Well, hello there! It’s been a while since we’ve had any updates here from the farm… springtime is upon us, and that means busyness galore! But no worries, we’ll be getting back into the swing of things blog-wise as the days warm and grow longer.
Which brings us to Spring Thing Number One: Horta!
What’s that, you ask? Simply put, horta is any combination of wild greens, cooked together and drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice, and a bit of salt. It’s Greek village food, a product of getting through the lean times with what you have at hand and enjoying the bounty of the countryside at its best. After all, wild plants are just that — wild — which means they don’t need weeding, watering, or even planting. And they are far more delicious and nutritious than most “city folks” realize!
In Greek, horta (χόρτα) literally means “grasses;” that is, green wild-growing things. These are typically spring foods, enjoyed before the bounty of the summer garden arrives, and can be found in most little village tavernas as well as on every kitchen table. The greens are sometimes baked into pies and pites, but they are often eaten as a meal with just a piece of bread and a handful of olives.
In the Greek countryside, you will often see men, women, and children alike picking horta on the roadsides and in olive groves, gathering the greens into plastic bags, bushel baskets, or specially-designed large-pocketed aprons. On one visit to the ancient ruined city of Aptera, in Crete, we watched the site’s elderly caretaker gathering horta among the stones and piling them into the back seat of his (very) tiny car. Later in the day, we spotted him — and his car — in front of the village kafeneio, selling his harvest to the other locals.
Popular varieties of horta in most parts of Greece include amaranth (vlita), dandelion, chicories (stamnagathi), radicchio (radikia), sow thistle (achohi) and mustards, although each region will have its favorites. Because of our Mediterranean climate, most of those will grow quite happily here as weeds, and you probably know of a vacant lot or field in your neighborhood where at least one variety of wild green is already well-established. Of course the usual cautions about picking wild foods are in order: make sure you can positively identify your quarry, make sure it isn’t sprayed or growing in contaminated soil (such as a roadside), and, if you are new to foraging, take an experienced person with you if possible! That being said, most of these plants are very easy to identify, and you probably know how to spot several already.
I learned to pick horta from my Papu (that’s Greek for grandfather). I’d follow him around when I was little, watching as he snipped mustard and thistle sprouts with a little knife. It always amazed me how the toughest, prickliest, bitterest greens turn tender and delicious with a bit of know-how — and that’s really what horta is all about. It became a food by necessity, in times when Greece, particularly the island of Crete, was under invasion as so often happened (Ottomans, Venetians, Romans, et cetera…) Without the luxury of a grocery store, as we are now so used to, people had to grow or find their own food. And when turbulent times made farming difficult, unreliable, or impossible, you had to turn to the countryside to feed yourself and your family. That foraging culture, and self-sufficient mentality, has never left Greece, even in modern times.
And thank goodness for that! As a matter of fact, wild greens are a huge factor in the healthiness of the Mediterranean diet: the original studies that found that way of eating so beneficial took place in the 1950s in Crete, where horta plays a large part in the local diet. Wild foods, and greens in particular, are often far more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts, and are loaded with antioxidants, as well as vitamins and minerals. More on the Cretan diet here!
To pick horta, find yourself a sharp knife or scissor and a bucket or bag (unless you have already made yourself one of those neat horta-picking aprons!) The greens shrink down considerable when cooked; I usually fill a three-gallon bucket. Look for plants that have not yet started to flower, as those will be the most tender. Remember, the more mature the plant, the stronger the taste — if you aren’t accustomed to bitter flavors, you might want to start with the younger greens. Take leaves and young shoots, but be careful not to cut the plant back all the way to the ground or you won’t have any seeds for next year’s crop! If you cut carefully (think pruning), you should be able to get several harvests from each plant over the season.
After you have picked your horta, you’ll need to wash them. We pack them into a clean five-gallon bucket, fill the bucket with water, weight the greens with a plate, and soak them overnight to wash out all the dirt. If you prefer, you could wash them quickly as you would salad greens.