Greek classics; eating in

As Theodore Kyriakou's new restaurant proves, real Greek food bears no resemblance to the tasteless taramasalata and kebabs of tourist menus. Michael Bateman reports
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The Independent Culture
IT'S NO coincidence that Theodore Kyriakou, the finest Greek cook in Britain, makes a mean pie.

His father came from that part of southern Albania which was formerly Greek, and famous for the quality of its pastries and pies. When Theodore's father met the girl he wanted to marry, there was real fear in the Kyriakou family that she might not be able to cook pies of a suitable standard, coming as she did from a Greek family which had emigrated to Detroit.

Theodore's maternal grandmother was set up as arbiter and fortunately Theodore's mother's pies made the grade, and gained her acceptance into the family.

In the UK, however, Greek cooking has a reputation for being little more than cheap and cheerful. Theodore hopes to challenge this perception with his new restaurant, The Real Greek, which opened its doors at 15 Hoxton Market in north London on 5 September.

What most Londoners think of as Greek food is no such thing. It is Greek- Cypriot. There is more to real Greek food than dried-out kebabs, taramasalata (made with 90 per cent breadcrumbs) and salad. There is another Greece, Theodore explains, which has a long tradition of warmth, hospitality and painstakingly prepared dishes. It is not a style of cooking that many visitors will encounter since restaurants in Greece cater to the tastes of tourists, not the locals.

But in fact, real Greece has mouthwatering foods in abundance: specialities such as avgotaraho (pressed mullet roe), pastarmi (not pastrami), cumin-and-chilli cured fillet of beef (bresaola with attitude), smoked hering, cured tuna and mackerel; pulses (used to make stews, purees and spicy dips); unique cheeses including hand-made feta processed in barrels; flavoursome vegetables including okra, courgettes, aubergines and green beans. To say nothing of spices and scented wild herbs.

Some dishes can be traced directly back to classical Greece. As early as 500BC Athens was a place where the culinary arts were discussed with as much seriousness as politics and philosophy. They even had cooking schools and dining clubs. A century later Archestratus wrote his Life of Luxury, the world's first appreciation of the gourmet credo.

When Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, created a homogenous empire, new cultures provided ideas and novel ingredients such as exotic spices. By the time that Greece had become part of the Roman Empire, it was Greek cooks who were sought after by rich, sophisticated Romans.

Further cross-pollination was provided by the Ottoman Empire, whose magnificent cooks shared their skills in the art of making meze, the forerunners of tapas and hors d'oeuvres. The making of fine pastries, both herby and savoury, and honeyed and sweet, is another skill which passed into the Greek culinary heritage.

Theodore Kyriakou was not brought up to be a cook. At the age of 17 he joined the Merchant Navy as an officer on an ocean-going cargo ship moving cooking oil around the world.

Twice his ship sank, the first time 50 miles off Capetown after a fire. They all got away in lifeboats. The second time, 250 miles from Honolulu, the ship split in two and half the crew drowned. He and the other survivors were adrift for eight days before being rescued.

That was enough. Dodging the three-year national service (a criminal offence), he fled to London, taking the first job he could get - peeling potatoes in a kitchen. About four years and 15 kitchens later, he'd learnt a thing or two about cooking. A stint with Fergus Henderson at St John led him to open Livebait, a highly-acclaimed fish restaurant near the Old Vic.

When the concept was bought and upgraded by the Groupe Chez Gerard in Covent Garden, Theodore became one of London's high profile chefs overnight.

Theodore has an extraordinary talent, according to Charles Campion, the most gourmandly of our food writers. Charles collaborated with him on a book of Livebait recipes and was stunned by Theodore's restless inventiveness.

If it's not Greek cooking as we know it, it's how Greek cooking ought to be, says Charles. I was lucky enough to be a guinea pig as Theodore tried out the dishes he was lining up for the restaurant.

He is a diminutive 40-year-old, a Puck-like figure glowing with enthusiasm. Dozens of meze appeared at his bidding: croquettes, fritters, purees and dips such as fava, and pureed split peas from Santorini, beaten with garlic, parsley and olive oil until it ressembled an aioli.

There was salty, slightly bitter pressed mullet row with a lumpfish roe sauce and taramasalata (90 per cent real cod's roe), dolmathes (vine leaves stuffed with sticky rice) with a sauce of avgolemono, cured tuna, a salad of wilted bitter wild leaves and fried segments of a young Greek pecorino- style cheese, called kefalotiri.

