Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
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.
Galatsida, the bitter-tasing island dandelions, and porichia or vrouves, the shoots of wild mustard, are two more Kean favorites. From my grandfather I also learned to gather the shoots of vromohorto, wild mignonette. The Greek name means "stinky green," because the shoots of this elegant plant have a somewhat foul smell that disappears when they are blanched. Once, when I was still living in Athens, I picked lots of mignonette shoots that other people avoided from the stand of a gatherer at the weekly farmers' market. "Are you from Kea?" the vendor asked me, and thus I realized that this was another of our local favorites.
The fragrant cafkalithra, burnet, is now cultivated because it is an important ingredient in spinach or mixed green pies all over Greece. Romans call the herb pimpinella and use it to flavor their winter minestrone soup, and you will find bunches of it at the stands of Campo de Fiori market. Nettles, which in my garden invade everything, especially my precious and delicate chervil, need to be handled with gloves. But when blanched they become wonderfully sweet, much like sculpit (silene inflata), another invasive weed that enriches our salads of blanched greens. Italians call sculpit stridolo and love to add it raw to salads or use it in risotto, together with other herbs. Stamnagathi, the tender shoots of thorny wild chicory (Cichorium spinosum), was only eaten in Crete a few years ago. Now it is cultivated on the island and sold at selected delicatessen in Athens. It is probably the most expensive "wild" green!
Like most of my contemporaries, I learned from my grandfather and my mother how the various greens should be cooked and which ones should be combined in stews and pies. We usually blanch different kinds of horta together and eat them as a salad or side dish, simply dressed with fresh lemon juice and fruity olive oil. Because I gather lots of bitter dandelion from my garden, I add nettles and tender shoots of the sweet and fragrant mandilides—a wild chrysanthemum that grows abundantly in my garden. My grandfather didn't consider it edible, so I knew it only as a wild flower before I tasted the shoots in Crete for the first time.
Like many islanders, my grandfather used to drink the broth in which the greens were boiled, adding plenty of lemon juice, and every time I boil horta I put aside bottles of the broth in my refrigerator to warm up and enjoy all week. When I get tired of it I use it instead of water in my bread dough.
Scientists have now discovered that most of these wild plants contain precious antioxidants and other nutrients which promote good health. Antonia Trichopoulou, professor of public health at the University of Athens, has calculated the various nutrients in the seven or so different greens which are combined in the Cretan greens pie, and he found they fulfill all the daily requirements for vitamins, minerals, and trace elements.
But like my grandfather, I drink the wild greens' broth not as a health potion but because I love its taste!