Paring knife in one hand, plastic bag in another, I am walking the terraced meadows above the tiny mountain village of Amygdala with my friends, Lakis, Maria and Panagiotis. It is a cold, damp and steel-grey November day, but it is still easy to see why Greeks call autumn their “second spring.” A few days ago, it rained for the first time in weeks, and the results are lovely: new green shoots and leaves push up from the rocky soil. Here, a cluster of purple cyclamen. Around that abandoned well, a ring of crocuses. But we’re not wandering these lush meadows to pick flowers. Instead, we’re in search of horta, the edible wild greens that are prized by Greeks for their health benefits and flavor.
Here in the southeastern Peloponnese, the season for gathering horta stretches from the rainy winter months until just before the greens blossom in early spring. In the village my children and I call home part of each year, where for nearly everyone, the growing, the gathering and the meticulous preparation of food are not hobbies but necessary chores, foraging for horta is done with efficiency and seriousness, and this day is no exception. Lakis and Panagiotis have gathered wild foods in these mountains for most of their 50 or so years, thus they know the territory. I watch as they scramble over a rock wall and do my best to keep up with them.
Long a part of the traditional Greek diet, horta grows all over Greece. Varieties that grow here include sow thistle, mignonette, sea lavender, black nightshade and lamb’s quarters. For centuries, the greens have helped Greeks endure through lean times, and they still do today, but they are also a beloved food and a delicacy. Many Greeks keep a knife and a few plastic bags stashed in the trunk or the glove compartment of their cars for the spontaneous gathering of the greens—be it from a pristine mountain meadow or along a busy roadside in suburban Athens. The same greens we eat today were prized by the ancients—according to myth, the hero Theseus ate a dish of horta before taking on the bull at Marathon.
Boiled and then topped with fruity olive oil, lemon and salt, horta vrasta (“boiled horta”) is among my all-time favorite dishes in Greece. The greens are also added to stews, soups and bean dishes, or braised with lamb or goat. A wintertime staple is hortopita, a delicious and hearty pie made with layers of handmade phyllo, wild greens, aromatic herbs, such as dill and parsley, and touloumotiri, a rustic cheese considered to be the mother of feta, which is crafted with goat’s and sheep’s milk and traditionally stored and aged in the cleaned and heavily salted skin of a sheep or a goat.
For most, the identification and gathering of horta is not an exact science. Instead, knowledge of the plants and their use is passed from generation to generation. My friend Lakis learned to identify our local varieties from his mother, Panagiota, who today, at 90 years old, still ambles up a well-worn footpath through the carob and olive groves above the village to gather her favorite greens. After Panagiota boils the horta, she drinks the broth, believing it to have health-bestowing properties. Indeed, a 1999 study led by Antonia Trichopoulou, a physician and researcher at the National School of Public Health in Athens, confirmed the extraordinary nutritional value of wild greens.
Recipe: Hortopita or Wild Greens Pie
Several of my neighbors bake hortopita, or wild greens pie, in the wood-fired ovens in their gardens when they also bake the week’s supply of bread. On baking days, the village fills with the intoxicating scents of olive wood smoke, warm bread, garlic and spicy wild greens.
Most of the women in the village would never dream of buying manufactured phyllo dough. And with good reason: the dough they make by hand is substantial and delicious with hints of olive oil and the good flavor of fresh grains. If you prefer the ease or texture of store-bought phyllo, feel free to use it for this recipe. Since wild greens can be difficult to find, consider using Swiss chard as a tasty substitution. Spinach, arugula, and beet greens work well too, but if you can find wild greens (dandelion or purslane, for example), the flavor they impart is well worth the effort!
4 to 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ to 1 ¾ cups warm water, as needed
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for brushing layers of dough
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, as needed
1/2 cup olive oil
16 leeks or scallions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs. mixed wild greens or Swiss chard, chopped
1 cup each minced fresh dill, mint, and parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
12 oz. feta, crumbled
- Mix 4 cups of the flour and the salt in a mixing bowl; make a well in the center. Add the 1 ½ cups of water, the olive oil, and the vinegar. Work the flour into the liquid with a fork until a dough begins to form, then knead it with oiled hands on a floured surface until silky and smooth, adding a little more flour or water if necessary. Divide into 6 balls. Cover with a damp dish towel and let rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
- Heat 1⁄2 cup olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the leeks or scallions and garlic; cook, stirring, until tender. Add the greens and herbs; cook, stirring, until soft. Season with salt and pepper; cool. Stir in feta.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a 12-inch round cake pan with olive oil.
- Using a thin rod or dowel, begin to roll out a ball of dough. Continue rolling the dough, occasionally stretching it across the dowel, and turning it after each roll, to create a 14″ phyllo circle about 1⁄16″ thick.
- Transfer the phyllo circle to the pan, allowing the edges to hang over. Brush the phyllo with oil. Roll a second dough sheet to match first. Lay it on top of the first sheet. Brush with oil.
- Spread a third of the greens mixture onto the phyllo in the pan.
- Roll two more dough balls into 12″ circles about 1⁄16″ thick. Place 1 phyllo sheet on top of the greens; cover with half the remaining greens. Top with remaining sheet and greens.
- Roll out 2 remaining balls into 12″ circles about 1⁄16″ thick. Cover greens with 1 phyllo sheet; brush with oil. Top with last phyllo sheet. Fold the phyllo spilling over the pan’s edge to create a decorative rim. Brush the top with oil and score with a sharp knife to vent. Bake 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350˚. Bake until the crust is golden and pulls away from the pan’s edge, 18–20 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
Serving size: 1 pie (8-10 pieces).