For main courses, there was rack of lamb with fennel broth (see right), pot-roast rabbit with artichokes and dill, and an incomparable marrow and feta cheese pie. For dessert there were saffron curd cheese tartlets.

And the verdict? Delicious. Theodore passed on the following tips to anyone wanting to cook Greek style food:

MARINATE meat for before you cook it. The rabbit was immersed in a bath of oil, lemon juice and herbs for two days, so that the flavours were absorbed by the very centre of the meat.

MAKE dishes the day before. They always taste better on the second day when the flavours have mingled, whether they are stews or purees, dips, pies or desserts.

ROAST meat slowly, to retain flavour and tenderness. In Greece they call it "resting the meat".

EAT food at room temperature, neither too hot nor too cold, to enjoy the full flavour.

DON'T be afraid to use good olive oil liberally when appropriate. It's tasty and healthy.

Real Greek Food, by Theodore Kyriakou and Charles Campion, will be published by Pavilion Books next year

MARROW AND FETA CHEESE PIE

Makes 4 individual pies

1kg/2lb 4oz vegetable marrow

2 supermarket packets fresh basil (approx 30g/1oz)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium eggs

200g/7oz feta cheese

pepper and salt (table and sea salt)

500g/1lb 2oz packet of puff pastry ("deluxe" supermarket puff pastries with high butter content are best)

Peel and quarter marrow lengthways. De-seed carefully, then grate into a colander using the largest holes of a cheese grater. Sprinkle with a light dusting of table salt and put a weighted plate on top (the objective is to draw out as much water as possible). Leave for two hours. Pick the basil leaves and slice into fine strips. Mix with the oil, butter, and one of the eggs, beaten. Then crumble in the feta cheese carefully. Season with fresh ground black pepper but no salt. Give the marrow one last squeeze, and add it to the mixture, mixing gently. Roll out the puff pastry. Take four loose bottomed, 10cm (4in) flan tins. Make pastry circles that overlap the tin edges by a generous margin as you will need plenty of spare to crimp the edges. Cut 10cm (4in) circles of pastry for the lids. Fill each pie with a quarter of the mixture. Beat the second egg in a cup to use as "glue" and for glazing. Add the lid and bring the edge up, crimping it in a roll as you would a Cornish pasty and gluing it in place with egg. Brush the whole pie with beaten egg and sprinkle with a few crystals of sea salt. Put in the refrigerator and rest for at least 20 minutes. Put a thick baking sheet in to the oven and pre-heat to 170C/325F/Gas 3. Place pies on a hot baking sheet and, after 30 minutes, lift the pies (on their tin bases) out of the rings and put them back in the oven for 15 minutes to brown the sides.

Serve lukewarm rather than hot, with some tzatziki or sharp yoghurt.

POACHED RACK OF LAMB WITH FENNEL BROTH

The timings given will produce lamb that is cooked to "the pink side of well done"

Serves 4

1 rack of lamb weighing about 1kg/ 2lb 4oz, with all the fat removed

6 whole cloves of garlic, peeled

2 lemons

1kg/2lb 4oz fennel, finely chopped (save any feathery tops)

100ml/7fl oz extra virgin olive oil

2l/134pt homemade chicken stock

250g/9oz whole shallots, peeled

100g/4oz carrots, peeled and chopped

100g/4oz leeks, finely chopped (including green parts)

2 stalks of celery, chopped finely

4 bay leaves

half a 15g/12oz supermarket packet of flat parsley

15g/12oz supermarket packet of dill weed

sea salt and black pepper

Cut three of the garlic cloves into slivers and insert into the meaty part of the lamb with a knife. Mix chopped fennel leaves with the grated zest of two lemons, a tablespoon each of sea salt and pepper, and 50ml (2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil. Rub the mixture into the rack of lamb, wrap in clingfilm and put into the refrigerator to marinate overnight. Take a saucepan large enough to hold the lamb and vegetables, put in the stock and bring to the boil. Add the vegetables and bay leaves, and simmer for about an hour until the fennel is cooked, skimming occasionally if necessary. After 45 minutes add the chopped parsley and dill (reserving a little for garnish) and the rest of the olive oil. Check the amount of liquid in the pot (if there isn't enough to immerse the lamb, add boiling water). Season to taste. Submerge the lamb in the simmering soup and cook for 15 minutes. Remove and carve into cutlets. Add the juice of a lemon to the broth and check the seasoning. Serve the broth in a bowl with cutlets arranged around the edge. Sprinkle with the remaining chopped dill and parsley.

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