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.
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.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
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.