. I’ve returned to the mainland and islands including Santorini, Hydra, Corfu, Zakynthos, Mykonos, Skopelos, Chios and Aegina. The great thing is the seemingly inexhaustible number; there’s always another to visit.
This summer, all plans and certainties upended by coronavirus, we took the risk of booking a holiday, remaining poised to cancel up to the last minute. As the date approached, we realised this year presented a rare opportunity to work remotely, for those to whom that silver lining is available. We flew to Rhodes at the end of August to spend ten days travelling around it, Symi and Patmos – where we found a deal on a seaside apartment. We’ve been here for a month, and leave this coming weekend.
We are, of course, incredibly fortunate to have the freedom that enabled us to spend five weeks in Greece. To date, Greece has reported only 17,444 COVID-19 cases and 379 deaths, with especially low infection rates in the Dodecanese Islands. During this time, we’ve eaten in many tavernas, sampled local delicacies such as Symi shrimp (small, sweet, eaten whole), and consumed more feta than I’d imagined possible. It really does crop up everywhere – with lamb? Yes! Shrimp and tomato? Why not? Pastry, nuts and honey? But of course!
One of the 147 Delphic maxims inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – attributed to the god Apollo, via his oracle priestess Pythia – was 'Meden Agan' (μηδὲν ἄγαν), meaning 'nothing in excess'. We've been trying to master the elusive art of moderation, lost entirely during lockdown – but keep tumbling into the over-ordering trap. It's hard not to, when food sounds so good. In restaurants, we've tended to gravitate towards fish – crisp calamari, otherwordly octopus – dishes that are trickier to make at home. But we’ve also rediscovered old favourites and found new ones, which we've adopted into everyday cooking:
Fava: a revelation. This puree of yellow split peas – confusingly, not fava beans – is simmered with onions, garlic and olive oil, then blended with lemon juice and herbs. Moreish, sustaining, surprisingly flavoursome, this is soul food for an autumn lunch.
Moussaka: when it’s good, it’s bloody good. The Greek classic varies with its maker, but we’ve sampled some memorable stand-outs. It’s a faff to make for two, but a dinner party winner, if you don’t mind dedicating half a day to advance preparation. Essentially, it’s an aromatic lasagne that trades aubergine and potato for pasta, and lamb for beef mince. I use an old Josceline Dimbleby recipe that generally goes down well – but really, anything that combines aubergine, tomato, minced lamb and béchamel has no excuse not to taste great.
Lamb stew (above): another rich meat dish, this involves slow-cooking pieces of lamb on the hob with onions, garlic, aubergine, peppers, chopped tomatoes, olives, a dash of wine, fresh rosemary and dried oregano. Add heat with fresh chilli and accentuate the tomato with a teaspoonful of honey. Serve with salad and…
Tzatziki. I’m addicted to taramasalata but too lily-livered to attempt it at home (and nurture a guilty penchant for supermarket versions, the creamier the better). But tzatziki is worth making yourself. Simply combine Greek yoghurt, garlic, grated/finely chopped cucumber, lemon juice/white wine vinegar and salt. I add finely chopped mint or dill, but that’s a matter of taste, and drizzle with olive oil to serve. Goes with almost anything.
Roast tomatoes: inspired by Anna Jones, this is a wonderful way of bringing out the best in tomatoes. Douse sliced tomatoes liberally with olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary and slithers of garlic, and slow-cook in the oven. When molten, scatter with cheese (feta, goat’s cheese, parmesan, whatever you’ve got) and serve with crusty bread for sopping up juices.
Fig and rosemary fro-yo: our breakfast of freshly picked figs with peaches and a dollop of yoghurt is a tough act to follow, but my most successful fig concoction has been ice-cream. Scoop out the insides of as many figs as you can lay your hands on, and stir them into olive oil over a low heat. Then add rosemary and honey to taste. Once the mixture is smooth and fragrant, fold in Greek yoghurt and pop it in the freezer for a healthy, totally natural dessert.
Mediterranean cooking is a strong influence for me – due to those formative childhood holidays, and a lazy propensity to roast vegetables and hope for the best. When in doubt, I add feta. Of course, it helps to have sun-ripe tomatoes bursting with flavour, and a fig tree so prolific that it's only now starting to show signs of persistent plundering. But with a little imagination and a lot of garlic, you can bring the sunshine into an autumnal London kitchen.