A few months ago, when I sat at the table with Maria Mouratidou to talk about Perek Farm near Thessaloniki, Greece I thought I would hear the story of a cooperative, a successful entrepreneurial model, which flourished in a Greece of adversity. But my conversation with Maria told me more about how food could help reframe our lives and reality. How important it is in preserving heritage, the recollection of which is starting to dwindle together with the lessons it has to offer. And how a different way of producing, farming and living could be one of the ways for a brighter personal and global future.
Greece is often branded as one of the most biodiverse, fertile and blessed soils in Europe which apparently can yield more produce per square mile than many of its neighbours. Yet it is in crisis. And the Greeks are running to supermarket chains offering them mass produced food from far-away lands. What has gone wrong?
Recently as I listened to BBC Food programme Sheila Dillon’s voice narrating the struggles and opportunities facing Greek agriculture I was reminded how hope is reborn by necessity, simplicity and through turning to the land. I come from a generation of Greeks whose parents left the countryside for a better future accessible through academic education. And here I am asking myself how many educated ‘fools’ does it take to break a country? Or could we turn our skills and knowledge to tools that could help us reframe reality for the future in Greece and around the world.
So what about Perek? Here’s my take on its story as a family business and an example of how our life, economy and nutrition could be reimagined.
What about Maria?
Maria is a sprightly, ageless lady, who left her academic career in 2003. She worked in molecular biology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Medical School. This gave her a sound basis for understanding the links between intensified agricultural practices, the use of pesticides and the increasing health impacts experienced by many of the farming communities where agriculture grew in concentrated pockets of land mass. Maria was also looking to change the pace of her life. ‘We wanted to live’, she says, ‘to enjoy the sunsets and to take time to breathe in the lavender. We never imagined that we could do so much for the people around us. We never knew’.
And so was Perek set up. Initially as a small business that produced traditional pasta and pie products typical of Northern Greece and the Pontos such as Trahanas (often fermented Greek pasta grain); Verenika (tortellini -like dumplings with various fillings encountered in other neighbouring cuisines such as that of the Ukraine); Ivristos (vegan pasta similar to tagliatelle but broken, dehydrated and toasted to enhance preservation); Perek pastry (large, thick filo pastry toasted and filled with greens or cheese or other goods); sourdough breads and specialty cakes flavoured with Tsipouro. All these goods used specialty wheat and rye varieties carefully selected for each product, grown and milled locally by farmers carefully chosen for their practices.
‘Subconsciously I looked at what my mother did’ says Maria. ‘I wanted more than just a business and to preserve methods, foods and practices from our long-lost homes in Pontos, Kerasounta’. There were many women in the area of the same micro-heritage that Maria could work with. So a workshop was set up and the reputation of its quality produce grew and grew. People visited to stock up on supplies, the place was like a magnet pulling in those seeking to reconnect with tradition and practices that Perek had to offer. The quality and flavour was unparalleled.
‘It was as if we had made a Nobel prize discovery, when all we had done was use resources grown in tune with nature. We made what we knew from our grandmothers and mothers – recipes and traditions handed down generation to generation. Gradually people started asking why they could not taste recipes with food they bought, why there was no restaurant on the premises. We were lead to growing as a business. As we say in Greece ‘the route leads the walker’.
Maria applied her scientific knowledge in seeking wheat, dairy and meat produce that was uncompromised. ‘As a scientist I felt it was essential to make an alternative suggestion to society to help rectify the damage done to our ecosystems, society and health. We have an obligation as scientists to talk about the impacts of chemicals on our food and genetics. And I wanted to also talk about the ‘science’ of tradition. To look deeply into our heritage and see how it leads us back to understanding the basis of longevity and how to enhance biodiversity’, Maria says.
‘All you need to do is watch and listen to each place (the Topos). The hint is often in the names of places, Ampelotopos or Agrampelo (the vine meadow), Karpouzlouko (the water melon field), Kapnohorafo (the tobacco plot). There is a reason for these names. People observed what grows and doesn’t grow well. Then they rested the land. They swapped crops’, she continues. ‘And you must remember, tradition does not focus on loss and profit and mass production. It is about making do, health and wellbeing’.
With the help of her daughter, a food scientist who researched Meznikof’s work and returned to Greece to be part of the business, Perek grew. Today the business employs over forty people. There are at least five regular animal farmers it collaborates with as well as an array of carefully selected artisan businesses.
