Category Archives: Regional

Greek Lamb Sausage

I have Greek food on the brain.  The current infatuation has many diverse origins.  For starters this summer is the ten year anniversary of an epic trip through southern Greece, and I have been reading old food notes from the journey.  Also I’ll be doing a class on Greek mezze for Metro Continuing Education this fall.  With all this in mind last week I made a Greek lamb sausage.

Coils of Greek lamb sausageIn 2008 I spent five weeks in Greece, eating in tavernas two or three times a day.  I don’t think I ever had a sausage like this.  In other words this sausage is not traditional, but it is very much inspired by Greek loukaniko, a pork sausage flavoured with orange zest.

This version is made with 100% lamb shoulder, so I figured we may as well go ahead and use lamb casings.  And we may as well wrap them up into adorable little coils and skewer them.  I never saw this in Greece but it makes for an interesting mezze.  And as I wrote here, Canadian Greek food is very much wanting for interest right now.

 

Greek Lamb Sausage

Ingredients

  • 2.270 kgs lamb shoulder – I like Four Whistle lamb
  • 35 g kosher salt
  • 54 g garlic, minced fine
  • 25 g orange zest (I use a zest compound called Perfect Purée)
  • 6 g ground black pepper
  • 3.6 g allspice
  • 2.38 g dried oregano
  • 1.8 g cayenne pepper
  • 1.17 g bay leaf
  • 0.9 g chili flake
  • 240 mL chopped parsley
  • 220 g ice water

Procedure

  1. Cut lamb shoulder into 1″ cubes.  Mix with salt and spices.  Spread onto a sheet tray in a single layer and semi-freeze.
  2. Grind meat using a 3/16″ plate.
  3. Transfer mixture to the bowl of a stand-mixer.  Add chopped parsley and water.  Mix on speed 2 for two minutes.
  4. Stuff mixture into lamb casings.  To make the spirals shown in the photo above, stuff into 19-21 mm lamb casings.  Be careful not to over-stuff as spiralling puts a bit of pressure on the contents.  Link into 22″ lengths.  Cut the links apart.  Curl into spiral shape.  Set spirals right up against each other on a sheet tray so that they are holding each other in shape.  Skewer.

Yield:  Approximately 16 spirals

Buranelli Cookies

Buranelli cookies in the traditional "esse" shape.One of my favourite Italian desserts is simple, elegant, and endlessly adaptable: cookies and sweet wine.  In Italy I’ve seen this dish served with every manner of cookie, from amaretti to lady fingers to biscotti, and sweet wines as various as Vin Santo, Recioto, and Pantelleria.  You could easily take the dish outside the realm of Italian cuisine and try something like ginger snaps and sweet applejack.  A particularly memorable experience was being served s-shaped Buranelli cookies with a glass of sweet Zibbibo in a small restaurant in Venice on a wet, chilly September afternoon.

Buranelli are from the Venetian island of Burano.  The dough is a bit like shortbread (more sweet and less buttery than my preferred Scottish-style shortbread) enriched with egg yolk and flavoured with lemon zest and vanilla.

There are two classic shapes, the bussola (“compass”) and the esse (“s”).  The compass is just a strip of dough curled into a perfect circle.  For some reason the s-shapes are made backwards to how the letter is normally written.  It’s a simple, versatile dough that could be made into any shape, including the classics of Scottish shortbread like fingers and petticoat tails.

Buranelli Cookies

Ingredients

  • 125 g unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 110 g white sugar
  • 80 g egg yolk (4 large egg yolks)
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 + 1/2 tsp vanilla paste
  • 250 g all-purpose flour

Procedure

  1. Combine butter, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Using the paddle attachment, cream ingredients thoroughly, roughly 10 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl every few minutes.
  2. Combine the yolks, zest, and vanilla.  Add to the creamed mixture and paddle until well mixed.
  3. Slowly add the flour will the mixer runs on its lowest setting.  Stop mixing as soon as the flour is incorporated.
  4. At this point the dough can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for later use, but note that the dough is much easier to work with when it is at room temperature.
  5. Divide the dough into 20 equal portions.  Roll each portion into desired shape.
  6. Line portions on a heavy bake sheet lined with parchment or a silicon mat.  Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
  7. Bake in a 375°F oven until the edges and bottoms are just starting to brown.

Buranelli cookies with Recioto, a sweet wine from Valpolicella.

