Of syrup, silk and star-crossed lovers.

When we are in Greece, we are drawn to the sea. But the mountains, too, pull us into their fold: to hike the ancient paths that wind from village to village, to spend long evenings under the stars at our favorite mountain tavernas, to collect oregano and to gather horta, the wild greens that have sustained Greeks for centuries. Thus, once or twice a week, I find myself navigating the steep road that climbs from Poulithra to the high country above. Over the years it has become a ritual of sorts to stop just after the road makes its final hairpin turn, leaving the view of the village and the sea behind as it begins its journey across the mountain plateau. Once there, I steer my car onto a grassy spot in the shade of an enormous tree, get out, stretch my legs and take in the view below: the village, like a white river tumbling down the mountainside to the sea, the islands of Spetses and Hydra suspended among the layers of blue. 

For years, so taken was I by the land and seascape below that it didn’t occur to me to look up at the canopy of that generous tree. Indeed, it took the combined forces of my young daughter and my mother to inspire me to do so. We had stopped on our way home from a visit to dear friends in Kyparissi, the next village down the coast from Poulithra. As we were taking in the view and drinking a bit of water, my daughter, then 7 or 8, said, “Look, Mom, blackberries.” My mother, who grew up in Ohio and spent many hours beside her own grandmother cooking, gardening, and gathering wild foods, said, “No, Sylvie. Not blackberries. Mulberries. Edible and quite delicious.” 

And so, since that day, each summer we have gone to that beautiful spot above the sea to gather mulberries. 

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Mulberries are widespread in Greece and indeed throughout the temperate world. According to Wikipedia, there are 10-16 species of the genus Morus, deciduous trees commonly known as mulberries. I’ve noticed two species in our region:  Morus alba (white mulberry) and Morus nigra (black mulberry). Our tree with a view is the black mulberry. Its fruit is a gorgeous deep purple color, indeed it is almost black, and extremely juicy.

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From the Satires of Horace we know that the Romans ate mulberries at their feasts: “That man shall spend his summers healthy who shall finish his dinners with mulberries black with ripeness, which he shall have gathered from the tree before the sun becomes violent.” But I’ve found no such evidence of their use here, ancient or otherwise. When I’ve asked my neighbors for recipes or memories of their use, most have shrugged their shoulders, a few suggesting that mulberries may have been used to make a “poto” (drink) or marmalade. 

Although the berries’ use in Greek cookery is clearly minimal, the mulberry tree, specifically Morus alba, did play a relatively brief but important role in Greek economics and culture, but its role was not culinary. Indeed, the tree was introduced to Greece from Asia to establish sericulture, or silk production. 

For more than two thousand years the Chinese kept the secret of silk to themselves, guarding the details of its production carefully. Although the fabric was a coveted luxury item in the West, people here knew little about the techniques used to produce it. For example, in 70 BC the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History, “Silk is obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water…” But siga, siga, as we say in Greek (slowly, slowly), the secrets of silk production eventually spread and rulers and early-day entrepreneurs endeavored to bring the industry west. One such ruler was the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great who, according to the historian Procopius, in the 5th century AD sent two monks as Christian missionaries to China. Their orders? To smuggle silkworm eggs and the seeds of the mulberry tree home, hidden in hollowed-out walking sticks. Whether due to the monks’ efforts or not, around the 5th century AD the practice of sericulture began in the Mediterranean, including in Greece where it eventually flourished. Here on the Peloponnese Peninsula the Byzantine town of Mystras became a center for silk production. In fact, during the Middle Ages, the Peloponnesos was known as Morea (Μωριάς or Morias) from the Greek word for the tree Μουριά, Μouria, or mulberry. 

If you live in North America and wish to gather mulberries, look for Morus rubra, the red mulberry, or Morus alba, the white mulberry of sericulture fame. Red mulberry trees have reddish-brown bark and reach a height of about sixty-five feet. As my friend the forager and author Hank Shaw writes, they’re easy to recognize as they’re “the only thing in North America that looks like a blackberry tree.” (My daughter would agree.) The white mulberry reaches about forty feet, has rough, gray bark and, of course, white berries. Depending on the species and their hybrids, ripe mulberries come in different colors: white, pink, red, and that gorgeous nearly-black shade of deep purple. You can eat all of them; there are no poisonous look-alikes. 

