“I at last realised that eating was a spiritual function and that meat, bread and wine were the raw materials from which the mind is made.”

From the novel Zorba the Greek. Nikos Kazantzakis.

In the 2002 film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the female lead and author, Nia Vardalos (playing Toula Portakolas), celebrates the internecine family tussles generated by her wish to marry a ‘non-Greek boy’. Her on-screen father, Gus Portokolas, believes this to be a sin against the very foundations of the Greek nation – “There are two kinds of people – Greeks, and everyone else who wish they was Greek”. Yet another of his xenophobic obsessions was that all words, in no matter what language, are of Greek origin. His frequent quote, “Give me a word, any word, and I will show you that the root of that word is Greek” chimes, albeit erroneously, throughout the film.

That bell rang more plausibly as I was leafing through Vefa Alexiadou’s fine opus – Greece. The Cookbook (2016). In the introduction she cites the word diet as being derived from the Greek dieta, meaning ‘way of life’. The patriarch Portakolas would have felt exonerated.

Mercifully, it is this culinary ‘way of life’ that is still evidenced in a great deal of Greek home cooking. It is also reasonable to say that what we perceive today as Mediterranean cuisine, clearly originated in Greece.  Long before the birth of Christ, Hellenic Greeks settled across the basin of the Mediterranean, colonising what we now know as southern Italy, France, Spain and Turkey, providing Greek recipes as a culinary mainstay.

Portakolas happier still I suspect.

When launching the magazine, In Search of Taste, I was convinced that the contemporary linchpin of today’s fabled Mediterranean diet was still Greek, and I began casting around for someone to delve into the origins of this Hellenic gastronomy to provide a comprehensive article. The bulk of my Greek cookery books, are all by the acclaimed writer Aglaia Kremezi, and it was to her I turned for culinary illumination for the magazine. Based on the island of Kea, her understanding of the cultural interchange around the coast of the Mediterranean, and its gradual effects upon early gastronomy, are unparalled. Aglaia never forgets that Greek food, like its wine, is an agricultural product which must have good farming at its heart, and her writing reassures us that good home cooking remains at the heart of present-day Greek gastronomy.

When, back in my own kitchen, I chose to assemble a Moussaka with more than a nod to its roots deep in early Levantine tradition, it was Aglaia’s opinion that was crucial.

Although Middle Eastern in origin, (the basic Arab Mousaquaa contained no meat), it has become the most well-known all of Greek dishes, originally transported back to our shores amid the bewildered memories of bucket-shop holiday makers, who all too often experienced the dish as a viscous shadow of its former self in the greedy genesis of Greek tourist hotels. However, Aglaia’s recipe dispels all doubts as to the authentic qualities this dish can and will provide in your own kitchen.

Mousakka from Mediterranean Hot and Spicy (2009) Aglaia Kremezi

Sea salt

2 large eggplants (about 1 ½ pounds), sliced lengthwise ¼ inch thick

Olive oil

1 pound potatoes, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick

3 large bell peppers, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound lean ground lamb

1 ½ cups chopped onion

3 to 5 teaspoons Aleppo or Maras pepper, or 1 or 2 pinches of cayenne, or to taste

1/3 cup dry red wine

½ cup dried currants

1 pound ripe fresh red tomatoes, grated, or 2 ½ cups good-quality canned chopped tomatoes in their juice

5 or 6 grinds of black pepper, or to taste

1 or 2 pinches of freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon Ras el Hanout, or a good pinch of ground allspice

1 pound (4 cups) Greek yoghurt, preferably sheep’s milk, or a combination of 2 parts yoghurt and 1 part heavy cream

2 egg yolks

Salt the eggplant slices, place them in a colander, and let them drain for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat about 1 inch of olive oil in a deep, heavy skillet over medium-high heat and briefly fry the potato slices without letting them cook through. Remove with a slotted spoon and layer them on the bottom of a 9 x 12 inch glass or ceramic ovenproof dish at least 1 ½ inches deep (or an equivalent round or oval dish).

In the same frying oil, sauté the peppers over medium-high heat, stirring often, until they start to colour, about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. Reserve the frying oil, measure out ½ cup, and return it to the pan. Sauté the lamb in the oil, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until no longer red. Add the chopped onion and continue to sauté, stirring, for another 10 minutes, or until the onion becomes translucent Add the Aleppo pepper and the red wine. When the mixture boils, add the currants and tomatoes. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper, add the nutmeg and ras el hanout, and remove from the heat. The mixture should be thick and quite spicy.

Preheat the broiler.

Wipe the eggplant slices with paper towels and place them on a baking sheet. Brush both sides with the reserved oil and broil about 4 inches from the heat until golden on both sides.

Preheat the oven to 400 ºF.

Arrange the eggplant slices over the potatoes. It doesn’t matter if they overlap somewhat. Layer the sautéed peppers over the eggplant and top with the lamb and tomato sauce. In a bowl, mix the yoghurt with the egg yolks, stirring well. Pour the mixture over the lamb and tomato mixture. Bake for about 1 hour, until the top starts to colour and the moussaka is bubbly. Let cool completely and refrigerate.

To reheat, place in a preheated oven at 375 ºF for about 20 minutes, until bubbly.

Wine thoughts

At the risk of repeating myself, I will.

My choice would be an Assyrtiko, so please see my notes under Dolmades, in the Vegetable section.

For the ever curious wine seekers out there, do try the classy, glorious red that is making more than its fair share of waves at the moment – Xinomavro. And do remember these wonderful varietals when you next wish to sweep the board at Scrabble.