Greek Lamb Casserole with Kalamata Olives:
What is it that makes a particular dish taste authentic? I’m not sure there’s one specific thing though of course that lovely term ‘terroir’ does cover quite a lot of things which may contribute. Everything from the minerals in local water, the climate, the soil on which the crop is grown or where the animals graze and more is covered by ‘terroir’. Sometimes though we get just a bit too scientific about it all and forget the basics. When Destinology, the luxury travel company invited me to share a Greek recipe, I initially struggled. How could I create something authentic? I’m not Greek – and my only real knowledge of Greek cooking comes from a few ad-hoc cookery classes with Greek chefs like Tonia Buxton
At the age of nineteen I was allowed to holiday abroad with my boyfriend. Spending two weeks in Greece together, I thought we were VERY grown up. So grown up that when we went to Delphi, all I did was pose as a Greek Statue (I’m pretty sure I was trying to be a Caryatid in that picture). His family were part Greek and he still had relatives living both in Athens and in the small seaside village where his mother owned an apartment. Of course, I intended to cook, but, for the most part, I really didn’t need to lift a finger. Every day, while we were on the beach, one or other of his aunts would creep into the flat and leave us trayfuls of Greek food. Far more than we could possibly eat. There were stuffed peppers, stews and spanakopita. All WE had to do was buy a bottle of local wine, turn the oven on and sit out on the balcony while the food warmed up.
During the day, we ate pizza on the beach or snacked on feta and olives with fresh bread. The olives were a particular sort – Kalamata – and any cooking we did do was in Kalamata olive oil. To this day, they are still my favourite – almond shaped with a soft smokey flavour and melting texture. And to this day, when I think of Greece I think of Kalamata olives.
I’ve learnt that adding cinnamon to Greek food seems to create an authentic flavour. Maybe it’s in my head – I learnt to make Greek Moussaka with the chef from ‘The Real Greek’ restaurant and I still remember how the addition of a little spice helped lift the dish. But this lamb casserole, which I THINK I originally based on one from a Waitrose recipe card, definitely benefits from cinnamon and, of course, Kalamata olives.
Adding mint and crumbling feta on top makes this a delicious and different dish which is as good through the summer as in winter.
Of course, nothing can quite compare to those trays of stuffed peppers and stews which appeared daily in our apartments. Locally cooked food DOES taste different for all the reasons of terroir I described earlier. And I suspect those black dressed, Greek grandmas had far more patience than most of us and simply cooked everything more slowly. But for me, this dish, with orzo, kalamata olives, meltingly tender lamb and (tinned) tomatoes replacing the wonderfully ripe, juicy fresh tomatoes that we could buy in Greece, brings back some great memories.
I’ve been back to Greece since, to Rhodes and some of the Greek Islands. I’ve never eaten anything like this dish – but I have to confess that my diet of seafood and salad tends to make that unlikely. When it’s VERY hot I simply don’t want to eat meat.
Disclaimer: I received some ingredients and a voucher to buy more in order to make this dish