As I stood over Koula watching her roll the filo around her skinny rolling pin, stretching it out towards either end with her hands, unrolling it back into a flat circle, then rolling it again around the pin, I realised what I have been doing wrong all these years. There are certain recipes – Turkish borek, Lebanese fatayer and Greek pies like this one, which I read and think ‘now, if only I could watch an experienced home cook make this in her kitchen like she has done a hundred times before, then I’d understand’ and finally, this was one of those moments. I was incredibly lucky to have this lesson, given to me so generously and out of the blue (I was in Greece for another story entirely) so I feel I must pass it on.
We’ve all heard of spanakopita, which is a Greek spinach and feta pie. This is a version using horta, which means wild greens, I think, or possibly mixed greens. In this case the pie was made with dandelions, which Koula simply stepped outside the front door to pick. Any bitterness is cooked away and the end result is a flavour very similar to spinach, but ballsier. First she blanched them very briefly, before mixing with leeks and onions and sautéing very slowly in the fabulous olive oil they have over there. The dandelions we have here seem very bitter in comparison, so I’ve suggested that you use a combination of spinach and dandelions, and do make sure that the dandelions are clean, e.g they’re not covered in fox piss. It’s one thing plucking them from an idyllic hillside next to the Aegean, another entirely next to a car park in Catford.
So, that pastry. It’s quite easy once you know how, but you need to get some of the very finely ground flour that is used for making borek and the like. We don’t stock such finely ground flour in our supermarkets in the UK so you’ll need to make a trip to a Turkish supermarket (or buy online) for some borek flour or similar. The other problem with recipes like these is that when you ask someone for quantities you typically end up with an answer along the lines of “I don’t know, just until it feels right” so remember, the quantities below are approximate, because pastry can vary each time depending on who is making it, the flour, what the weather is like, the mood of next door’s cat at the time and so on. The big breakthrough for me here was the method of rolling out the pastry, as I said. I’d been trying stretch the pastry when it was rolled out flat on the tabletop, which is completely wrong. What Koula did was roll it up around the skinny pin (which you will need in order to make this – again, Turkish shops sell them or online) and then used her hands to stretch outwards towards either end. I took a little video on my phone so you can get the idea.
You see? It makes the whole task much easier, although I need a few more years of experience under my apron strings before I can see the pattern of the tablecloth through it like Koula. In her words, she can make it as “thin as a cigarette paper.” She layered it up in the dish and poured olive oil between each layer (“no need to brush, the oil will distribute itself”) then she stuck clods of butter around the outside and folded the pastry over them to make the crust. In the oven it went, until golden.
We ate it outside in the November sun (surprisingly warm) overlooking a kalamata olive grove, as dragonflies zipped here and there above the table and the sun glittered on the sea. I ate a huge slice of hortapita, followed by several other dishes and then another huge slice for luck. Oh and then some tiganites, which are pancakes with honey and cinnamon. The Greek people are a very hospitable lot you see, and there was no question of me leaving there anything less than stuffed like a prize olive.
With huge thanks to Koula for her lesson and hospitality.
(fills a 12 inch diameter round tin)
600g greens, including a mix of spinach and dandelions if you can get them, any large leaves chopped
1 leek, finely chopped
1 white onion, finely chopped
Fresh Filo Recipe
350-400g finely ground white flour
Approx. 250ml water
A large pinch of salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar
I haven’t blanched the greens here as Koula did, as I didn’t find it makes any difference either way. If this were a Greek dining table, we’d now have a heated debate about whether or not it is best to blanch the greens before sautéing.
In a high sided frying pan or saucepan, heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, and add the leeks and onions. Allow to soften but not colour. Add the greens and let them wilt. Once cooked down and not too wet, season with salt (not too much, remember the feta) and pepper and set aside to cool. Once cool, crumble in the feta, leaving some larger chunks here and there. Set aside while you make the pastry.
Preheat the oven to 180C.
In a bowl, add 350g of the flour, and then the salt and lemon juice. Begin adding water until the mixture comes together, kneading and working all the time with your hands. It should be soft and silky, not sticky. Turn out onto the surface and knead briefly for just a few minutes (add more flour if it’s too wet) then divide into 10 equally sized balls. Rest the balls under a damp tea towel. On a lightly floured surface again, take one ball and begin rolling it out. When it gets to the size of a side plate, begin to roll it around the pin, stretching it outwards with your hands, so that your hands are moving towards the ends of the pin. Unroll the pastry, move one quarter turn around and roll up again. Repeat this until the pastry is as thin as you can get it.
Pour some oil into the tin (I would say that Koula poured in about a tablespoon each time from her little porcelain olive oil jug). Roll the pastry up around the pin, then unroll it onto the tin. Pour on a tablespoon of olive oil, and begin rolling the next layer. As you layer up the pastry you want some layers to be nice and crinkled. Repeat this for six layers (saving four for the top), folding only two inside (leave the rest overhanging the edge of the tin for the crust).
Add the filling and spread evenly. If the mixture is too wet at this point, Koula adds a handful of trahana or bulgur wheat. Roll the remaining pastry and add to the tin, layered up with olive oil. When all the pastry has been used up, dot butter around the sides of the pastry and roll it up into a crust. Pour more olive oil on top and spread around.
Cook for approx 45 mins, or until golden brown and crisp. Let it cool before serving; it should be just warm.