From ancient to modern Greek
"Although at first sight you might think there is not much imagination in Greek cooking, after a while you begin to realise that the Greeks have come to terms with their essential materials and made a fine adjustment with what they have." Robin Howe - Greek Cooking
I confess I am one of those who tends to think, that, delicious though it can sometimes be, Greek food is indeed not very imaginative and is somehow a bit boring. So when I told David it was 'special meal' day and when he chose ancient Greek as the theme I was marginally disappointed.
He chose ancient Greek because I have just 'done' my book for my local book group and it was a retelling of the myths surrounding the mythical character Circe, which was the title of the book. David had read it previously and loved it, as did I. So ancient Greek was on his mind.
After a fair bit of research through my cookbooks and online the recipe I have chosen for my main dish is from SBS and a lady called Diane Kochilas and is for Pork exohiko, which I think means rustic pork. It looks pretty nice don't you think? It will be served with Nigel Slater's Classic Greek salad, some beans and some wraps. If I've got enough tomatoes left over from the salad I'll cook the beans with them, which the Greeks seem to do.
I arrived at this decision via a fairly circuitous process, beginning with checking out ancient Greek food. Ancient Greece is credited with the first cookbook, and the first to make use of the olive. I think they also lay claim to pastry, and wine, but I believe that recently that accolade has been given to Georgia. They apparently loved their food which was based on the holy trinity of cereals, olive oil and legumes which bolstered the wide variety of fruit and vegetables. They had no sugar but had honey. They also did not have lemons, tomatoes or potatoes, which are somewhat crucial in the modern Greek diet. I mean Greek food without lemons is unimaginable today. They ate a whole lot more fish than meat and when they rarely did eat meat it would probably have been pork.
There is also a whole lot of dispute between the Greeks and the Turks about who invented what dish - well their foods are virtually indistinguishable really, which Robin Howe - the writer of my only book on Greek food explained this way:
"what has actually happened is that the people of this region have become so intermingled as the results of succeeding conquests over the centuries that it is difficult to sort out the various national dishes." Robin Howe - Greek Cooking
I know we think lamb when we think Greek food, and lamb is a favourite of my husband. for not only do I have to consider what the ancient Greeks ate I also have to consider what my husband likes - as according to the 2nd century BC writer Atheneum says:
"Know then the cook, a dinner that's bespoke
Aspiring to prepare, with prescient zeal,
Should know the tastes and humours of the guests"
Atheneum - Banquet of the Learned
It is David's 'special meal' after all. I know the tastes and humours of my guest very well, so fish was out. He is not a great lover of fish. Other than salmon and trout that is, which are not really the fish that the Greeks eat anyway.
So I checked out a lot of lamb recipes from Pastitsio which is a kind of lamb lasagne with macaroni to roast lamb. I did find a tempting stew from Jamie which he called lamb lagoto, various versions of lamb kleftiko, (the most tempting of which looked to be Rick Stein's) which is a kind of variation on my chosen dish, and, of course various skewered lamb dishes, not to mention moussaka. I didn't even look at slow-cooked roast lamb, although some versions of the kleftiko method were slow-cooked. It actually probably requires a post of its own because there were heaps of different versions. Oh and did I mention meatballs? Lots of them but meatballs are just meatballs aren't they? George Calombaris's looked very tempting, but too much as an appetiser and not enough as a main dish. They were finger food for parties really.
I think I decided against both the lagoto and the kleftiko because they both heavily featured tomatoes and potatoes, neither of which would have been available to the ancient Greeks. And besides potatoes are not a favourite of David's.
I discarded Thomasina Mier's Pork tenderloin braised with oregano peas because it also featured potatoes - plain boiled ones and (a) David is not keen on potatoes generally, and boiled ones in particular, and (b) there would have been no potatoes back then. Pity - it looked really nice. Indeed it was my second choice.
So pork, cubed and marinaded and cooked in paper parcels with vegetables, herbs and cheese is what it's going to be. I think everything except the lemons would have been available to the Greeks. I would have substituted lamb for the pork, but I just didn't have anything suitable in the freezer, and Coles was surprisingly short on lamb other than a whole leg. So, although I am slightly nervous because pork is not a huge favourite of David's, I am counting on the recipe to win him over. I have also had to cheat a bit by substituting fennel (pretty expensive) for celery, of which there was none in the supermarket or my fridge, and grana padano for the Kefalotyri cheese which is supposed to be the cheese to use. Pecorino seems to be the favourite substitute, and Grana Padano is close, although I probably would have found some Kefalotyri in the supermarket. I forgot about it.
The Greek salad is also not that ancient as its main thing is tomatoes - but never mind - you've got to have Greek salad don't you? I think I'll add a little bit of rocket and spinach to the mix though.
And whilst I was looking I saw this super looking orange dessert from a Greek lady called Diane Kochilas. Actually the same lady who has devised my main dish. She just calls it Messy Orange Pie. I think it's more of an interpretation of a Greek approach to food rather than an authentic Greek recipe. After all she has a Greek sounding name, and so she has probably just stuck to Greek ingredients and Greek ways of cooking and come up with something modern. Well it's appropriate to end on a modern note is it not? After all Melbourne was once the third, maybe even second, largest Greek city in the world and it still has a thriving Greek restaurant scene. There are a few near here. We even have a massive Greek Orthodox church just over the river. They do tend to stick to the tried and true though - moussaka, souvlaki, dolmades, taramasalata, baklava and the rest. People like George Calombaris take it a notch higher, but I don't know how many of them there are. But still I guess these simple foods are comfort food to all of those Greeks. After all my comfort food consists of things like Cornish pasties, Lancashire hot pot, Roast beef and Fishcakes and I doubt that many would describe these as gourmet food.
Oh I forgot to mention the filo pastries I shall concoct with feta and kale and mint from the garden as a starter. We all know how to do those don't we? How times have changed.
I haven't "made fine adjustments with what I have" though. I did have to go to the supermarket to get some of the ingredients. So I cheated there too.
I think I might try Jamie's lagoto and the pork with peas sometime soon though. And I will look further into the hundreds of different ways of cooking lamb in paper parcels.