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The Greens Party

Do you remember Grimms’ fairytale about the goat that lied to its master every evening? “Well, I jumped over stones and wood,” said the goat “but nowhere did I find food, meh, meh!”

Here in Crete such a lying beast would have ended up in the pot, especially in spring when the west of the island becomes a sea of vegetation and locals are given a green light to collect this ‘free food’.

Of course, the herbal habit is not that simple, but since Hippocrates’ day nearly all known plants are thoroughly investigated and analysed for their nutritional value and pharmaceutical properties.

But even more impressive is the depth of knowledge your average Cretan has about this huge variety of local plants, known to all as horta, and how they should be eaten. Even by wandering around open markets you can easily spot about 10-15 different hortas, many of them regarded in England and Germany as pests and either weeded for the compost heap or, worse still, exterminated with chemicals.

Which of the 60-70 Cretan horta will be brought to your table depends on the season and the hunting luck of your host. I decided to try my luck around the archaeological site of Aptera above Souda Bay – with more than a little help from Eleftheria and Manolis, two old village sages.

They agreed to let me into the secret world of ‘weeds’ by naming some of these wild greens. But even before we started I was told that today’s names might mean absolutely nothing in the next village. Some of the most common hortas on the Cretan menu, though, are universally known such as radikia (bitter chicory), vrouves (yellow mustard), roka (rocket), tsouknida (nettel) or marathos (fennel).

High in the top ten is “stamnagathi”, a spindly variety of chicory not easily found these days and very collectable in the cold of winter, when its price reaches 8-10 euros a kilogram at the greengrocers. But its ability to help diabe-tics as well as relieve liver and gallstone problems makes it worth every cent.

Horta is often boiled to make it more palatable, but which part is eaten depends on the variety – you eat the roots of volvi (like an onion), the naked stems of askrolimbros and the leaves of spanaki. But one thing they all have in common is that they harmonise perfectly with local olive oil and lemon juice, making them an important part of the famous Cretan diet.

Discoveries at Knossos and other archaeo-logical sites on the island prove that the traditional nourishment of the local village people has changed little since Minoan times. And Cretans’ fair share of wars, evictions and hiding in the mountains during their eventful history forced them to live off whatever nature sowed, thus horta has become as common a daily vegetable as the potato or cabbage has for us – with the added bonus that it’s free.

But being free didn’t stop Manolis’s panic-attack after an extra-juicy bunch of wild asparagus escaped from his plastic bag. “I wanted to give it to my daughter so that she will bear a son,” he panted, after searching everywhere for it. Old wives tale or not, poor old Manolis was having kittens before Eleftheria kindly donated her asparagus tips to a more deserving cause.

Horta is also a favourite filling for small pies, a variation of the kalitsounias, which filled with white cheese (athotiro) are a local dessert snack that is eaten freshly baked and smothered in honey.

Anyway, with so many different varieties to choose from, only the cook’s imagination limits the number of recipes, so horta’s value for a healthy diet cannot be praised enough.

Unfortunately, like anywhere else the local youth is developing a knack for fast food in the form of fatty burgers, but the damage is still kept in check thanks to seemingly endless feast days bestowed on the Cretans by church, gods and victorious battles. And at these family gatherings, when up to 50 people squeeze around the table, woe betide anyone who doesn’t eat their greens. After all, a lot of work has gone into putting it on their plates.

While black-shirted Cretan men are out with their rifles, hunting game or the occasional traffic sign, the women folk are out collecting horta. This is always a female duty, quite often led by the family’s grandmother who knows all the best plants to pick and when. So don’t be shocked if you are driving along admiring the scenery when the car in front suddenly slams its brakes on, pulls up on the verge and a small, stooped old woman clad in black, totters out holding a knife and a plastic bag. It’s not an attempted highway robbery or the family solving the age-old problem of what to do with a nagging mother-in-law. No, while speeding along at 100km an hour the lady’s sharp eyes have locked on to a potential meal.

The shock of nearly slamming into the back of them may not have been particularly good for your heart, but at least hers will benefit. As they say: “Horta good, all is good.”

Some advice, though, if you fancy joining the horta hunt yourself. Firstly, don’t collect it from the verges of busy roads because pollution from car exhausts will negate most of the horta’s bene-fits. Also, road verges in Greece are used as the inside lane.

Secondly, “tha pame sta horta” is much more than just collecting vegetables. Take some friends with you. While walking through fields, olive grooves or along a riverside you will enjoy the tran-quility and beauty of the Cretan landscape and the thought of the evening meal with horta collected by yourself. Kali oreksi and don’t listen to the goats.


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