Styrian Pumpkin Seed Oil

A couple bottles of Styiran Gold brand Styrian pumpkin seed oilStyrian pumpkin seed oil (Steirisches Kürbiskernöl in German) is a remarkable artisan product.

Styria (Steiermarck in German) is a province in the southeastern part of Austria.  Here and in parts of adjacent Slovenia they grow pumpkins that produce hull-less seeds.  These seeds are roasted and pressed to produce a fabulous oil that puts all other pumpkin seed oils to shame.  Whereas most North American versions are a yellow-brown colour, Styrian pumpkin seed oil is deep forest green, and powerfully redolent of roasted nuts.

Unfortunately I have not been able to find a high-quality Styrian pumpkin seed oil at any of the continental import shops in Edmonton like K & K.  To get my fix I purchase online from Styrian Gold, a company in Ontario that imports direct from Austria.  I buy it by the case for use at Salz Bratwurst Co.  I also purchase the whole, hull-less seeds from Rancho Vignola.

How to Use Styrian Pumpkin Seed Oil

The most important thing to know about this oil is that you don’t cook it.  Like ever.  I know a lot of people say this about olive oil, but there are some olive oils you shouldn’t cook with, and some you definitely should.  Styrian pumpkin seed oil is emphatically a finishing oil: cooking kills the aroma, produces bitter flavours, destroys the nutrients, and turns your food a weird brown colour.

There are old-timers in Austria that take a tablespoon of this oil every morning for its nutrients, like how some folks here take raw apple cider vinegar.

Here are my favourite ways to use the oil.

Garnish for Soup.  The deep green oil looks amazing floated on a bowl of vibrant orange pumpkin or squash soup.

Pumpkin soup drizzled with Styrian pumpkin seed oil

 

Finishing oil on salads.  Especially tomato salad.  Season the tomatoes with salt and a splash of vinegar.  Let stand to marinate, then drizzle pumpkin seed oil over top just before serving.Tomato salad garnished with Styrian pumpkin seed oil.

Steirische Eierspeise

“Styrian egg dish” is scrambled eggs finished with the province’s signature oil.  I started making this dish with soft-boiled eggs still in their shell, instead of the traditional scramble.  As the egg yolk is fatty, it mingles perfectly with the oil.

To prepare, cook a whole egg, in the shell, for five minutes in gently simmering water, so the whites have set, but the yolk is still runny.  Crack the shell to expose the top of the egg, then use a spoon to remove the top of the white.  Rest the egg on a bed of coarse salt, and spoon half a tablespoon of pumpkin seed oil into the yolk.  Add a pinch of salt and enjoy.

I have tried this dish with other flavourful, high-quality oils, such as the canola, hemp, and flaxseed oils produced in Alberta.

Soft-boiled egg with pumpkin seed oil

 

On Ice Cream (Seriously)

When I worked at Looshaus in Kreuzberg they had a dessert called “ice cream with oil and vinegar”.  It was a bowl of ice cream drizzled with Styrian pumpkin seed oil and apple balsamic vinegar.  It sounds so, so weird, but is so, so delicious.  When I make this at home I like to add some of the toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch.  I call it Austrian rocky road :)

A bowl of vanilla ice cream with Styrian pumpkin seed oil and apple balsamic vinegar.

Goulash

A plate of goulash, Hungarian beef stew, served with ServiettenknödelnGoualsh is a beef stew originally from Hungary but eaten all over Central Europe.  It is the kind of preparation that Europeans will fight to the death over.  Matters like whether it is properly called a stew or a soup, whether it contains tomatoes, or potatoes, or what starch it is served with (if any) often become violent.  It is estimated that 12 Europeans are killed every year in goulash-related arguments.[1]

The following is an original recipe, inspired by the goulash made at Seewirtshaus in Semmering, Austria.  When I worked there they made a goulash similar to this using Maiboc (May deer) and served it with Serviettenknödel.  Many would take exception to my use of tomato paste and bell peppers, but I like this recipe just fine thank you.

