Wild Fennel: Greece’s Mythic Ingredient

An earlier version of this piece appeared in  The Atlantic website.

 

Wild fennel: Greeks call it maratho; Italians refer to it as finocchio selvatico; and it grows all over the Greek islands and the mainland. Marathon, the area south of Athens where in 490 BC Greeks won the famous, decisive battle against the invading Persian army, probably acquired its name because of its abundant fennel fields. A young soldier, Pheidippides, ran the 42 kilometers from Marathon to Athens to announce the triumphant victory, thus inspiring the eponymous run.

 

The 19th-century British poet Robert Browning tapped the myth and, of course, its fennel fields, in his ode to the young runner: “Fight I shall, with our foremost, wherever this fennel may grow,” Pheidippides proclaimed. Little did he know the run from Marathon to Athens would be his last, as “Like wine thro’ clay, / Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died, the bliss!” Wild fennel is mostly used as an herb to add aroma to all sorts of vegetable, meat, and fish dishes, and it is essential in marathopites–the small, phylo-wrapped turnovers made in Crete. (more…)

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A fig’s ‘decisive moment’

Despite the fact that we have old, semi-wild fig trees in our garden, it does not guarantee that we will savor wonderfully ripe fruit come August. We need to be on the alert, prudently waiting for the ‘decisive moment’ when the fig bows ever so slightly, where its stem bends from the bough of the bole.

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Only then, and not before, is the tree ready to give its blossom over to the harvest. If you mistime the picking , even by half a day, the blazing August sun starts to dry-out the fruit’s succulent interior. In our stony and arid island, it is almost a miracle that these contorted, frail looking trees, with trunks infested by colonies of ant, manage to give such small, sweet, delectable fruits. Harvesting figs before the stem-curve moment results in unripe produce, good for the grill or salads, but certainly bearing no resemblance to the honey-sweet, wonderfully juicy taste we adore, the figs we long for the rest of the year.

(more…)

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Mastic Became the Talk of the World!

“We discover references to mastic in such diverse places as the logbooks of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, and in the account and recipe books of the Sultans of Topkapi and the Seraglio.  We read in the history books that the allure of mastic drew emperors, monarchs, and princes into battles for control of the mastic lands and villages of Chios,” wrote the late Dun Gifford in his introduction to the 1999 Oldways Symposium about the “Healthy Mediterranean Diets and Traditions of Chios and Lesbos islands.”

Last week, some twenty years later, mastic became the talk of the world!

 

“Over my 54 years, I’ve pinned my hopes on my parents, my teachers, my romantic partners, God.

I’m pinning them now on a shrub.

It’s called mastic, it grows in particular abundance on the Greek island of Chios and its resin — the goo exuded when its bark is gashed — has been reputed for millenniums to have powerful curative properties,” wrote Frank Bruni in the New York Times. (more…)

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Mastic Ice Cream

The Greek equivalent of vanilla ice cream, this is uniquely flavored, scented with mastic—the crystallized sap of the wild pistachio shrub (Pistachia lentiscus), which grows only on the southern part of Chios island. Exported to the Arab countries and the Middle East, mastic was the ancient chewing gum: hence the verb “masticate.” To this day, it is still chewed to clean and sweeten the breath, while the ground crystals add their elusive licorice-pine-like aroma to many Greek breads and cookies.

Photo by Anders.

 

The recipe for this ice cream is a variation from the ice cream created by chef Jim Botsacos. You can serve it topped with sour cherry preserves, as is the custom in Greece, or simply sprinkled with pistachios.  It goes well with baked apples and quince, with the Olive-oil-yogurt Cake, and with the lemony Pandespani cake.

I still remember the wonderful ice creams we used to make in the summers, when I was a child, using a rented hand-cranked machine, to which we added ice and coarse salt. In those days, the cream was thickened not with eggs but with salep, a potent starch produced by pounding the dried tuber of a wild orchid. Ice creams thickened with salep form strands as you dip into them. Today, such wonderful egg-less ice creams seem to be an acquired taste and one can mostly taste them in Turkey.

 

Makes 1 quart     (more…)

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Tomato-and-cheese-topped Lagana (Flat Bread)

We make this bread all the time, especially when we have guests. The dough is the one I use for my everyday breads, sometimes adding yogurt if I have leftover that is going too sour or any kind of mashed vegetables or greens. In the summer I use a tomato-onion-olive oil mixture, the leftovers from our daily tomato salad, pulsed in the blender, to make my Tomato Salad Bread which can also be topped with cheese and tomato slices.  Tomato Bread S

See also the Smoked Cheese and Kumquat Bread which is basically the winter version of my topped breads. For a more spicy-aromatic topping spread Zaatar mixed with olive oil over the tomatoes.

 

Yields 2 laganes (focaccia-like flat breads), each serving 6-8 people as appetizer

 

(more…)

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