Paper quality in food and travel books is too often overlooked. Running my fingers over a double page photo spread on clean, physical white paper showing two images of a Greek beach and a white and blue stone church is my (current) tactile way of travelling. The images lie side by side on pages 10 and 11 of Aegean by UK-based Crete-born chef Marianna Leivaditaki.
Marianna lives in London and works as head chef at the celebrated east London restaurant, Morito, Hackney Road where under the owners Sam and Sam Clark she weaves in flavours and textures of her homeland, wider Mediterranean and travels into her cooking.
Her recipes in the restaurant and book are a joyful celebration of the food, ingredients, landscapes and people of Crete, a richly diversified island lying between Greece and north Africa, with the eastern Mediterranean countries including Lebanon and Syria. Over centuries these lands have traded, shared ingredients, ideas and gastronomy which are reflected both on Morito’s menus and in the pages of Aegean.
Crete’s vivid colours and light was captured by photographer Elena Heatherwick whose eyes see the life force that flows from the soil, people and the island’s ingredients.
During these Covid-19 pandemic times of lockdown and travel bans many of us will have turned to our books to zoom us away from grey skies, single-digit temperatures and over-optimistic TV weather forecasters and their sunny predictions of spotting fleeting cloud busting windows of blue sky.
So, in anticipation of my travels to Crete (this summer, Covid-permitting) I turn to Marianna’s love story with Crete, and her family and found recipes from mountains to the sea. Generously illustrated with images of the author and her family, recipes, landscapes and beautiful places it’s a siren call to cook outside, in the bleached light of the hot high summer days or in the shade of scrambling vine strung out along a gazebo or in the cool of a kitchen.
Home of the gods
Crete is a sinuous land only 60 km at its widest point. It’s the largest island under the Greek flag and has been home to the god of gods Zeus; the birthplace of singer Nana Mouskouri who released over 200 albums in 12 different language ( and her TV show was a feature of my family’s Saturday nights in the 1960s/early 70s), and home to the terrifying Minotaur of Greek mythology.
Mediterranean diets are food and lifestyle
Much is made of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet all virgin olive oil, fresh and seasonal fruit and vegetables eaten raw or lightly cooked and still full of the best nutrients. Mediterranean diets are not just food though. They are about living, working hard in lemon and olive groves, prepping bait for the night fishermen and pruning vines on steep, rocky hillsides. Naturally organic, and home-preserved meats, fermented cheeses and plenty of fish, particularly for sea-facing communities.
But I also believe strong family and wider social bonds, and extraordinary beautiful landscapes such as those found in Crete are integral to benefits of so-called ‘Blue Zone’ diet. Much of life is spent outdoors, on the street, tending gardens of flowers and edibles, meeting friends and family at the market, or sipping aperitivos and playing dominos alongside bustling, cobbled streets.
Thus was Marianna’s early life in the town of Chania where she helped out in the family-run taverna and listened to her father’s stories of fishing, often helping him ready for a night on the water before hanging octopus to dry on the washing line, gutting fish and serving tables – a perfect preparation for a life in food.
I will cook ‘Prawns with Ouzo, Orzo and Courgette’ having greedily read through the ingredients listing fennel, celery, courgette, white wine, brandy and ouzo, orzo pasta, and of course prawns.
The flavours will transport me to a table on a harbourside, despite the ingredients I source in my English town being unlikely to have the same energy and freshness as those I will find on my upcoming Cretan adventure.
I also folded to corners of pages holding recipes including ‘Thyme, Oregano, and Fenugreek Pork Fillet with Tsatziki, Tomato and Onion salad’, and ‘Orange and Broken Filo Pastry Pie’, a cake with a high orange content, along with cinnamon and cardamon.
This book joyfully celebrates the tastes and flavours of Crete, while distilling the essence of Mediterranean island food and cooking. Personally, I can’t wait to get out to Crete, wake up a 5am to head for the harbour and the night catch; set up a tabletop gas stove and bubble a pan full of ‘Snails in Rosemary Vinegar and Red Wine’ or share a plate of raw artichokes, or make black olive pasta and serve it with octopus cooked in red wine. It’s clear that I’ll be packing my copy of Aegean.
Aegean is published by Kyle Books and is available to buy HERE.