BBC Good Food Magazine
MY FAVOURITE DISH
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love. Here, Marianna Leivaditaki, author of Aegean, shares her recipe for a special occasion soup from Crete
Tony Naylor talks to Marianna Leivaditaki, author of Aegean, about her favourite Cretan dish, Easter lamb soup with dolma
After coming to Britain to study, Marianna Leivaditaki specialised in forensic psychology. But, food was already in her blood. ‘Literally brought up’ in her family’s restaurant in Crete, the 38-year-old was cooking from an early age and, during a supposedly short visit home after doing her masters degree, she took over the restaurant. ‘Two-and-a-half years, with my brother running the front. I was lucky. It was ours. I had freedom to experiment and do what came to mind.’
That period sealed Marianna’s fate. She was a chef. On her return to England, she rose through the ranks at London’s Moro before becoming head chef at spin-off restaurant Morito Hackney Road. A passionate advocate for Cretan produce, Marianna uses thyme honey, goat’s butter and imported cured meats on her menus, and further celebrated the Cretan larder in her memoir and cookbook, Aegean (£26, Kyle Books).
‘My dad was (and is) a fisherman, one of few still fishing professionally as one man in a small boat. He caught the best fish in town, and, even now, in Chania’s market, they fight about who’ll take his fish. He would go out every night, and the next day we sold his fish in our restaurant on the harbour, which mum ran.
‘Occasionally, he fished in the evening near the restaurant and passed the guests at their tables delivering the fish. They’d get up, saying, “I want this one, I want that one”, fish still jumping. It was idyllic.
‘As children, my brother and I were extremely free. We’d go out for hours on our bicycles, 25 of us from the neighbourhood swimming, climbing, having picnics. But, every evening (except Sundays) we worked in the
As children we’d go out for hours on our bikes, but every evening worked in the restaurant
restaurant, serving, clearing tables, greeting people, frying fish, whatever was needed. There were ladies in the kitchen who worked for us for 25 years who were like family, and you’d just hear this voice: “Marianna! You need to clean these prawns, gut this fish.”
‘It was the luckiest thing, growing up eating seafood all the time. One of my first memories at home – where we ate smaller, weirder fish we couldn’t sell – was my dad telling my mum off for trying to clean a fish for me. He said, “If she’s hungry she’ll learn how.” After that, we had no issues. I ate sea urchins on the beach with a teaspoon from as young as I can remember.
‘But, I wanted to learn about more than seafood. My amazing auntie Koula (not my real auntie) had vegetable gardens, lemon and pomegranate trees, animals – a real oasis – and I learned a lot about traditional Cretan food from her. I’d watch her boil milk to make cheese, or, at Easter, six ladies shaping biscuits and bread on her massive kitchen table. It was brilliant, loud with chatter and gossip.
‘As a family, we weren’t very religious. But, at Easter, we joined in the ceremonial week. The younger generations wouldn’t really fast [for Lent] – they might give up meat in the run-up to Holy Week only, but older people were strict. My granny wouldn’t even have olive oil. She’d say, “No, it’s so delicious, I can’t indulge.”
‘On the Thursday before Easter, everyone makes brioche-like tsoureki loaves with dyed red eggs pressed into the dough – symbolic of Christ’s blood – and cinnamon lyhnarakia pastries (meaning “little lanterns”) stuffed with sweetened fresh cheese.
‘After midnight on Easter Saturday, people bring “holy light” candles home from church and sit down to a massive feast. It lasts for hours, with tonnes of wine. People go all out! It continues the next day, too. You wake up at dawn and the men prepare spit-roast lamb for lunch.
‘On Saturday night before leaving for church, traditionally you put a lamb soup on the hob. Most Greek people love the offal in it, but for my palate, it was always just no. I can still smell it! My version is lighter, aromatic and lemony. Exactly the same methodology, but without the offal.’ mariannaleivaditaki.com moritohackneyroad.co.uk