Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Amaranth - vlita - and black nightshade - stifno (Βλήτα και στίφνος)

This post is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Solanum nigrum (black nightshade).

One man's poison is another man's meat. And one man's foliage is another person's salad. Eating grassy weeds - collectively known as 'horta' χόρτα - only ever became fashionable in the West when it started to be eaten by the elite, who let the word spread that they were good for you. It is amusing watching foreign tourists buying vlita (amaranth) which was already at the end of its growing cycle (it was in flower, which means it's ready to seed) in the supermarket at the beginning of spring; if only they knew that the vlita sold at such an early stage have been grown with so many chemicals. Leafy greens, a staple of Cretan cuisine, have a high water content; if they have been grown with an overdose of artificial fertiliser, it's like drinking water with chemicals added. The first time I bought them, I left the woody stalks on them and boiled everything together. I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong. Now I know why the stalks are sold with the vlita: they add weight to a weightless crop that is easy to grow and cheap to sell. maybe that's why the word 'vlito' can also be used to mean 'ignoramus'.

In Kambi, my mother's family grew tomatoes that were never watered ('anidres' - άνυδρες), like the famous waterless Santorini tomatoes. Olive trees do not always receive irrigation. Now the village is almost deserted, the leftover residents have hot and cold running water and electricity in their houses, and this system has all but ceased to be working; with climate change, it will probably not be a sustainable solution. Crop yields have already shown signs of reduction. Orange trees cannot survive without irrigation. Try growing something without some kind of fertiliser now (let alone water) and see how far you get.

vlita amaranthvlita amaranth

We're onto our second harvest of vlita greens from our garden. Cretan peasants have known about the beneficial properties of horta for a long long time before the West began preaching their virtues. Whether or not they knew about the nutritious qualities of vlita (amaranth) makes no difference to the fact that many people subsisted on greens. The Cretans were lucky they had tasty leafy greens to pick from their land or field, even if eating them on such a regular basis stigmatised you as poor. Protein came from milk and eggs, but as animals were slaughtered for a festive meal or maybe on a monthly basis, most of the protein the average Cretan got came from beans. The diet of the average Cretan has of course changed, but grasses, weeds and leafy greens have always constituted a regular part of a Cretan's daily meals.

If plants have been allowed to seed from the previous season, both vlita (amaranth) and stifno (black nightshade) grow without being sown, as did our plants. Vlita lend themselves to being replanted whereas stifno does not. It wilts rather quickly, which is surprising, because vlita is the first to suffer when it doesn't receive enough water; stifno is more resilient. It's nutrients are obviously more soil-borne than that of vlita. Vlita is so sweet it can substitute spinach in spanakopita; stifno balances out the sweetness of vlita with its slightly acrid bitterness.

deadly nightshade stifnoblack nightshade stifno

Stifno is a rather strange edible grass. It only grows as a weed, and is not usually sown. This one grew in our irrigation waste water channel. In Greece, it isn't known very much at all. In fact, Crete and possibly (without being sure of what I am saying) only a few other islands may treat it as an edible weed. Most people around the world regard it as poisonous - except in Turkey, where stifno is well known and goes by the same name as in Greece, (istifno). Funnily enough, it is related to the tomato plant. The stifno in our garden came out in the spring, and is now flourishing wherever there are other irrigated plants.

potato courgette zucchinihorta vlita stifno

After washing these grasses very carefully, they are boiled separately - vlita needs less cooking time than stifno - and mixed together in the ratio of 1:3-4 stifno:vlita. I change the water in each pot once to get rid of any bitterness and grit that didn't come off in the rinsing. Vlita can also be eaten on its own, but stifno is ALWAYS mixed with vlita. Boiled zucchini and potatos (don't boil them together because the potatoes will turn grey from the green courgette water) are also added to make this famous Greek salad a filling meal, served with a dressing of olive oil, lemon and salt. Fried fresh fish or grilled meat make for a very Dr-Atkins diet meal with a bottomless serving, but the average Cretan will want a couple of slices of good quality bread to mop up the olive oil remaining on the plate.

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