Horta hunters – Greek weed-eaters and foragers

What was the most interesting in Greece for a nature-lover and cook with pharmaceutical diploma and an affinity for herbs? Horta! It’s a a catch-all phrase that encompasses all kinds of edible greens that can be gathered in the fields, mountains and the vegetable garden and aren’t considered cultivated vegetables. In Poland, this mostly forgotten topic is becoming very popular again and even right before we left I taught some curious folks how to eat nettle, yarrow, goosefoot or daisies. Greece, as it turns out, has a strong, on-going horta tradition and even though the tables are dominated by meat and the younger generations crave fast-food or world cuisine, every yia-yia (grandma) we’ve met, still knows what can be gathered around the area. Greeks are traditionally known to be weed-eaters and what’s more, the term vegetarian, or hortofagos, means exactly that!

foraging guided by our host, here picking young wine shoots and leaves
foraging with our host, here picking young wine shoots and leaves in May

Although we ate horta both on Lefkada and Evia, on Crete we were told that the gathering tradition there is especially strong. And it’s true: during our walks around the village, we would occasionally meet women in aprons with large front-side pockets, or with plastic bags in hand, who wandered by the side of the road, foraging for weeds, snails or young vine leaves. They’d deftly gather the leaves into bundles and with a small, sharp knife cut the plant at its very base with a bit of the white root. The whole procedure reminded me of gathering mushrooms back at home.  So, if at the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, you’ll come across a parked car and see silhouettes wandering in the distance or butts sticking out from high grass, you can be certain that there’s horta hunting going on.

horta hunters
horta hunters

How to eat weeds? As per traditional Greek cuisine — it’s very simple. Because most are bitter and not always easy to chew, horta is boiled until soft and strained. Next step is classic, a large splash of olive oil (always!), salt, pepper and lemon juice. Ready! The dish is now only slightly bitter and that’s also good for digestion. Another way to deal with horta is to treat it like spinach — a filling for the hortopita, a traditional Greek pie, made with ordinary dough or filo dough. There are countless varieties of horta and all have common, folk names. Many grow only in the mountains, away from civilization. But no matter where we were, there was horta around, at least a few varieties, including the generally known dandelion (radikia).

hortopita - here made with a thick homemade dough instead of filo
hortopita – here made with a thick homemade dough instead of filo

The time to forage for horta comes with the cooler and wetter Greek months, so it’s out of touristic season. Luckily, there’s vleeta (amarantus) in the summer. It’s season begins in June and it’s available in many tavernas during vacation time. Very popular, it can also be bought, like the winter dandelion, at the local market. Before being cooked it’s usually soaked in water first. It is commonly served alongside boiled young zucchini and potatoes and generously doused with oil and lemon juice. I may be prejudiced, but this stuff is delicious!

soaking vleeta
soaking vleeta
vleeta prepared at home
vleeta prepared at home
vleeta in a cretan taverna
vleeta in a Cretan taverna

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