Cooking and Loving Bitter Herbs

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

"I wonder if you Greeks eat also the stuff that comes out of your ears..." exclaimed chef Rick Moonen, having just spit out a piece of pickled volvos--wild hyacinth bulb (lampascioni in Italian). A dozen years ago I was asked to initiate Rick--then chef of Oceana--and Jim Botsacos into authentic Greek taste and home-cooking when the Livanos family was preparing to launch Molyvos in Manhattan.

Rick is one of the most talented chefs I know, and a really adventurous eater, but bitter seemed to be a taste he wouldn't tolerate. He is not alone. Many Americans and Europeans have an almost violent, and certainly visceral reaction toward bitter foods. On the other hand, Jim Botsacos--chef and partner of Molyvos, whose grandfather came from Mani, the southernmost part of the Greek mainland, and whose mother is from southern Italy--had no problem with the bitter, crunchy bulb. Later, he even decided to include it in his book, New Greek Cuisine.

In the old days bitterness was considered harmful, but today scientists insist the compounds that give bitter taste to some vegetables are good for our health.

Maybe we Greeks, together with the inhabitants of southern Italy, and especially Puglia (Puglia, at the heel of the Italian "boot," still with towns like Calimera and Gallipoli, is a testament to the roots laid down in the times of Magna Graecia), are somehow genetically conditioned to crave bitter tastes: besides wild hyacinth bulbs, we also love red-stemmed chicory, probably the most bitter of the bitter greens, and fresh cracked green olives that have just become edible, after a very brief curing.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Healthy 'Poison'

Although in the old days bitterness was associated with something poisonous and harmful, today scientists insist that the compounds that give bitter taste to some vegetables are in fact beneficial to our own health. Galatsides, another strain of the extended bitter chicory family, are among the most popular winter greens foraged on Kea. Early in the spring, locals search the gardens and hills for porichia, the shoots of a wild mustard green. Rare and delicious, with only a slight bitter taste, porichia are blanched and served as salad, dressed with fruity olive oil and lemon. From my Kean grandfather I learned to drink the cooking water where the various wild greens are boiled. Ari's potlikker reminded me of this deliciously bitter broth, which I keep in bottles in the fridge and drink warm or cold with a fair amount of lemon juice.

Although we enjoy savory, bitter foods, this does not mean that Greeks like dark chocolate and plain black coffee. I have found that here, more than in other countries, men and women prefer milk chocolate, add a fair amount of sugar to their coffee, and crave Greek sweets: the syrup-drenched baklava or galatoboureko (custard pie), and even the Western-inspired cakes contain much more sugar than you would expect.

Ancient Aphrodisiac

Volvoi (plural of volvos) are usually gathered from the wild and were much praised by ancient Greeks, who believed them aphrodisiacs. In ancient texts I came across a description of a lentil soup complimented with wild hyacinth bulbs, and I prepared it. I find it a truly wonderful combination, as the sweet and mushy lentils are balanced perfectly by the crunchy and bitter volvoi.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

During the spring one can buy freshly uprooted tiny bulbs at the farmer's markets in Athens, although very few people nowadays decide to blanch, peel, cook, and pickle them at home. They are available in jars in supermarkets, as they are traditionally part of the vegetarian Lenten table. Throughout the year they are served as mezze with our strong, yet somewhat sweet drinks: tsipouro, ouzo, or raki.

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Aglaia Kremezi writes about food in Greek, European, and American magazines, publishes books about Mediterranean cooking in the U.S. and Greece, and teaches cooking classes. More

Aglaia Kremezi has changed her life and her profession many times over. She currently writes about food in Greek, European and American magazines, publishes books about Greek and Mediterranean cooking in the US and in Greece, and teaches cooking to small groups of travelers who visit Kea. Before that she was a journalist and editor, writing about everything, except politics. She has been the editor in chief and the creator of news, women's, and life-style magazines, her last disastrous venture being a "TV guide for thinking people," a contradiction in terms, at least in her country. She studied art, graphic design, and photography at the Polytechnic of Central London. For five years she taught photography to graphic designers while freelancing as a news and fashion photographer for Athenian magazines and newspapers. Editors liked her extended captions more than the pieces the journalists submitted for the events she took pictures for, so she was encouraged to do her own stories, gradually becoming a full time journalist and editor. You can visit her website at

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