HORTA, the Edible Wild Greens

We keep an overused, slightly rusted, wood-handled Opinel knife in the glove compartment of our car. It is there because we never know if and when we will spot some gorgeous edible greens during our rides around the island. Greeks probably foraged for horta —wild leafy greens— because they had little else to eat. We continue to gather and eat them today because we love them.

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During the rainy winter months, and as late as early spring, there are plenty of wild 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 a steep hill, but also next to a busy highway. A friend once told me that 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’s markets; and they have become quite expensive, a real delicacy.

Most of the plants in the slide show grow all over the country, but there are some that are only eaten on the islands. The majority of the pictures are from Kea, and most of the greens grow in my garden.

The greens we consume today are probably the same we encounter in the texts of Theophrastus and other ancient authors: The ancient ascolymvros has become scolymos, Sonchus is now zochos, caucalis is cafkalithraetc. As these plants–their names and uses—have never been part of any school curriculum, we can safely conclude that our knowledge of them has passed orally from one generation to the next, starting in the very early times. I must have been ten years old when my Kean grandfather taught me which greens are healthy and which are foul-tasting or poisonous, while most of my friends learned it from their mothers. Horta can taste sweet, tart, or bitter, and some are wonderfully aromatic. Apart from the greens collected from the hills and mountains, there are also some, like purslane, that grow as weeds among the cultivated crops. For centuries, poor Greeks used these wild plants to complement their frugal menu of bread, cheese, olives, and olive oil.

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We learned from our mothers 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. Like many islanders, my grandfather used to drink the broth in which the greens were boiled, adding plenty of lemon juice to it. Scientists have now discovered that most of these wild plants contain 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 different greens which are cooked in the Cretan greens pie and found that they fulfill all the daily requirements for vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Like my grandfather, I drink this wild greens broth not as a health potion, but because I love its taste. Every time I boil greens, I put aside bottles of it in my refrigerator to enjoy during the following days.

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We harvest the greens by cutting only the top of the root at the base of the leaves. We don’t uproot the plant. These wild greens have incredibly long, hard roots, which go very deep into the soil in order to find moisture. If properly picked, the plants grow again next year.

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