Horta, or ‘weeds’, are a staple in every Greek household and foraging for these leaves is a national pastime. I’ve grown up eating mounds of these greens, lovingly tossed with olive oil and lemon, and nothing makes me happier than collecting them with my yiayia. And if I’m lucky, I get my own bag of weeds to take home.
‘Horta again?’ she wailed to her mum as the plate piled high with freshly steamed greens hit the table.
‘Yes’ came the firm reply. ‘They are so good for you’.
Okay so maybe that child was me. Admittedly I had little appreciation for greens back then but this quickly changed somewhere in my early teens and now I can’t get enough.
Horta, from the Latin word hortus meaning ‘garden’, literally means ‘weeds’ in Greek and encompasses a range of indigenous greens including wild spinach, endive, fennel leaves, dandelions, amaranth and nettles. In the Greek countryside it’s a common sight to see yiayiathes bent over with baskets collecting wild greens. The Greeks were foraging long before René Redzepi made it cool.
Those weeds were plentiful in our house while I was growing up because yiayia would regularly drop around piles of the stuff. The idea of having fresh greens dropped off on a weekly basis seems like such a luxury now.
But I can still get my fill with regular visits to see yiayia. At this time of year it’s the rathikia (dandelion) that’s in full bloom, in a few months it will be vlita (amaranth).
Yiayia is so adept at growing horta that it shoots up energetically, not only from the vegetable bed but from random pockets all over her yard.
On my latest visit, yiayia took her knife and carved out a number of rathikia plants for me. I honestly couldn’t tell if we were collecting greens or weeding the backyard.
There’s always quite a bit of work in the preparation stage, including slicing the rough bottoms, trimming any tough or dodgy leaves and removing loose dirt. This requires the leaves to be washed three times (“and again when you get home before cooking Alexandramou”). Yiayia scrutinises each and every leaf with her experienced eye; nothing leaves her kitchen unless it’s in perfect condition.
Yiayia teaches me her trick of rubbing fresh lemon on the base of the leaves to prevent discolouration, much as you would with quince or apple.
Yiayia puts aside rathikia for me to take home and a selection is reserved for our lunch. This bunch is boiled and drizzled with olive oil and lemon to accompany the chicken and vegetables that yiayia has roasted with oregano.
A bowl of horta is the most comforting thing in the world for me and I can safely say you’ll never see me turn down a bowl ever again.