4. Northern Greece
Amazing chicken pie
We went off the beaten track quite a lot to find places that were a bit more gnarly and unusual. That’s how we ended up in a village called Aspraggeli, which is in a mountainous region that reminds me a bit of the Alps. It’s quite sophisticated, this area, and they are very good cooks. There are half a dozen villages that are absolutely beautiful, and they make a very nice wine there, too. I liked it a lot. We met a mother and daughter, who made me a chicken pie, kotopita. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was, not only because the filo pastry was hand-made but also the filling was out of this world.
The pie is made from a whole chicken that’s been poached with onions, which gives it a sweet, unexpected flavour, and is also very moist. Then the meat is stripped from the carcass and mixed back in with the onions. The Greeks love these pies and they’re part of their cuisine, but we are more familiar with the spinach and feta variety. This was a very pleasant surprise.
5. Southern Greece
Twist on a favourite
For me, this was the most atmospheric, romantic part of my journey. I’d read travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, so I had this impression of a very rugged, mountainous part of Greece where there are no trees. He had a house near Kardamyli and, though he died about four years ago, it’s just as he left it. We met his housekeeper, Elpida, who told us that he wouldn’t let her cook him moussaka because he hated it. But one day she served it to him, and he said, “This is delicious, what is it?” When she told him, he replied, “Well, I don’t like moussaka, but I do like this!” So she then made it for us and it was quite sensational.
The two things about her version is: you have to fry everything before you layer it up, and also she put potatoes as the first layer then the aubergines, then tomato mince and béchamel sauce. Using potatoes as the first layer makes a big difference because they soak up a lot of flavour through the meaty juices. It was such a lovely dish; very light and nothing like the heavy slabs you are served up in tourist places.
There’s a rich tradition of street food in western Turkey, and we loved it. I tell you what is good: gozleme. It’s like a type of filo pastry, but the dough is rolled out wafer thin, even thinner than filo. The effect is similar to a rumali roti that you get in India. It’s fascinating to watch them being made. They sit on the floor and roll out the dough on this little chopping board with legs, and then they just flick the very thin dough onto a very hot, oiled dome and it cooks like a flatbread. There are various fillings that are rolled up and cooked in the pastry – spiced lamb, or spinach, feta, spring onions and chilli, for instance. You eat them for breakfast, lunch, an evening snack… God they’re good!
A plate of gozleme and a pot of Turkish coffee, and you’re in heaven. We went to another mountain shepherd’s hut, a little house, to watch them making cheese in a goat’s skin. It is a bit of an acquired taste: they just separate the goat’s milk and then put the curds into a goatskin and cure it. It has a slightly tart, goaty flavour, which I professed to like but actually I found it a bit difficult to stomach, because they then seal up the goatskin and squeeze the soft cheese out the top. It comes out a bit like shaving foam! But the shepherds made gozleme up there, too. It’s a bit like a pizza, it’s everywhere. I suppose it’s so popular because it’s portable. You fold it up, the dough protecting the filling, and you can take it like your lunch, just like the Italians would do with their calzone.