“Here have some of this,” my grandmother dipped two the forks in the salad bowl and offered it to my Australian friend.
“What is it?” his eyes grew wide in shock.
“Grass,” my grandmother replied simply. “Is very na-ice.”
“Ewwwww,” he exclaimed in derision, turned green, and left the room.
Introducing Anglo-Saxons to the various varieties of greens we generically define as χόρτα, and watching them squirm, is as genuine and hallowed a Greek-Australian rite of passage as coercing an Anglo-Saxon new member of the family to eat bamies (okra).
“There are two things I can’t stand about eating at my Greek mother in law’s (house),” a friend’s Anglo-Saxon wife once confide in me.
“Horta and bamies.” Feeling sorry for her, I gave her a few pointers as to the easiest way to consume both comestibles without gagging, implying that should she be able to master the art, she would break her mother in law’s psychological hold over her forever.
“How did you go?” I asked her several weeks later. Casting a hostile look in my direction, she spat.
“I have one word to say to you Mr Know-it-all. Patsa,” My repeated offer to provide a masterclass in the consumption of my favourite food in the entire parallel universe was not so politely declined. Having recently suffered a mid-life crisis, she has turned vegan and now maintains a blog wherein photographs of designer crockery encasing horta are given pride of place, #feelingblessed, #horta4life #urbancleanse.
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My friend, her former husband, lives at home with his mother, who still cooks horta regularly, all the while uttering maledictions against her former daughter-in-law so dire and syntactically complex, that they would confound Beelzebub himself. Most nights, my friend prefers to order from Uber eats.
In the days of yore, Greek men and women of a certain age could be spotted on Melburnian nature strips and empty suburban lots, bag in one hand, knife firmly wielded in the other, felling assorted green-stuffs with the same sweeping ease as the Grim Reaper cutting down the souls of the damned. Just like the damned, the horta were diverse and answered to exotic and mysterious names such as αντίδια, λάπαθα, καυκαλίθρες, ζοχιά, βρούβες, ραδίκια or βλήτα. At least we thought they did because one of my grandparents’ favourite pastimes was to argue about the classification of wild greens that looked vaguely like the one they remembered from the homeland but were somehow different. My grandmother’s favourite hunting grounds were the grasslands behind our house that sloped gently down to a creek. Flicking the knife with the ease of an urban sicario, she would remorselessly macerate every edible green in sight. My grandfather, on the other hand, took a slower, more considered approach. Kneeling down, he would bid me run the leaves of the plants through my fingers. Then, one had to smell them. Unlike my grandmother, he would wrest the entire plant from the soil, roots and all as he believed that retaining the root until the moment of cooking enhanced the flavour.
“These ones here are called τσουκνίδες,” he would point. “Watch out! They sting! Did you know…”
I knew something about tsouknides. On the odd occasion, when I would refuse to eat my bamies, or my oversized and thoroughly pulpy gigantes, my paternal great grandmother would comment that if I had been forced to survive on a diet of tsouknides alone, as she had during the war, I would approach my dinner from a completely different perspective. My grandfather, on the other hand, was a mine of information: “No, once you boil them, the nettles dissolve. They are quite safe to eat. Did you know, you can use them to treat skin rashes and even gall stones? Ask your grandmother what gall stones are. You can use the oil from the seeds to stop bleeding. Steeped in water for a day, you can even use it as a pesticide.”
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“Έϊϊϊ, θα ξημερώσουμε εδώ πέρα,” my grandmother’s voice would charge down the grassland.
“Ηκεί απ᾽ μαζεύς, κατουράν᾽οι σκύλ᾽,” my grandfather would riposte, in the Samian patois. Turning to me, he would continue. “Now observe this dandelion. You want to pick the smaller, younger leaves for a salad. It is great for digestion and liver trouble.”
“Άπαπα, γλιστρίδα έφαγες σήμερα και τσαμπουνάς έτσι;» my grandmother would snort.
Glistrida, known as purslane was my favourite wild green. Juicy as well as crunchy, I would feed it to my canary, having been told that it made their song sweeter and more prolific, and snack on it myself. My grandfather enjoyed it with feta cheese, onion, garlic, oregano and olive oil, or in tzatziki, scoffing it down as I read from the King James version of the Book of Job: “Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt or is there any taste in the slime of the purslane?”
Inadvertently, employing the canary as my taster probably saved my life. The last batch of glistrida I picked from our local park had been sprayed with pesticide by our local council, something that my mother only saw fit to tell me at the moment I beheld my beloved bird lying prone at the base of his cage, his feet extended towards the heavens. For years later, I imagined him, in canary paradise, hopping fearlessly over fields of pristine purslane, tweeting
Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Capriccio Espagnol’, taking flight only to poop on the heads of the ancestors of the council employees that caused his lamented demise.
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Gentrification of horta
Though ostensibly a peasant food, cheap, abundant and always available, horta can be gentrified at will.
Entertaining my father’s boss at our home one evening, my mother offered the plate of horta to the guzzling gourmand who had just polished off four pieces of pastitsio. Not wishing for the same reaction as my friend at the hands of my grandmother, she ventured: “Some endive, John?”
“Endive?” I turned to my sister. “Seriously, endive?”
Our faces contorted. Our cheeks grew red and inflated. Not able to contain ourselves, we collapsed on the floor, convulsing with laughter until our ribs ached.
Decades later, a family meal is now not complete until either my sister or I turn to each other and proffer the proper plate of αντίδια, proposing: “Some endive?”
“Σκάστε παλιόπαιδα,” my mother invariably laughs. “Γελάτε τώρα, αλλά για να δούμε ποιος θα σας φτιάχνει χόρτα όταν πεθάνω.”
We look at each other and snigger conspiratorially. Both of us have been cooking horta behind our mother’s back ever since we left the family nest. But none of us can pronounce the word endive nearly as genteelly as our maternal progenitor, even as I ask in faux French: “Je voudrais un tsoucnide.”
The other day, I was sitting in a Toorak cafe close to my office perusing the Neos Kosmos’ death notices when I overheard two rather svelte and sandblasted ladies clad in active wear, converse in the upper register, in nasal tones:
– Ohhhh do you know where I can find horta? I haven’t had any in aaaaages.
– I know darling. I haven’t had any since I stopped speaking to my mother. Do you reckon they would have any at Prahran Market?
– Or at the organic section in the Vic Market?
– Oh my God I never go there.
– Why don’t you ask your mum for some?
– She died last year.
– Oh I’m so sorry darls.
– Don’t be. She was a real bitch, but when she made horta I felt embraced.
Every so often, when I tend my grandparents’ grave, the verses of the lament «Χορτάριασε το μνήμα μου,» come to mind.
In their case, such a circumstance is impossible, for a heavy black marble tombstone lies between them and the General Resurrection and I clean it with malice. Yet, when I recite the rest of the dirge: “Χορτάριασε το μνήμα μου, να᾽ρθεις να βοτανήσεις, να πεις τραγούδια θλιβερά, ίσως και μ΄αναστήσεις.”
I picture a grave covered completely with wild greens and my grandparents rising from their slumber, knives in hand to squabble as they help me pick them. I am comforted.