• Beneath The Fig Leaves is Olympia Panagiotopoulos' (left) flavour-packed homage to her Greek roots. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Mapping the journey from Australia back to Greece with recipes and food traditions.
By
Cat Woods

8 May 2020 - 10:45 AM  UPDATED 8 May 2020 - 10:45 AM

Giannoula and Fotios Panagiotopoulos set sail for Australia in 1955 from their war-ravaged home, the Messinian village of Chrysochori in Greece. They dreamed that their four children would have better lives in Australia, with freedom and liberty.

The couple travelled from migrant camps in Australia to eventually settle in Footscray in the 60s, where they had their youngest daughter, Olympia Panagiotopoulosis

Now, Olympia has authored a homage to her parents' journey they took to Australia and the connection they have to their Greek homeland through food and rituals. Beneath The Fig Leaves is a beautifully illustrated memoir that includes recipes from her great-grandmother Konstantina and grandmothers Olympia and Alexandra.

"It's a love story," says Olympia. "The love that my parents had for their family, for life, the love that kept them going and then the love that I have for what they did, even before I was born. There's the love I have for the garden, and ultimately, the love for who I am."

Olympia's parents arrived to Australia in the 60s.

In 1981, Olympia finally fulfilled a long-held desire to travel to Greece. "I'd felt a little bit like the odd one out. I'd never met my aunts and uncles. I felt like a piece of me was missing. That hunger to go was an ache."

She describes the three weeks she spent with her parents in the Peloponnese in 1981 as the best years of her life.

It wasn't until 2009 though, under the fig tree in her mother's beloved garden, that the concept of Beneath The Fig Leaves took seed. Olympia was determined to document her mother's stories, recipes and knowledge.

A lot of European people live from the garden, Olympia says.

"Originally it was so much about my parents and my mum in particular, but it became about me discovering myself in the process. The book took so long because my mother spoke to me in Greek, and I'm not a full-time writer. The recipes took a long time because, until this book, none of them were written down. Everything was in mum’s head and everything was in handfuls and pinches."

Mother and daughter had spent years in the kitchen cooking together, but it was a challenge to document the recipes.

A lot of European people live from the garden, Olympia says. Until the ripe age of 94, Giannoula was nurturing her garden. Lemon trees, figs, apricots, herbs, chicken pens and greens of every description teemed with life and flavour.

"Through the garden and through food, I got to know my mum as a person, not just as 'mum'."

Olympia describes the three weeks she spent with her parents in the Peloponnese in 1981 as the best years of her life.

Tyropites, cheese pies, were an established household meal. "They're special to us because mum has always made them. My mum loved spinach and wild fennel, so when I cook them I feel closer to her."

So many of the recipes have tomatoes, olive oil and greens, which is what was available in the village.

The Seaside Vakalao is redolent of summer. "My mum's aunt gave her a piece of cod and told her to go down to the beach and wash the fish in the sea. It was a story mum loved to tell," recalls Olympia. Cod, potatoes, oregano, onion and olive oil enliven the dish.

"Originally it was so much about my parents and my mum in particular, but it became about me discovering myself in the process."

"Kafedaki!" Olympia exclaims of the recipe that simply combines Greek coffee, water and sugar. "Mum and dad would drink coffee a couple of times a day. They would take it in the garden, usually always about the village. Sometimes, they wouldn’t talk at all though. I included it because I started the ritual myself a couple of years ago. To me, it's symbolic of connecting, of stopping and being present. For me, it’s mum and dad and how a simple Greek coffee connects us."

ANOTHER EXPRESSION OF FOOD LOVE
Serving up love and family recipes from a Greek kitchen
For Kathy Tsaples, a cancer diagnosis and a cake she made with her mother were the start of a thriving Greek food business.

One of the most significant recipes in the book is the Vasilopita, the New Year's Cake. "As midnight heralds a New Year, our family gathers around the kitchen table for the cutting of my mother's Vasilópita. We cut the first piece for Christ, the second for the Virgin Mary, the third in honour of Agios Vasilios and the fourth for our home," she writes.

"Our attention then turns to the serious business of the remaining slices and the foil-wrapped coin that was pressed into the batter before baking. We study the slices carefully before making our selection, hoping that the one we choose will reveal the coin that promises good fortune for the year ahead."

