Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Garden to Kitchen

Garden to Kitchen

The Marmalade Mafia – a kitchen story

Often we have a lot of people turning up for coffee and elevenses. We always stopped work at this time of the day and make coffee for ourselves and any of our workers or guests. And, if anyone else wants to reach us, they know that is the time to come. On this occasion Takis and his assistant Anestis were finishing off a tricky cementing job on the third floor and it was left to me to make the coffee and carry the cups and glasses of ice water out onto the terrace. On this particular day we had three of our neigbours calling. Panoyiotis had come with a pot of honey we had ordered, his wife Vetta had come with a bunch of treated sultana grapes for me to put out in the sun to dry, and another neighbour had come hoping to watch Takis making marmalade.

It happened to be one of Takis' Greek-frenetic days, he was not only supervising the cement laying on the top floor, but also popping out to the terrace to chat to the coffee drinkers, AND in between demonstrating to this guest his marmalade-making techniques. Understandably agitated at one point he let a pot drop on the tiled floor, but the mess was soon cleaned up. And amazingly, before the group left we had a line of six pots of marmalade, ready for the store cupboard.

Marmalade making is a bit of a passion for Takis. And recently he has thought of it as a possible new project, one that could make use of a lot of the wasted bitter oranges in Greece. And so, in Greece and back in our Australian home, we have cupboards full of his samples – sweet, bitter, sugarless, and all kinds of mixes of sweet and bitter oranges and lemons. This project began as a reaction to the horribly sweet and strangely sweetened orange marmalades that are nowadays in the shops. They all require refrigerating when opened, and mostly are nothing but chunk-less jelly. We prefer our marmalade to be bitter, sticky and chunky.

(The sugarless samples are for me as unfortunately I’ve now discovered I’m a diabetic. When Takis eats his freshly baked bread, with real butter topped with his kind of marmalade my mouth drools. I have to ask for just one corner of his slice. And I must say I feel sorry for today's youngsters who have to put up with the loss of so many taste sensations that today's market is getting rid of.)

Finding a gap on the supermarket shelves Takis began setting out to right a wrong. And he is so set on making the perfect marmalade that he has roped in a few accomplices to see if he could fine down his recipe and the time it took to make. The Marmalade Mafia I call them. Anestis was called upon to scrounge some of the bitter oranges from the gardens he works in – where they had been left to rot. Maria, his wife, brought us some extra jam jars, and a visitor (knowing of his latest passion) brought us a jar of Scottish marmalade, to make a comparison of what we believed was an original recipe. All of these helpers doubled as taste testers.

Takis' Recipe
This recipe uses the bitter orange fruit know in Greece as Nerantzia. (No added pectin is required)
5 ripe oranges (2 kg )
2 kg.  sugar
1.5 litre water
Peel the oranges in way to leave the centre core still covered with pith of the fruit intact.
The outer orange peel can now can be sliced in strips, according to your preferred thickness.
Place the peel and the whole intact centre fruit in a large pan.
Cover with the measured water. Bring to boil, cook for 5 minutes.
Turn off the heat and cover with a lid. Leave overnight for the peel to soften.
Bring this water and peel to boil again and cook for 2 minutes.
Reduce heat, remove whole fruit ( one at a time), and place in stainless steel colander.
Squeeze each fruit to extract juice and pectin from pips.
Pour this juice into the pan.
Add the measured sugar and stir until sugar melts.
Boil hard and start watching for setting.

Most people have heard of Seville oranges however the Greek bitter orange, known as narantzia, gives just the taste and texture we love. By the way, a piece of trivia about the Greek bitter orange, that I found in Jennifer Gay’s book, Greece: Garden of the Gods. The word narandj is from an Arabic word meaning a fruit much loved by elephants!

Nerantzia, Bitter Oranges
Archaeologists suggest that the Narantzia was cultivated in Cyprus as early as 1394 AD, though it is the Spanish Seville Oranges that most people think of when making  marmalade. The Seville Orange is sometimes used as a rootstock for grafts of Sweet Orange. In Greece the Nerantzia trees are often used as decorative street trees, as they are tough, and look very pretty hung with oranges. But when they fall they are mostly left to rot. We have one old Narantzia tree and have made the best marmarlade with it.