 

Goulash
original recipe

Ingredients

  • 2.5 kgs beef chuck, cut into 1.5″ cubes
  • 150 g unsalted butter
  • 350 g onion, thinly sliced
  • 350 g bell pepper
  • 22.5 g garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 500 mL very rich beef stock or jus
  • ~1/4 cup cornstarch slurry
  • kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar

Procedure

  1. Spread the beef out on a sheet tray lined with a clean cloth.  Use another clean cloth to pat the beef dry.  Season with salt.  Sear in a very hot, heavy pot so the meat is amber on all sides.  Remove the beef from the pan and set aside.
  2. Reduce heat and add butter to the pot.  Once the butter is melted add the onion and sweat briefly.
  3. Add the bell peppers, garlic, paprika, and oregano.  Sweat until onions are starting to turn translucent.
  4. Add tomato paste and cook briefly.
  5. Add red wine and bring to a simmer.
  6. Add beef stock and bring to a simmer.
  7. Add seared beef and bring to a simmer.  Cook very gently until the beef is tender, maybe 1 hour.
  8. Add cornstarch slurry to adjust consistency.  Should be the nap consistency of velouté.
  9. Add salt, pepper, and red wine vinegar.  Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

 

Footnotes

  1. Not true.

Spätzle

All the spätzle.Spätzle are little dumplings.  They are sometimes described as egg noodles, though they are quite different than the broad, flat, twisted dried pasta sold as egg noodles.

In former times spätzle were shaped by cutting small pieces of dough with a knife or spoon and rolling them into a pot of boiling water.  This process gives the noodles a long, tapered, vaguely avian appearance, which is the alleged origin of their name, which literally means “little sparrows”.

Originally a specialty of Swabia in the far south-east of Germany, spätzle is now common throughout southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.  Shorter, more rounded versions are sometimes called knöpfli, which means little buttons.

These days most spätzle is made using a special board called a spätzlehöbel.  It resembles a cheese grater.  It is placed horizontally over a pot of simmering water and the dough is worked back and forth along its length, slowly being pushed through the perforations in the board and dropping into the water.

Spätzle may be served immediately after cooking, or it can be cooled and reheated by re-simmering or pan-frying.

Europeans are very particular about what starches are served with what meats.  I may have related this story in another post, but one time my sister and I were eating in Vienna.  She ordered schnitzel, and asked if the customary parsley potatoes could be substituted with spätzle.  The waiter flatly refused.  Schnitzel can only be served with parsley potatoes.  Spätzle is properly served with braises and other saucy preparations like goulash.

This tradition is flaunted in North American: I have seen spätzle served with everything from pork chops to baked salmon.

One very special variation deserves mention: käsespätzle, cheesy spätzle, which is basically macaroni and cheese made with spätzle noodles instead of macaroni.

Spätzle

Adapted from a recipe from Jack’s Grill.  I decreased the flour content slightly to make the dough softer, and translated the measures from volumes to weights.

Ingredients

  • 360 g whole milk
  • 410 g whole eggs (about 8 large eggs)
  • 40 g egg yolk (about 3 large yolks)
  • 800 g all-purpose flour
  • 6 g kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Combine the milk, eggs, and egg yolks in the bowl of stand mixer.
  2. Using a paddle attachment, mix the ingredients so that the eggs are well incorporated.
  3. Reduce the speed to a slow stir, then slowly start adding the flour.
  4. As soon as all the flour has been added and there are no dry lumps… stop mixing.
  5. Set up two medium pots of water over medium heat.  Generously season the water with kosher salt.
  6. Lay a spätzle-board across one of the pots of gently simmering water.  Fill the hopper with dough, and slide back and forth so that the dough is pushed through the holes and falls into the water.  Spätzle is cooked roughly 30 seconds after it floats to the surface of the water.
  7. Once the noodles are cooked, remove from pot using a spider and transfer the to a bowl.  Toss with a small amount of canola oil to prevent sticking.  Spread on a sheet tray lined with parchment and let cool.

Yield: about 2 kgs spätzle

Strangely, I don’t find that resting this dough makes much of a difference at all.  I often process and cook the dough immediately after mixing.  That being said, the dough can also sit in the fridge over night before shaping and cooking.

Ouzo

Me drinking a glass of ouzo with water in Parikia.

Me drinking ouzo with water, and being a douche-bag.

Ouzo is a strong, clear, anise-flavoured spirit made in Greece.  The taste may remind you of liquorice candy, or other anise spirits like sambuca, pastis, and Pernod.  The term is a protected regional designation within the EU, meaning that if it’s not made in Greece, it can’t be called ouzo.  It is usually about 40% ABV.