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How did black mulberries get their gorgeous color? The answer lies in the Ovidian love story, “Pyramus and Thisbe.” The plot will seem familiar: Two young lovers–Pyramus, “the most handsome of young men,” and Thisbe, “the fairest beauty of the East.” Their parents, feuding, have forbidden them to meet, and so the youths whisper to each other through a crack in the wall of their adjoining houses. When they can no longer stand their separation, they agree to meet in the shade of a certain mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives, but she encounters a lioness bloodied and fresh from a kill. She flees, leaving her veils behind. Pyramus arrives, sees the same bloodied lion and the veils and assumes that she has killed Thisbe. Bereft, he falls upon his sword to join his love in the afterlife. As he falls, his blood splashes upon the white mulberries and stains them. Thisbe returns. Finding Pyramus slain by his own hand, she takes his dagger and dispatches her own life. The gods, hearing Thisbe’s lament, change the berries’ color to honor the youths’ forbidden love.

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Blood-stained or no, mulberries are high in Vitamin C and resveratrol, one of the heart-healthy substances present in red wine. They also contain iron, postassium and Vitamin K.

If, like my daughter, you prefer to eat the berries fresh from the tree, preferably whilst in the tree, there’s no need for a recipe. But there are many ways to cook them. This year I made a delicious mulberry syrup for ice cream and pancakes. From pies to marmalade, you can do anything with mulberries that you do with any other berry, and they dry and freeze well. Since they don’t have the acidity of other fruits, I suggest using lemon or lime juice to enhance their flavor.

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Recipe for a simple syrup

  1. Rinse and sort the berries. Feel free to leave the stems intact.
  2. In a heavy pot, add equal parts mulberries to water (i.e. 1 cup of mulberries to 1 cup of water). Bring the berries to a boil. 
  3. Remove the berries from the stove and, using a fork or potato masher, smash them. 
  4. Allow the berry mixture to continue cooking on a medium flame for 20 minutes or more. 
  5. Using cheescloth (or a lightweight kitchen towel) suspended over a bowl, allow the berries to drain overnight. (You may need to wring out any remaining juice the next day.)
  6. Return the juice to a pot and add sugar to taste. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  It takes about an hour for the syrup to thicken. Stir occasionally so that it doesn’t stick or burn on the bottom.
  7. Test the thickness of the syrup with a spoon. If the syrup is too thin, it will slide off immediately.  If it is ready, it will coat your spoon and slowly slip off.

Delicious on ice cream, pancakes and yogurt. Καλή όρεξη! 

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Starting Fresh.

With my dear friend of many years, James Foot, guided by our friend Eleni, I hiked last summer to the tiny mountain settlement of Babbala to meet a family of traditional cheesemakers. Notes from this journey to come.

With my dear friend of many years, James Foot, guided by our friend Eleni, I hiked last summer to the tiny mountain settlement of Babbala to meet a family of traditional cheesemakers. Notes from this journey to come.

Nearly a year has passed since my last post here at The Shepherd and the Olive Tree. For me, the length of time is difficult to believe and to reconcile. This blog is my passion. Moreover, it is a source of information for my readers and others in search of recipes and insight from this traditional society I call home as much of each year as possible. I am truly sorry for the long pause.

The question I’ve struggled with when contemplating my first post in so many months is this: how do I explain my long absence without going into the personal details of my family’s lives, material not meant, really, for a blog about the foodways of the southeastern Peloponnese Peninsula? Yet, without sharing some information, how do I tell you, my dear readers, why I disappeared for so long? No easy answer has come to me, so I will try for a balance between the two.

During these months I have been absorbed by other matters: in the beginning, a new love and eventually, siga siga, as we say in Greece (slowly, slowly), helping my children adapt to his presence in our lives. More time and transcontinental travel ensued (he is an Italian with a love for this region that matches my own) and what came next was a shock for all of us: a major medical emergency, truly a life-or-death moment, for my new partner while he was visiting us in the United States. This was followed by an hours-long emergency open-chest surgery and a very long recovery.

