Saturday, 26 January 2013

Identifying wild greens in the Cretan landscape

This post has taken me more than four years to write.

Foraging is a time-consuming activity, mainly the domain of older people who live in rural areas. Our work schedules don't give us the chance to be out in the fields very often these days, which is why my skills become rusty from one forage to the next. It took me a long time to feel confident about foraging for wild greens (we call them χόρτα - HOR-ta) in the Cretan countryside. At any rate, most people have a garden near their homes these days, so we can grow what we want to eat close to our house. And as I discovered over the last decade that I began to take an active role in gardening and learning the art of foraging, many of those 'wild greens' that I was picking in fields are also found among our crops: they are in fact 'common garden weeds'!
 A mixture of herbs and greens harvested in our olive grove, early January 2013.
Wild greens are basically plants that grow uncultivated in all sorts of places, ranging from roadsides to open fields. They have been an important part of the Cretan diet throughout the centuries, receiving the most attention during the time of the post-war studies concerning the Mediterranean diet. Although foraging for horta may sound like an old-fashioned activity, it is in fact still very popular. Wild greens still form a significant part of the diet in Crete, judging from the fact that these greens are collected in the wild, sold at the supermarket, the greengrocer's and the street market, and commanding high prices.

Harvests from our fields, early January 2013
I began taking a more active interest in foraging when I first started making spanakopita and kalitsounia for the family. I often bought wild greens to complement the flavours of my spinach-based pies; many wild greens are highly aromatic, and can be used both as a salad ingredient or herb. But I realised that I was actually paying for many horta that I could have picked straight from my garden, as well as during our visits to our olive groves and orange orchards. My biggest problem was that I didn't know the names of these edible greens, so I felt uncomfortable about picking something for eating, whose name I didn't know. This is despite the fact that I knew it was edible! But I am not alone in not knowing what all these horta are called:
"There are more than 100 edible horta (wild greens) on Crete although even the most knowledgeable would not recognise more than a dozen." (Lonely Planet Guide to Crete, by Victoria Kyriacopoulos)
A good starting point to learning about edible wild greens is to buy some when you see them being sold. Different greens are sold in different seasons. They aren't always sold separately according to species. You will most likely find them being sold in mixed lots. If they are being sold as a separate species, they are most likely not wild greens; they are cultivated, grown from sowing seeds. Since various species often grow together, a professional picker will harvest them at the same time. Although they can be separated, the truth is that the whole process is very time-consuming: as soon as horta are picked, they need to be cleared of dirt, and taken to the market for selling as soon as possible. Not only do they lose their nutrient values if they are not consumed soon after picking, but they also lose their freshness and vitality, so that they won't be suitable for eating. But the fact that they are being sold in all kinds of markets shows the value people place on horta. Once you are familiar with what is being sold, you can start looking for them yourself in the wild. It is also possible to start growing them in your own garden. A number of species that were once found only in the wild are now becoming cultivated. However, not all species have become domesticated, so you will still have to forage or buy them.   

Mixed greens for boiling or braising; most are chicory species, mid-January 2013
You really need an old person to help you to tell apart the various species, and to have a final say on what is edible and what isn't. You can also ask the person who is selling them to you to tell you the names of the wild species. In many cases, you will realise that even they don't know the names of all these greens - they just know that they are edible. To take my mother-in-law as an example, it's been a long time since she involved herself in this work and she claims to have forgotten their names, but she can still tell me if something I picked is one of the edible species she used to forage pre-1956 when she left the village and moved to an urban area! I got a better response from a middle-aged woman at the laiki (street market) who is still actively foraging and selling her harvests at the street market. The tips of her fingers are black from picking; she knows her stuff well. She had also separated the species into boiling/braising greens (for hot salads with extra virgin olive oil) and aromatic/herb greens (for chopping finely and adding to pies), selling the aromatic ones at a higher price than the salad greens. I've also seen this in some of the fresh product specialty groceries in the town, which sell mainly foraged greens.

A mix of highly aromatic greens, added finely chopped to pies and pasties: mid-January 2013
Another added difficulty in identifying horta is that the same species have different common names in different places. Even if you think you know the name of the species, don't be surprised if people from another region have a different name for it: the drive from Iraklio to Rethimno is only about an hour or so long, but the dialects differ immensely, and the same common name is not used in the two areas - Hania will probably use a different name altogether! Then there is the scientific name, which is sometimes the same generic one for horta that look different. Wild greens for eating are picked at a very early stage in the growth of the plant, so you have to know the different growing stages of each species: the young stage when the tender shoots rise from the soil, the middle stage when the plant stem toughens, and the later stage when the plant blooms. This is why it is difficult to identify wild greens from books - there are never enough photographs shown, to help you recognise them at the right stage for picking. They are usually shown in their blossom stage, which looks completely different to their picking stage. Some of these wild greens remind you of pretty flowers in their mature stage, so again you think of them as ornamental plants rather than edibles. By that time, it is too late to pick them and you have to remember what they looked like and where you picked them for the following year!