The Perek Restaurant, a beautiful stone building with a large cyclical fireplace/oven in the middle, overlooks Thermaikos Bay and looks at Mount Olympus. It feeds up to 2,500 people each week and is supplied by the Perek workshop which continues to provide employment to many women and communities in the area. Perek supports free range farmers whose produce it uses for the restaurant, whilst it has also set up its own small farm mainly focussing on the rearing of black pig pork, indigenous in Maria’s home land. The pies, including the amazing Perek pie, often use wild greens (Horta) such as purslane, amaranth and nettle. Stipa (Toursi), fermented cabbage similar to sauerkraut and kimchi, feature on the menu. Katsikisio tyri, goat’s cheeses from free range animals and Greek varieties of chickpeas, lentils and other pulses also feature on the menu. It is the place to visit if you want to taste the land’s flavours.
‘One of the positive impacts of the crisis, was the lack of money to buy some of the expensive, industrialised animal feed which increased productivity and commercialised dairy and animal farms. This hit farming in Greece badly. But the remaining farmers downsized and turned to grazing and traditional methods of feeding. Production rates decreased but quality improved. The taste of the milk and cheese for example is now more distinct of the land’s vegetation’, Maria explains.
With a model so successful there could be temptation for Perek to grow and expand. Make no mistake, Maria is a business woman, savvy, clever and resourceful, but her message is unequivocal. ‘We supply twenty to thirty external businesses at the most. There are limits to how far we can go without compromising quality and the ethos of our business. We will produce enough for our restaurant, our own shop and some suppliers but we cannot supply everyone. There would be costs to that and we have to be careful’.
The meaning of life…
When Maria left her academic career for a different life she was ill. ‘Cancer made me revaluate life. I asked myself why I am running around like a mad woman. Why do I never have time? Why do I struggle?’, Maria told me. Can you relate to this too?
To me Perek is more than just a food business. It is a model and a way of business the depths of which might not be appreciated by everyone but its restaurant service for example remains accessible to the average Greek living in the area. And this is what makes it so amazing. That you can have quality in flavour, produce and life. That you can support ethical practices and communities through a conventional business model which is not willing to compromise its ethos. That you are able to preserve the elements of different segments of Greek traditions and tribes which shed light into who we are, how we can live more healthily and how we can connect to our neighbours.
I am not going to demonise where we are as a global society today, it gets tiring. There is a reason we made this journey through progress and perhaps now we are better equipped to move on into the future. Take Perek and Maria’s story as an example of how our and future generations could take academic excellence, skills and knowledge and apply it towards a different direction awar from our conditioned aspirations of achievement and wealth. Towards a more meaningful future for us, our friends, our nature and our children. Just take that.
Visit Perek farm all year around from Monday to Sunday. For more information here: http://www.perek.gr/ . Visit Perek on facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Perek-Restaurant-Monopigado-Thessaloniki/387257144667373
A recipe inspired by the way Iranians make their open omelette or frittata, known as Kuku. It uses March’s seasonal vegetable like carrots and spinach still abundant at Blaencamel farm and in their weekly organic vegetable boxes. This type of frittata uses a generous quantity of ingredients so don’t be surprised when you see how much vegetable goes in it – it is what sets it apart from other open omelettes.
You can find Blaencamel farm vegetables at both Farmers’ markets in Cardiff, Roath and Riverside, on Saturday and Sunday respectively, but also in Aberystwyth and their own farm shop. Order their boxes here.
Ingredients (4 portions)
- 250g (3 medium) carrots, coarsely grated
- 150g spinach, finely chopped
- 15g (half a small bunch) parsley, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 50g sundried tomatoes or mixed antipasti e.g. peppers and artichokes, finely chopped
- 30g cashews, chopped
- 3 Tbsp. Goji berries (optional)
- Fresh mandarin or orange juice
- 100g (half a pack) feta cheese, crumbled
- ½ tsp. ground cumin
- A generous pinch of smoked or regular sweet paprika
- ½ tsp oregano
- 1 generous pinch of saffron strands
- 2 Tbsp. flour
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 6 eggs
- 2 generous pinches of salt
- ½ tsp. sugar
- Olive oil
Preparation (30 minutes)
- Add enough fresh mandarin or orange juice to cover the goji berries in a small bowl or mug. Infuse whilst prepping.
- Add a tablespoon (or two) of olive oil to a 20 to 25cm non-stick pan, and sauté the onion on low heat with a pinch of salt and the sugar until it caramelises (5-10 min).
- Pound the saffron in a bowl with a rolling pin, beat in the eggs and allow time for the saffron to infuse in them.
- Remove the onions from the pan, add another tablespoon of oil, add the carrots and cumin. Sauté until soft (5 min).
- Return the onions to the frying pan, add the goji berries, cashews, sundried tomatoes and antipasti. Mix well.
- Add the spinach and parsley little by little so that it slightly wilts. You don’t need to cook your spinach much or at all but you might choose to wilt it a bit of you are using a smaller pan.
- Add the flour, pinch of salt, baking powder, paprika and oregano to the eggs and beat until the flour is mixed well and to give the eggs some volume and softness.