Ouzo is made by infusing a relatively neutral spirit with anise and other botanicals.  The neutral spirit is a grape pommace distillate, just like Italian grappa or French marc.  In most of Greece this grape pommace distillate is called tsipouro, though the Turkish word raki is also common, especially on the islands of Crete and Cyprus.  Tsipouro has been made for centuries, and over time many distillers, notably monks, started flavouring tsipouro with herbs and spices.  Ouzo is simply an anise-flavoured tsipouro.  Unflavoured tsipouro and raki are still very common in Greece.  In fact most meals that I ate on Crete ended with a complimentary glass of raki.  There is at least one brand of tsipouro available here in Alberta: Avaton, made by the Greek winery and distillery Tsantali.

I think of ouzo the same way I think about gin: a neutral spirit infused with botanicals.  For gin the featured botanical is juniper, but there are usually several other ingredients, maybe lemon peel or grains of paradise or seaberry.  In ouzo the featured botanical is anise, but there are often other ingredients like coriander or cardamom.  For both spirits it is the unique blend of botanicals that sets the different brands apart.

Unlike gin, ouzo has not gone through a renaissance at the hands of small craft distillers around the world.  While the shelves of boutique liquor stores abound with the likes of Aviator, The Botanist, and Monkey 47, there are not many ouzo options for us here in Alberta.  I think the reasons are pretty obvious.  The extremely strong anise flavour is quite polarizing to North Americans, and very much an acquired taste.  Plus ouzo is not used in classic cocktails.  Plus you can’t call it ouzo unless it’s made in Greece.

The only three brands of ouzo currently available in Alberta: Ouzo 12, Cambias, and Olympic Ouzo by Tsantali.Anyways, according to Liquor Connect, there are in fact only three brands of ouzo currently available in Alberta: Ouzo 12, Cambas, and Olympic Ouzo by Tsantali.

The most common brand here as in the rest of the world is Ouzo 12, which was first developed in the 1880s and has been owned by the Campari Group since 1999.[1]  It has a strong and pure anise flavour.  Cambas is a great counterpoint to Ouzo 12, showing how different houses flavour their spirits.  While still smelling and tasting of anise, Cambas has a very distinctive toasted coriander aroma. I find the Tsantali Olympic to be the most neutral and least interesting of the group.  I also find the Greek column packaging super tacky, but that’s par for the course in Greek exports.

How to Serve.  The most traditional way to drink ouzo is mixed with water and served on ice.  You will notice that the liquid changes from clear to milky and opaque.  This is because the main flavour compound in anise is readily soluble in alcohol, but not in water.  When you add water these compounds start to come out of solution and diffract light, making the drink cloudy.

Ouzo with water (<<ouzo me nero>>) is a common aperitif in Greece.  It can be found at a taverna, or an ouzo bar called an ouzeria.  Both of these establishments usually offer small plates of mezethes, Greek appetizers.

Ouzo Cocktails.  Ouzo is emphatically not a part of the classic cocktail bar, but if you appreciate the fresh taste of anise, it can make some brilliant mixed drinks.  I’ve developed two of which I am quite fond.

 

An icy-cold Dryos sour.Dryos Sour
A while ago I wrote a short post about a perfect moment I had drinking ouzo and water in a lime orchard in a town called Dryos.  Much later I decided to make a simple sour combining the flavours of ouzo and lime.  I love the icy white colour of this drink.

Ingredients

  • 2 oz Ouzo 12
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 3/4 oz fresh lime
  • 1/2 large egg white

Procedure

  1. Dry build: Combine the ouzo, syrup, lime, and egg white in the glass of a Boston shaker.  Secure the tin and shake a few times to start the egg white emulsion.
  2. Open up the shaker and fill 3/4 full with ice.  Secure the tin and shake vigorously for about 15 seconds.
  3. Double strain into a chilled glass.

 

A Greek variation on the classic Sidecar cocktail.Greek Sidecar
This is basically a classic Sidecar, only using Greek brandy, and substituting a small part of the brandy with ouzo.  So where the Dryos Sour smacks you in the mouth with anise, the Greek Sidecar merely suggests it.  Metaxa brandy is sweetened with a small amount of muscat wine after distillation and aging.  For this reason I have dialed back the Grand Marnier from the classic 1 oz.