Domesticated greens, January 2013
It should be pointed out that wild greens are different from wild herbs, and they are used in a different way. Greens can be eaten as a salad, most often boiled, whereas herbs are used in small quantities simply to add flavour to a recipe. Not all greens are wild: many greens that we eat are domesticated, eg lettuce, endives, beet leaves, cabbage, etc. Books on wild herbs abound. So do book on greens. But books on wild greens do not. Be wary of this when you see a book collocating the words 'Crete' with the word 'greens' in the title. It may be all about domesticated, rather than wild greens.

Through my work at MAICh, I've been very lucky to come across some scientific articles about the edible horta of Crete. I also have access to old out-of-print books written by Cretan scholars that list wild greens and herbs found in Crete, namely: Συμβολή εις των δημώδη ορολογίαν των φυτών (Ευαγγελία Κ. Φραγκάκι, 1969) and Φυτά και Βότανα της Κρήτης (Ιωάννη Ε. Χαβάκη, 1978). They do not contain photographs, nor do they use scientific names, so they are of little use to the amateur. They were written in the style of folklore narration, and they are interesting to read for historical reference.

One of the most popular cookbooks on Cretan cuisine is that of Maria and Nikos Psillakis: "Cretan Cooking: The Miracle of the Cretan Life and Cuisine." First published in Greek in 1995, it is a sellout among tourists in various languages. A small list of the more common wild greens is included in the ΧΟΡΤΑ-ΛΑΧΑΝΙΚΑ (Greens-Vegetables) chapter: black nightshade (στίφνος), nettle (τσουκνίδα), mallow (μολόχα), sorrel (λάπαθα), amaranth (βλήτα), chicory (ραδίκι),  brighteye (γαλατσίδα), purslane (γλιστρίδα), vetch (παπούλες), golden thistle (ασκολίμπροι), king's spear (δρύλοι) and avronies, a kind of wild asparagus. A number of greens that were once considered wild at the time the book was written are now being cultivated, namely spiny chicory (σταμναγκάθι). But there is no attempt (at least in my own Greek 6th edition pubished in 1998) to name the less common - and "purely wild" because they haven't yet been domesticated - wild species. As stated above, few people feel confident enough to name them reliably. 

All these wild greens came from my garden yesterday: sorrel, hartwort, three kinds of chicory, wild carrot, nettle, mallow, borage, chickweed, and one unnamed species (that I know is edible). I've included clover; it isn't used in the same way as the others but clover is used as a sour flavouring in countries where lemons are hard to come by. About a decade ago, a Lebanese student told me that when she couldn't get hold of lemon, she'd flavour her tabbouleh with clover. In Greek, the common name of clover is ξυνό (xino), which means 'sour'. 
One of the earliest scientific studies carried out in Crete on the subject of wild greens was conducted by Trichopolou et al. (Food Chemistry 70 (2000) 319-323), focusing on the "Nutritional composition and flavonoid content of edible wild greens and green pies: a potential rich source of antioxidant nutrients in the Mediterranean diet". This study helped establish the significance of wild greens in the Cretan diet to the outside world:
"A traditional village of Crete was visited ... in mid-April 1997 and with the valuable guidance and help of the women of the village, 13 different types of edible wild greens were collected. These greens were used for the preparation of the traditional Cretan green pies, which were studied. Cretan green pies are small half-moon shaped pastry filled with a mixture of wild greens and fried in virgin olive oil. According to the local recipe, the finely chopped wild greens are not boiled but cooked with plenty of virgin olive oil and only a little water for approximately an hour at a medium temperature. They are then left to cool and drain before filling the pastry.

Those "traditional Cretan green pies" are what we call here in Crete "kalitsounia"
Fried kalitsounia
Baked kalitsounia

"[Seven of the wild greens and the traditional Cretan green pies] were analyzed for their nutritional composition and  flavonoid content, in particular  flavonols and  flavones. A high nutritional value and a low energy value characterize the wild greens. These wild greens have a very high flavonol content when compared with regular fresh vegetables, fruits and beverages commonly consumed in Europe. Rumex obtusifolius was found to contain twice the amount of quercetin contained in onions. Two pieces of Cretan green pie (100 g) contain approximately 12 times more quercetin than one glass of red wine (100 ml) and three times more quercetin than a cup of black tea (200 ml). Wild greens potentially are a very rich source of antioxidant  flavonols and  flavones in the Greek diet.

The greens that were studied in by Trichopoulou et al. are the following:
Fennel - μάραθο (maratho - Foeniculum vulgare Mill)
Wild leek (chive) - αγριόπρασο (agriopraso - Allium schoenoprasm)
Sowthistle - τσόχος (zochos, a kind of chicory - Sonchos oleraceus L.)
Hartwort - καυκαλύθρα (kaukalithra - Tordylium apulum)
Corn poppy - κουτσουνάδα (koutsounada - Papaver rhoeas L.)
Sorrel/Dock - λάπαθο (lapatho - Rumex obtusifolius L.)
Queen Anne's Lace - σταφυλάνικας (stafilinakas - Daucus carota)

And that's roughly what I find in the mixed bags in the markets, as you can see in the following photos.

