Wild greens and octogenarians

Wild greens - Greek Style
A fistful of horta – could these wild greens help you live to the age of 100?

If you’re a fan of 1970s science fiction you may have noticed a striking similarity between the recent horsemeat fiasco and the movie Soylent Green. To spare you a visit to Wikipedia; the plot is set in a near dystopian future, where the the population of New York is stretched to the limit, natural resources are scarce and food shortages cause frequent riots. Luckily, the Soylent Corporation comes to the rescue, with it’s nutritious plankton-based protein snacks. Unsurprisingly it all turns out to be a big corporate lie; theres no plankton left in the sea, instead they’ve been feeding the population human remains. A breach of the Trade Descriptions Act if ever I heard one.

Admittedly, this make a horse lasagne sound positively irrestible by comparison. But it’s still a bit rich. After all, “a horse is a horse of course of course” so why call it cow? However my issue is not about being tricked into eating one of Shergar‘s decendants. It’s realising the extent to which we’ve become so detatched from the point of origin of our food. I’m not just talking about food miles, that’s only part of the equation. Food provenance is more important. Knowing exactly what’s on your plate, and where it came from.

Which bring me onto the subject of today’s post. Horta, or edible wild greens are found throughout all Greece, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever find them on any supermarket shelves. Which is a shame, because they are a superfood to be reckoned with.

To the uninitiated,  horta looks like a bunch of weeds you might find growing by the side of the motorway. Which is not surprising because they literally grow everywhere. Traditionally, horta was the food of the rural poor – a bountiful and welcome addition to the Greek staples of bread, cheese, oil and olives. These days you can also find horta in the laiki, but at heart it’s a wild food.

Nobody knows how many species of wild greens exist, but it’s likely to be in the hundreds. They vary greatly in taste, some sweet, some bitter, and come in all shapes and sizes. Pretty much the only thing they have in common is that they’re edible and green. Oh, and don’t go looking for any textbooks on the subject. The skill of horta gathering is very much an oral tradition, passed down through generations. But maybe the real secret of horta is how it may contribute to the health of some of the oldest people in the world.

Ikaria, a small island near the coast of Turkey was recently called the island where people forget to die. The reason is because it has an uncannily high proportion of healthy, active citizens in their 80’s and 90’s. Scientists who have studied Irakia think that the key to their longevity is a combination of a tranquil but active lifestyle, and a specific diet of traditional foods such as olive oil, goat’s milk, cheese, vegetables, herbal teas and you guessed it, wild greens – of which Irakia boasts over 150 different species.

But you don’t have to travel out to the islands to find wild greens. As a matter of fact, our very own Aunty RoRo (her name has been concealed as a matter of national security), is a fanatical horta gatherer, so naturally, when I heard she was planning a trip, I invited myself along.

It was a relief to be heading out of the city. Whilst the UK was clogged up with snow, March was begin to hot up in Athens. Heading southwest, we turned off Vouliagmenis towards the airport and soon we were hugging the coast road, the glorious Aegean providing a welcome breeze and a gleaming vista. Ten minutes later we’d arrived at our spot.

Part of the skill in horta gathering is knowing the best places to forage. But I’d be telling a lie if I said I didn’t feel a little let down by our chosen location. I had imagined rolling hills, a la “Sound of Music” – all pristeen and carpeted with wild flowers. Instead we parked outside a residential building site on a busy-ish B road. Neither countryside nor surburbia, just a flat, uninspiring valley slowly being eaten up by urban sprawl.

Basic tools in hand – plastic gloves, carrier bags and a kitchen knife – I set off following RoRo, her hawkeyes skimming the ground for signs of edible life. I could sense the disappointment at the apparent end of season slim pickings, all I could hear was mutterings of “τίποτα” (TIpotah), the Greek for ‘nothing’. Then, as a great testament to the invigorating properties of horta, she disappeared down a rocky slope as nimble as a mountain goat.

I came, I saw, I gathered. Delicious wild greens, just add lemon and olive oil.

Following gingerly, I find RoRo on her hands and knees, beaming up at me and pointing to our first find, “aγκιναράκι, aγκιναράκι” (agee-ner-AK-ee). This species of green translates to ‘little artichoke’ named after the shape of the bud in the centre of the plant.

Buoyed by success, my hunter-gatherer instincts kicked in so I prepared myself for my first solo foraging attempt. I soon realised I was out of my depth. Confronted by the confusing carpet of green, I was reminded of the scene in the Matrix when Neo is staring at screens of computer code, looking for patterns, but just sees streams of gibberish. This field was the same, nothing made any sense. Then just as my utter incompetence threatened to send me home empty handed, shapes started to emerge.

A little flash of red, a round patch here and there, I was starting to see through the green mist. Definitely on a roll now. More species followed: ραδίκι, (rad-EE-kee), γαλαξίδα (gal-ax-EE-tha), δενδρουλι (then-THROOL-ee) and σκόλι (sk-OL-ee).

An hour later we had two carrier bags stuffed with greens plus some wild asparagus for good measure. Stopping on the way back for souvlaki and beer, I felt a strange sense of satisfaction. I may not have brought back a wild beast, but the act of going out into the wild and harvesting food for the table is an amazing feeling. It beats a horse burger any day.


Words of the day

aunt – θεία – thAY-ya

green – πράσινος – prASS-i-nos

food – φαγητό – fag-i-TOE

table- τραπέζι -trap-AY-zee