This book is a love story indeed, not only to Olympia's parents and to Greece, but to readers and home cooks everywhere.


 

Tyrópites – Cheese Pies

With a garden rich in láchana, greens, and a vibrant energy for cooking and keeping us fed, trays of mother's spanakópita and tyrópites often line the top of the cooker, covered with a sheet of aluminium foil and a linen towel. 'Liba, let them cool first,' mother calls, hearing the foil crinkle, a sign that her impatient daughter is trying to sneak a piece of the hot, buttery pastry.

Makes 35–40

Ingredients

  • 5 (25cm x 25cm) sheets frozen butter puff pastry
  • 200 g spinach leaves
  • 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 1 cup finely sliced leek
  • 1 tbsp chopped mint
  • 1 tbsp chopped wild fennel
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 1 tsp ground cumin?
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • salt and cracked pepper
  • 300 g feta cheese
  • 400 g ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 eggs

1. Remove pastry from freezer and separate the sheets. When assembling the cheese pies, the pastry should still be cold and firm, but pliable enough to be rolled and shaped. Wash spinach leaves thoroughly and trim the stems. Dry in a tea towel then chop roughly.
2. Heat oil in a pan and sauté spring onion and leek. Add herbs and cook for 1 minute then season with cumin, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir and cook for a further 2–3 minutes. Remove from heat then mix in spinach leaves. Leave to cool.
3. Place feta and ricotta in a bowl and use a fork to break them up. Add Parmesan and stir to combine. Lightly beat the eggs and add to the cheese, fold in the spinach and leek mixture and season with a little pepper.
4. Preheat oven to 200°C. Line two baking trays with baking paper.
5. Lay a pastry sheet on your workbench and place 3 tablespoons of the mixture onto it. Spread evenly over the sheet using the back of a spoon or your fingers. Roll the left and right sides of the square towards each other until they meet in the middle. Slice the roll into discs approximately 3cm thick. You should have around 7–8 pieces per roll.
6. Arrange pieces on lined trays, leaving at least 2cm between each one, and bake for 40 minutes or until golden, turning once halfway through cooking.

Seaside Vakaláo

I dedicate this recipe to summertime in Greece; to a young Giannoula who washed vakaláo and collected salt on the shoreline of the Ionian Sea at Filiatra.

Serves 4–6

Ingredients

  • 1.25 kg dried cod, deboned
  • 6 medium potatoes
  • 3 medium brown onions
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper
  • Plain flour
  • Tomato Sáltsa
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small brown onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 5 medium to large, overripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste in 2 cups hot boiled water
  • 1 tbsp chopped wild fennel
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 2 sprigs mint, chopped
  • Salt and pepper

1. Cut cod into 5cm pieces. Place in a bowl, cover with cold water and leave to soak overnight. Change the water two or three times. The next day, remove the pieces from water, rinse and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate.
2. Preheat oven to 200ºC.
3. Peel and quarter potatoes and brown onions lengthways. Coat with oil and empty onto a baking tray lined with baking paper. Season with oregano, salt and pepper and bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Alternatively, you can fry them in oil, as Mother often does. The cod is quite salty so be sure to only lightly salt the potatoes, onions and tomato sáltsa. You can always add more salt once all the elements are combined.
4. Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Coat pieces of cod in flour, tap off excess and fry until golden. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.
5. To make the sáltsa, heat oil in a casserole dish or deep pan and sauté onion until softened, then stir in the garlic. Add chopped tomatoes and stir to combine, followed by tomato paste, fennel, parsley, mint, salt and pepper. Cook on moderate heat for 10 minutes.
6. Gently sit the pieces of cod in the sauce and cook on low heat for 5–7 minutes, making sure that the sauce covers the fish. Taste for seasoning.
7. Arrange potatoes and onions on a serving dish. Spoon pieces of cod over the potatoes and onions, and cover with sauce. Garnish with parsley and serve with salad and fresh bread.

Recipes from Beneath the Fig Leaves by Olympia Panagiotopoulos, published by Affirm Press.

 

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Spanakorizo is a common dish on the island of Crete, utilising many different wild and cultivated greens. This recipe offers a different take on the classic dish while still honouring the timeless history of Greek cuisine. The Chefs' Line 

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