Syros is one of the smallest Greek island in the Cyclades, in the Aegean. I came to Syros for the first time to meet Maria, who has relocated to Syros after running and cooking at her own restaurant in the Peloponnese for 25 years.
Maria cooks with a lot of foraged edible weeds and took me along the coast to show me what grew along there. It was near the end of Summer when I arrived, so what we had to choose from was limited. Well, limited in a sense. There wasn’t as much to choose from as there would’ve been in Spring, but Maria is interested in using plants in all their forms. From their peak in Spring right through to when I'd arrived. She explained that even though some of the plants were dry because of the heat, their flowers could still be used to infuse oils for medicinal proposes , their seeds used for flavour.
This is St John's Wort on the left, when dried has a beautiful red colour but in Spring gives off bright yellow flowers and has green, delicately perforated leaves.
Wild carrot, or Queen Anne’s Lace below. In Spring Maria collects the flowers of this plant, and pickles them to add to salads. In Summer she collects the seeds and grids them to use as a spice. Their flavour is somewhere in between anise and cumin. The roots of the plant can also been used, and apparently taste like carrot.
One thing that does grow in the hight of Summer is purslane. Purslane grows as a weed is Very high in Omega 3 and is sour with a succulent like texture. We also found lots of Sea Fennel growing amongst the rocks closer to the ocean. By the end of Summer Sea Fennel starts getting bitter, it's better to use it when it's young but we collected some anyway. Maria told me it's normally picked to preserve it, but she dries it and grinds it. Because it grown so close to the sea and contains so much salt she uses it to season things, it's flavour similar to died saltbush.
We found a wild caper plant. Again Maria told me she sun dried capers and grinds them to use as seasoning. We used some of the seasoning to flavour a tomato salad, the ground capers giving a very umami characteristic to the dish that was really rich, almost like a dried onion powder.
Some of what we gathered; Purslane top middle, sea fennel in the metal bowl being soaked in water and vinegar - the vinegar is supposed to kill any parasites. Wild fennel at the bottom and some of it's yellow flowers that give off a sweet aniseed aroma. A couple of capers, then at the top left, yard-long beans that weren't foraged.
This type of green bean is much longer than a regular french bean, and sometimes has a redish tint to them. We cut these into smaller pieces and blanched them before sautéing them in a little olive oil with garlic and salt and used them to make a dish that resembles a bowl of pasta, which I found amusing but was also delicious.
We made a simple salad with our foraged ingredients, with tomato, diced white zucchini,cucumber and some of the dried, ground capers. Maria had also made a pesto of fresh, unsalted capers blended with only olive oil that we used in our dressing. Maria also cooked some barley bulgur to add to the salad, an ingredient I'd never used before. She cooked the grain in water that she'd infused with sage, an Byzantine method. This gave the salad a beautiful earthy aroma without the flavour of sage being overpowering.
Another interesting cooking techniques Maria introduced me to to was from a Cypriot recipe. In the recipe you smash potatoes before you cook them, we did it with a flat rock. Smashing the potatoes like this gives them a really interesting texture once they're cooked and also means they hardly take any time at all. You use red wine in the recipie for a cooking liquid, and so their insides are marbled from the colour. Recipie below.
I learnt a lot spending time with Maria, especially about using plants through different stages. She is currently living in Syros and teaches classes and gives seminars of Cycladic food, nutrition and foraged greens and would recommend paying her a visit if you're ever on the island. You can contact her here.
Cypriot Potatoes in Red Wine with Coriander seeds
1 kilo small potatoes
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tb spoons coriander seeds crushed
1/2 tsp wild carrot seeds ground
Red wine to just cover the potatoes
salt and pepper
Choose a saucepan the has a lid that fits it well and one where your potatoes can sit in one layer for the best outcome.
Firstly crush your potatoes with a heavy object. Something like a flat rock. You want the potatoes to be smashed but still hold together like they are in the photo above.
Then heat your oil, adding you spices frying until you can spell them, then add in your potatoes.
You want to fry your potatoes, until they are slightly browned and you can see a change in he texture of their skin. If your pot is too full, instead of stirring the potatoes you can put your lid on and "bounce" them as Maria called it. Shaking the pot until all of the potatoes have been rotated.
Once the potatoes are fried all over, add your salt pepper and red wine, covering with a lid.
Simmer until the potatoes are tender making sure , you can rest them in their cooking liquid until you're ready to eat.