Culture: A Greek odyssey with Gastrono-me's Gemma Simmonite
We’re lucky enough to have just landed back from a blissful holiday in Cyprus, a precious holiday that we had been hoping for, for the last four years.
It had seemed like an impossible dream when we first opened our doors back in March. Certainly a break that we found hard to envisage, much in the same way that you can’t imagine a child free evening out when first becoming new parents. But, by and by, every month that passed, teams found their feet, and key members of staff literally flourished before our eyes we took the plunge and booked it one evening, after a courage enhancing shared bottle of wine.
We decided on Cyprus because I am quarter Greek Cypriot. Strangely though, my heart and history has always been connected to Spain. My grandparents lived there, and I started solo flying to visit them every school break from around the age of six – my parents too were in hospitality and I would be despatched for a holiday even if they, unfortunately, couldn’t manage one.
The smells, sounds, language of Spain, in particular of Palma, Mallorca, are enough to transport me in seconds to every happy moment of my childhood. Icing sugar clouds on coiled snakes of Ensaïmadas pastries, more often than not packaged up in kitsch wooden boxes ready to be taken as souvenirs home. Slick, shiny chorizo leaving its signature oily ‘orangeness’ around my chops when tearing into a filled rustic bread roll, so I could feel just the same as my posse of Mallorca peers. Soupy bowls of Moules Marinara – midnight dark pearlescent shells filled with coral surprises, ready to be slurped out with the saltiest, ‘garlickiest’ liquor. Bliss! All of this was introduced to me at such a young age that it seemed to jet stream straight into my DNA.
The proud sight of families dressed in evening best parading along the palm tree-lined Paseo, the smell of the powdery cooling baby cologne that all children are deliciously bathed in wafting through the air, the clunk clunk of the masts on the beautiful yachts bobbing in Palma’s harbour, and the whining of the speeding mopeds, improbably balancing beautiful youths through the tiny mysterious washing-lined ancient streets. All of it. Really all of it. I can close my eyes and capture instantly. That’s how lucky I feel to have been inadvertently caught up in a country’s soul.
So, it was with this strong feeling of identity already for another country, I decided it was time to find my link to Cyprus.
It all started with my Papou (greek for grandfather) Charolombus Constantinos. My memories are few, but they are of a kindly old man sat always in the corner chair of a quiet clock tick tock living room. He had this crown of the waviest, thickest and wiriest silver hair, tinged slightly nicotine orange on the tips from the strong cigarettes that always precariously hung from his finger tips. A hoo hoo hooting laugh always followed by a practically consumptive cough that would echo around this formal temperate house.This would then be followed by much thigh slapping,
more laughing and then an easing glass of Metaxa Greek brandy, that would make him sigh and drift dreamily back into his chair.
He would occasionally lean forward to me conspiratorially and speak to me in his native tongue and tell me something that seemed to have such deep meaning. Sadly, something that I could never interpret due to not one of the family, not even his children, being able to speak Greek. These moments would leave me slightly in awe and, in truth, slightly in fear – partly due to me not really knowing him very well and of course not being able to understand this earnest exchange, but also because of his gigantic black national health glasses (Do you remember them? Think Michael Caine in Alfie, and then some!). His prescription must’ve been so powerful, it made his eyes look like colossal planets. I always felt, despite my young years, that there was a sadness though in those big eyes. A sense of loss probably. He was a kind, unassuming, easy man. A young chef, who searched for a future in a far away place, very far away from his hillside in Limbia, now shoehorned in a semi-detached in Cardiff. Married to a straight-laced, religious, unrelenting Welsh woman whose tolerance for his cigarettes, cough, laughing, customs and cuisine were very little. How they met, how they gained two children, to me seems almost as impossible as the language barrier, but there it was, I was a product of this strange union.
I think of him now and then. Sometimes when I cook, when I sprinkle mint onto the Feta cheese in our Eat Like a Greek Salad. I wonder if he thought
moving his life was worth it, what he thought of when cooking food at The Acropolis (yes, I know) in a side street in Cardiff.