          Our Narantzia tree is in the corner of the herb garden.

Growing and Cooking – a practical approach to gardening
I love Mediterranean gardening, and though I may never have time or the money to make a wonderful Mediterranean Gardens of the type we see in glossy coffee table books (and often created by early English owners of Mediterranean homes) I do now have my own dream garden. There is the pleasure of sitting outside on stone terraces under the shade of pergolas on summer evenings. Then there is the enjoyment of gathering from our own vegetable plot. For in a Mediterranean Garden, if you have a water supply, you can grow fast-growing, hot-weather loving plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants. And the big plus is that there are so many delightful quick and tasty dishes that can be made from tomatoes, peppers, eggplants.

This is a place where almond trees need very little help to bare fruit. The old almond trees that were here when we arrived are now producing buckets-full, and at the end of the summer we have time to strip off the outer covering and painstakingly crack them, one at a time. And how delicious are the almond cakes we make with them.

We once drove by bus from Thessoliniki to Kevala past massive stands of corn. The green fields spread out as far as the eye could see. What was it all used for? Oil? Flour? Cattle feed? After the corm we passed lakes and then paddocks of fruit trees. The mainland was certainly a place of abundance, a shock for us after the dryness of Lemnos. But even on our windy, almost tree-less island, there were places where abundance could be found, in the valleys where there are vineyards and wheat fields, and in the allotments where each Lemian family has access to enough land and water to grow their own vegetables.

Caring for an Edible Garden in Lemnos
Almond, Apple, Apricot, Bitter Orange (narandzi), Cherry, Fig, Lemon, Orange, Peach, Pear, Plum, Quince.

Basil, Bay (laurus nobilis, daphne), Oregano, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme.

Beans, Carrot, Celery, Egg Plant,  Garlic, Globe Artichoke, Lettuce, Onion,  Silver Beet, Sweet Corn, Tomato, Zucchini.

                      The plot when we arrived

              Anestis planting one of our first fruit trees
                                                        Starting work on the vegetable garden


                                     The vegetable garden after three years

The previous occupant of our house had the topsoil removed as a way of weeding, so I wondered if there was still enough soil to plant vegetables. It was not long however before vegetables and fruit were plentiful, and our meals could be planned around what we harvest. This is very Greek, as recipes here tend to follow the seasons. Even the first year, because it was virgin soil, things grew at twice or three times their normal size. Our corn was as ‘high as an elephants eye’, and my sunflowers were three meters high and still growing when we left in autumn. Though there was no sign of either of them fruiting or flowering! I think the problem may have been that I was still a Mediterranean Garden Novice and gave the plants too much water.

Anestis has a feeling for plants so I trust him to look after the garden in winter when we return to Australia for a few months to catch up with our children. He plants out vegetables in early spring so that we have onions, eggplants, peppers and tomatoes nearly ready to pick when we return in late spring.

We have become aware that in Greece spring quickly turns into kalakeri (summer). We might have one or two thunder storms in June, but by July the heat has dried the garden to a crisp and in order to water I can only bear to go out in the early morning, and even then wearing a sunhat. But it was only a couple of years and our plants were more established, and I didn’t have to water as often. At first, worried about my young plants putting down their first roots, I had watered too much, but now I try to limit watering, even the vegetables, to only once every three days. And I even water now in the Lemian way, filling trenches with water beside each row of vegetables. This encourages the roots to seek dampness deep down. Plus, if I can find some straw I try to mulch around the plants, to keep the sun off the roots.

With this care in mid-summer I can go out and gather pails of tomatoes, peppers, egg plants and onions, knowing there will be more very soon. I roughly chopped the lot, cooking them in a large pan with some olive oil and herbs - usually some sprigs of sage, rosemary, basil and oregano. Then, after sieving, through my trusty tomato press machine, I bring the sauce once more to almost-a-boil and bottle. This sauce proves very useful when the house is full of guests, providing a quick base for a number of recipes.

Two Interesting Bogs with More Greek Recipes

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