Ingredients

  • 1.5 oz Metaxa ‘7 Star’ Brandy
  • 0.5 oz Cambas Ouzo
  • 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 oz Grand Marnier

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients in the glass of a Boston shaker.
  2. Fill the glass 3/4 full of ice.  Secure the tin and shake vigorously for about 15 seconds.
  3. Double strain into a chilled glass.

 

Sources

1. All these facts – most popular brand worldwide, developed in 1880s, and bought by Campari in 1999 – are from this page on the Campari website.

Greek Salad – Horiatiki

horiatiki_greek_salad.JPGThe actual Greek name of the ubiquitous Greek salad is Horiatiki, which means, roughly, “village salad.”  As I mentioned in my general post on Greek food, one Greek restaurateur told me that the primordial Greek salad was just feta, onions, and olive oil, and that traditionally the cucumbers and tomatoes are flourishes added only in the summer months.

There are really only two things you need to know to make superlative Greek salad.  The first: for this dish more than maybe any other you need to use amazing ingredients.  Greek salad with pale tomatoes and thick-skinned cucumbers and canned olives is really one of the saddest things you can eat.

I use the following:

  • Gull Valley vine or cherry tomatoes (or in late summer tomatoes from the garden…)
  • Hothouse cucumbers from Doef’s greenhouse.  I prefer the smaller varieties as they have tender skin.
  • Vlahos feta – This is a cow’s milk feta made in Camrose by Tiras Dairies.  It is available at Greek grocery stores like Omonia Foods, as well as the Italian Centre Shop.
  • Marinated kalamata olives from Olive Me.

My second bit of advice: even though this is a very “elemental” salad, and we want the ingredients to speak for themselves, this doesn’t mean we should shy away from seasoning and dressing the salad.  I season the cucumbers and tomatoes a good while before mixing the salad.  The traditional dressing is just olive oil, but I always add wine vinegar, too.  Fresh herbs like parsley and oregano are also nice.

My only other suggestion is to be judicious with the onions.  A good spike of raw onion is a beautiful contrast to the juicy fresh veggies, but a little goes a long way.

Because we are dressing this salad it is best served with bread, to soak up the tomato juice and vinegar and oil left at the bottom of the bowl.

Horiatiki – Village Salad

Ingredients

  • 300 g fresh cucumber
  • 350 g fresh tomato
  • 20 g red onion, finely minced
  • a big pinch of salt
  • sugar (maybe)
  • olive oil
  • red wine vinegar
  • feta

Cretons

Originally posted December 15, 2009 (if you can believe that).  Re-posted today with some major corrections.  I first read about cretons in an article in The Ottawa Citizen by then-food-columnist Ron Eade.  He presented cretons as a Quebecois variation on rillette.  A while back Emmanuel (Manu) of Pied Cochon, Joe Beef, and Woodwork fame gave me the skinny on cretons, and they really are not like rillettes at all.  I am not able to find that original Ron Eade article to expose it.  Presumably someone from the lower St. Lawrence forced him to remove it as libel or lies.  Anyways.  

A ramekin of cretons.Cretons is a pork spread made by simmering ground pork and aromatics like onion, bay, and clove in milk or cream.  As with any Quebecois dish there are as many variations as there are Francophones.

Pork.  You can use regular ground pork.  Actually the pork can be quite fatty as any lard that renders into the pan will be bound up with the dairy and (in my recipe…) breadcrumbs.

In addition to ground meat, Manu also adds gryons. This is the Quebecois word for greaves (see this post on rendering lard for more info).

Usually I’m a fanatic about searing meat, even the ground meat used in chili and meat sauce.  Searing generally improves the colour and flavour of a dish, but there are a few notable exceptions.  In my book those exceptions are veal blanquette and cretons.  We want a soft texture and a light colour.

Onion.  To me onion is essential as a sweet-‘n-savoury bridge between the pork and the spices.

Speaking of Spices.  Clove seems to be the most commonly used spice in cretons.  I use a standard quatre-épices blend of black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.  These baking spices can easily become cloying, so use a light hand.

Dairy.  Some use milk, some use cream.  I use cream because it gives the final dish a rich texture but a happy, bright white colour.

Breadcrumbs.  Again, not all recipes include breadcrumbs, but I like using them to bind up any pork fat that has gone adrift and floated to the surface of the mixture.  Starch such as breadcrumb makes for a smoother, more cohesive spread.

