Updated at: 10:00 a.m. on 12/14/2010
In Chicago, Greek cooking may be associated with flaming cheese and delicious diner fare. But chefs also consider Greek cuisine to be a model diet: Food that’s simple, fresh and healthy. Foodie Nina Barrett considers herself one of these cooks.
She recently visited Greece and reported that for a really great meal, you’ve got to be willing to get someone’s goat.
In the Odyssey, Homer suggests that tourists seeking a good meal in Greece should choose their dinner carefully.
You may recall that when he stopped at the island of the sun-god, Helios, Odysseus was warned not to snack on the sacred cattle. But his crew disobeyed, snatching a few prize heifers, and skewering up a souvlaki dinner. Zeus took revenge, smashing the ship to bits and drowning the crew. Only Odysseus survived.
That’s why on a recent visit to the island of Rhodes—which local tradition says was the site of this fatal feast—I decided to heed the advice of a local oracle, and try the baby goat.
Kalypso restaurant in the village of Lindos is a family operation in every sense of the word. Evripedes Gogos and his wife Angeliki opened it 20 years ago in a beautiful sea-captain’s house that had been in Angeliki’s family for generations.
“I produce my own olive oils and honey, which I use in the restaurant. I have an olive tree farm, and I keep bees in the mountains of Lindos,” Evripedes says. “I always have the recipes of mother, of grandmother, and I use them in a modern way, in a modern presentation.”
Take what Evripedes calls his “Greek Spring Rolls,” they’re delicate, crispy little packages of cabbage, carrot, feta cheese and mint, wrapped in fillo dough instead of in a wonton, and baked instead of fried. In Greek they’re called bourekia, but Evripedes says that in order to entice English-speaking tourists he has to call them his “Spring Rolls.”
By tourists, he doesn’t really mean the one-night-stand, souvlaki dinner crowd. Kalypso is filled with diners who come back year after year to eat food they can never quite reproduce at home, even though Evripedes shares his recipes generously. Like Pauline Halford and her husband Robin, who’ve been coming twice a year for two decades.
“We try, but there’s always the special hand, the special taste that they have that we can’t, as English people, quite get,” says Pauline. “Much to do with the olive oil.”
Which brings me back to the baby goat. If you want to eat meat in Greece, Evripedes tells me, you’re way better off sticking with goat or lamb—a lesson he says is encoded in that story about Odysseus.
“What I know from my mother and my father and my grandmother: a cow, it was a property, it was something big for a Greek family,” Evripedes says.
“So when you have a cow, you never use it to eat it. You use the milk to make yogurt, to make cheese, it was like, how you say, it was a treasure for a family, yeh? They could use goat because goats are making little goats every year, two or three maybe, or four sometimes. But cow was very very, very, very expensive.”
To know about his baby goat kleftiko, you have to work your way into his extended family of repeat diners. The dish isn’t on the menu and takes 24 hours to prepare. They use the shoulder or the leg, and they have a special ceramic pot where they mix the meat with some white wine, some oregano, some garlic, fresh chopped tomatoes, carrots, salt, and pepper. The mixture is covered and left in the oven at 120 degrees overnight.
His special, tightly sealed clay pot looks like something the Myceneans might have left behind 3,500 years ago when they occupied the dramatic acropolis overlooking Lindos. Traditionally made at Easter, the dish is started on Saturday afternoon in the village oven, which is sealed up with bread dough. And then, recalling both the blood sacrifices of pagan days and Christ’s resurrection from the cave, it comes out of the oven on Easter Sunday after church services, ready to eat.
There’s another traditional explanation for the tight sealing and long slow cooking of the dish: Kleftiko means “stolen meat,” and it’s said that bandits cooked the dish buried on hot coals in the dirt so no cook fire or smoke would reveal their hide-outs.
So the dish Evripedes served me on my third night at Kalypso was fragrant, not only with long-simmered meat and herbs, but also with centuries of mythology and history that are, along with fresh produce, the essential ingredients of a great traditional Greek meal.
And by the way, I got home a lot faster than Odysseus did. And although I flew right through a thunderstorm, the only thunderbolt I saw from the window didn’t hit the plane.
Now, if only I could find some real Greek pot. The ceramic kind, of course.