Sunday, 24 March 2013

Greece Is The Word.

When I was 18 I fell in love with Greece. The people, the climate, the culture and of course the food. I was working as a Travel Agent and various girlfriends had dropped out of a girlie holiday. Some couldn’t afford it, others had fallen in lurve. So, being the independent, no fear kind of girl I am I booked to go on my own. A week in a small hotel in Corfu. I had a brilliant time and have travelled alone many times since. The nice lady at the tour operator had forewarned the local rep that I was travelling solo and she in turn had forewarned the other guests. The first night I came down to dinner a place had been saved for me at a table with six other guests, who all turned out to be wonderful, warm people.

I had a fabulous time making new friends and sampling all the delights the island had to offer. I developed a love of Greek food that has stayed with me ever since. However, I also formed a deep, abiding aversion to the devil’s own spirit that is Ouzo. Or any other drink that tastes of aniseed. I won’t go into the gory details, suffice to say that one day the bathroom floor and I became very well acquainted. I clung to it by my fingertips for hours whilst it spun and whirled like a white knuckle fairground ride.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to visit quite a few of the Greek Islands. The most recent being a trip to Crete last summer. We stayed at the wonderful Marni Village Aparthotel, in the delightfully picturesque village of
Koutouloufari, 5 minutes up the hill from the resort of Hersonissos.

Koutouloufari, is a traditional Greek village dating back to the Middle Ages, with winding narrow streets and lovely old Cretan houses. The atmosphere is very laid back with smart bars and a good variety of restaurants. Wherever we ate or drank the welcome was always extremely warm and we were always remembered if we went back another night. In one restaurant we were given a glass of the most exquisite rose flavoured liqueur, which my daughter and I enthused over. We went back on our last night and the owner gave us a bottle to take home. It is amazing poured over vanilla ice cream and in cocktails.

The sad thing is, Greece is in trouble financially and everywhere we went the worry of the crisis was etched on the normally insouciant faces of the locals. Prices have rocketed and at present it isn’t the ’cheap’ destination it once was. However, there are ways to get value for money on your Greek holiday. In the past, we have often booked tours to places of interest through our tour operator. This time we took the local bus, paid next to nothing compared to the organised tours and had twice the fun. We went to Knossos, the ruined Minoan palace and temple, stopping off in Heraklion on the way back for a leisurely lunch and a mooch round the museum.

Interior at Knossos

A few years previously, I had read a fascinating book by Victoria Hislop called The Island, which charts the history of Spinalonga, also know as “The Island of Tears.’ A former Venetian fortress, it became infamous as Greece’s leper colony until the late 1950’s. The book was a very poignant love story painted against the background of an outcast community living under the shadow of a disease death sentence. We took a bus to the resort of Elounda and then one of the many tourist ferries across to the island. As you approach the landing jetty the impenetrable stone wall of the fortress rises above you and you can hardly fail to notice the huge mirrored cross attached to it. Above that, atop the ramparts of a tower, is a gangplank and seemingly about to step off, hovering tens of feet above the quay is a figure of an armless woman. A leper. These installations are part of an exhibition called “You, the last leper.’ As you wander the peaceful, sun baked lanes you catch sight of yourself in strategically placed mirrors, that give you an unnerving impression of inhabiting the island in another time. Lines of black flags flap in the offshore breeze further lending to the air of desolation and despair. The experience was mesmerising and gives the visitor a greater appreciation of how it must have felt to be exiled to Spinalonga.

The cross at Spinalonga

Back at home I like to make Greek dishes, particularly in the summer when I can barbecue the meat. I make Tzatziki, Houmous and big Greek salads to accompany the mains. In the winter I griddle the meat to give that lovely depth of flavour that grilling or roasting can‘t.

This week I made Pork Souvlaki using a recipe from the indomitable Jamie Oliver.

Pork Souvlaki - Serves 4

800 g leg of pork, shin if you can get it, cut into 2cm chunks
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 tablespoon dried oregano
juice of 1 lemon
100 ml good-quality olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch sea salt
3 sweet pointed peppers
8 flatbreads, to serve
4 sprigs fresh mint, leaves picked
1 small bunch fresh dill, chopped (stalks and all)
red wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, to serve


If using wooden skewers, cut 8 to fit your griddle pan and soak them in a tray of water to stop them burning. Put all your kebab ingredients into a bowl and use your clean hands to mix everything together really well. Cover with clingfilm, then pop into the fridge for 30 minutes, or longer if you want the flavours to get a bit more intense.

Meanwhile, blacken the peppers directly over the flame of your hob, in a hot dry griddle pan or under a hot grill. Turn them every so often and when they look almost ruined, pop them into a bowl, cover with clingfilm and put to one side to steam for 5 minutes or so – this will help their skins to come off.

Preheat a griddle pan or grill on a high heat. Thread the skewers through the marinated pork pieces, leaving little spaces between them so that the heat cooks everything evenly. Cook the kebabs on the screaming hot griddle or grill for about 8 to 10 minutes, turning occasionally until done on all sides. Warm your flatbreads in the oven or in a hot dry pan while your kebabs are cooking.

Just before your kebabs are ready, peel and deseed your blackened peppers, then tear them into strips and put them into a bowl. Roll up your mint leaves, finely slice them and add to the bowl along with the dill. Add a few splashes of red wine vinegar, a pinch or two of salt and pepper and a lug of extra virgin olive oil. Toss and mix together, then have a taste to check the balance of flavours. Cut your lemon into wedges.

Put a dollop of tzatziki and the meat from one skewer on each warmed flatbread. Top with some of your pepper mixture, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a good squeeze of lemon juice.

The finished Souvlaki

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