He is well now. The children are content. And we are settled into our “other” life in Greece for the duration of the summer. And now it is up to me to resurrect this–my blog–as well as my freelance work, both which sat neglected for the past year as I attended to the well-being of my children and my significant other.

But, as I’ve said, this blog is my passion and, even during the thick of things, not many days in a row passed without it entering my mind. To that end, I have dreamt of stories and recipes to share with you and, between these events I’ve described, have even collected a few, which I will share with you, siga, siga, now that life has resumed a sweet predictability and routine. (Or so we hope!)

For those of you who do return to read my missives and musings, I thank you. Καλό καλοκαίρι, or happy summer! May you all be well.

Eating Flowers, Part Three: Capers Preserved in Vinegar

What to do with these fresh-picked capers?

Since my first post on capers, several people have written with details on their own approaches to preserving the unopened flower of the Capparis Spinosa. I’m amazed by the diversity of methods, the subtle variations within the three caper-preserving themes: salt-curing, sun-drying and preserving in a brine.

After taste-testing two batches of capers preserved by my mother—one salt-cured, the other in a brine of salt, water and vinegar—I’ve decided that my favorite flavor comes from the salt-cured caper, hands down. The capers she preserved in water, salt and vinegar, while delicious, also tasted distinctly like…vinegar. The salt-cured capers allowed for the full flavor of the caper bud to flourish.

I thought perhaps I was alone in my caper preferences until yesterday when I discovered a link on Facebook to this to-the-point piece on capers by the esteemed Ed Behr, the editor of the beautiful and also esteemed food journal, The Art of Eating. (On an entirely different note, I’m honored to say that I have a story in the current edition of the magazine…my first!) On capers, Ed, as usual, is forthright with his opinion. (The article’s title is, “Capers in Dry Salt Are Better.”) Also as usual, his writing is chock full of interesting information and insight culled from years of travel, tasting, researching and writing about food. You can trust Ed to know his stuff.

But whether or not capers preserved in salt are truly better is, in my opinion, up to the taster. Since diversity is indeed the spice of life, I’ll post a last method for preserving capers, one that includes vinegar, lots. Have at it.

Pickled Capers
Pack your fresh, washed capers into sterile jars. Bring a small pan of white wine vinegar to boil (measure enough vinegar to fill your jar) with a pinch of salt and a bay leaf. Pour the boiling vinegar over the capers, filling to the rim. Close the lid tight. For a good seal, turn the jar upside down for twenty minutes. Store in a cool, dark place for about two months before opening.

Καλή όρεξη! And, as ever, thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.

Eating Flowers, Part Two: Capers Preserved in Sea Salt

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Like us, the ancient Greeks and Romans ate capers. They also used the roots and leaves of the caper bush, or Capparis Spinosa, for medicinal purposes. The Roman naturalist and author, Pliny the Elder, noted the caper in Naturalis Historia, his encyclopedic study of geography, anthropology, and natural history. And the Greek scholar, Athenaeus, mused upon it in his fifteen-book work, The Deipnosophistae, or The Banquet of the Learned or (my favorite translation of the title) Philosophers at Dinner, in which the protagonist, Ulpian, is the host of a long, leisurely banquet throughout which literary and historical conversations course.

It seems the bush’s medicinal properties warrant the attention: The ancient Greeks used capers to reduce flatulence. In Ayurveda, the Hindu system of traditional medicine, capers are known as hepatic stimulants and protectors, improving liver function. Today we understand that when a caper bud is dehydrated, salted, or brined, it releases mustard oil (glucocapparin). That enzymatic reaction then leads to the formation of rutin, a powerful antioxidant bioflavonoid.

Medicinal properties aside, many of us agree that the fruit of the Capparis Spinosa is delicious. Since the ancient Greeks preserved capers—and olives—in sea salt (brining methods were developed later), we’ll begin with salt, too.

Salt-Cured Capers

Ingredients:
Capers
Sea salt

  1. Sort the capers carefully, picking off any long stems.
  2. Rinse them in a colander; pat dry.
  3. Place the capers in a jar, layering them with sea salt. (If you have a lot of capers, it’s best to use two small jars.)
  4. Cover the jar with its lid and shake it to make sure the salt is well distributed.
  5. Remove the lid and cover the jar with a paper napkin; close with a rubber band.
  6. Leave the jar where it will get some air, but not in direct sunlight.
  7. Every day, drain off any liquid that forms, adding another spoonful of salt in the process.
  8. When the capers stop giving off liquid (in 5-10 days), transfer to a clean jar and close with a lid.

