Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
To view images of Greece's abundant wild greens, ranging from sea lavender to mignonette, click here for a slide show. To try two recipes featuring greens, click here for a spicy mixed greens stew, and here for a braised meat dish with greens and egg-and-lemon sauce.
Describing Kea's winter produce in my previous post, I left out the most important of all delicacies: horta, wild leafy greens. Greeks started to forage for horta because they had little else to eat. We continue to gather and eat them today because we love them!
In the glove compartment of our car we keep an overused, slightly rusted, wood-handled Opinel knife. It is there because we never know if and when we will spot some gorgeous edible greens during our rides around the island. In the rainy winter months, and as late as early spring, before they blossom, there are plenty of tender wild leafy greens in the hills and mountains that surround the villages and the big cities. Middle-aged women and men gather them on special excursions. Armed with a knife and a plastic bag or a basket, the horta-gatherers can be spotted from a distance on steep hills, but also next to busy highways. A friend once told me he has seen Greek-Americans gather greens on a sidewalk in New Jersey. These days, though, most city people buy horta from the weekly farmers' markets, where they have become quite expensive, a real delicacy.
I must have been 10 years old when my Kean grandfather taught me which greens are healthy and which are foul-tasting or poisonous.
The greens we consume today are probably the same we encounter in the texts of Theophrastus and other classical authors: The ancient ascolymvros has become scolymos, caucalis is cafkalithra, and sonchus is now zochos, one of the most loved horta in the entire country. Ancient Greeks particularly admired the sweet succulent sonchus, thinking its milky sap indicated that this was a particularly nourishing green. As the names and uses of these plants have never been part of any school curriculum, we can safely conclude that our knowledge has passed orally from each generation to the next, starting in the very early times. I must have been 10 years old when my Kean grandfather taught me which greens are healthy and which are foul-tasting or poisonous. Horta can taste sweet, tart, or bitter, and some are wonderfully aromatic. For centuries, poor Greeks used these wild plants to complement their frugal menu of bread, cheese, olives, and olive oil.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
Most of the plants in the accompanying slide show grow all over the country, but each region has some favorites: greens that are dismissed or even considered "bad" in another parts of Greece. The most confusing thing for me is that some of these plants have more than one name, even in neighboring islands or villages. The most exotic of the greens favored in Kea and other Cycladic islands is provatsa, sea lavender. All over the world people grow it as an ornamental plant, because its blue-and-white papery flowers keep their shape and color even when completely dry. Here, early in winter, women search the most arid parts of the island to find the lush fresh provatsa leaves. They love its tangy flavor, and braise it with pork, finishing the dish with avgolemono—egg and lemon sauce.