I’m sad to say dear reader, that my connection to Cyprus, to Charlie as he was known in Wales is still yet to be discovered. Certainly not all of Cyprus’s fault, more to destination – we chose Paphos for ease and a place that we could rest tired bones in the sun. The area was populated with Mexican joints, a rib shack, numerous pizzerias and trattorias. The search for real Greek was elusive. We needed time to find the real Cyprus, the taste, the people away from holiday land I suppose.
Funnily enough though, on our last night we found a restaurant on the harbour boasting their ‘multi cultural cuisine’. Curries sat alongside pizzas, Kleftico next to paellas. Easy to be a bit sniffy and superior, but then if you think about it, not too unlike Gastrono-me in its magpie nature of capturing cuisines.
As we watched from afar, there was something about the waiters, they were sages of the waiting world, with a collective age of moe than 210, and they were able to turn a beautifully laundered and laid table in seconds (just as a side note, every restaurant even the most unassuming on the island seemed to have the most pristine, beautiful linens, tableware, glasses and silverware).
We talked to a waiter for a while called Christos. In his forties, Cyprus born and bred, but whose travels had taken him to, of all places, Brighton to live – we had lived there for 10 years too. We talked about the industry, the food and the seasons, and nothing seemed very different at all. That night my children may have dined on pizza and pasta, whilst I had a delicious, perfectly executed vegetarian moussaka and Mike had the Greek lamb with a beautifully fresh vibrant Greek salad,
We came to realise that food treated with love and served with immense hospitality, no matter where it’s cooked or its authenticity, really matters. It’s whether it’s made with love, and yes it’s all the more wonderful if it’s been passed down from Nonnas, or Pappous, aunties or friends. But what really matters is if you enjoy it, it doesn’t really matter if it’s culturally correct, adopted or a hodgepodge of different places and things. But you know what, as we were paying, enjoying their complimentary Metaxa, the waiter made a passing comment, ‘You look a little Greek, you know’, I smiled and gave a little toast up to Charlie in the beautiful midnight blue skies of Cyprus.
So here is my hodgepodge Eat Like a Greek salad, made by a Welsh, Cypriot, Spanish in her heart, lady. Yassou!
Eat Like a Greek Salad (Serves 2)
(makes 4 koftas)
450g lean minced lamb
1 onion finely chopped
5g fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
15g fresh coriander, finely chopped
½ tablespoon ginger paste
½ tablespoon chilli paste
1 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a large bowl, mix the minced lamb, diced onions, chopped mint, chopped coriander, ginger paste, and chilli paste. n Season with the ground cumin, paprika, cayenne and salt. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Shape equal amounts into a sausage shape around the skewer. Make sure the meat is spread to an even thickness. Refrigerate again for another hour, or until you are ready to cook.
Lightly oil a griddle pan, then cook for 10 minutes turning regularly until fully-cooked through.
A small bag of baby spinach
1 courgette cut into thinnish rounds
Plum cherry tomatoes, halved and seasoned.
½ block of Feta cheese cut into cubes
A pinch of dried mint
A pouch of ready-cooked puy lentils/green lentils
A handful of good quality olives
Good quality olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
After you’ve grilled your koftas, wipe out the griddle and smear the surface with some olive oil, and grill the courgettes until they’ve become juicy and have grill lines.
Cook the lentils as directed on the packet. If they have a suitable Mediterranean flavouring you can leave it when cooked. If not, season to taste with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and a dash of balsamic vinegar just to enhance there natural flavour.
Meanwhile, start to construct your salad, arrange the leaves in the bowl of your choosing. You can either go feast style with a bowl in the middle of the table and let people help themselves, or individually plated – whichever is more you. Start by tossing in the halved tomatoes, chargrilled courgettes, feta cubes, olives, then in any spaces spoon in little mounds of your lentils. Mix some of your balsamic and olive oil together and give the salad a little drizzle.
Finish off with a little sprinkle of mint on your feta cubes, a little more seasoning, and then lay on your warm lamb koftas. This would also be delicious with warmed pittas for stuffing.
Simply the Mediterranean in a bowl, enjoy!
Gemma is executive chef and co-creator of Gastrono-me, on Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds