Vefa Alexiadou is the Grand Dame of Greek Cuisine, the modern-day oracle of even the most ancient culinary traditions. Her creations are made from the same ingredients that adorned the tables of Alexander the Great and Aristotle. Vefa re-proposes these timeless dishes in a decidedly modern key.
Along with being an excellent cook, Vefa is an explorer of tastes who has journey throughout even the smallest mountain towns and coastal villages, from Macedonia to Peloponesia to the islands and the result is a gorgeous, refined book published by Phaidon in various languages, considered by experts to be the “bible” of Greek cooking. With its 330 traditional recipes and list of excellent Greek restaurants around the world, it’s an ideal guide for those passionate about Mediterranean cuisine – from the past to today.
FDL had the pleasure of interviewing her.
How did this cookbook come about?
It’s always been my dream life to create a cookbook with the wonderful flavors, colors and scents of my homeland enclosed within its pages, passing on the long culinary tradition and the favourite flavors of Greece to all parts of the world. It is the greatest project of my life and consider it the culmination of my career.
Why is Greek food so beloved around the world?
The basic ingredients of Greek cuisine are products of Greek land and sea, which are here in abundance. Vegetables, legumes, cereals and fish are the main ingredients of our traditional dishes. There is poultry and meat as well but in smaller quantities, all prepared with extra-virgin olive oil and flavoured with the variety of herbs grown on our land, like parsley, dill, mint, fennel, oregano, thyme, rosemary. Simple, healthy and tasty, Greek cuisine is the principle and basis of the Mediterranean diet, it’s simplicity at its best. Who could resist such delicious temptation?
Can you explain what the Mezedes are?
Greek “Mezedes” or “Orektika” (appetizers) are what is known in Italy as Antipasto or as Tapas in Spain. “Mezedes” are one of the unique characteristics of Greek cuisine. Since each region or even each season has its own specialties, the variety is endless and sometimes they can be so flavourful and satisfying that they render the main course superfluous.
Many Greek meals begin and end entirely with “Mezedes”. But what really puts a plate of Greek appetizers in a class all its own, is the sense of balance, health, tradition, wellbeing, and history that flavours it. Few visitors in Greece can resist a tempting platter filled with a variety of “Mezedes” such as stuffed vine leaves, meatballs, grilled or fried vegetables, calamari, octopus and other seafood cooked in infinite ways, and served with a glass of anise-scented ouzo or the traditional pine-flavored Retsina wine. In Greece there are even restaurants, known as “ouzeris” or “mezedopolia”, where the menu consists of nothing but appetizers.
Does each region have its own food? What are the differences, if any?
The development of the region’s cuisine has been influenced by many factors, the most important being geography and topography. High mountain ranges, isolated valleys, and lengthy coastlines create Greece’s unique micro-climates which, in turn account for the wide diversity of foodstuffs and local variations of the traditional diet and cuisine. But everywhere throughout Greece, you will find exceptional recipes of cooked dishes “ladera” and wonderful pies “pitas” in hand-made phyllo pastry, and filled with vegetables, eggs, cheese, milk, and even fish! Each geographical area in Greece is a real treasure of local recipes.
Do you have traditional religious food?
The culinary traditions of Greece are inextricably tied to the yearly cycle of the Orthodox religion. The Greek Church is at the centre of all life's important events: births and baptisms, saints' or name days, engagements , weddings, and funerals. We cannot imagine Easter without lamb on the spit, or Christmas without the traditional “kourabiedes”, the sugared almond biscuits. For the New Year every family prepares the “vassilopita”, a cake baked with a coin inside that will bring luck to the person who finds it in his piece. Each festive day is associated with a traditional delicacy.
Do you still have recipes from Ancient Greece?
According to all historical data, the ancient Greek diet was based around cereals, vegetables, fruits, and dairy products (the story of Polyphemus in Homer's Iliad proves that the cheese was born in Greece, a thousand years ago). The consumption of fish and meat varied according to the economic situation of each family and depending on the geographical area. There is much information on the diet of our ancestors in the comedies of Aristophanes and in the work of Athinaios "Deipnosofistai". There’s also documentation of the eating habits of the Pythagoreans, but complete recipes haven’t survived.
Photo courtesy Phaidon