Approx 600 words.
MasterChef 2019 winner, author and Greek cook, Irini Tzortzoglou, talks about the family cooking that inspires her dishes, her love of fresh, sunshine flavours and her passion for seasonal British produce
I was born in a tiny Greek village with a population of around 35 and it was here that my appreciation for good food began. My love of food grew stronger still in my grandmothers’ kitchens, helping to prepare the food that my parents were bringing in from the farm. My mother could conjure up a meal out of very little – whatever we had in the kitchen was put to good use.
The Cretan climate consists of long, hot summers and short, mild winters, but even then, meals would involve fresh ingredients. Cauliflower, cabbage, beetroot and spinach would be in season, while pulses (lentils, chickpeas and various types of bean) would also be available. My mother would make pies – barley and wheat were grown locally and my grandfather, who was also the village mill owner, would mill the grains to produce flour for the pastry.
After a long time in lockdown, I’m looking forward to summer entertaining – weather (and Covid) permitting, of course. Where I live now in Cumbria, we’re surrounded by foodie people, so there’s always a barbecue or fire pit happening, with everyone bringing a dish or two. As travel is still uncertain, I’m going to make the most of what the UK has to offer – summer berries in July and August are my favourites to make pudding with!
I love to cook seasonally and make use of what is around at the time. It’s so important to shop locally. Midweek meals for us now tend to be roasted vegetables with a tangy dressing and pulses, perhaps served with a piece of chicken or fish.
The recipes that follow, taken from my book Under the Olive Tree, are some of my favourites to share with family and friends, and I hope you’ll enjoy trying them too.
Like so many Greek dishes, this is simple and easy to make – the flavour of the spinach shines through. My mother often made spanakoryzo during winter when spinach was plentiful in the main Athens market.
Baklava, kataifi, samali and all their variations are the syrup desserts that many people associate with the Middle East, Turkey and Greece – and rightly so. The traditional way of making these very sweet treats involves copious amounts of butter, which is used both to moisten the filo and to add rich flavour.
The mild, sweet flavour of the courgettes, the acidity of the lemons, the saltiness of the Feta, the crunchiness of the croutons, the fragrance of the mint and the sweetness of the pasteli – a Greek honey sesame bar – make this dish a wonderful summer treat.
Peinirli, which means “with cheese”, was a lunchtime treat for my friends and me. Occasionally, we would pass a bakery on Voulis Street in Athens and the smell of the freshly cooked dough, cheese filling and melted butter would be too much to resist.
I firmly believe in simplicity as long as the ingredients are good. For this omelette, all these are available in my local Co-op. The principle behind this recipe is to use seasonal vegetables along with good eggs and nice Feta cheese. This is a great dish the whole family will enjoy that won’t break the bank.
MasterChef champion 2019