After I left school at 18, I embarked on the exciting adventure of a gap year abroad, spending mine with a family in the city of Athens, Greece. I was going to study Greek and Roman culture at university, and was keen to visit the ancient land I’d heard and read so much about. Although hard in the beginning, being as it was a massive culture shock for this closeted Yorkshire lass, I ended up loving my time there and became very fond of the family who hosted me.
One of the things that surprised me was how much I enjoyed Greek cuisine. Until that age, I was very unadventurous when it came to food, and was happy to stay in my ‘meat and two veg’ comfort zone until, that is, I was faced with no alternative but to eat Greek food.
I discovered the delights of local delicacies such dolmades (rice wrapped in vine leaves), souvlaki (small kebabs with mint dressing), spanakopita (cheese and spinach pie), kleftedes (meat balls), moussaka (aubergine bake), kolokythakia (fried courgette), and baklava (filo pastry with honey and crushed nuts) to name just a few. Despite the abundance of rich food, one of my favourites was the simple Greek salad made with tomatoes, feta cheese, onions and olives. It would be liberally doused with oil made from olives grown by the family themselves and stored in enormous urns in the cellar. I had never had anything as exotic as olive oil before, and despite not being particularly fond of olives, the oil was another matter entirely. I grew to love it, and most foods were either cooked in it, or sprinkled with it. It might explain why I came back from Greece rather larger than when I went!
The best part of having a Greek salad came at the end. Bits of cheese would crumble off while you were eating, and finish up at the bottom of the bowl along with the oil and tomato juice. It was perfectly acceptable, in fact almost obligatory, to break off some bread and mop up all the delicious remains of the salad. The Greeks even had a name for the practice – ‘papara’.
The family with whom I stayed were not shy about how fantastic they thought their food was compared to ours. They described English cuisine as stodgy, bland and overcooked, which in the 1980s was probably an accurate description. I’m glad to say that these days, our country’s reputation has dramatically improved, and we have some of the best chefs cooking exquisite menus in some of the finest restaurants in the world.
One of the traditions that the Greeks just couldn’t get their heads around was why we often served savoury foods with sweet accompaniments. I can still remember the grimace on my host Laura’s face when she talked about us serving pork with apple, or duck with orange, or turkey with cranberry sauce. In her mind sweet and savoury never belonged on the same plate.
She recoiled in horror at the mention of gammon with pineapple, and pineapple on pizzas too, or dates with bacon and pear with Stilton. She would definitely not have approved of our tradition of serving cheese with grapes either, never mind a custom that my dad describes in his column from 22nd November 1980. He says: ‘In Yorkshire, we like to eat our cheese with apple pie, for it is said that apple pie without a cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.’ And here’s me thinking us Yorkshire folk preferred our apple pie with custard! (I would be delighted to hear if any of you still do it, or whether you eat any other unusual sweet/savoury combinations).
Another tradition of which my Greek host would disapprove is that of serving Wensleydale cheese with Christmas cake. I mean, it has to be one of the best combinations, but I’m not sure she would have ever been persuaded to try it, nor to try it with gingerbread, another Christmas treat that my dad mentions. However, this was the 1980s, so perhaps the Greek palate would be more open to it today.
Having said that, though, I have a feeling that Laura would express her opinion in no uncertain terms when she learned that this year, one of my favourite salads has been salty Greek feta with sweet pomegranate seeds.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 20th Nov and the Gazette & Herald on 18th Nov 2020