Basically all these components are combined and simmered until the dairy has reduced and become a stodgy porridge.  At this point the mixture is potted and chilled.  It is most commonly eaten for breakfast, on toast.

Lazy Man’s Cretons.  Oftentimes when I make pie I misjudge the ratio of dough to filling, and am left with a surfeit of one or the other.  Excess pie dough is easy to get rid of (pie sticks!)  Excess filling can be a bit trickier.  If I have leftover tourtière filling, I put it in a heavy pot and cover it with heavy cream.  If you simmer this mixture for about an hour it’s hard for an Anglo such as myself to differentiate it from true cretons.  I have no idea what Quebecers would think of that, but it’s already happened so we should all move on.

Like many rustic preparations, cretons is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it’s almost impossible to not be tasty; on the other it is truly impossible to make it look appetizing in the modern sense.  It is cold meat porridge, after all.  But it’s delicious, and a great way to use up leftover ground meat.

 

Cretons

Ingredients

  • 600 g ground pork
  • 150 g onion
  • 10 g garlic
  • 1 tsp quatre-épices
  • 470 g heavy cream
  • 30 g bread crumbs
  • 1.5 tbsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Gently cook the pork in a heavy pot.  Do not colour the meat.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and quatre-épices.  Cook gently until the onions are starting to become translucent.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients.  Simmer until the cream has reduced.  The mixture should have the consistency of porridge.  Roughly 45 to 60 minutes.
  4. Transfer immediately to ramekins or ceramic dishes.  Chill thoroughly.
  5. Spread on toast.

Greek Food

Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things.

-Jeffrey Steingarten, on Greek food

Dawn at the harbour at Iraklio, Crete

As the above quote from Vogue’s food critic demonstrates, Greek food is not often taken seriously in North America.[1]  In fact, a trip to a Greek restaurant is not even about the food, as the food is more or less the same at all Greek restaurants.  In our part of the world, dining at a Greek restaurant is about the experience, an experience that usually involves tables for twelve, bazuki music, belly dancing, liquor, repetition of the phrase “Opa!”, smashing plates, and of course setting cheese on fire.  All of this commotion invariably occurs between whitewashed walls supporting plastic grape vines.

It’s cyclical and self-perpetuating: the public has come to expect a zany, raucous, experience, so Greek restaurants deliver to make a buck, which reinforces our ridiculous idea about Greek cuisine and culture.

I haven’t done any solid research on the issue, but I’m pretty sure the initial misconception comes from a movie that is a half-century old: Zorba the Greek.  Based on a Kazantzakis novel, the movie is about a stuffy half Greek half English writer who moves to Crete to run a lignite mine. In Piraeus he is approached by a Macedonian named Zorba who offers his services as a mining crew chief.  Zorba: the name itself is wild.  He is obsessed with women and wine and dancing and in short drinks deeply and lustily from the cup of life.  This has become a stereotype throughout television and film, in everything from My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

In the movie, Zorba is the Greek spirit teaching the prudish Englishman how to enjoy life.  Interestingly in the book, both of the main characters are Greek.  Zorba is perhaps the ancient Greek spirit, standing in stark contrast to his contemporary compatriots, who are all fettered by the Orthodox Church, superstition, and poverty.

But I digress.

The day after I wrote my last university exam I departed for a five week trip to southern Greece with my girlfriend Lisa.  My degree was in electrical engineering.  At the time I had a part time job in a kitchen.  Our time in Greece did a lot to make me forget about engineering and work as a cook when we returned to Canada.

Before the trip I considered the word “cuisine” a fancy way of saying “food”, and to me the two terms could be used interchangeably.  The trip (by which I mean the reading I did beforehand, the five weeks of travel, and the hundred or so meals Lisa and I ate in Greece, almost entirely at markets and tavernas) taught me that cuisine was a cohesive set of traditions that informed how a society interacted with the natural world.

I learned that there was a seasonal rhythm to the traditional food of Greece.  One restaurant owner explained that true Greek salad is actually just raw onion, feta, and olive oil, ingredients that are available year round.  Only in the height of summer were flourishes like tomatoes and cucumbers added.  This seems so obvious to me now having spent the last eight years immersed in food, but at the time it was a revelation.[2]

I was fascinated to see how these traditions were interpreted differently by each taverna. Saganaki, for instance, which is essentially just fried cheese, was different in every place we ate.  Sometimes it was made with kefalotiri and flamed with brandy so that the cheese melted into a gooey mat.  At a beachside taverna on the island of Syros it was made with a firm local cheese called San Michiali and gently warmed in the oven, simply to heighten the aroma and flavour.

