I have trouble spelling it, and saying it, but I can make the crisp feathery filo treat spanakopita. My first attempt was from a recipe given me by Nick. Nick worked at the Sydney Opera House. He was a builder's labourer and laid the first brick. Later, he became manager of staging (for all the sets in all the theatres) at the Sydney Opera House. That's where I met him and where he cooked his family pastries for me and gave me his recipe. It was where I first learnt that my Greek friends have big generous open hearts. And that's how I want to be fed.
Last week I had another go at spanakopita. But this time I was in the good hands of my friends at Platia Greek Restaurant, at Top Ryde City.
To be honest, I don't know all that much about Greek food. Perhaps except that Greek cuisine is Mediterranean which suits our Sydney climate, that Greece has a history of noble philosophy, and that includes entertainment, and that Greek cuisine today shows the influences of invasion. Most importantly, I know that my Greek friends are joyous, and generous, and like an ouzo. Which is exactly where I started at Platia as my aperitif, firstly with soda, then for my second, as just ouzo over ice.
As well as Greek spinach pie (spanakopita) Platia offers wholesome starters like Zucchini & pumpkin fritter with house-made turmeric & red pepper mayo, Kefalograviera cheese and served with fig jam & tomato, and succulent Prawns saganaki, sautéed in a rich tomato & ouzo, topped with feta cheese.
My greatest new insight into Greek cuisine came with the most marvellous dish of the night: Kleftiko.
There are similar wrapped dishes, a favourite cooking technique of mine, enjoyed across much of Europe. At Platia, the rump of lamb is wrapped with tomatoes, potatoes, onions and feta cheese, in parchment paper then foil. What I love most about this method of cookery is that all the juices, aromas and flavours are trapped in the dish. Then Platia opens the parcel like a present at the table. The result is incredibly tender, and although it is carved at the table for individual serving, it's really not needed. The meat just falls apart, onto the plate and in your mouth.
Behind the dish is a lovely story. Kleftis literally means thief, and refers to the Greek Freedom Fighters during the Ottoman Empire who would steal back the sheep from the Turkish occupiers, and then give the stolen meat back to the villagers, and keep some to sustain themselves when hiding in the mountains. To avoid detection, the Kleftes could not use an open fire so the meat from the lamb with the vegetables was wrapped and sealed most likely in leaves or a cast iron pot. It was then buried and covered with ashes and left there to cook slowly all day while the Freedom Fighters carried out their rebellion, and unearthed on their return from battle and eaten under the night sky.
There were more stories on the night, about the food, and other coincidences. Many of them touched my heart. Some of them were very personal.
Plaki was another new discovery at Platia. Here on the night, Blue eye cod fillet was roasted with tomato, onion, garlic, herbs and spices, and substantially served with mash potato. Rice stuffed vegetables, of oven baked tomatoes and capsicums, make an interesting vegetarian options. And who doesn't love the spiced Greek layers - of minced lamb, potatoes, eggplant, and white béchamel sauce - of Mousaka.
Actually, I know most of these dishes. I knew them already. Perhaps I knew more about Greek food than I realised. And there's even more on the menu that I know. Dishes such as dips taramas and tzaztiki, grilled pita bread, dolmades, fried calamari, grilled octopus, Cyprus halloumi, souvlaki, lamb lemonato, roast lemon potatoes. And it was the same with desserts, a luscious creamy favourite, filo pastry laden with a firm milk custard filling, Galaktoboureko included. Baklava, Baked pears, Ice creams round out the dessert offerings. All finished with mint Turkish delight.
Are you familiar with these dishes too? Although these traditional dishes are generally regarded as Greek, their exact origin is difficult to pinpoint. Given Greece's long history and having played the role of both conqueror and conquered, it has absorbed much from other cultures, including the Venetians, the Ottomans, and the Persians.
The Platia (town square) has a special significance in Hellenic culture. It is where the locals meet and gather around to share a meal and a glass of wine or ouzo with friends. As the stories over food and drink were told, I made new friends on the night. A friend from my first home at Belfield, a friend from my current home at Hunters Hill, and a friend in the warm and generous heart of the Platia Greek Taverna Executive Chef Greg Akridas, who was born and raised in Greece, surrounded by the traditions of Greek culture. As a local restaurant Platia is a fitting name. It's also most appropriate as the restaurant is located in a modern town square, the outdoor Piazza Dining precinct in Top Ryde City.