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Searching for Greek Salad

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

In Greece it is called Horiatiki, in Turkey Çoban salatası, in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Russia Шəки-салаты or Şəki-salatı, and in the Balkans it is known as Šopska salad or Serbian salad. The Greek and Turkish names mean the same thing - peasant salad. It is indispensable on the table of the southern Balkans, Asia Minor and the countries around the Black Sea. All these variants have the same basis - tomato, cucumber and onion. Together they give one of the most refreshing salads, which has its own special story and history.

Traveling to the Balkans and Asia Minor, the former Ottoman Empire, and sometimes visiting Caucasian restaurants across France and Ukraine, I have always come across this salad. It has become so inseparable from everyday life that it is almost assumed that you will order it with other dishes. Many, especially northerners, like to eat this salad alone. As it seems, for the first time I met it honestly in Greece. On a tourist-so-famous Athens Plaka, in a small alley already setting in Monastiraki, a friend ordered me a Horiatiki. Delighted by the flavours in this Quarter of the Gods, so named because it is located in the immediate vicinity of the Acropolis, the oldest part of Athens, my friend Alexandros, became extremely talkative about the exact ingredients of a Greek salad. Greeks like Greeks, attach great pride to everything Greek, and especially food.

So, the Greek salad consists of: the freshest and richest tomatoes diced, long and freshly chopped cucumbers, large and thick green peppers with thick skin sliced, red onion sliced. Then there are the olives, the obligatory Greek Kalamata olives, Greek feta cheese, Greek dried oregano, Greek extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. Anything else, tanned Alexandros tells me, is not a Greek salad. With it comes black peasant bread. He serves what the Greeks call papara. We know this, it's about pouring bread into oil, vinegar and vegetable juices at the bottom of a bowl. It may be inconceivable to us, as to the Greeks, to think that sharing the same bowl elsewhere in the world is considered rude. Alexandros and I, of course, immediately agreed that Horiatiki is not what it is without papara. It’s about sharing, hospitality and being kind to a guest. When we share from the same vessel, and it is good, then we all know exactly why it is good, without even needing to speak. Sometimes the senses say it all.

Some other variations of peasant salad are known, even in Greece itself, but Alexandros is unrelenting. He immediately gives a list of things that can by no means enter a traditional Greek salad: lettuce or green vegetables of any kind, parsley, mint, lemon juice, fresh oregano, yellow or red peppers, grated cheese, zucchini. Something like that is straight to sin, according to the Greeks who attach great importance to what's on the plate. We will also see why. The Greeks generally believe that there is no restaurant, no tavern, and even if it bears a Greek name, outside Greece, and that it can make a Greek salad according to the proper recipe. They always add something that looks good. In other words, the Greek salad is carefully assembled, not designed to put everything that resembles Greece inside. All these other salads should have a different name. Indeed, if you mix tomatoes, cucumbers onions, feta, olive oil, but with capers, parsley and lemon juice, you get a Cyprus salad!

Still, it is interesting how exactly these ingredients are so important to Greek culinary identity. In a country where everyone boasts of the ancient past, emphasizing the continuity of culture and tradition (which is extremely doubtful given the influences of other nations that have ruled Greece for centuries), the main ingredient is actually a non-European vegetable culture - tomatoes. As is well known, the prime stock of tomatoes is Central America. In 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés brought a small yellow tomato from the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City. From then until today, the Spaniards are loyal to tomatoes. They have transmitted it throughout their Caribbean colonies and even into the Philippines, and since 1540 it has been cultivated in Spain itself. It quickly acquired its position in Italy as well, which we can also know from a letter written by the head of the household of the famous Duke of Tuscany Cosimo de Medici in October 1548. Only a long time later, tomatoes arrived in Greece, where they became an important ingredient in the most Greek of all salads.

The other thing was with the cucumber. Originally an Indian plant, this delicious early fruit has found cultivation ground in ancient Greece. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder described the Greeks planting three types of cucumbers, one in the Greek colonies in Italy, another in North Africa, and a third in the Balkans, in what is now Macedonia and southern Serbia. The Romans loved the cucumber too, and according to the same source, the Roman emperor Tiberias loved the vegetables so much that the cucumber had to be represented on his table both in summer and winter. Onions were known and worshiped in ancient Egypt because of their spherical shape and concentration circles, which symbolized eternal life for them. They were also used in burials, as found in the tomb of Ramses IV. The Ancient Greeks gave it to athletes in huge quantities because it was believed to ease the blood pressure balance, and the ancient Romans also believed that onions were especially good for athletes. It must have been "interesting smell" around when training with these ancient athletes!

Among other ingredients of the "real" Greek salad, the cheese feta and kalamata olive certainly stands out. Feta, that soft white cheese, has become a Greek brand in the world. Since 2002, feta has a protected origin in production in the European Union, and in traditional form may only be used in parts of continental Greece and on the island of Lesbos. By these rules, feta is made from sheep's milk, or from a mixture of sheep's and goat's milk, but goat's milk must not exceed more than 30 per cent by weight of cheese. As with some other things, feta is actually a variant of similar white cheeses found throughout the Levant. Thus, Bulgarians have white sirenye, Egyptian domiats, Georgian kveli, Serbs briza (and a similar name is used in Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Romania). The feta really originated in Greece - during the Byzantine Empire cheese prósphatos was created, which means fresh. It is thought to have originally come from Crete. But the word itself is not Greek but Italian and means a slice. It was introduced into the Greek language in the 17th century, indicating either the method of cutting cheese into slices when serving, or the way of cutting it to be placed in barrels where cheese was stored. It is held in brine because otherwise it dries quickly. Many know about Salakis, which is sold in our stores. It's also a Greek feta, but since it's not from the area where it's traditionally done, it can't be called a feta. This is a way to protect a unique product.

Finally, we come to the olive tree. According to Greek mythologies, the goddess of wisdom Athena thrust her spear into the ground and an olive tree appeared. Athens' olive gift was welcomed in food, medicine and as a fuel. The place where the first olive tree grew was named after that goddess - Athens. The Greeks worshiped the olive so much that the death penalty was followed by anyone who cut down that tree. Maybe that first olive was also a type of kalamata. It is a large black olive tree, named after the Peloponnesian city of Kalamata. Most commonly stored in vinegar or olive oil, it is also protected by European Union rules. The first time I tried it was at Peloponnese, in the port of Patras. I didn't like it, precisely because it was in a very salty wine vinegar. They sold it in bulk in the driveway of the city, surrounded by some of the oldest ancient monuments in Greece. But when eaten as part of a salad, it gives a great balance of flavour. It is unforgettable to sit in the tavern near Cape Sounion, where the Greeks erected a magnificent temple to the god of the sea Poseidon. This cape on Attica, near Athens, has an open view of the Mediterranean Sea, where the North African winds are already blowing well. The temple itself is especially beautiful at dusk, when the rays of the sun play with the Corinthian columns. It is then best to enjoy after a freshly eaten Greek salad and toast to Helios, the sun god, with Dionysus nectar. In Greece, the gods are always close.

And so, that's how we broke all the secrets around Greek salad. But what about other similar salads? Greek identity gathers exclusively in the content described. Others have their small additions, but these additions are also an important determinant of how other people put their lifestyles into a general Levant salad. Serbs put pepperoni in their version. Shopska salad, so named after Shopi, who live in western Bulgaria and southern Serbia, is popular in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, and can often be found on menus in Croatia, especially at barbecues. The differences are already there - the oil does not have to be olive and the vinegar is as desired. In the restaurants, guests are left to spice up their salad. White cheese is gratin, not in slices. It is made of sheep's, goat's and cow's milk, or a combination thereof. But if you thought it was an old and traditional salad, you were wrong. Shopska salad is a product of Bulgarian socialism. It was created in the late fifties, with the aim of making a positive impression on the visitors of the then very poor country. Only a few records remained from this period, and the name Shopska salad was just one of many possible ones - Dobrudjan, Macedonian and Thracian salads were developing among others. Of all, only Sopska survived. Apart from it, there is also a Sheep Salad, consisting of permanent vegetables, with cheese, ham, boiled eggs and olives. My Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian friends differ in many opinions, but one thing is for sure - everyone agrees that barbecue is much better if served with shopska salad.

And so we end our little journey on the trail of peasant salad on the Levant. The Greek peasant introduced all his knowledge to the unique taste of the eastern Mediterranean, thus blending traditional vegetable and livestock cultures on the often karst and shabby terrain.

Photos: Internet and Taste of Adriatic



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