Why Greeks love weeds

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Yiayia checks the horta thoroughly for dirt

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.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

See why they’re called weeds?

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.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Yiayia’s row of planted horta

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.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

Rogue rathikia at their best

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.

Picking and cooking Greek horta with yiayia

A good healthy bunch of rathikia

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. Read More

Sunday cooking sessions with my yiayia

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Yemista or stuffed tomatoes

Whenever I stop fidgeting for five minutes, my favourite place to spend a Sunday is at my yiayia Maria’s house – eating, cooking, raiding her garden for herbs, eating, playing gin rummy and more eating. Her mission in life has always been to feed everyone around her and you only have to look at my mum, sister and I to see that it’s clearly an inherited trait.

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Yiayia could make spanakopita with her eyes closed

For most of my youth I took it for granted that yiayia’s cooking always tasted exactly the same (i.e. delicious). It wasn’t until I started to notch up my own miles in the kitchen that I realised that kind of consistency is hard earned.

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Spinach and cheese filling in the spanakopita

Of course I want my cooking to taste like yiayia’s right now so I’ve made a point of learning as much as I can from her over the years. Extracting a recipe is easier said than done though, and I have to watch her like a hawk to work out each step. She relies purely on sight and touch to know when something is perfect.

‘How much flour yiayia?’

‘Enough until the dough is ready Alexandramou’.

Of course yiayia!

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A spanakopita of this size lasts roughly fifteen minutes in my family

Lucky for me we tend to focus on savoury dishes, so a little variation in quantity usually doesn’t spell disaster. Spanakopita (cheese and spinach pie), yemista (rice and meat stuffed tomatoes) and keftethes (meatballs) are always a good starting point. I wouldn’t dare go freestyle on kourabiethes! Read More