Friday, 7 March 2008

Scrambled eggs with wild greens fried potato (Καψανθούς με αυγά)

7am Wake the children, breakfast (milk and cereal), dress them in carnival costumes for the school party. I haven't decided what to cook today. I wish somebody else could decide for me. The morning sky is grey; it looks like it will rain.

8am Before taking them to school, I ask Margaret if they need anything. "We're out of potatoes and carrots," she reports. "Again?" I ask. All they seem to be cooking down there is potatoes and carrots. And I seem to be in the supermarket almost daily. Before my mother-in-law broke her leg, I'd do a weekly shop, and that was it. Now, it's three bananas one day, a packet of sugar the next, and a bread bun the day after. They have no idea about making lists, and why should they? It all gets delivered straight to their door. I leave the house as a light breeze starts up.

8.30am Take children to school for their respective parties. No need to bring a morning snack, the teacher informed us from the day before. The school's parents' association will be providing junk food (they may as well have written that in the notice under "cheese-and-ham pastries", "cake" and "sweet biscuits"; whatever happened to the Cretan diet?). The sun's peeping out now; maybe it won't rain.

8.40am Aris meets up with Row, whose brother goes to Christine's school. "Can I go to school with you? I'll be your chaperone." Chivalry at such a young age! The other mother takes drops him off at school. That saves me some time; might as well get to that supermarket.

8.45am I find myself on the main road. I haven't seen my ageing aunt in a while (seems only my parents managed to die young). I decide against using up the little bit of free morning that I have left at the supermarket; in two hours, I have to be back at the schools to pick them up. The school parties are more nuisance than they're worth. I turn left for Kirtomado. The sun is now starting to pore over the fields, which are all looking so green. Spring has come slightly early. I'm still thinking about what to cook. I'll be going home later than usual today, so it'll have to be something simple.

8.50am My aunt and uncle are just about to get into their van. "Hey, don't mind me, Thia." I reassure them that if they have a job to do, they shouldn't worry about my coming. My uncle insists: "We can't go now." Thia asks: "Would you like to come for a drive? We're only going down the road to a field." Thio's legs have been suffering since he developed diabetes. Still, they look in fine form; they are both in their 80s. (As an aside, 50 years ago, the Cretan farmer walked an average of 15 kilometers a day to get to, from and around in his fields. Now they walk only 2 and drive the rest.) "I'd love to." They know I love greenery and foliage. The day has brightened. In any case, the imminent black rain cloud now seems to have retreated.

m One kilometre away from the house, on an empty country road, Thia asks Thio to stop, which he promptly does, braking suddenly. "Is this the place Smaragda was telling us about?" he asks her. "Must be," says Thia, "there they are." We get out of the van, and find a row of small fennel plants on the side of the road. They start cutting the fresh fennel away from the dried stalks of last year's fennel which had never been cleared away. "You make lovely marathopites, don't you?" my aunt reminds me. Yes, I did once make lovely marathopites... Good idea, but it still hasn't solved the lunch problem. I juggle my camera and handbag, and start clipping off the stalks of fennel. Their scent is like perfume. A flash of a memory comes to my mind: tall fennel bushes growing in the garden of our rented flat in Hawker St, amongst the thorny artichoke plants that the Greek landlord had most probably planted to remind him of his village in Macedonia (not the one in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, that is). In my daydream, it's a sunny day in Wellington during the Christmas holidays, the beginning of summer. Today feels just like that - a good spring day in Crete is like the best summer's day in Wellington.

"Is this edible?" I ask my aunt. I see a plant that resembles something in our own garden. I always believed it to be edible, and now I have confirmed it. "Kapsanthous, dear, goes well with eggs," she tells me, "and you can add it to the marathopites you're going to make." Marathopites, hortopites, spanakopites, kalitsounia, it can be added to all of them. I pull away at the black mustard plant (brassica nigra). It doesn't seem to root very well, as it comes away with the first pull. I pull up three bushes, of the dozens I see on the road, another forgotten little-used herb of Crete. The roadside is mainly where most traditional herbs are now found in Crete, because the fields right next to them have either had their foliage cleared by excessive tilling or it has been destroyed by overuse of herbicides. We leave the field feeling hot and flushed.

