Sally Webb’s week of Greek gastronomy…
This year’s summer escape took me to the beautiful island of Skiathos. I was expecting the stunning seascapes, the warm crystal-clear water and the seemingly endless hours of sunshine; the fantastic restaurants of Skiathos Town were something of an unexpected treat. During our first morning on the island, amid idle poolside chatter with other Brits abroad, the conversation, not unusually for me, turned to food. And so it continued for the remainder of the holiday. Everybody, but everybody was talking restaurants.
Recommendations ranged from the place with stunning views, simple fresh fish dishes and perfect moussaka, to the cobbled-street-side 1901 with its modern Greek menu – the halloumi wrapped in filo and baked in honey with a smattering of sesame seeds was particularly good. Overlooking the island’s capital, The Windmill served up sensational panoramic vistas and local bream – and what a good job they did, too. We tried them all, and went back for seconds.
But now I’m home, I’m having withdrawal symptoms. Where’s my chicken souvlaki? My tzaziki? It seems I have one option: get Greek in the kitchen.
Olives, courgettes, aubergines, peppers, ruby-red tomatoes, fish, slow-cooked lamb, nuts, honey, wonderful cheese and glorious yoghurt – the basics of Greek cuisine are simple, but how would I fare in the kitchen?
I challenged myself with that classic of Greek cuisine – moussaka. I checked out a number of recipes, including great ones from BBC Good Food, Delicious Magazine and Nigella, and then went a little off-piste, consulting my mum – who makes a mean moussaka – along the way.
I was cooking for six, so my biggest baking dish was called into action. I chopped a lot of onion and a mahoosive clove of garlic (donated my next-door neighbour – he’s been growing it). That all went straight into some lovely olive oil with plenty of oregano. Then, in went the lamb (about 800g) and some cinnamon. I let that sizzle awhile, breaking up the lamb and crumbling in a stock cube as I went.
In the meantime, I sliced two aubergines and laid them out on kitchen roll. A liberal sprinkling of salt and a top layer of kitchen roll and they sweated away, without the need of a frying pan. Peeling and slicing potatoes was up next – not sure how many, I just kept going; then about eight beef tomatoes got the slicing treatment too, spurting seeds on my clean white top as they went. Really must wear an apron.
At this point, I thought I was pretty much there. Well that was easy! Not so. I’d forgotten the sauce. For this, I went with my mum’s method. Butter melted, roux made – so far, so good. Adding the milk, I soon realised there wasn’t enough roux, but kept going anyway, seasoning enthusiastically. I broke two eggs into the mixture and was relieved to see it start to thicken again – but not quite enough.
So then, it was the layering; again, going with my mum’s way of making it, which is kind of upside down. Potatoes on the bottom of the dish (greased), so that they cook through. Then the minced lamb, topped with the tomatoes, followed by the rather runny sauce; then the aubergines, so that they crisp up in the oven (I like them that way). I then baked it (covered with foil) for an hour (at about 180), left it to cool down and then put it in the fridge overnight – my dinner party was to be the following evening. All that was left to do the next day was pop it back in the oven for another hour with a dusting of grated cheese on top. Served with Greek salad, crusty bread and plenty of wine, I have to say it was quite a hit – although, not at all authentic.
If all that seems too much like hard work – although totally worth it – you can recapture those balmy summer nights by checking out your local taverna, right here in the UK. Here are a few suggestions:
Entelia is a smart, sophisticated and stylish venue offering some of the best Greek cuisine this side of Skiathos. My beloved moussaka is on the menu, alongside a whole host of other classics including lamb souvlaki and a generously portioned meze to share.
Meze Kitchen, Balham
This lovely little traditional taverna will transport you from the streets of Balham to sunny Greece in no time – at least for an evening. Family run, with a dedication to offering quality and value for money, Meze Kitchen is the place to come for those looking to revive the Greek-holiday vibe (like myself).
Parthenon Taverna, Manchester
Heywood is a somewhat unexpected location to find an authentic taste of Greece, but that’s exactly what you’ll discover at Parthenon Taverna. The freshest ingredients are used to cook up delicious traditional Greek treats such as spanakopita, stifado and kleftico, plus a wide range of first-rate steaks, seafood and vegetarian dishes. This is one not to miss.
Elysée, located in fashionable Fitzrovia, has been open since 1936 and is still run by the same family. Its chic ambience makes it a popular choice for special occasions and intimate meals; anyone you bring here is sure to be impressed by the smart furnishings and even better food. You might even catch some live music, Greek singing and dancing and traditional plate smashing.
If your local Greek restaurant knows its calamari from its kleftiko, tell us all about it.