“We do not sit at the table to eat… but to eat togetherPlutarch, Greek philosopher. (46 AD – 119 AD)

As we are living through an era plagued by travel uncertainty, with the welcome whiff of sea salt, scorching sand beneath the feet, scrubbed white dwellings peppering the landscape, gastronomy to envy and the nearby cobalt blue Aegean remaining but a dream, some attention to the eternal cuisine of its people might serve to compensate.

Large regions of rural Greece defend some of the last sacred ramparts of a truly Mediterranean diet, and remain one of the very few European markets where  the voracious global franchise of McDonald’s has yet to secure culinary pre-eminence. Maccie Ds (and for that matter, KFC’s, Wendy’s et al) are there all right, but for now the fast-food footprint is still mercifully small. But with abiding classical traditions of the area dissected by Christian history (once divided into BC and AD and now replaced by the secular BCE and CE), future generations of Greeks rummaging through their own history, may yet look ruefully to the Gregorian calendar, circa CE1991, as the year when Big Mac arrived in Athens. To the plaintive strumming of the Bouzouki, McDonald’s PR company even managed to smuggle a McGreek on to the menu. Still a burger, ironically replete with beef, but now unnervingly served in pita bread. One wonders if the same company were aware that the word irony is of Greek derivation (eironone who deceives).

Given the so-called Western diet (consisting of highly processed fast foods interlaced with added fats, refined grains and sugars) has already contributed to more than 60% of modern-day illnesses in western Europe and America, the continuing colonisation of many distinctive cuisines – such as that of mainland Greece and its Islands – causes an existential shudder to many who plan on staying passably slim and resolutely healthy.

A peek at the residents of Ikaria, the Aegean island named after that headstrong teenage aviator Icarus, who’s early death had more to do with space travel and sun worship than dietary judgement, might explain the benefits of simple Greek cuisine. Residents of Ikaria, who have developed a more protracted view of mortality, live on average ten years longer than the rest of Europe. One in three are presently over ninety. Not so sure we could get anywhere near the same generational exit poll from McDonald’s.

If our new King reigned over the islands, he would need a Moonpig account to keep up with the flow of birthday cards to centenarian residents.

Compared to the ubiquitous gastronomy of France, Spain and Italy, Greek cuisine has been met with only halfhearted approval in the UK. A similar oversight still obscures a myriad of exciting wines – many made from ancient grape varieties, but which still barely break cover here.

In the immortal words of Zorba the Greek – “On a deaf man’s door, you can knock forever”

The triumvirate of grapes into wine, wheat into bread, and olives into oil, remains the bedrock of life-enhancing Greek gastronomy. And in direct contrast to other European countries, indigenous dishes seamlessly lay claim to a culinary tradition which the citizens of ancient Greece might well recognise today and which reveal roots that reach back to the very dawn of our Western civilisation. If we were to lose it – before we’ve used it – this would surely be a Greek tragedy, far beyond the tear-strewn productions of Sophocles or Euripides.

In keeping with the low meat diet of the islands, I have fallen for this Vegetable Moussaka from Ripe Figs (2021) by Yasmin Khan – although a traditional meat based Moussaka can be achieved by replacing the mushrooms with 500 g minced lamb.

25g dried wild mushrooms, a mix of porcini, oyster, black trumpet and so on
olive oil
3-4 large aubergines  (total weight about 1.2kg) cut in rounds about 2½ cm thick
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 fat cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp ground cumin
700g chestnut mushrooms, chopped into 3cm chunks
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sweet paprika
2 tsp dried oregano
400g tomato passata
1 tsp sugar
25g parsley leaves, chopped
100g plain breadcrumbs (shop-bought is fine)
salt and black pepper

For the sauce

650ml whole milk
60g salted butter
60g plain flour
60g kefalotyri or parmesan cheese, grated
¼ tsp white pepper
⅛ tsp nutmeg  freshly grated
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 200C fan/gas mark 7. Rinse the dried mushrooms and place in a bowl. Cover with just-boiled water and set aside to re-hydrate. Lightly brush a baking tray with oil, add the aubergine in a single layer and toss with 3 tablespoons of oil and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Bake for 25-30 minutes until soft.

Heat 3 more tablespoons of oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cumin and fry for a couple of minutes. Then add the fresh mushrooms, cinnamon, paprika and oregano. Fry for 5 minutes. Drain the dried mushrooms and add them to the pan with the tomato passata, sugar, parsley and 1½ teaspoons of salt. Cook for 5 minutes over a high heat to evaporate some of the water. Add the breadcrumbs, stir well and take off the heat.

Now for the sauce. Heat the milk until it is just below boiling point. Melt the butter in another saucepan over a low heat, add the flour and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Slowly whisk in the hot milk and keep stirring until you have a thick sauce. Once you do, add the cheese, ½ teaspoon of salt, the white pepper and nutmeg, and whisk until the cheese melts.

If you are baking this straight away, take the sauce off the heat and leave it to cool for 5 minutes before beating in the eggs. If you are finishing the dish later, simply beat the eggs into the sauce just before you start assembling the moussaka.

Arrange half the aubergines in the oven dish and spoon over the mushrooms. Add another layer of aubergines, covering the mushrooms completely, then pour over the sauce. Bake for 45 minutes or until well browned. Leave to cool for 20 minutes, then serve.

Wine Thoughts

Putting aside those dated package holiday quips aimed at Retsina –“kills 99% of all household germs”, Greek wine has some thrilling contemporary styles on offer. Although slightly hampered by words that seemingly occur when somebody bumps into the scrabble-board, reds are steadily working their way up the charts with wines like Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro – but white wine is leading the trajectory. Savatiano and Malagouzio are making a more prominent  appearance, with Fokiano offering a delightful Rosé – that’s if you have the courage to order it in a noisy wine bar. However my first port of call is volcanic Santorini’s – Assyrtiko, (pronounce the y as an e, and you’ve got it), deliciously ripe lemon notes mingle with orange blossom and jasmine, the finish has a breezy saline and mineral grip that cuts through the rich mushroom heart of the dish.