I’ve just returned from a week in Athens where I explored Greek cuisine. The classic Athenian dish is pastitsio, a kind of lasagne but with long hollow-tubed macaroni rather than sheets of pasta.
Traditionally it is made with mincemeat, but below I will give you a vegetarian pastitsio recipe, flavoured with a nutmeg freckled mushroom béchamel and a thyme suffused tomato sauce.
You may have seen Greek style macaroni known as Mezzani in foreign-owned corner shops. Certainly you can get it in London shops where there is a large Greek and Greek Cypriot community. If not, feel free to use ordinary macaroni or the Italian ‘bucatini’.
We think of pasta as an Italian food but it travelled along the Silk Route from China, passing Greece along the way. The word macaroni itself is most likely derived from the Greek word ‘macaria’ or ‘food of the blessed.’
While in Athens I tried Greek wines, which, let’s be honest, have not had the best reputation. Retsina, the Byzantine resinous wine, is a Marmite wine, i.e., not for everybody. Modern retsinas are much subtler, rather than overwhelmed with a powerful eye-wincing flavour reminiscent of Pledge. I had a retsina that tasted of thyme and just a delicate touch of resin.
There is a syndrome known as ‘situational drinking’ whereby a wine or drink that you had on holiday, sunburnt and happy, by a beach, never quite tastes the same when you try it at home. But I feel confident that readers will love the Greek wines that WineTrust100 stocks.
Modern Greek wine making is starting to win international prizes and make headway onto Michelin starred restaurant wine lists. It’s worth trying.
Winetrust100 has two Greek wines at present and is soon adding a third.
Assyritiko, Wild Ferment, Gaia 2013 £18 is grown on the island of Santorini, which is so windy that grape vines are wound into basket shapes upon the ground rather than grown upright, as usually happens in vine training, where the vine is splayed along wires or trellises.
This wine is served at the award-winning Indian restaurant in London, Gymkhana; it’s light and acidic but able to withstand strong flavours such as curry.
The second wine, Malagousia, Domaine Gervassiliou 2011 £16 is a Macedonian wine, from the Greek Macedonia rather than Macedonia the country, and comes from an unusual grape, Malagousia. This grape was practically extinct until revived by the winemaker. The wine is reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc but has more depth and resonance. This goes great with fish and with meze, the small plates favoured by the Greeks and Turks.
Both these wines match well with the pastitsio recipe but a red wine such as a Beaujolais Villages will go down nicely too. This recipe uses an entire pack of macaroni and will serve 8 to 10 people, so perfect for a family meal or a dinner party. For a dinner party it has the advantage that it can all be prepared in advance and popped in the oven to finish it off before you sit down with your guests. You can make all the sauces and part cook the pasta in advance. It’s a question of assembly before your guests arrive, then baking it.
Pastitsio comes from the same root as pasta, and can mean ‘a mess’. If you look at YouTube recipes of Greek grandmas making this dish, they use the aforementioned ‘mezzani’, tubular macaroni of about a foot long. The grandmas mostly boil up the pasta until it is partly cooked and throw it into the dish in a messy way. But I wanted lovely lines, so that if you cut a slice, you see tubes. How to achieve that? You need to boil the pasta in a covered baking tin, in salted hot water in the oven, rather than in a sauce pan. Then you can drain the pasta, retaining the lovely straight lines.
Of course if you can’t get hold of ‘mezzani’ then by all means use shorter macaroni. In which case you boil it in a normal saucepan, in the usual way of cooking pasta.
Mushroom Pastitsio recipe
(Serves 8 to 10)
The tomato sauce
A heavy splash of olive oil
1 litre of passata (or 1 500g box of passata and 1 tin of chopped tomatoes)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp of fresh thyme leaves
1 pack macaroni, ideally ‘mezzani’
1 tbsp sea salt
2 tbsp olive oil
The mushroom béchamel
1 kilo of mushrooms, thinly sliced
50g unsalted butter and a splash of olive oil.
1/2 glass of white wine
75g of unsalted butter
6 tbsps of flour
1.5 litres of whole milk
1 tsp of ground nutmeg
Sea salt to taste
White pepper, ground
200g grated hard sheep cheese, Cheddar or tomme
Preheat the oven to 200c.
Make the tomato sauce by adding the olive oil to a medium sized saucepan, then adding the pasta, garlic, thyme and salt to the pan and simmering it on a low heat for 40 minutes. Don’t let it reduce too much – if it does, add some wine or some water.
Take a baking tin long enough for the pasta to fit in without breaking. Place the pasta inside, side by side, and fill three quarters full with boiling water. Add a tbsp of sea salt. Cover the baking tin with tin foil and carefully place the covered baking tin in the oven without spilling the water. Bake for about ten minutes.
Then carefully strain the hot water from the baking tin by lifting up one corner of the tin foil and draining out the water over a sink. Add some olive oil to the pasta so that it doesn’t stick. Let it cool enough to handle.
Lastly make the bechamel sauce.
First fry the mushroom slices in butter and a splash of olive oil. Add a little sea salt and some white wine. Fry until lightly golden. Set aside.
Using a medium saucepan on a medium to low heat, add the butter then add the flour. Do not let the flour brown. Gradually, little by little, stirring constantly, add the milk. Gradually the sauce will thicken.
Add the sliced fried mushrooms and stir in the ground nutmeg. (I like to buy whole nutmeg and grate it freshly over the sauce).
Preheat the oven to 200c. Take a baking tin the same size that you used to cook the pasta. Spread the tomato sauce over the bottom. Then lay the pasta tubes over the top in lines. Once all the pasta is laid out, then sprinkle some salt over the pasta.
Then spread the béchamel sauce all over the top of the pasta, making sure it covers all of it.
Lastly grate on the cheese.
Cover with tin foil and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. For the last ten minutes, remove the foil top so that the cheese and béchamel can brown. Check it is cooked by either using a digital thermometer and making sure the centre is at 60c at least or by inserting a metal prong and checking that it is warm when retrieved.
Serve with Greek wine and a Greek salad.
Have you tried Greek wine? On holiday there or here? What did you think? Would you be willing to try a Greek wine?