Salt-cured capers can be kept in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Before using, rinse in cold water. They may also be used unrinsed in place of salt.

Since my love affair with the caper began, I’ve noticed that there are subtle variations within the curing-in-salt theme. My friend Hank Shaw told me that blanching the capers for one minute before salt-curing them will halt the enzymatic process and preserve the buds’ bright green color. A method used in Sicily, where salted capers are common, calls for dehydrating them before beginning the process above.

Eating Flowers: The fruit of the Capparis Spinosa

Who, while chewing the dark green orb of a caper, would imagine that the mighty little bud that adds such intensity to salads, fava and (my favorite) pasta puttanesca is, in actuality, a flower in the making? A bud that, left alone, will open to reveal an exquisite, aromatic blossom?

I certainly didn’t until, during a visit to Greece about four years back, friends suggested we go foraging for them. Capers? Really? And so we did.

In our flip flops, we waded through tide pools, clambered over and around boulders, and scrambled across a scree slope to reach the base of a precipitous cliff. There we plucked the buds from an immense caper bush that cascaded from a tiny cleft in the rock wall.

After that experience, I was hooked. Not only do I love the flavor of the caper bud, there is something that appeals to my inner romantic about plucking an unopened flower with the intention of eating it. Not to mention the adventure of getting to the places where the tiny nuggets of flavor thrive.

Where the village meets the sea, caper bushes thrive. The plants tolerate salt and often grow from the salt-sprayed cliffs and rocks along the shore. My daughter loves to gather capers here, near a favorite swimming hole.

In his seminal work Enquiry into Plants, the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote about the caper bush, noting the plant’s “unwillingness to grow on cultivated land.” While caper bushes are cultivated for commercial production today, they grow best in the wild–in the harshest of conditions, the less soil the better. I’ve found them spilling from a crack in a stone fortification in medieval Monemvasia, sprouting from a fissure along the edge of a paved road, and growing in the schoolyard at the Poulithra elementary school. The same friend who took me on my first caper caper (sorry—I couldn’t help myself) discovered a caper bush growing from a crack in the second-story wall of his beautiful little house.

At the Poulithra Dimotiko (elementary school).

While capers grow everywhere around Poulithra, and some people here do harvest and cook with them, I’m told they are not a common ingredient in this region of Greece. They are, however, a staple in other parts of Greece, particularly in the Cyclades where they grow prolifically and are traditionally used in sauces, stews and salads. Those who do pick them, not only pick and preserve the bud of the caper bush, but often its tenderest leaves and branches too.

This horiatiki, or village salad, is topped with home-pickled capers. Look closely to see the leaves and branches included in the mix. Delicious!

Unpicked, the caper bud opens to reveal a lovely purple and white flower, fragrant and a bit unruly with floppy petals and long stamens. Its beauty is fleeting as the blossom lasts only a day before withering away.

Picked, they are cured either with salt, sun or vinegar. (Like olives, capers are never eaten unprocessed.) In Greece, how one processes them depends largely on the region. On the Cycladic island of Santorini, they are traditionally sun-dried until they become rock hard. When ready to use, they are soaked overnight. On other Cycladic islands, capers are often salt-cured and, again, are soaked in water before use.

I haven’t tasted salt-cured or sun-dried capers yet, although I do plan to soon. I intend to try the sun-dried method myself (and will document it here, I promise), and my mother happens to have a jar of caper buds curing in salt on her kitchen counter as I write this. I am eager to taste the results of both methods as I’ve read that, without the vinegar, the flavors are pungent and earthy; citrusy rather than pickled. Pure caper, if you will.

Coming next: Methods for curing the unopened flowers of the caper bush and recipes for using them. As ever, thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree!

The village gardens grow under the shadow of economic crisis

Has it really been a month since we arrived for summer in the village? Impossible for me to believe, but it’s true. Freed from the activities of our usual lives—school, carpool, piano lessons, meetings, deadlines—our routines are determined not by the ticking of the clock but by our bodily rhythms, our needs and desires. Hence, the days blur from one to the next and time slips by so quickly. Now that it is hot (96 is the high forecast for today), the routine is at its most basic: We wake, we eat, we swim.

