Vefa Alexiadou: Meet Greece's answer to Delia Smith
In her native country, she's bigger than Delia. Now, Vefa Alexiadou's recipes have been published here – and they're not typical taverna fare
Thursday 16 July 2009
Lemonia, the Greek-Cypriot restaurant in London's Primrose Hill, has had more than its fair share of famous faces in today. Kate Moss and Sadie Frost popped in for lunch and so, too, did the singer Rachel Stevens. But it is the presence of a Greek cook called Vefa Alexiadou that gets the staff all in a fluster. Even the chef pops out of the kitchen to get a glimpse.
It's not surprising they're all in awe, because back in their homeland Alexiadou is universally acknowledged to be the grand dame of Greek cuisine and is fantastically famous. She published her first cookbook, An Invitation To Dinner, in 1980 and has produced dozens of bestsellers since. For 13 years she had a daily slot on the TV show Morning Coffee, which virtually the entire country tuned into, and she also has a chain of kitchenware shops dotted all over Greece. She has a combination of Delia Smith's oracle status and Jamie Oliver's sharp entrepreneurial streak. "I have," she tells me modestly, "taught the women of Greece how to cook."
She certainly has the manner of someone who has spent their life dishing out instructions. She's never short of tips, either, and when Lemonia's chef steps up to greet her she tells him that his stuffed courgettes weren't quite right and the flesh should have been dug out a little deeper.
Although a few of Alexiadou's books have been translated into English, she has never actually been published in this country, but this summer Phaidon has brought out a venerable tome called Vefa's Kitchen, stuffed with more than 700 recipes. It's the most comprehensive treatment of Greek food we've seen in this country.
It's also arguably a collective Greek effort, because the book is the result of the years and years Alexiadou spent gathering recipes from all over her country. She launched an enormously popular cooking contest on her TV show and every year thousands of people would send in their recipes. She and her team would sift through them and whittle them down to the winners, which would then be published in a magazine. "Women from villages all over Greece would pass on their family recipes," says Vefa, "Some would even send me the original manuscript written in their grandmother's hand writing."
The result is a kind of Greek "best of" and anyone who thought that Greek cuisine was the stuff you were served on your annual holiday – moussaka, kebabs, Greek salad – is in for a surprise. In the chapter on mezedes (or meze), for example, there are nearly 120 dishes. Yes, taramasalata, tzatziki and hummus are all there, but so too is cuttlefish in wine, salt cod fritters and squid served with nettles.
There is a big chapter on lamb, "many Greeks' favourite meat", full of delicious-sounding slow-cooked stews, as well as a wonderful section on fish. One surprise about the book is how well it caters for vegetarians. Much of Greek cooking, Alexiadou tells me, follows the teaching of the church. Traditionally, Greeks fast 40 days before Easter and 40 days before Christmas and during these times meat and dairy products are banned. Thus, a wealth of sophisticated vegetable dishes emerged on the Greek menu. So the book includes recipes for stuffed celery root, braised okra, fennel bake and, unsurprisingly, endless suggestions for what to do with an aubergine.
With such emphasis on tradition, it comes as no surprise to hear that Alexiadou's mother was hugely influential. "There was always something on the stove and the house always smelt of cinnamon, vanilla and herbs of every kind."
Although Alexiadou was a keen young cook, at the age of 18 she enrolled at Thessaloniki University to study chemistry. She got a job as a chemist and it was not until she was 45 that she embarked on her career in food. "I used to cook for a group of friends," she says, "and the next day the phone wouldn't stop ringing with each of them asking 'how did you do this?' and 'how did you do that?'. They began to push me to write a cookbook." At the time no one was interested in publishing an unknown food writer, so she borrowed the money and published it herself. The first print run of 5,000 books sold out within four weeks.
I ask her why she thinks Greek food hasn't caught on in this country in the way that, say, Italian has. Alexiadou thinks it's all a question of perception. When Greeks starting arriving in New York, she says, instead of opening restaurants they chose to sell souvlaki, pitta and tzatziki from stalls on the streets. "Greeks didn't open restaurants like the Italians did," she says. "Italians respect their kitchen. Greeks don't. We have a great cuisine. We should present it nicely and not on the streets."
She blames the restaurants in her homeland, too. "Greek restaurants often use very bad ingredients – the worst ingredients in order to save money. Because of this, very few people in Britain understand what real Greek food is. The only way to know the true flavour of Greek cuisine is to be a guest in someone's home."
Theodore Kyriacou, the chef who opened The Real Greek in London in 1999 agrees. "When we first opened people would come in and walk straight out again," he says. "I was very clear that I wasn't going to do the usual suspects of Greek salad, moussaka and kebabs. None of those things were on the menu. People didn't recognise any of the dishes from their holidays in Greece and just left." When Kyriacou sold up in 2006 there were seven Real Greek restaurants, but he still wasn't sure how far we'd come in our acceptance of Greek cuisine. "I thought that more Greek restaurants would follow," he says, "but I think it's going to take years to change the minds of people about what Greek food actually is."
Still, if Alexiadou has her way it won't be long before we all come round to her way of thinking. After all, she says, compared to British food, it's no contest. "There is no English cuisine, I'm sorry to say. You all need my book."
Vefa's Kitchen by Vefa Alexiadou is published at the end of June by Phaidon; Lemonia, 89 Regents Park Road, London NW1, 020 7586 7454
Marinated red mullet from Corfu By Vefa Alexiadou
3 ¼ (1.5kg) small red mullet or snapper, scaled and cleaned
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose (plain) flour
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 cup (250 ml/8 fl oz) tomato juice
3 cups (750 ml/1 ¼ pints) olive oil]
1 cup (250 ml/8 fl oz) red wine vinegar
15 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper. Put the flour into a plastic bag, add the fish, a few at a time, and shake to coat. Transfer the fish to a colander and shake off excess flour. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan. Add the fish and cook for around five minutes on each side, or until cooked through. Remove from the skillet and let cool. Pour the tomato juice, olive oil, and vinegar into a pan, add the garlic and rosemary, season with salt, and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the garlic has softened. Pour a little of the hot marinade into an earthenware bowl and make a layer of the fish. Pour in some more of the marinade and make a second layer of fish. Continue making layers in the same way until all the fish has been used. Pour in the remaining marinade to cover the fish. Let marinade in the fridge for at least 3-4 days. Covered with oil and stored in a cool place, fish prepared in this way will keep for several days, and the flavour continues to improve.
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