VICKI Peppos is feeding me cheese. Kefalograviera and kefalotiri, the Greek cheeses used for saganaki, the popular fried cheese starter, as well as kasseri, which is more of a table cheese, and dried mizithra, for grating over pasta. Then there are the countless fetas Ã¢â‚¬â€ the cheese we think of first, when we think Greek cheese.
Peppos, who runs the Sweet Greek Cooking School, desperately wants me to try manouri, a lemony cream cheese from northern Greece sometimes eaten as a sweet drizzled with honey, but sadly, Oakleigh Market’s Athena Deli has run out.
It is here Ã¢â‚¬â€ the Oakleigh Market and surrounding streets, with their Greek butchers, fishmongers, delis and food marts Ã¢â‚¬â€ that Peppos escorts her cooking class on Saturday mornings to source ingredients for the traditional dishes she and her students plan to cook.
More than simply introducing new generations of Melburnians to the delights of Greek cuisine, her school tries to open our eyes, and mouths, to its many regional contrasts and nuances.
Feta is a perfect example, Peppos indicates. The white, briny curd will vary according to which part of Greece it hails from and whether it is made from sheep or goat’s milk, or a mix of both (and occasionally from cow’s milk). “It’s comes down to personal taste,” she explains. “Some people love their feta more creamy, some like it more salty.”
The best feta comes from Greece’s dairy country in the north as well as the southern island of Crete and, says Peppos, should not be thought of as something simply tossed on to a Greek salad. “One of the quickest and nicest things [Greeks] do with feta is crumble it into a small earthenware dish, mix in some chilli, bake until it’s beautifully golden and eat it with bread,” she says.
Peppos set up her school in March, concerned the traditions of regional cooking were being lost and there had not been the same cultural inheritance here as there had with Italian food and cooking. “I had a few relatives pass away who influenced me in Greek food culture and it reminded me [the older generations] are going to leave us soon,” she says. “Where are we going to get the knowledge and technique from first-hand? I wanted to preserve that.”
Melbourne’s love affair with Greek food established its roots with the waves of post-war Greek migrants flowing into Australia during the 1940s and ’50s, often from poor rural areas. With them came heads and hearts full of family recipes, handed down from generation to generation.
John Rerarkis, who runs Philhellene restaurant in Moonee Ponds, confesses he is a stickler for tradition. When he started out 15 years ago at his previous restaurant in Fitzroy, Pireaus Blues, Rerarkis Ã¢â‚¬â€ whose family originated from Crete Ã¢â‚¬â€ was a bit of an anomaly because he insisted on cooking seasonal Cretan fare.
This meant using pulses and fresh vegies, staples used throughout Greece, but a particular feature of island cooking, Crete especially. Rerarkis rolls off zucchini flowers, fresh artichokes, okra and broad beans as just a few of the vegies he features in his cooking.
“For entree, we’d have vegetarian-styled dishes. Then we’d finish off with a bit of meat, like roast kid. That’s the way we’d eat at home,” he says.
It wasn’t, though, how many non-Greeks were introduced to Greek food in Melbourne. For many people, a Greek night out was Ã¢â‚¬â€ and still is Ã¢â‚¬â€ more of a bastardised taverna style of dining: a round of dips, a bit of charred octopus, followed by platters piled with grilled meat and seafood.
“Since when did we start mixing meat with seafood?” says Rerarkis.
He is not alone. The influence of home cooking and provincial specialties are increasingly finding prominence on many Hellenic restaurant and cafe menus, and are elevating the cuisine in the minds of Melbourne’s discerning dining public.
If Rerarkis dabbles in dips, for instance, he steers away from the time-honoured tzatziki and pink-stained taramasalata (which is sometimes white in Greece depending on the colour of the fish roe) for something less familiar Ã¢â‚¬â€ a broad bean dip or one combining pomegranate, walnut and red capsicum.
At Salona in Swan Street, Richmond, Stavros Konis is another restaurateur determined to serve up what he terms “hardcore” Greek food Ã¢â‚¬â€ dishes that present diners with a bit of history and heritage on a plate.
With a grandparent from every corner of Greece, he affords himself the luxury of choosing the best of what each region has to offer, even if Ã¢â‚¬â€ as Konis says Ã¢â‚¬â€ each of his grandparents think theirs is better.
His zucchini kefte, or patties, and goat rollo are Cretan. His baked lamb riganato incorporates wild oregano, which grows on his grandfather’s island of Kastelorizo in the Dodecanese. His lamb gyros have chilli and paprika, which is more northern (although pork is mainly used throughout Greece).
Konis also prepares regional degustation menus. His June “Constantinople” offering included Byzantine calamari, stuffed with risotto, and lamb rack baked in rosemary and Attiki honey. This month, he is offering a seven-course menu of Cretan delicacies.
For all its differences, though, regional cooking does not vary much throughout Greece, Konis says. “Each area adds their own touches with the style (of cooking) and the produce available to them.”
Northern dishes tend to be spicier with a heavier chilli accent. There is a Middle-Eastern influence, so close to Turkey, with spices such as cinnamon, clove and cumin commonly applied. Food from the warmer southern climes, such as the Peloponnese, adopts a simpler palate. Oranges will often be used as a flavour in, say, the loukaniko, the Greek sausage.
Islanders generally offer up more seafood. But they have their specialties, too. Hailing from the Ionian island of Cephalonia, Pireaus Blues head chef Gerasimos Stamoulis cooks with a lot of sauces (saltsa), which is peculiar to the island.
Even staples such as souvlaki and pita, found throughout the Hellenic republic, can widely differ. The spinach-filled spanakopita is probably the best-known filo pie Ã¢â‚¬â€ although there are many others, such as spanakotiropita (spinach and cheese) and kotopita (chicken) and a dozen different variations.
That idea of using whatever produce is at hand is the cornerstone of regional cooking, which explains why many differences arise.
As for Melbourne? “Greek restaurants in Melbourne have their own local inspirations,” Konis observes. “You can even call Melbourne another region.”
In part, this stems from the fact that many regional variations brought here by migrants became homogenised Ã¢â‚¬â€ what Peppos calls a “mishmashing” of culture Ã¢â‚¬â€ through community, work and marriage. “In Greece, you see dishes indicative of an area. Here, we’ve influenced each other’s cooking and shared recipes.”
On top of this, many Greeks making, in some cases, annual pilgrimages back to their home towns and villages return with new produce. On his most recent trip, Rerarkis discovered pickled bulbs, caper leaves and Cretan mountain teas.
Demitri’s Feast in Richmond also tweaks many of its traditional dishes. On his egg and bacon sandwich, chef Peter Juras uses souvlaki bread with ouzo-laced aioli and no garlic. His baklava French toast uses tsoureki (Greek Easter bread) instead of brioche with a rosewater and honey syrup reduction. To the makaronada (macaroni with tomato and braised beef), he adds paprika.
For Thessalonian Chris Talihmanidis, owner-chef of Chris’s Restaurant at Apollo Bay, it is his classical training that he lets influence traditional rustic dishes such as kakavia, the Greek bouillabaisse, which he gives a French bisque base.
With a classic dish such as duck with cherries, typically cooked with Pernod and aniseed, Talihmanidis will use ouzo and fennel as well as mastic (an aromatic resin from the island of Chios); and to creme brulee, he may add cardamom and orange.
For all the changes to traditional regional fare, though, Peppos says most Greeks still yearn for the simple pleasures of eating food in the company of family and friends.
“At their core, Greeks like to imagine being back in their village,” she says. “Food transports them there.”