Saturday, September 4, 2010

The perfect Greek salad . . .

When I first lived in Greece, when I was in my early twenties, it took me a while to figure out how to shop for groceries. My first point of call, the local supermarkets, seemed to stock nothing but canned goods. Eventually exploration turned up the bi-weekly open-air market, as well as various grocers and butchers. My problems hadn’t ended, however, as rather than nice plastic bags of perfectly spherical tomatoes I was presented with piles of huge, knobbly, bruised, fly-infested, reddish-green balls. Imagine my surprise when they turned out to be delicious. Times have changed, and now supermarkets contain fresh, local products, but the ethos behind Greek food remains the same.

In fact this is the simple secret to good Greek food. The ingredients are local, and recently picked or slaughtered. Nothing is processed and nothing has travelled far to your plate. The measure of this is to compare a horiataki, the famous Greek salad, prepared in a tiny village taverna, to one made with M&S finest back in the UK.

There are as many versions of horiataki as there are villages in Greece, and endless arguments can take place over what should, or should not, go into one. I tend to think that they should be as simple as possible, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Here’s my version, taken form my Peloponnese guidebook:

Halve a clove of garlic and wipe a bowl with the fresh flesh and discard. If you have a cucumber with thick skin (common in Greece) then slice much of it off, but don’t be fussy. Slice in half lengthways, and then into quarters. Holding these together cut into slices. Cut two or three large, Greek, tomatoes into bite-size chunks any old how. One large red onion diced up. I like to crumble my feta over, but will not complain if you like yours in large slabs. The feta should be chosen with care from the large selection at any Greek supermarket. Sprinkle on a couple of handfuls of Kalamata olives. And that’s it for major ingredients -- no peppers, and certainly no lettuce.

Now the important part: the dressing. This is very scientific. Take a bottle of this year’s local olive oil and put your thumb so it covers about a third to a half of the opening. Then pour over the salad moving the bottle in three circles; not too fast, but not too slow either. Take a bottle of red wine vinegar and close off the top a little more this time. Do just one circle. Finally sprinkle on half a handful of dry oregano from the nearest mountains. Do not toss the salad, the flavours will mix on your plate. Eat with Greek bread baked that day.

I hope you enjoy it, but you’ll obviously have to go to Greece for it to really work! If you disagree with my version, or have any improvements, do comment below.

1 comment:

  1. I am loving this blog, it treats of all my favourite subjects!

    When I was in Kefalonia with my family, the horiatiki we ordered at every meal we ate brought out all our dysfunction. I don't eat raw onion (it hurts!) and I'm the only one who likes olives (wahey!), cucumber gives my Mum indigestion and my Dad doesn't like anything except the tomatoes, which gives him a (false!) sense of entitlement to the lion's share of them. Obviously we all love the tomatoes so as soon as the dish hits the table a fork-war ensues where we all try to scoop as much tomato onto our plates as possible, splashing oil everywhere... why don't we just ask for some extra?

    In Kefalonia the feta always came in a gigantic block, and was very firm and mature. I love feta in all its glorious variety, but I have to admit my favourite is the less pungent, moderately salty, delectably crumbly stuff, such as one finds at M&S! There's NO substitute for Greek bread though, and no matter how much I spend or where I go for olive oil, nothing beats the stuff one smuggles home in a two-litre plastic water bottle, unceremoniously donated by the local taverna in response to the polite enquiry "we love your oil; will you sell us some?"

    speaking of bread, I'm thinking of investing a bread-maker and wondered if you had anything at all to say on the matter...