The nature of horta or Greek greens
Life on land
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Life on land
In this story Dr David Shimwell (known to us all with great affection as Chunky), botanist, campaigner on environmental conservation and former lecturer at the University of Manchester, turns his attention to the subject of horta.
Peter Hylands says this is a subject that touches on my own childhood in the European Alps where we did indeed collect the local greens and my enduring passion about the conservation work of Gerald Durrell, now continued by Lee Durrell, and Gerald’s endlessly wonderful early life in Corfu.
Botanists David Shimwell, David and Rosemary Bellamy, along with Lee Durrell, are very much part of the annual Durrell Week held on the beautiful Greek Island of Corfu. David Shimwell, who in the distant past was one of David Bellamy’s PhD students, is currently writing a book on the differences between Gerald Durrell’s Corfu and the present day. I will hand you over to David.
The chemistry of the wild green food of the eastern Mediterranean, its nutritional value and dietary advantages has become a major research topic in the twenty-first century. Some examples of the types of investigation undertaken recently are listed in the references below.
In the rural areas of Greece, the predominant harvest of these greens, or horta as they are known, is from the wild and there is a great diversity of choice from over 80 different plant species.
The nature of horta varies from region to region and season to season according to the availability of wild greens. In early spring in Corfu, it is dominated by Asparagus and Nettles, while a harvest I examined in mid-May was more diverse. Wild Fennel and Common Sow-thistle formed the bulk of the foliage and there were smaller quantities of Hartwort, Hawk’s-beard and Black Nightshade, the latter a most surprising inclusion on account of its classification with other, poisonous members of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae).
Although the literature on the subject is most enlightening, the naming of the plants in Greek – often differing in different regions - and their transcription into both Latin and English is rather confusing. Moreover, the accurate identification by researchers with a predominantly biochemical background is difficult and often only approximate. Even as a practicing botanist, I cannot vouch for the absolute accuracy of my interpretations of the Greek names which are often in the best educated guess category. The following discussion is based upon both searches of the literature and personal fieldwork in the Greek landscape and at the tables of households and cafes and restaurants.
Horta, sometimes horta vrasta, the mixed green-leaf staple of many Greek households is easy to prepare – boiled until tender and served with a garnish of olive oil and lemon. The mixture is often referred to as tsitsiritsá and sometimes used as a filling for green pies and pastry envelopes known as hortópites.
In Corfu, the dish tsigareli comprises wild greens sautéed with garlic and hot pepper and served over polenta. The plants used for traditional horta are essentially wild plants, but inevitably, several substitute species have been cultivated for purchase on market stalls, species such as curly endive, chard, rocket, lamb’s lettuce, fennel, sorrel, parsley and spinach, essentially some of the familiar constituents of the bags of mixed green saladings sold in many supermarkets of western Europe and the United States, probably originally for sale to Greek ex-patriots.
Others are the by-products of cultivation in gardens. Italika (Brassica oleracea var. italika), for example, are the collards or after-growths of many familiar cabbage-like greens – sprouting broccoli and kale in particular, but also the tops of turnips and swedes. Related wild members of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) include Warty Cabbage (Bunias orientalis), Bastard Cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum) and Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) and seem to be known under the general name of Agrios italika. White Mustard (Sinapis alba, Vrouves) and Wild Rocket (Erucaria vesicaria, Argula or Agrios roka) are other related but distinct members of the cabbage family.
There are several obvious groups of related species with similar flavours and presumably, similar chemical characteristics. Some of the most sought after are described below.
The word Radiki isused for Chicory (Cichorium intybus ssp. intybus) and yellow-flowered Dandelion-like plants with a basal rosette of toothed leaves. It is often used specifically for Chicory or Dandelion (Taraxacum), but included under this general name are many other related plants. Akin to the former are the tall, pink-flowered Goat’s-beards, namely, Wild Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) and Hairless Goat’s-beard (Geropogon hybridus), known either as Skoloi or Pigounites. Other close relatives are Prickly Golden-fleece (Urospermum picroides) and Spanish Oyster-plant, variously known as Acrolimbos / Askolibri / Goules (Scolymus hispanicus).
The true Dandelion is sometimes specifically called Galatsida, but there are several others that are often mistaken for this plant. Pikrodikia or Pikrossirides and Glikorodia or Glikossirides are other names for rosette plants akin to the Dandelion and are often translated as such. In actual fact they are species of Picris (Oxtongues) and Crepis (Hawk’s - beards). Zogos, zochos or zochous, the Common Sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), which the English name suggests, is suitable only for pigs, is a weakly-prickled, fleshy-leaved, yellow-flowered plant and like the Dandelion, exudes a bitter white latex that might seem singularly unattractive to the more refined palate. It is, however, a close relative of the common Lettuce (Lactuca sativa), some varieties of which will also release milky latex when cut, hence the Latin name to imply lactation. Nipplewort (Lapsana communis, Lapsana), its common English name suggesting breast-feeding is another relative.