Clockwise, starting from top left:  petrokare - wild celery (???), maratho - fennel weed: Foeniculum vulgare, agriopraso - wild leek: Allium scoenoprasm, mixed wild greens, radiki - chicory: Chicorium intybus, stafilanikas wild carrot; harvested in January 2008

This study was followed up by Vardavas et al. (Food Chemistry 99(4) 822-834on the "Lipid concentrations of wild edible greens in Crete" who list the scientific and common Greek names of 48 species of wild Cretan greens. The scientists collected the wild greens between mid-January and early March in 2002 from Iraklio, Rethimno and Lassithi, from various villages, up to a height of 1200m. They compared the vitamin and antioxidant properties of these wild species: carotenoid (lutein and b-carotene), vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), total polyphenols, ctocopherol, a-tocopherol and phylloquinone (vitamin K1) contents, with 6 commonly cultivated vegetables in Crete: lettuce varieties, artichokes, broad beans, beets and spinach. The results showed that wild greens often contained higher levels of protective vitamins and minerals than regular cultivated crops. What's more, some species from Italy and Spain had lower polyphenol content compared to the Cretan varieites of the same plants, while the same species from different regions of Crete also exhibited differences, possibly due to environmental factors. The general conclusions of the study are as follows:
"The traditional diet of Crete, which is high in local greens, whether eaten with olive oil in salads, in pies or other recipes, plays an important role in the health of the elderly and rural population of Crete. According to our study of 48 wild and 6 cultivated greens of Crete, the wild Cretan greens are rich sources of vitamin C, K, E and carotenoids, and capable of significantly contributing to the RDA needs of the population. In most cases, it was found that the wild greens had higher micronutrient content than those cultivated."

A study aiming to identify the level of biodiversity in 500-year-old olive groves, conducted by the LIFE+ Biodiversity CENT.OLI.MED. project, revealed a very high level of biodiversity. With the help of an older member of the community who was very familiar with the area, 106 plants were found on one single plot in an ancient olive grove in a village (approx. 500m altitude) in Hania. Of the 106 plants, 27 species were found to be edible, and widely used in the local cuisine, whereas many plants were found to have aromatic or pharmaceutical values. 

edible weeds
Click on the photo for detials - May 2008
No wonder these wild greens are sold in many places throughout the town to non-rural dwellers. People know their value. I still buy some wild greens, picking through the mixed assortment in the grocer's crate, to take only the ones I need, as a number of species can be found in my garden. My absolute favorite wild green which can be used in both braised greens and pies is 'akournopodi' (Oenanthe pimpinelloides) andsomethig called 'petrokare' whose scientific name I don't know - it looks like wild celery. The greens I include here are not a definitive list, and this post won't really help you unless you get stuck into foraging yourself, getting your fingers dirty and examining your finds carefully. Once you use these greens in your spanakopita and kalitsounia, you will think the effort was worth it after all.

Akournopodi is the shiny green plant at the bottom centre.
Petrokare is the large leaf (attached to a stalk) on the right-hand side.

Different wild greens are available in each season. Some wild edible species resemble wild inedible (and possibly toxic) species. Always check if the area you are foraging in has been sprayed with pesticides. Roadsides will most likely be polluted by car fumes. Bear in mind that you may be trespassing if the field is not your own; owners don't want guests carting away what they see as their property, and the local villagers don't enjoy seeing strangers picking wild greens in their area. You may want to park your car far enough away from their suspicious eyes, so that you don't come back to flat tyres; foraging for wild greens carries similar connotations as with truffle harvesting in France. Olive groves that are located in hilly fields and undisturbed areas, far away from roads, are the best places for foraging because of the greater degree of biodiversity found in the area; the less tampering with the land, the more species growing on it. Another good place is old 
ξερολιθιές (xerolithies - dry stone walls)These places are less likely to be polluted with chemicals or contaminated by toxic substances. If you think flocks of goats and sheep pass through the area, you may want to think twice about collecting greens that may have been pissed on. If you see spray cans attached to fences around fields, it means one of two things: either the owner has sprayed the area with chemicals and is warning you not to forage; or the owner has not sprayed the area with chemicals and is simply trying to scare you away from foraging in his field. You forage at your own risk. The usual forager's/mushroomer's rule applies when picking something from the wild: if in doubt, throw it out. 

vikos vicia sativa fournes hania chania
Click on the photo for more details - May 2009
The task of foraging wild greens does not stop once you pick them - they require copious efforts at the post-harvest stage, as you clear them of dirt and grit, wash and dry them, before they are ready for use. For best storage practices, don't wash them until just before you use them - they keep well in their own soil with the root (which is usually very nutritious) in the fridge, wrapped up in newspaper and placed in a plastic bag.

And above all, good luck in your search for horta. Only experience will help you to become a better forager.

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