[words & photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
“It’s sensible to invest in your diet. Choose to pay a little extra to your grocer for organic produce now and you’re less likely to have to pay doctors for expensive treatment later.”
Yiannis Apostolakis has a philosophy that has worked well for rural Greeks over centuries. “Times are changing,” says the celebrated Cretan chef, “but the old people know that healthy living country-style is the key to a long and energetic old age. My father is 98 and is a fine example of this.”
Maria Kokkinaki, who has accompanied us from the Mayor’s office in Chania city to watch the master-chef at work, agrees: her own father is 92 and her grandmother died just 2 years ago. She was 112 years old.
Greek cuisine has become famous the world over but few outsiders ever get to sample the unique winter diet that consists of a mind-boggling variety of fresh herbs that are collected from the mountain slopes. In the Middle Ages there were many common plants that were part of the British diet but have fallen into complete disuse. This is a whole food source that has been completely overlooked yet across other parts of Europe nettles, thistles and borage (starflower) are still eaten widely. “You don’t have to be nervous about nettles,” Yiannis reassures us. “Once you’ve picked them and washed them you can eat them safely. They don’t even need to be boiled or anything.”
Outside Yiannis’s kitchen at MAICh (Mediterranean Agricultural Institute of Chania) there’s a fascinating herb garden that supplied the ingredients for the traditional kalitsunya (stinging nettle pasties) that he’s about to cook for us.
1) Chop stinging nettle, fennel, spring onion, young garlic, borage and lemon balm finely – “There are no fixed rules for these ingredients. In the village the recipes would change according to whichever herbs are in season so feel free to use whatever fresh aromatic plants come to hand.”
2) Add spinach – “The spinach contains a lot of water so you should sprinkle with rock salts and massage it all together by hand until you can squeeze most of the dark green juice out. You can keep this juice and use it for making delicious pasta or to add to fruit juices.”
3) Add salt and pepper to taste plus a little olive oil – “A drizzle of olive oil is one of the finest things you can do to your cooking. It gives a wonderfully velvety flavor to anything. I use about 120 litres of olive oil a year for my family of four.”
4) Now, use luke warm water to make the pastry – “Add salt and a little strong spirit like raki (or vodka). I use tzikoudia, a local spirit made from grapes. The alcohol creates crisp bubbles in the pastry but if you don’t have the sort of alcohol, half a lemon works too.”
5) Leave the dough to rest for at least half an hour then roll out thinly (about 3mm) and cut out circles around a saucer.
6) Heap a pile of herbs into the middle of each circle. You can put quite a large heap because the herbs will shrink in the cooking. Then fold over into pasty shapes and pinch the edges together with a fork.
7) Finally, fry lightly in olive oil until the pastry starts to turn golden and until those deliciously crispy raki bubbles have swollen.
Serve on a bed of aromatic leaves –
“Why would you drain the oil off on bleached, chlorinated, processed paper when you can use fresh leaves?” the Cretan master-chef asks. “The youngest orange leaves are ideal. You can use anything aromatic that’s not poisonous (don’t use laurel) but I really love sprigs of myrtle. You can see how the leaves get lightly browned by the hot oil – and this is where they let the subtle fragrance loose. You can even serve chips like this.”