Take the bait
Introducing resident chef Marianna Leivaditaki
I try to hold on to those initial moments I had with food, which have played such a crucial part in who I am
When you have grown up in a place you can forget the beauty of it. You take it for granted. Sometimes you even find it boring, want to leave and cross the seas for new adventures.
Then, as the years go by, you find yourself looking around when you go back to visit. You marvel at the beauty of it all, almost incredulous that you spent your childhood there.
I was born in Chania, Crete. My Cretan father is a fisherman and my Scottish mother was in charge of running our seafood restaurant – Akrolimano was its name, meaning “the end of the harbour”, which is exactly where it was. Our days were spent around the water or talking about the sea, the weather, the wind. Oh, the wind, is it strong? Is it workable? Can dad go fishing? Will we have enough fish for the restaurant? So many conversations about the wind! To this day, when it’s windy in London, I think of my dad on his fishing boat in Crete.
We were one of the luckiest families around. We ate fish every day, fish caught by my dad’s hands; one man in a small boat. He fished alone all night long. When he came back in the morning, he would often ask me to cook him some fish before he went to rest. When really little I would have to climb on a chair to reach the sink, clean the fish completely and fry it. (Having fish for breakfast is a good start to the day.)
Later on in the day came the preparation of bait for the next night’s fishing. It always had to be the freshest bait available, because the fish were picky. Sometimes it was octopus or squid, others it was anchovies, sardines, prawns, sea cucumbers or limpets. Limpets were the hardest to prepare as their stiff little bodies were so resistant to abandoning their shells.
The rituals would continue when mum came back from the market with a haul of octopus for the restaurant. We would clean it and hang it on our washing line to dry in the sun until the early evening. First, you slit the hood open so it is flat, then you make another slit from the base of the hood to the mouth, remove the beak and then slice inbetween two legs so that the whole octopus lies flat. You put the octopus in a large bucket and take it to the washing line to hang. Each octopus needs four pegs. Two for the hood, and two for the first two legs on either side of the hood. We would let it hang for 4-5 hours under the hot sun.
By this time, the octopus was stiff and dry and perfect for what was going to happen next. When the charcoal was lit and the coals were red and hot, but without flames, we would put each octopus on a charcoal grill for about 40-45 minutes, turning it every so often so it didn’t burn. When ready, we simply served it with a quarter of a lemon and that was it.
I can still smell the aromas of our restaurant’s kitchen. Everything was so fresh and cooked so simply. There was no oven in our kitchen, just the 5-metre-long grill that stretched from one side to the other. At around 6pm, the grill would be full of small cuttlefish, slowly cooking over the charcoal until tender and golden brown. When the orders would start coming in we would stuff their alien little bodies with amazing fresh cheese and aromatics and put them back on the grill until everything had melted. It was such a fun dish to create and everyone loved it.
In the summer months, when we could get amazingly fresh prawns, we would make the saganaki, a cheesy appetiser prepared in a small frying pan. We would go to the fish market and by prawns by the crate. We would sit around the table and peel them. (We were fast peelers thanks to all the experience we had gained from preparing them for bait.)
We used to make large pots of the sweet onion and pepper base and anyone walking into the kitchen would simply smell and smile ... and then the feta! It was soft and silky made by Marian and her family in a small village outside Chania. It is the best feta I have ever tried. This is my favourite dish on a hot summer night, sitting by the sea and sipping an ice-cold glass of ouzo.
Over the years, and through my experiences away from home, I try to hold on to those initial moments I had with food, which have played such a crucial part in who I am and how I cook today. The opportunity to recreate this for others and offer these flavours – both in Morito and here in print – makes me love my job more than ever.
Prawn and mussel saganaki with feta, fennel and ouzo Serves 4-6
4 tbsp olive oil 1 romano pepper, chopped 1 green pepper, chopped
1 white onion, chopped 1 fennel bulb, chopped 3 garlic cloves, chopped 3 red fresh chillies, deseeded and chopped 1 tsp anise seeds, crushed Salt and black pepper 500g fresh mussels 200ml white wine 3-4 tbsp ouzo 200g feta 300g fresh cooked prawns, peeled Parsley, chopped, to serve
1 Start by making the sweet base. Warm a pan over medium heat. When hot, add 4 tbsp olive oil followed by the peppers, onion, fennel, garlic, red chillies and anise seeds. Season with salt and pepper, lower the heat and cover the pan. Cook for about 15-20 minutes, or until sweet and golden.
2 Meanwhile, add the mussels and wine to a hot pan and cook until they just begin to open. Remove the mussels from their shells and set aside. Keep the cooking liquid. You may need it later to thin the sauce down a bit.
3 Add the ouzo and feta to the base and stir gently until it begins to melt. Add the prawns and mussels and turn off the heat. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with toast.
Cuttlefish stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, goat’s curd and sage Serves 4-6
600-800g fresh cuttlefish or squid, cleaned but kept whole 2 tbsp olive oil
For the stuffing
4 tbsp sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped 10 anchovy fillets, chopped 300g goat’s curd 4 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped 300g chard, chopped finely, plus 2 whole large chard leaves 3 tbsp sage leaves, chopped finely 1 tbsp capers Salt 3 tbsp olive oil
A handful of rocket leaves Juice of half a lemon Extra virgin olive oil Salt
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Put all the stuffing ingredients in a bowl together and mix well.
2 Stuff the cuttlefish or squid with the mix and then tuck the tentacles into the opening to seal it.
3 Put the whole chard leaves on the base of a small baking tray and add the stuffed cuttlefish or squid. Drizzle with 2 tbsp oil and sprinkle with salt. Cover with parchment, then bake for around 30 minutes, or until tender.
4 Remove the paper. Put the tray under the grill to get some colour. Serve whole or cut into smaller pieces with some rocket leaves seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil and salt.