Friday, 14 May 2010

Stamnagathi (Σταμναγκάθι)

Stamnagathi has always been a prized leafy green that grows mainly on the island of Crete. It grows in the wild, its leaves sprout in amongst a thorny bush, and it's found growing in areas which are accessed mainly by goats, in remote valleys and mountain plateaus, therefore it's organic de facto. The best time to forage it is in spring, when the leaves are at their most tender. It's also sold at a high price - more than what you would expect to pay for meat - upwards of at least 7-8 euro a kilo - at least this is how I remember stamnagathi when I was first introduced to this tasty bitter green, all those many years ago when I first came to live in Crete and created my own Cretan kitchen.

Fifteen years on, stamnagathi is now available all year round, is widely cultivated on the island (ie not organic de facto any longer), goats don't even get near it these days, and what's more, it's cheap. This year, stamnagathi was hardly ever sold more than 5-6 euro a kilo; it's now available at less than 4 euro (I saw it just a few days ago selling at 3.14 a kilo). It's also widely used in both cooked and uncooked salads; its novel use in the modern kitchen has given it a new lease of life and greater attention on the part of food connoisseurs. One could call it a kind of fashion in modern Greek and Cretan cuisine.

This sounds like great news for all those people who love stamnagathi, and know its benefits. As with all crops that have undergone widespread cultivation, stamnagathi has now changed in taste and appearance, something that is inevitable when a crop is grown differently. Stamnagathi may now lack the slightly bitter taste it used to have, or the wild, dark green appearance of the leaves, but it is still very tasty. These days, it has a brighter green colour, and the roots, which can be the tastiest part (at least, they are for me), can be a little tough; it is now allowed to grow very large, which means it is not as tender as it used to be, but it brings in more profits for the grower, even though its price has now fallen. The roots soften on boiling but sometimes need more cooking time than the wild variety.

stamnagathi flower
The flower of the stamnagathis (spiny chicory - Chicorium spinosum) is actually blue-mauve, which didn't come out very well in this photo.

Wild stamnagathi used to be plentiful, but because most people now own a car that can take them to normally inaccessible areas, it has suffered the ravages of over-foraging. Pretty soon it will become an endangered species. Life is changing on the island - and so is the food.

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