9.45am We're back at the house now. Thia is clearing the fennel of its dry parts. A neighbour had given her some lambatha leaves (Rumex obtusifolius), and she's decided to cook some dolmades (edible leaves stuffed with rice), which are traditionally made with vine leaves. Domlades contain a lot of herbs, mainly parsley, mint and fennel. "That's a lot of lambatha you've got there." I remark. "Ooooh, plenty, I'll give you some to take home. Make them with some yemista, they're lovely in the oven." I couldn't wait to get my hands on them. "By the way", she continued, "if you need any lemons, just grab a bag and fill it." The lemon tree in front of the porch was covered in fruit. "Don't be fooled by their appearance," she warned me. "They may be small, but they're all juice and no pips."

We chat about this and that. Thio takes his stick and walks off to the local kafeneio. As he leaves, Smaragda comes through the door, and sits on the porch. She is the same age as Thia. "Watcha doin' Dimitra? Been to the fennel bushes I toldja 'bout, I see. Brought any for me?" Two old cooks, still living off the land. They ask me about my kids, and what we eat, and who cooks. Thia tells me to watch what we eat at home. "Don't eat too much meat," she says. "Don't eat too many fried foods," says Smaragda. "Learn to pick your own horta," they both tell me.

10.30am It's time to go and pick up the children. "Here, take a few eggs, we don't eat that many any more," my aunt tells me. "And bring the children next time you come." "Don't worry," I reassure her, "I'll be back soon." I have solved my cooking problem: fried potatoes mixed into scrambled eggs with with wild black mustard greens.

You need:

2-3 eggs, farm-fresh if you can get them, beaten in a bowl
a small bunch of wild aromatic greens, chopped roughly (I used kapsanthous, the leaves of the wild black mustard plant, but this could be replaced with wild asparagus greens, which go very well with eggs)
1 small onion, chopped small
salt and pepper
lemon juice
a frying pan's worth of potatoes, cut into chips (don't, whatever you do, use pre-cut frozen chips, which contain their own seasoning and would ruin the taste of the herbal greens you are using; if you can't be bothered frying fresh potatoes, just don't bother making this dish)
olive oil (or any other frying oil you use; we use olive oil for everything)
NOTA BENE: Picking wild greens can sometimes be as dangerous as picking wild mushrooms. If you do end up using wild greens, don't forget to check that the area has NOT been SPRAYED with PESTICIDE - in Greece, this is usually signalled by aerosol cans left hanging on the wire fences of fields.
Heat the oil and fry the potatoes. When they are done to your liking, drain away all the oil in the pan, leaving only about 2 tablespoons in it. Pour over the greens and onion, and mix them into the chips, turning everything in the high heat just enough for the greens to become coated in oil. Now pour the eggs over everything, and let them cook on a high heat, mixing the potatoes around the pan, till the egg is cooked.

This dish will be served immediately. When serving, squeeze some lemon juice over the dish, and savour it as it is. It goes particularly well with a fakes lentil soup or black-eyed (mavromatika) beans. A simple boiled greens salad with some feta cheese also makes for a healthy dish.

The day remained sunny and breezy, but the rain clouds returned. A few drops of rain fell in the afternoon, but the evening turned icy. I wish for rain this weekend, to save the red Mediterranean earth from drought, to provide us with more green horta, to perpetuate the Mediterranean diet and longevity.

This post is dedicated to CA.

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Kalitsounia fried
Kalitsounia in the oven
Wild asparagus
Hortopita (spanakopita)
Horta in winter
Horta in summer
Swiss chard (silverbeet)
Mountain tea
Spiral pie

Potato salad
Wild asparagus omelette