The leaves of Wild Carrot or Stafilinakas (Daucus carota) and several other species from the Carrot family (Apiaceae) are popular, especially the early growths of Maratho(n) agrios, the Wild Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and its close relatives Giant Fennel (Ferula communis) and Knotted Ferulago (Ferulago nodosa). Agrioselino and Maedanos agrios are names in general use for wild members of the parsley type, such as Hedge-parsley (Torilis spp.) and Southern Burnet-saxifrage (Pimpinella peregrina), but some are more precisely identified with both Greek and Corfiot names. Shepherd’s Needle (Scandix pecten-veneris/S.australis) is known generally as Mironia, but as Skatziki in Corfu; Mediterranean Hartwort (Tordylium apulum) is Kafkalithra (Kaukalithra) and Moscholahno respectively, although there seems to be some confusion of this species with Orlaya grandiflora. Bullwort or False Bishop-weed (Ammi majus) is Akournopodas.
A number of weeds of gardens and nutrient-rich rubbish dumps of the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae) are much sought after in late spring. Common English names like Lamb’s Quarters and Fat Hen for Chenopodium album mark its former use for fattening livestock and fowl. Along with Many-seeded Goosefoot (C. polyspermum), it is most commonly collected, Nettle-leaved Goosefoot (C. murale) less so and Stinking Goosefoot (C. vulvaria) best avoided.
Agriopraso the Wild Leek (Allium ampeloprasum) with its purple / pinkish-white flowers is the most commonly used member of the onion family (Alliaceae), and there appears to be a more restricted use of the three related wild garlics, A. neapolitanum of shady olive groves, A. roseum and A. subhirsutum, respectively Neapolitan, Rosy and Hairy Garlics.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis and A. acutifolius), not the familiar blanched or short green spears sold in shops, but the natural, thin and spindly growths of the wild plants, are a favourite target in early spring. Nettles, collected before the stinging hairs are fully developed are also key components of early horta; common Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), Large-leaved Nettle (U. membranacea) and the annual Small Nettle (U. urens) are all used. Perhaps as a complementary antidote to the nettles, various species of dock and sorrel (Rumex), notably the young leaves of Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and in Crete, the Broad-leaved Dock or Lapatho (Rumex obtusifolius), are collected.
Vlita is the Amaranth or Pigweed. Many species of Amaranthus, such as A. hybridus, are native to North America and have been imported as garden crops or as weeds, but A. blitum and A. graecizans are both native to the eastern Mediterranean region.
Paparoena are the leaves of a number of Poppies (Papaver spp.) and the name Koutsounada is used specifically in Crete for the red Cornfield Poppy (P. rhoeas). Stifno / Strufoulia or Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is probably the most surprising of horta because of its poisonous relatives. It is, however, perfectly palatable and a common component in early to mid-May.
Ovries / Avriones are fleshy climbers that wind themselves around other plants and are better known as either Black Bryony (Tamus or Dioscorea communis) or White Bryony (Bryonia dioica /B. cretica).
Stravoksilo is a Scabious, either Scabiosa spp. or Knautia integrifolia, and Vulvi or Askordoulaki, the Grape Hyacinth (Muscari comosum); Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) is Scuplit. Prasium majus (Prasium), a small, phrygano shrub of the Thyme family (Lamiaceae) is a basic flavouring component known as Lagoudohorto. Petromarula pinnata of the Bellflower family (Campanulaceae), the Cretan Rock-lettuce or Petrofila, does not seem to occur in Corfu.
Perhaps the most commonly encountered green horta on the coast is Kokkinogoulia or Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima), often seen in the company of Sea Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum ssp. maritimus). Growing only in the cracks and fissures of coastal limestone rocks, Kritama (Rock Samphire, Crithmum maritimum) is something of a speciality. The fleshy rosettes of Provatsa (Greek Sea-lavender, Limonium graecum complex) are widely collected, a foraging activity which poses a threat to the conservation of certain related micro-species endemic to specific Aegean and Ionian islands. L. arcuatum, for example, is restricted to the coasts of north-west Corfu.
Vasilopoulou, E. & Trichopoulou, A. 2011. Green pies: the flavonoid rich Greek snack. Food Chemistry, 126: 855-858.
Vardavas, C.I., Majchrzak, D., Wagner, K-H., Elmadfa, I. & Kafatos, A. 2006. The antioxidant and phylloquinone content of wildly grown greens in Crete. Food Chemistry, 99: 813-821.
Vardavas, C.I., Majchrzak,D., Wagner, K-H., Elmadfa, I. & Kafatos, A. 2005. Lipid concentrations of wild edible greens in Crete. Food Chemistry, 99: 832-834.
Pereira, C., Barros, L.,Carvalho, A.M. & Ferreira, I.C.F.R. 2011. Nutritional composition and bioactive properties of commonly consumed wild greens: potential sources of new trends in modern diets. Food Research International, 44: 2634-2640.
Trichopoulou, A.,Vasilopoulou, E., Hollman, P., Chamalides, C., Foufa, E., Kaloudis, T.,Kromhout, D., Misaki., P., Petrochilou, I., Poulima, E., Stafilakis, K. & Theophilou, D. 2000. Nutritional composition and flavonoid content of edible wild greens and green pies: a potential rich source of antioxidant nutrients in the Mediterranean diet. Food Chemistry, 70: 319-323.
© D.W. Shimwell, The Durrell School of Corfu. May 2012
Photos: Andrea Hylands, Corfu