MasterChef winner Irini Tzortzoglou explores the flavours of Crete

From olive oil to octopus, the Greek chef and author of cookbook Under the Olive Tree: Recipes from my Greek Kitchen celebrates the flavours and unmissable dishes of her homeland.

By Irini Tzortzoglou
Published 24 Nov 2020, 10:04 GMT
Crete-born, Cumbria-based Irini won Masterchef in 2019. Her first book, Under the Olive Tree: Recipes from my Greek ...

Crete-born, Cumbria-based Irini won Masterchef in 2019. Her first book, Under the Olive Tree: Recipes from my Greek Kitchen, is published by Headline.

Photograph by David Loftus

My life journey began in Ano Akria, in Crete. The village is tiny; when I was born the population was probably about 35 and if anything it’s now even less. Our food was fresh, often gathered just before being put on the plate. The Cretan climate gave our fruit and vegetables an intensity of flavour that I’ve never known anywhere else. We had olive oil so pure it could be drunk. We were organic without knowing there was an alternative.

My father loved to entertain friends (and strangers), wining and dining until the small hours while making music on his bouzouki. In those days, every farming family in Crete would grow olives and grapes, so we had our own supplies, which my father would draw on liberally when we had visitors.

The Cretan climate consists of long, hot summers and short, mild winters, so even in the colder months, meals would involve fresh ingredients. Cauliflower, cabbage, beetroot and spinach would be in season, while pulses (lentils, chickpeas and various types of bean) were also available. My mother would make pies; barley and wheat were grown locally and my grandfather, a mill owner, would mill the grain to produce flour.

Of course, in spring and summer we had plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. March would bring wild asparagus and greens, followed in April by spring onions, courgettes, artichokes and broad beans. By May, fruit would appear — apricots, cherries, early melons, strawberries, early figs and medlars. And for the rest of the summer, there was very little that wasn’t available. 

However, for a Mediterranean island with plenty of fishing villages, there was very little fish in our diet. I can only think that there was little incentive for fishermen and fishmongers to bring their catch inland — so I had to wait until later in life to discover the joys of fresh fish.

This is an edited extract from Under the Olive Tree: Recipes from my Greek Kitchen, published by Headline (RRP: £25).

Three must-try dishes in Crete

Cretan Village Salad 
The difference between this and the usual ‘Greek salad’ is the use of dakos (a barley rusk), which, when it soaks up the tomato juice, olive oil and red wine vinegar, adds another dimension to an already delicious dish.

Stuffed vegetables 
Sun-ripened tomatoes — and sometimes peppers, courgettes and aubergines — are stuffed with rice and aromatics and covered in olive oil. A great plant-based dish that’s full of flavour.

Grilled octopus 
A popular meze, grilled over charcoal and served simply with oregano, olive oil and lemon. It goes beautifully with fava bean puree — also served drizzled with good olive oil — plus sweet, finely chopped onion.

Irini's essential ingredient:

Extra virgin olive oil is the pillar of the Mediterranean diet, and Crete, with its carpet of wild herbs and aromatics, produces some of the best in the world, mostly from the koroneiki olive varietal.

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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