When it grows too hot to remain on the beach, even in the shadows of the olive trees that line it, we return to the cool shade of our apartment to eat lunch and rest again, the afternoon sound of the cicadas our background music. In the shadow of the orange tree in our little garden or the cool of their beds, stripped of all bedding but sheets, Jasper and Sylvie spend the hottest hours of the day. They read, they doodle, they doze. Then, when the sun sets, they come alive, returning to the sea, spinning through the village on their bicycles, or joining a match of street soccer. In Greece in summertime, we stay up and outside much later than we ever do in the States. How can one leave the beauty of a warm starlit night, the sweet scents of nixtolouloudo (evening primrose) and jasmine perfuming the air, especially when the rest of the village has also come to life?

In between the swimming and cooking and washing up, in between the joys and challenges of parenting, I squeeze in work, or try to. Truth be told, I’m not accomplishing much. Our skin has become nut-brown, our hair blonde, and my wallet and bank account nearly empty. So be it. we’re in Greece and that seems to be the way things are here for many these days.

Which explains why, when we arrived in the village in May, nearly everyone I talked to would answer my question, “How have you been since I last saw you?” with a stream of references to the economic crisis. One day I ran into a friend, a mother of two children about the same age as my own. She put it this way: “For everyone in Greece, it’s a struggle. We pay higher taxes, we pay for things we didn’t have to pay for before—school books for our children, medicine for our parents—and on salaries or pensions that have been slashed. It’s difficult, but if you live in the village, you’re lucky. If you live in the village, you can survive.” And then she gestured to the enormous garden she shares with her extended family.

Eleni’s family’s garden.

“I can plant potatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes. Between our garden and our trees (meaning her olive trees), I can feed my children. My people in Athens can’t.”

Indeed, for the first time in decades, hunger has become an issue in Greece, particularly in its urban centers. But in the village, while people worry about the state of their beloved country and about their children’s futures, there is also a common belief that if they remain here they will be just fine. My 91 year-old friend Panagiota Hiotis agrees. She lived through the Axis occupation of Greece, through the Great Famine, and through other difficult times. Over a simple lunch at her home last November, she told me, “No matter what’s happening in the world, not much changes here. We tend our gardens and our olive trees, we make our cheese and our bread. We gather wild greens. We live the way we always have. Some times are leaner than others, but we survive them.” For those who have divested from the local economy and the region’s subsistence-based lifestyle—for example, as one friend did by selling his land and investing in the stock market—things are not this simple. But for many, they are. For many, Panagiota’s words ring true.

Perhaps the most obvious crisis-related change I have seen here is the amount of space in the village devoted to vegetable gardening. It’s grown, considerably. Where there were weeds, there are now potatoes. Tomato plants climb bamboo canes in a once-empty lot overlooking the town beach. In flower beds alongside houses, beans and pepper plants grow among the flowers. A friend revived the garden plot his father kept 20-some years ago beneath the village aqueduct.

In addition to the gardens, there are apricot, orange, lemon, almond and fig trees, grape arbors and groves and groves of olive trees. And then there are the wild edibles—greens, bulbs, oregano, thyme, chamomile. In other words, food is everywhere. For this reason, the village—perhaps like other rural communities throughout Greece—is about the best place I can imagine being whilst weathering the economic storm.

I don’t plan to write about the crisis much this summer. Nor will I write about the elections. There are plenty of people who write about both, and with much greater insight and expertise than I could ever muster. But now that I’m in the flow (thanks in a large part to my dear friend/ex-husband’s arrival–he is here to visit the children), I will write and post regularly. As ever, thanks so much for reading. Please stay tuned for more!

The bulb of the wild hyacinth: Delicious, storied and an ancient Greek aphrodisiac, too

ImageTo the ancient Greeks and Romans, the volvos, or bulb, of the wild tassel hyacinth was an infallible remedy for the diminished sexual appetite. Indeed, faith in the hyacinth’s amatory powers was so strong that, in ancient Rome, newlyweds ate the bulbs before retiring to their nuptial bed. Today in Greece, that faith persists—it is rare that my village friends will place a plate of volvoi (plural for volvos) on the table without a wink and a nudge.

