30 euro a kilo? You must be joking! These vine leaves were being sold in the Agora at the end of March, the same price that the supermarket was selling them for at the time. To buy them at this price, I believe you must have a pregnant woman's craving desire for them; either that, or it's some kind of fashion among the rich to buy out-of-season food. Sarcasm aside, the grapevines in our garden had only just started shooting green leaves when these were on sale (you certainly wouldn't need a kilo for a meal, anyway). I was using sorrel, silverbeet and lettuce to make roll-up rice parcels at this time. These ones came from Iraklio, the largest town in Crete, where grapevines are cultivated mainly for raisin production and wine. At the time of writing, the price of vine leaves per kilo had dropped to 15 euro.
My husband is a fanatic gardener. He planted a range of different vines about five years ago, all producing different varieties of grapes at different times of the year. Once they start producing leaves, vines need to be pruned back so that the long tendrils do not 'steal' growing energy away from the grapes. Either some stalks are cut back to allow this to happen, or the leaves are picked off.
I'm not going to be making dolmadakia (also known as 'dolmades') today, so these leaves will need to be blanched, drained and frozen for future use. Vine leaves are not available all year round; by the end of June, the leaves will be too tough to use in making rice parcels. Freezing vine leaves is the best solution for having a supply of vine leaves throughout the summer. I like to use them as toppings for yemista. Defrosting them is not difficult, and they retain their aroma, something akin to what a forest smells of after it's been raining.
Greek migrants used to plant grapevines in their New Zealand gardens, despite the fact that they hardly ever got any grapes out of them, although climate change has made progress in this direction. They still got the leaves, which in my opinion was more valuable, as they were able to preserve the Mediterranean cuisine, even in the most antipodean part of the world. My mother used to freeze them in New Zealand by blanching them in hot water, and straining them over the rim of a colander. Then they were stacked one on top of another, put into a plastic bag and frozen.
During my most recent visit to New Zealand, I stayed with a relative whose house is located in the oldest Greek suburb of Wellington: Mt Victoria. The garden bordered the garden of another property. It was in a shambolic state. The lawn, if it could be called that, was overgrown; the basement of the house could hardly be seen in the distance. The house itself badly needed a paint job. In the garden, there was what looked like a disused greenhouse made from old doors and windows that had been removed from houses undergoing renovation. A grapevine had completely overtaken all available space in the greenhouse; it was out of control, shooting out every gap in the joinery. Only a Greek could have planted a vine in that kind of greenhouse; the property once belonged to one of the earliest Greek families in Wellington. When the Greeks started moving out of the inner-city areas and into the leafier, more spacious suburbs (more bedrooms, green lawns and double garages), the house was sold.
As I saw it from the other side of the fence, the garden showed the passing of time, a mini-recreation of civilisation. On the bare hills of a steep rise on a hillside which they called Mt Victoria, the English colonists began planning townhouses which incorporated the advanced progress they had made in recreating English gardens with lawns, rose bushes and flower beds. Water was no object - it rained almost every day. Wellington only started to become colonised after 1840. Eventually, the original owners sold off the properties, choosing to spend their years of retirement in quieter suburbs (Karori or Wilton) with newer houses, selling the properties at a cheap price to lower working class newly arrived migrants. Along come the Greeks (at the turn of the 20th century) who did away with the picturesque futility of a pretty garden and planted Mediterranean vegetables instead. During a renovation stint where the long bay windows with the sash openings were removed in favour of drip-dry silver aluminium frames, the old doors and windows were recycled for the greenhouse where a vine was planted. Eventually the Greeks also aspired to greater comforts, moving out to the suburbs - in the opposite direction to that of the original English colonists (they preferred Miramar and Hataitai instead). This was at the start of the property boom which increased the value of inner-city properties, turning them into overnight money-spinners. The house was probably sold to a property investor who rented out the rooms and made a mint out of young up-and-rising city workers as tenants; hence the garden was never cared for, a remnant of older times when people cared more for land than brick and mortar, in the same way that wheat fields in Greece were abandoned in favour of easy-to-cultivate crops like citrus in lower grounds. Now what's left is to build a few more rooms on the garden, to increase the value of the property (my parents' house in Mt Victoria would now be selling at nothing short of 1,000,000 New Zealand dollars), attract more tenants and raise profits.
To freeze vine leaves, choose the most tender leaves. Leave as little of the stalk on them as possible. Boil some water in a large pot. Place the leaves in the hot water, and blanch them for two minutes. This both cleans and softens them. Lift the leaves out with a slotted spoon, and place them in a colander. Let them drain well. When they are ready, stack them one on top of another, 50 per pile. Don't worry if they are not all in perfect condition; those that aren't can be used to line the pot or tin that will be used to cook them in, as well as cover them so that they do not break up while cooking. Place the stacked leaves in a clean plastic bag and then in the freezer. To use them, defrost them by placing the whole packet in a pot of hot water (not boiling - they may disintegrate!) to make it easier to separate them. The freezing process will soften them a little more. Never try to separate them while frozen; they were simply break up. Strain them over a colander and use them as you would freshly blanched leaves.
And while I'm showing off my husband's garden, look what appeared in the garden the day after I wrote this post: courgette flowers (ανθός - 'anthos', literally meaning 'flower' - ανθούς in the plural), another dolmadakia wrapper, the tastiest of all. Anthous appear as flowers with their own stems, or at the end of the growing zucchini. The flowers MUST be picked as soon as they appear, and ONLY in the morning: after enjoying the morning dew, they close up by11 o'clock and cannot be opened without breaking them. If a flower is cut off from the courgette crop, the vegetable itself will stop growing, so they can only be used when the vegetable is ready to be harvested. Courgette flowers are used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine in many ways, even as a slightly fried addition to an omelette.
To prepare them for stuffing, the flowers are cleared of their yellow powdery stigma and can be kept for up to a fortnight in the fridge, stacked one inside the other (they are extremely fragile, and therefore never frozen), and used together with the vine leaves, enhancing the appearance of a truly glamorous summertime dish. Their colour alone reminds one of the sun. (When I've collected enough anthous, I'll be able to use them together with the vine leaves to make a super meal of yemista and dolmadakia used instead of the caps on the vegetables - come back in two weeks' time.)
To make dolmadakia, I personally use the same mixture for yemista, as I did for the leaf parcels with sorrel, silverbeet and lettuce, but there are many different filling variations you can try. It all depends on your preferences. Nancy likes hers with mince, while Ric prefers pine nuts (both sites have excellent step-by-step instructions on how to roll up vine leaf parcels).
I hope that this post has illustrated how important the raw ingredients of a Cretan meal are, and how nostalgic Cretans abroad become when they think about how to reproduce their food in a non-native environment. This post is therefore dedicated to all the Cretan people who for various reasons cannot live in their native island.
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