If I had to characterize Greek food I would say it is above all else simple and elemental.  Your salad is tomatoes, capers, potatoes, and corn.  Your dinner is fish, or octopus, and lemon, and herbs.  Your dessert is melon and raki.  Of course there are exceptions (one does not easily whip up a batch of baklava) but generally food is prepared with minimal intervention using simple techniques that don’t significantly alter or mask the ingredients.

Likewise meals are served without any ostentation.  The entire trip I didn’t see a single belly dancer (maybe one in Plaka…)  No plates were smashed.  The meals were always outside, on a sidewalk or in a garden (Tamam was literally the only exception, the only time we ate indoors in an entire month).  Rarely was there music playing.  Our meals were quiet, humble, and (again) elemental.

One of the most memorable parts of our trip to Greece was the August full moon.  We were staying on the island of Paros, in a small town called Dryos.  For several days leading up to the lunar event the owner of our hotel told us that the August full moon was one of the greatest, most festive nights of the summer.  We had absolutely no idea what to expect, and we let our imaginations run wild with visions of a beachside bacchanalia.  The reality was much more restrained (we ate dinner and went out for drinks with some other tourists) but we remember it fondly.

Every full moon in August Lisa and I eat Greek food and take some time to reflect on that trip.  Some years it’s just a glass of ouzo and water with some small mezze, maybe tzatziki and pita. Other times it’s a full meal, with roast lamb and wine.

Today happens to be this year’s August full moon, which is why I have Greece on the brain.

A Greek dinner for the August full moon: roast lamb shoulder, potatoes, olives, tzatziki, and horiatiki.

 

  1.  This quote is from The Man Who Ate Everything, an article in which Steingarten tries to learn to appreciate his least favourite foods, which include (among many others) kimchi and Greek food.  Here he is referring to feta, which is aged and stored in brine (not actually that weird…) and retsina, a wine from Attica that is flavoured with pine resin.
  2. Of course, this seasonality is a thing of the past, and whether you are in Athens Greece or Athens Ontario (look it up), and whether it is July or January, a Greek salad always has cucumber and tomato.

Grüner Veltliner and Other Austrian Wines

Some shameless self-promotion:  if the type of information contained in this post interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of sparkling wines on Thursday, February 11, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

Three examples of Grüner Veltliner available from wine shops here in Edmonton.I’ve been meaning to write about Austrian wine for some time.  Years, actually: ever since I wrote this post on Heurigen, which are rural taverns that serve young wine and cider.

Last week the Elm wine group did a tasting of Grüner Veltliner, the national grape of Austria, so I thought I would finally put down some info on Austrian wine.

If you haven’t had Austrian wine before, you’re not a freak or a philistine: there isn’t a whole lot available in North America.  Austria produces almost as much wine as New Zealand[1], but in most generic liquor stores the Kiwis have an entire section, while you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle from Austria.  Boutique wine shops like Devine usually carry a handful.  It seems that the majority of Austria’s wine is consumed by Austrians.

Despite its relatively small amount of exports, the Austrian wine industry has garnered a lot of attention in recent years because of its commitment to both its regional identity and quality production.  The latter sounds like it should be a given, but within most wine-producing countries there are regions that make enormous quantities of mediocre or bad wine, creating surplus, driving down prices, and ultimately threatening the entire wine industry.[2]  The southern-most regions of France and Italy are infamous examples.  By contrast, almost all of the area under vine in Austria is devoted to quality wine production.  Austria also has some of the most stringent regulations for processing and labelling, though admittedly these were put into effect after a 1985 scandal that saw some producers adding diethylene glycol to improve the body of their wines.

It’s always tempting to lump Austria in with Germany, and while the two countries do share some grape varietals and labeling practices, Austrian wines have a lot more in common with those of Alsace than Germany.  They produce mainly dry whites, common varietals being Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Riesling (almost always dry, unlike German examples), and Gewürztraminer (also dry, unlike Alsatian examples).  The most common red variety is Zweigelt, an Austrian native.  As in Germany, wines are sold under varietal name.