This time of year, as springtime brings warmth and flowers to Greece, the bulb’s properties may not be at their highest demand; however, it is in spring when the wild tassel hyacinth (muscari comosum) grows in profusion throughout the greening meadows and dappled shade of olive groves across the country. With a lovely fragrance and a bitter bulb, the flower’s etymology is just as bittersweet, leading us back to ancient Greece and Hyacinthus, the divine hero of Greek mythology, the beautiful lover of the god Apollo who was also loved by the West Wind, Zephyrus.

According to myth, one spring day the lovers, Apollo and Hyacinthus, tried their hands at the discus throw, each vying to outdo the other. With each try, the glittering disk flew higher and higher. Finally, the powerful Apollo gathered all his strength and let the discus fly. It rose swiftly, slicing the clouds in two. Then, it began to tumble down.

Hyacinthus ran to meet it. The discus landed, but after falling from such a great height, it bounced, striking the young man in the head. He let out a groan and died. Weeping, Apollo held his lover. Out of the blood from Hyacinthus’ wounds, mingled with the tears of Apollo, sprang the flowering hyacinth. A twist in the tale implicates Zephyrus for Hyacinthus’ death. Jealous that the beautiful young man loved Apollo rather than him, Zephyrus blew the discus off course.
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Despite the plant’s tragic beginnings, its bulb is delicious. Traditionally part of the vegetarian Lenten table, volvoi are also served year-round as meze with tsipouro, ouzo, or raki. This time of year, one can buy volvoi at the farmer’s markets in Athens. In Italy, particularly in the region of Puglia (the heel of Italy’s boot), the bulbs are very popular, finding their way into a variety of dishes and are known there as lampascioni.

Many of our neighbors in the village forage for the bulb of the wild tassel hyacinth, but since doing so takes a spade and no small amount of effort, I have only harvested them once. Even then I was bothered by the conundrum of harvesting bulbs. As my friend Hank Shaw says, to eat a bulb is to kill the plant. But one can harvest sustainably (according to Shaw the forager’s code is to take no more than a quarter of any stand of plants), so forage we did. Afterwards, we gave the bulbs to my friend Patra who roasted them in olive oil and sea salt. That night, rainy and cold for late April, we ate beside a fire in the fireplace at Patra’s, scooping up the volvoi with homemade bread, baked in a wood-fired oven. Slightly bitter and peppery, the bulbs had infused the olive oil she cooked them in with their flavor. The thought of them now makes my mouth water, they were so delicious. Along with the roasted volvoi and bread, we ate a bit of touloumotiri and, of course, drank some village wine. It was a simple and a fine meal.

The wild tassel hyacinth grows in the States too, in the Pacific Northwest and parts of the Midwest and Southeast, but if you can’t find muscari comosum in your region, pearl onions can substitute for today’s recipe, although the taste will be markedly different. (Ancient Greeks also believed that onions were aphrodisiacs. If they were right, the substitution shouldn’t affect the outcome!)
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This recipe is my attempt to translate the dish Patra made that spring night we feasted on volvoi, cheese, bread and wine. In truth, Patra used no herbs, just olive oil and sea salt. But I like the flavor of the herbs combined with the fruity olive oil and the peppery bitterness of the bulbs. The choice, of course, is yours.

Roasted Volvoi
1 lb volvoi
Enough olive oil to generously coat the volvoi in the baking pan…and then some!
Oregano, thyme or fresh rosemary, to taste
Sea salt, to taste

  1. Clean the bulbs, scoring the end of each with an cross.
  2. Place the volvoi in a saucepan, adding enough water to cover them. Bring the water to a boil and boil the bulbs for about a minute. Drain and allow to cool.
  3. Preheat the oven to 450º.
  4. Place the bulbs in a shallow baking dish large enough to hold them in one layer.
  5. Drizzle olive oil generously over the bulbs; toss to coat. Sprinkle with sea salt and herbs.
  6. Roast in a 450º oven for about 40 minutes, turning twice.

Kαλή όρεξη! (Good appetite!) And thanks, as ever, for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.