HORTA revisited

For centuries, poor Greeks used foraged leafy greens to complement their frugal menu of bread, cheese, olives, and olive oil. Today chefs in upscale restaurants –much like the famous René Redzepi, of Noma– serve them in all kinds of imaginative dishes!

Aginaroula (wild artichoke), alivarvara, karyda, skaloukares are a few of the names used in various parts of Greece for this much sought-after succulent green. Centaurea raphanica is the botanical name, and the plant is part of the extended centaurea family. This time of the year one finds bunches of this curled up horta in farmer’s markets. As the lacy leaves grow on the ground it needs soaking and thorough washing to make sure all dirt and sand is removed.

In Crete the tender leaves are often eaten raw, together with other wild and cultivated greens and herbs in a salad dressed with fruity olive oil and home-made vinegar, that is not too aggressive. In Syros island the whole plant is pickled in a vinegary brine, and served as meze with ouzo.

It is also cooked and served as main course, much like other seasonal vegetables: braised with scallions or shallots, often with new potatoes, and finished with plenty of lemon juice and chopped wild fennel. The dish is called yahnerá in Crete, and it is usually prepared with a combination of wild greens for a balanced sweet, tart, and bitter taste.

It is difficult to describe the texture and complex flavor of aginaroula, which in part shares artichoke’s sweet aftertaste; although I tried for years, I haven’t been able to find a decent substitute. Askolymbri, the crunchy roots and shoots of the common golden thistle (Scolymus hispanicus,  or Spanish oyster thistle) has a similar flavor, but I guess this is an equally exotic plant for people outside Greece. Chef Yiannis Tsivourakis from Crete had brought askolymbri in his bags and served it braised with lamb and finished with an airy avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce) during the 2011 Worlds of Flavor Conference at Greystone, in Napa.

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 nowzochos, 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. Today chefs in upscale restaurants –much like the famous René Redzepi, of Noma— serve them in all kinds of imaginative dishes…

Read more HERE.

See the Recipe: Braised Greens and Potatoes with Lemon and Fennel (Yahnera)

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