Wild greens known as “horta” have been a staple of the Cretan diet since Minoan times, but with Greece’s rapidly worsening economic climate, foraging might once again become a way of life, reports Heidi Fuller-Love.
BBC – We’d been friends for several months before Giorgos invited me to join him on one of his food foraging expeditions. It was a real honour to be invited – I knew it was an honour because of the way my 80-year-old friend issued the terse invitation. “Tha pame na psaxnoume horta,” he said (“We are going to gather horta”), in the commanding way hospitable Cretans do when they give you something but don’t want the giving to be acknowledged.
It was also daring of him to share his secret spots. I knew this too, because he issued the gruff invitation in the street outside his house and not in the kafeneion – that social meeting space where every event of village life is discussed to the tick-tack tune of tavli backgammon counters and evil-spirit-countering komboli worry beads. This meant that he didn’t want anyone else to hear.
People often tend to forget that Greece has only known wealth for the past 30 or 40 years. The wonders of fat-tyred four-wheel drives, linoleum on the kitchen floor and self-cleaning ovens are relatively new in this country. Just 70 years ago there was widespread famine. Hardly surprising then, that the sites where you can find the wild greens that people survived on not so long ago, are very carefully guarded.
Like his neighbours, Giorgos’s life is regulated by these foraging expeditions. In February he digs up the golden thistle, askolimbi, whose scrubbed roots – said to be an aphrodisiac – taste like artichoke and are served with octopus and lamb. When it rains he’s out at night with a torch fossicking for beige-striped snails that he’ll steam, stuff or serve swimming in a sea of red wine. We head out to seek the wild herbs that he’ll use to make crisp kalitsounia pies.
Proof that the Mediterranean diet really works, my 80-year-old guide – his body warped like an ancient olive tree – skips nimbly as a satyr along the mountain track ahead of me, as he reminisces about war-time Crete: how he wet his pants when a German soldier caught him stealing and booted his skinny buttocks; how painful it was to be hungry. “Your belly shrivels like a sucked out askamadoura,” he says, referring to the Cretan equivalent of the Scottish bagpipes.
An hour’s hard walking leads us high into the Lasithi Mountains where the Minoans once buried their dead. We squeeze through a narrow passage between two peaks and emerge in a fertile valley, strewn with the mauve and green striped bells of Messina fritillary and stabbed with tall pink blades of Italian gladioli. This pointillist canvas, after the long trudge through grey-green hillsides, is dazzling, but Giorgos is already at work. Nail-grimed, banana-bunch fingers clutching a spotted, notched knife, he fills his fibre sack with mustard leaves, dandelion, sorrel, and black nightshade. Pausing for breath he points out freshly dug holes in the surrounding field where rare orchids have been dug up. “We never bothered them before, but now – ti na kanoume – what can you do? People dig them up and sell them to collectors. You can feed a family for a month on what they’ll pay.”
Harvest complete, we haul sacks on shoulders and jog back down the hillside. The stolen orchids have made Giorgos angry. “It’s all the fault of Europe. After we went into Europe in 1981 there was money everywhere,” he tells me. “My friend’s son worked at the bank. He’d call me up and say: ‘Hey Giorgos, wouldn’t you like a couple of thousand euros to buy a new car?’ Of course I did! To me it was free money. I didn’t even know what a loan was then.”
Back at Giorgos’s house we prepare the horta. He lives alone in two small rooms, with an outside toilet. His wife died 20 years ago, victim of a medical error. Her black-eyed photo, dancing at the village festival, feeding her children, or harvesting olives, is pinned to every wall.
The bubbling horta heats the room with steamy-bonfire smells. Giorgos prepares the wild-herb drink rakomeli, mixing the local firewater with honey and heating it over a gas burner. He is still angry. He shows me a recent electricity bill: 180 euros (£137) for two months. As a retired farmer he survives on a pension of 500 euros (£380) a month, but now, as Greece’s economic crisis deepens, his pension is to be reduced to 300 euros. He drains the wild herbs and anoints them with olive oil and lemon juice.
“Soon this horta is all I will have to eat,” he says as I savour a mouthful of the meltingly textured, mildly astringent greens.
“Soon we will return to the ways of our old folks and it will be hard for us, very hard,” he says crumpling the bill in his earth-stained hand.