- Mix into the pan gradually and carefully making sure the beaten egg goes to the bottom of the pan and mixes in well between the abundant ingredients to hold them together. The pan should remain on low heat all this time.
- Make sure that the ingredients are spread evenly on the pan and sprinkle the feta cheese on top.
- After firming up the frittata on the hob for a couple of minutes, you can cook the frittata in two ways: a) If your pan is heat resistant place it in a preheated oven for about 10-15 minutes at 180-200 degrees –cover with a lid or aluminium foil for half the time, or b) Cover the pan with a lid or plate. Continue cooking on the hob on low heat for 8 to 10 minutes. Then place under a preheated grill for a couple of minutes or until golden and risen.
- If using a 20cm pan it should be at least 5cm dip to make a cake like frittata that will rise.
- You can choose to omit or include ingredients on this list. It is also very easy to replace them. For example goji berries can be replaced with cranberries or even barberries if you prefer an authentic Iranian taste.
Rosemary Baron is keeping me company with her book about Greece and its food. I love reading others’ take on Greek food and this lady being an archaeologist is a very credible, unbiased source of information. She says, ‘the ancient Greeks regarded cooking as both an art and a science and throughput the ancient world Greek chefs were accorded the status and reputation that French chefs now enjoy. The principles and practice of fine cooking and gastronomy as we know it today were first established in the abundantly stocked and highly creative kitchens of Ancient Greece, and modern Greeks still enjoy the foods and tastes that inspired the chefs of antiquity’.
Rosemary Baron goes on to talk about the height of the Minoan civilization and trade with North Africa, which helped create a small garden of Eden in Crete that influenced Hellenistic cooking. At the height of the Roman civilization Greek chefs and teachers were sought after and employed in the Roman homes and kitchens, and according to Baron it seems under their tutelage the amazing, distinct Italian cuisine developed. Then the Byzantine empire helped the influence of Greek cooking influence travel further. And then during the occupation of the Franks, Venetians, Ottomans eastern and other influences arrived, and tribes like the Vlachs brought spices like my beloved paprika.
I am certain Greek chefs embraced new ingredients and influences from other cultures. The early Greek diet of olives, wheat, figs, grapes, wild greens, fish and a little meat was enriched with ingredients such as lemons, potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes, spinach, okra introduced by trade, but also war and occupation.
The silver lining is that even dark times of occupation were still characterized by culinary and cultural diversity. In her book Baron clearly asserts that the hybridity between Greek, eastern and even Balkan cuisine was mostly nurtured during the more peaceful Byzantine times rather than the Ottoman Empire. But I am sure that the Ottomans have helped many dishes travel through Greek chefs to new parts of their Empire where other cultures also embraced and adapted them.
What fascinates me is Baron’s explanation that during Ottoman times Greeks, who were forbidden to speak their own language, were forced to use Turkish names for dishes such as the now famous moussaka, boureki, dolmades, losing the connection of the dishes to their origins. As children we were taught about secret Greek schools during the Ottoman occupation. They were the underground hubs of language that kept Greek alive but I didn’t know that Greek chefs also took refuge in monasteries for their safety and to safeguard centuries of culinary knowledge!!! Apparently there they wore tall white toques which distinguished them from the monks – the toque is now the chef hat and symbol throughout the world.
Food and its love travel well even at the worse of times. It is a beacon of hope and should connect rather than divide. What I know as traditional and modern Greek cuisine is a real testament to that, and it is a lot more diverse than just the delicious feta and tzatziki.
You can now join my 2017 cooking classes telling you the story of my Greek kitchen. Classes include an Introduction to Greek Kitchen Basics; The Greek Flavours no one is telling you about; The Art of Greek Pie; The Magical Art of spice mixing.
Watch Rick Stein’s programme about Thessaloniki, Greece and its food to find out more about my city of birth and what you might get during our courses: http://bbc.in/2gnRaMQ.
Two pie recipes: leek and spinach, olives and chard fillings
Just a few days after I wrote that I ‘hardly ever shop in town these days’ I found myself on a rare lunch break prowl in Cardiff City centre looking for the basic ingredients of an evening meal for two of my East Side ladies Del Roath, Alice and Emma.
Gathering basic ingredients
I stopped at Pipi’s Greek Café and Deli to get my two basic ingredients: filo pastry and lots of feta cheese. Pipi’s is run by first and second generation Cardiff Corfu-ites and stocks a good range of Greek products in its Deli corner ranging from various types of Feta (Vermio, Dodoni, Kolios), to olives, Greek pasta and even kourampiedes. Filo pastry is sold frozen to retain its moisture and freshness but needs to be thoroughly defrosted in room temperature before cooking, so my timing was perfect: 5 full hours for defrosting at work were allowed but 2 hours in warm room would have been enough.
