Happily, there are other wonderful foods I’ve found in my travels along the highways, byways and waterways of Greece that possess remembered names. Indeed, I have traversed much of the country, from the mountaintop villages of Pelion to the edges of Crete in the south. I’ve been to the Ionian, Saronic and Cycladic Islands, the Aegean coast, to Thessalonica, to Patras and to many points in-between. What has struck me in these journeys is that every area has its own delicacies, things that as a full-fledged foodie I have never seen before but certainly want to see again. But for the Greeks my enthusiasm for these discoveries is perplexing. It’s just greens, they will say, just a local cheese, just a few fresh fish – nothing special.
A culinary treasure trove
As much as I hate to disagree (Greeks generally refuse to be wrong), there is much that is special about the foods and drinks of Greece. What’s more, many of these foods and drinks can only be had from – and today often only in – Greece. The place is a veritable treasure trove of undiscovered, at least by foreigners, culinary goods.
Take pseira for example. The first time I tasted it was at a seafood taverna near Patras. We obtained it after convincing the proprietors that we weren’t agents sent from some interfering government body (apparently it was out of season; maybe it is always out of season). Satisfied, they brought us a platter containing what looked like a grey, slimy, horseshoe crab, or perhaps a mutant insect (pseira literally means – yuck – "lice"). Competition for the sweet, white flesh was fierce. And the flesh was sweet; after eating it I was never again satisfied with even fresh Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab.
True, pseira – as far as I could discern, there is no western name for it – is not easy to find, but who knows what could happen if there was real consumer demand?
On the wild side
Then there is horta. If you ever take a drive in the countryside in mid afternoon you will invariably see a group of women, or sometimes a whole family, clambering over hills, their eyes to the ground, each carrying a large bag. They are looking for a favorite side dish for their dinner: horta. Horta, or edible wild greens, grow all over Greece. There are at least 80 different kinds, depending on the area and season, and can include everything from black mustard and dandelion to wild sorrel, chicory, fennel, chard, kale, mallow, black night shade, lamb’s quarters, wild leeks, hoary mustard, charlocks, etc.
Also eaten as horta are the fresh leaves of the caper plant. Unlike the capers of Spain, southern France and Turkey, Greek capers are almost always taken from the wild. In spring and summer they grow all over Greece, but are especially abundant in Crete. There you can see mounds of caper buds (they do eat more than just the leaves) drying on the rooftops of houses. While most Greek caper buds are pickled, a few, from Santorini, are prepared using a different method. These are sun-dried to pebble-size and then rehydrated when needed for cooking.