Austrian wine production occurs almost entirely in the east end of the country, in the lower regions away from the Alps of the west.  Most of the Austrian wines available to us in North American come from the province of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), specifically parts of the Danube and its tributaries just upstream of Vienna: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental.  (The suffix “tal” indicates a valley.  The Kremstal is the valley around the town of Krems.  The Kamptal is the valley formed by the river Kamp.)  The most important of these is the Wachau.

Wachau.  The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube west of Vienna.  Much like the German Mosel, the best wines here are labelled by varietal as well as the vineyard or hill that produced the grapes.  Important hills include Loibenberg, Terrassen, and Kellerberg.  These may appear on labels either by themselves, or in conjunction with the name of the adjacent village (eg. Dürnsteiner Kellerberg refers to the hill Kellerberg by the town of Dürnstein).

The Wachau also has its own version of the German “predicate” labelling system, which classifies wines by pre-fermentation must weight, that is, sugar content.  The more concentrated the original must, the higher potential alcohol, and in theory the higher the quality of the wine.  So in Germany Rieslings are classified as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenasulese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, in order of increasing must weight (and by extension increasing prestige and price-point…)

The Wachau sytem is much simpler, and uses final alcohol content instead of original must weight.  The lightest grade is Steinfeder (named for a type of frizzy grass) which is below 11.5% ABV.  Next is Federspiel (named for a bird) between 11.5 and 12.5%.  The highest quality wines are labelled Smaragd (a kind of small lizard native to the region) and are above 12.5% ABV.

A view of the Donau (Danube) from the ruined castle at Durnstein

 

Grüner Veltliner, the most commonly planted grape in Austria, has become a darling of the wine cogniscenti in recent years.  Here’s what rockstar sommelier Rajat Parr has to say about the varietal…

A robust white, it features some of the greenish flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and a hint of legumes, making it the perfect match for green vegetables like peas, asparagus, artichokes, and lettuces. (Secrets of the Sommeliers[3], page 208)

[Grüner Veltliner] has a beany, green, peppery character that nicely offsets asparagus… (ibid, page 115)

It’s ridiculous for me to try and contradict Rajat Parr, but I’ve never, ever picked up “green” aromas from Grüner (despite its name… which I think means “green grape from Valtellina”, but that refers to the colour of the fruit itself, not it’s aromas).  I’ve always struggled to pick up that smell, even in Sauvignon Blanc, so I should just keep my mouth closed.

Getting back to the original point of this post, for our Grüner Veltliner tasting we tried three examples.  Some quick notes follow.

F.X. Pichler 2007 Loibner Berg Smaragd Grüner Veltliner.  Pichler is one of the big family names in the Wachau.  The wine smelled exactly like an old pineapple, and had a viscous mouthfeel.  If the tasting had been blind I would have sworn it was a New World oaked Chardonnay.  It was almost unanimously the favourite of the three wines we tasted, until it was revealed that it was $49.99 at Wine and Beyond.  With that price tag it is not likely be purchased by anyone in the group.

The next day I happened to read this: “Because Wachau’s producers have the ability to push the ripeness envelope, they are tempted to overdo it, as is happening in Germany’s Rheingau.  A few well-known producers have fallen into this trap – F.X. Pichler and Hirtzberger to name two – and for the privilege of drinking their unbalanced wines, you pay a costly premium.  Stick to the better, more proportional wines of Prager, Altzinger, and Knoll.” (ibid, page 115)

Rabl 2014 Grüner Veltliner Langenlois.  This is an interesting one.  Basically no fruit on the nose.  Strong, frankly peculiar aromas that I described as rice cake, toast, and mock orange blossom.  (The tasting notes posted at the place of purchase said, “citrus notes with a dusting of stony mineral”. Go figure.)  It has a sharp, bright acidity, and the flavour of lemon pith.  Quite distinctive.  The Rabl was $21.99 at Devine.

Gritsch 2013 Steinterrassen Federspiel Grüner Veltliner.  The lightest of the bunch.  A nose of wet stone and red apple.  Medium, round, happy acidity.  Short finish.  $22.99 at Devine.

 

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

Footnotes

  1. New Zealand and Austria are 17th and 16th, respectively on this list.
  2. The Oxford Companion to Wine says that surplus production is “the single greatest problem facing the world’s wine industry”.
  3. Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay.  Published by Ten Speed Press.