Feta cheese is one my favourite ingredients and literally translates to slice. Although it is usually just made of ewe’s milk, there are as many varieties of feta as its producers and regions of Greece. It can be creamier or crumblier and sometimes with a strong hint of sweetness depending on the hillsides and pastures the sheep or goats graze on. For my pies Pipi’s offered me feta from Vermio, North West Greece and filo pastry imported from near Thessaloniki where I was born and raised.
On my way back to work I stopped at Cardiff Central Market in haste. I love visiting this beautiful Victorian market building that is home to one of the few remaining fishmongers in Cardiff and where, at its 1st floor balcony, quality LP lovers are at luck. Unfortunately, last week, I only had time to stop for some salad leaves and cherry tomatoes.
Introducing the ladies…
Alice and Emma are my neighbours. I forget how long I have known Alice for and it seems irrelevant. We haven’t always socialised regularly. I have worked, danced, talked and shared food, and most importantly shared moments of my life with Alice, and that I always enjoy doing with this lady. And Emma, who I met through Alice, I have just known for a few months only but I really enjoy getting to know her.
For this first episode of Ladies Del Roath I prepared two different pies, one with leek and cheese and another with olives and rainbow chard. We savoured the pies with lettuce and tomato salad, a bottle of Primitivo red wine from Puglia, Italy and in the musical company of Eartha Kitt and Dinah Washington.
Recipes and preparation
Leek and Spinach filling
Leek and cheese pies had rarely been just that at our home when I was growing up as mom would usually add spinach or other wild greens. But for my version of a leek and cheese pie I used 1 onion and a gigantic organic leek (the equivalent of 4 medium leeks). I sautéed the finely sliced onion in some olive oil , a pinch of salt and a tea spoon of unrefined caster sugar until it almost caramelised. I added the thinly sliced leek and cooked for another 5 minutes or until it was softened. After cooling the mixture I crumbled 250-300gr of feta in and added plenty of freshly ground pepper. I added 2 beaten eggs, as usual, but this time I also added two tablespoons of crème fraiche for a creamier filling. You can also use yoghurt or skip this step.
Olive and chard filling
For the olive and chard pie, I sautéed a finely sliced leek, threw in 5-6 halved cherry tomatoes and about 100-150gr of roughly chopped pitted olives (preferably Kalamata variety but other similar types of brown olives will do), and added 500gr chopped rainbow chard (stalks removed) to cook for about 10 minutes. Sometimes I like using rainbow chard instead of spinach because of its tenderness, mellow flavour and beautiful colours. I find it regularly at Roath farmers’ market at the Blencaemel Farm stall.
To finish off this filling I crumbled 250-300gr of feta cheese, and added a handful of grated cheddar and plenty of freshly grated pepper. No eggs this time! s
Preparation and Baking
Whilst the fillings were cooking I prepared the pie dishes. In my kitchen I use 25cmx 30 or 35cm baking trays for pies. I separate my filo pastry pack leaves in half: for the bottom and the top half of the pie. For 2 pies I used 2 packs of Greek imported filo pastry. I use at least 12 filo pastry leaves for each pie. Most imported pastry packs have 12 or more leaves but the ones you get from supermarkets like Sainsbury might only have six.
Lightly oil the baking tray with a brush before laying the first pastry leaf and then continue by lightly oiling each filo and continuing to layer the first half of the pie (6 or more leaves). I prefer that the filing goes in the middle and then I lay the rest of the pastry leaves as before. You might find other recipes, which require more filling added every couple of leaves.
At the end of the layering process I always fold the edges of the pastry leaves in to secure the filling and create a pie crust. I get rid off excess filo to avoid a dry and flaky pie crust. To finish off the pies for our ladies Del Roath meal, I tried two different toppings. For the leek and cheese pie I melted a knob of butter in 4 tbspns of milk and poured that on the pie starting from the crust edges and topped with sesame seeds. For the olive and chard pie I glazed with some beaten egg and tipped any excess off. Before putting the pies in the oven I pre,cut them into 6 large portion. This allows better cooling down and easier serving after the pie is cooked.
The pies cooked in a preheated oven for about 30-45 minutes, at 170-180 Celsius or Gas Mark 4. If the pie browns too quickly cover with some aluminium foil. And please make sure that the bottom of the pie is cooked before removing.
These ingredients made 12 large portions of pie. There was plenty left over for one hungry man and lunch for two the next day.
Note: I take most recipe cooking times as indicative as ovens differ. My oven is unreliable so I have learnt to adjust cooking time and temperatures. I always set an alarm to go 10 minutes before the indicated cooking time to double check that everything is still going to plan.