Many, many moons ago – it almost seems another life ago – I arrived on Corfu (pre-mobile phone!!! that’s how long ago) as a rookie holiday rep, totally unprepared for the summer ahead. I still have no idea how I got through the interview stage but somehow I did. I survived that summer (one day I will write a memoir on those halcyon days) and the next five or six summers and so began a love affair with all things Greek.
My first summer was a train wreck! I was very young, naive and ready for anything – and so I ate and drank – EVERYTHING – to excess! (And made very dubious boyfriend choices) We ate very poorly, late at night with loads of bread, followed by a night on the tiles drinking until the sun came up. Needless to say by July we all looked bloated, puffy and about 10 years older!
It was towards the end of that summer that I decided that I might try to be a vegetarian. Due to regular power cuts on the island I had succumbed a couple of times to violent bouts of gastroenteritis (meat unable to be refrigerated and then cooked – yum!)
Due to my poor understanding of Greek cuisine back then and working in a tourist resort (with the Greeks catering to our bland British palettes) I had very few options; Greek Salad, omelette, pizza or bread and cheese – or so I thought. Slowly but surely I started to understand a bit of Greek and the locals were wonderful and were always offering us ‘real food’ from their homes for us to try – it was completely alien to us but always really tasty. By the second summer I went back a different person, about 2 stone lighter and a fully fledged vegetarian.
The Greeks that I worked closely with were for the most part so patient now I look back and always willing to explain things and invite us into their homes. Most of the coach drivers on the other hand would teach us filthy cuss words and pretend we they were teaching us something very polite!
As my years in Greece increased so did my language skills and knowledge of the wonders of Greek vegetarian food – spanakopita, Horta, gemista, fakes, fasolia, Dolmades, baked feta, fava, tiropita, briam and the list goes on. Considering the lifestyle I led in those early years it’s a wonder I don’t look a 100 years old! But I am very fortunate that my love of vegetables, fruits and salads have worked wonders for the aging process. Eventually, if you have any sense you tire of the constant drinking and partying and start to enjoy waking up early on a beautiful island without a hangover!
I have much to thank the Greeks for and their beautiful homeland – I learnt that simplicity is key – sometimes I still can’t believe when I make a dish with so few ingredients it can be so sweet and tasty. You can never recreate exactly the same taste in the UK – those sun drenched Mediterranean tomatoes are almost a dish on their own and the first thing I buy when I land on Greek soil. Greek cuisine has been a Godsend for me, contrary to what I initially thought, Greek cooking is overflowing with vegetarian and vegan recipes.
Due to meat being a luxury through many hard years and religious observation, the Greeks have lived off the land and become masters of producing tasty, economical, healthy meals that sustained them when meat was a luxury. Greek kitchens use what is seasonal and some of the older Greek women that I have met had a herb or potion for just about anything! Fresh chamomile tea was always used when any one had a cold. Dried herbs would be boiled up when there was a stomach upset – and they all worked!
I have been fortunate enough to visit a lot of Greek islands and each one has its own unique recipes or twists on different recipes. One of the most exquisite things I ever tasted was in Crete – Malia old town to be exact and it was stuffed courgette flowers – λουλουδάκια γεμιστά. Completely vegan and so delicious – testament to the Greek talent for maximising on flavour and using everything that’s in season. Horta was another absolute favourite – and my goodness my skin was glowing after a week on this stuff!!! Just boiled wild greens, generously drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice and served at room temperature- save your money on expensive face creams and just eat this!
Cyprus and Greece have pretty good life expectancies – and the island of Ikaria in Greece is included in the 5 blue zones of the world, where its inhabitants live 10-15 years longer than elsewhere in the world – but that’s another blog!! Just because we don’t live off the land or in sun drenched Greece doesn’t mean that we can’t live long and strong – if you change your mindset and food set now – you could just be adding a good number of healthy years to your life. The recipes I provide will not break the bank or your cooking skills! It’s time to invest in yourself and your life.
I have managed to find sources in London for lots of great ingredients, thanks to the Cypriot population in North London and the fact that so many Greeks are now living and working here. I have adapted recipes for my family and hopefully will be able to share them with you – as I build the recipe base you will definitely see the Mediterranean theme coming through. So many of the ingredients have anti-ageing and anti-oxidant properties – the ancient Greeks knew a thing or two and strict vegetarianism was widespread and went hand in hand with healthy spirituality. Greek Orthodoxy also has extended periods of abstinence from meat.
So, next time you are in Greece – no more omelettes! It’s one of the best countries to be a vegetarian or vegan!