Like all cuisines, the ingredients used in Greek cookery tend to be sourced locally and, as well as being regionally based, often their availability is dependent on seasonality.
Olive oil, the quintessential Greek seasoning, is universally popular and olives are harvested and eaten all over Greece.
Lemons are squeezed over everything, particularly fried food such as prawns and cheese.
Fresh or dried oregano is sprinkled on cheese dishes such as the famous Greek Salad with feta as well as fried potatoes. Dried Greek oregano, called rigani, is worth sourcing from Greek and European specialist food shops, as it adds a very authentic flavour.
Cinnamon is a very most popular spice and features in both savoury, such as moussaka and stifado, and sweet, such as sticky baklava, dishes.
Thick Greek yoghurt made from cow's or sheep’s milk is used in dips and as an accompaniment to fruit-based desserts. It is also a popular breakfast, especially drizzled with local Greek honey and sprinkled with walnuts.
Greece is famous for its cheeses and at least one is usually served at mealtimes. Popular varieties include:
Feta – a crumbly yet creamy sheep or goat’s milk semi hard cheese preserved in brine.
Kefalotiri – a hard, salty, sheep or goat’s milk cheese.
Kefalograviera – a very hard cheese made from sheep or a blend of sheep and goat’s milk with a strong aroma.
Kasseri – a pale yellow semi-hard cheese, often made with sheep or a combination of sheep and goat’s milk.
Manouri – a semi-soft cheese often made from the whey left over from the production of feta cheese.
Tomato, zucchini and eggplant feature heavily in summer cooking, particularly in meze, salads and meat dishes. Further, the addition of tomato paste to slow cooked dishes further intensifies the tomato flavour.
Grilled or roasted pork is probably the most important meat, closely followed by lamb, which isespecially popular during the Easter period.
Sweet perfumed figs are eaten fresh during their summer season and dried in the sun to be enjoyed year round in many sweet dishes, particularly pastry-based sweets.
Liberal amounts of garlic are added to most savoury dishes.
Over 30 varieties of wild greens or horta are collected locally after the first autumn rain. The most common variety, amaranth, is sometimes available in the Asian section of fresh food markets. Boiled and dressed with lemon and olive oil, they are said to be very good for you.
Picked in late spring, vine leaves are first blanched in boiling water to soften and then preserved for up to one year in brine. Dolmades are the most common use of preserved vine leaves, either stuffed with seasoned rice or a seasoned rice and meat mixture. Both versions are simmered with diced tomatoes and lemon juice and served as a meze.
The spice anise, used to make ouzo, is also adds a lovely flavour to many breads and pastries.
Paximadia are lightly sweetened twice baked barley rusks available from bakeries. As well as being enjoyed dipped in coffee, they are also moistened with water and served in a salad or eaten with cheese for breakfast.
Basil is prolific during the summer – it grows everywhere – and is used copiously in tomato dishes and for religious ceremonies.
Capers are picked in spring and preserved in a vinegar solution or salt. The dark green buds are often used to enhance the flavour of salads.
Selino or wild celery, is both a herb and a vegetable. With thinner stalks and more leaves than regular celery, is often used with onion and carrot as the base of many stews and soups.
Spinach is used in the famous spanakopita, spinach and feta filo pastry pie, but is also mixed with black-eyed beans or rice for a light meal.
Mahlep is the soft nut-like kernel inside cherry seeds and imparts a strong cherry flavour in baking, particularly in pastries and Easter breads.
The forerunner of chewing gum, mastica is a gum which comes only from the Mastic trees which grows on the island of Chios, the fifth largest of the Greek Islands. An aromatic gum resin, it is chewed to sweeten the breath. Dried and powdered, it is used to flavour ice-cream, biscuits, cakes and breads.
Dried and fresh mint is a favourite herb, used in many savoury dishes, particularly those featuring tomatoes or cheese. It is added to filo pastry pie fillings, especially those containing greens such as spinach and selino.
Filo is the paper thin unleavened flour-based pastry that is used widely in Greek cooking. Uses include the famous spanakopita, spinach and feta pie to sticky nut-filled baklava drenched with honey syrup.