Marianna Leivatitaki, author of Aegean: Recipes from the Mountains to the Sea, spent her childhood steeped in the atmosphere of her family’s seafood taverna in Crete, immersed in ingredients, and the simplicity and purity of recipes she gathered in her notebook scribbles from the women cooking in Chania’s seafront restaurants.
Her heritage is fresh fish from her father’s boat, mountainside-raised meats, sun-warmed herbs and vegetables, honeyed fruits, her younger self dozing off in the taverna to the chatter and laughter of satiated diners. From this she’s developed a deep appreciation for the beauty of the ingredients of her homeland, for the brightest, freshest flavours bouncing against rich braises and punchy grills, for approachable and generous sharing plates alive with sunshine.
Surrounded by her homeland’s food from an early age then, after a brief hiatus, an integral part of the kitchens of Moro and Morito Hackney in London, for Marianna Aegean is very much a heartfelt love letter to the food she was brought up with and which continues to influence the menus she creates today. The three-page introduction (the only text other than recipes in this book) tells a story of the joy in the people and place that underpin Cretan food.
Be aware that Marianna has been ingrained in the industry since she was a tot so watch out for her assumptions: squeeze the excess liquid from your cucumber for tsatziki to make sure it stays unctuous; reduce the sauce of a braise when the accompanying photo shows a rich, glossy pool; timings are sometimes at your discretion, so keep an eye on your dish to ensure it doesn’t overcook; spot the mint omitted from the recipe but generously featured in the recipe’s picture. That said, these are the tiniest of quibbles when you are presented with a well-written book of clear recipes that allow you to create beautiful, groaning tables of food designed for season-round happiness.
The contents page is just wonderful, as simple as it comes: recipes from “the SEA” including Prawns with Ouzo, Orzo and Courgette or Pan-fried Red Mullet with Rosemary, Tomato and Sweet Vinegar; “the LAND” with dishes such as Dried Broad Bean Dip and Beetroot Salad with Yoghurt, Molasses and Almonds; “the MOUNTAINS” including Roasted Lamb Breast with Spicy Feta Sauce or Small Fried Pies with Pastourma, Cheese and Dill; and “recipes for AFTERS” like Rose Turkish Delight Ice Cream and Sesame, Chocolate and Tahini Biscuits.
Struggling with accessing great seafood at the moment, I focussed on vegetarian and meat dishes when planning what to make from the book. The photos are seductive. Late evening sunshine dapples the pages; soft seas, ancient olive trees, abundant raw ingredients and thyme-strewn mountains intersperse with bright bowls, platters and plates of food. These aren’t package tourist vistas, and this is reflected in the recipes themselves: while UK-wide accessible meats, poultry and seafood are very well catered for, the comprehensive, thorough index demonstrates that Marianna will as happily offer snails as she will pork, you’ll find options for both sea urchins and octopus in Aegean, and rabbit features alongside lamb’s hearts, oxtail and mutton.
My starting point was a dish I remember learning how to pronounce in Greek so that I could order it when on holiday, prosaically translated into English as Courgette and Feta Fritters. One of my absolute favourites to have in a taverna, I’ll admit to a little trepidation, but the little fritters were faultless, crisp with a gooey centre, redolent with mint and dill. I’ve made these twice now and can joyfully confirm that they are happiness on a plate and daftly easy to make.
I chose Beef Cheeks with Crushed Potatoes purely because of the unusual length of the introduction to the recipe – most are short with a little interesting local context, and often advice on ingredients, accompaniments or techniques. At first I thought this recipe was complex but quickly twigged that the long introduction was a paean to Marianna’s love of Cretan marouvas wine and her joy at finding a modern equivalent becoming widely available in the UK. The outcome of the simple “sear and simmer” recipe that follows this is extraordinarily good. It has a brightness but also a soothing quality, rich yet tangy with spice, wine and orange. It’s a show-stopper. I can’t wait till we have a tableful of guests, wine glasses laden and bowlfuls of this in front of them this winter. They’ll be in heaven.
Cretan Courgette and Feta Bake with Sesame was next. A lighter summery dish, I mistakenly served this hot on the day I made it and thought it a little bland. Leftovers for lunch the next day with a squeeze of lemon were infinitely better. Somehow this had acquired a coherence, richness and sweetness overnight that rewarded a little patience.
It says a lot that the next recipe I tried, Thyme, Oregano and Fenugreek Pork Fillet with Tsatziki, Tomato and Onion Salad, is also on my menu tonight. When I made up the spice mix for the pork initially I was really concerned. It was pungent! But, like Marianna, I don’t think I’ll ever grill pork without fenugreek again: a match made in heaven. (And now I inquisitively want to make the cured cod in “the SEA” section of the book which also includes fenugreek in the marinade – I’m fascinated to know how it will work).
Cheese Fritters with Thyme Honey were my next choice. I’m a sucker for a fritter and these were light, creamy and moreish – a classic goats cheese and honey combination with a delicate black and white sesame seed crust. I served these piping hot from the fryer as a light lunch with a bowlful of ripe cherries and some truly luscious figs.
The butcher had some wild rabbits in stock and I dithered between a couple of recipes but settled on Slow-cooked Rabbit with Whole Baby Onions and Hazelnut and Parsley Sauce. In retrospect I think farmed rabbit would work better. This bunny was very lean and the 45 minute simmer didn’t leave it with the tenderness it needed. That said, the braise of tomato, wine, orange and spices was sweetly robust and the accompanying hazelnut and parsley sauce gave the herbaciously piquant edge and texture it needed (I would even make a little more next time).
Slow-cooked Oxtail with Peppers and Olive Oil Chips next (I had a hankering for the unique flavour of those Greek taverna chips). This dish needed a little interpretation. It wasn’t clear whether or not to remove the blackening from the peppers and chillies before blending. In the end I did because there was so much char that I couldn’t imagine it being palatable. This was an uncomplicated sauce for a slow-cooked beef dish that punched above its weight and I think it’ll become a family autumn/winter favourite – however it definitely needed reducing to create the richness of the photo. And I’ve made those glorious olive oil chips again since. They make me feel, just for a little while, as if I am on the harbourside in Chania with a fortnight of sunshine, cicadas and thyme-scented air ahead of me.
I’ve a habit of just marinating lamb in lemon, garlic, oil and salt before griddling, so Marianna’s Lamb Cutlets with Lemon and Oregano looked very similar. They’re very much a level above though. The orange, herbs and anchovy fillets are a straightforward addition but they add a whole layer of intensity that’s well worth the marginal additional effort. I served these with Chilled Yoghurt, Apricot and Pine Nut Dip (minus the pine nuts, missing from my store cupboard unfortunately) and the whole combination was a summer barbecue dish to make you the envy of your friends. A little salt and citrus richness, a pink, charred chop and a sweet yet tart sauce to dollop on top – summer on a plate.
It’s been a pleasure to explore the food that has captured Marianna’s heart from childhood. She sets the scene, the context for each dish, in such an unaffected and engaging way that I can’t help but be drawn into each recipe, and her love for the island is infectious. My regret in finishing this review is that I’ve had no opportunity yet to dig into “the SEA” section of this utterly heart-warming book but I plan to make amends on that score very soon. This is Cretan food everyone will want to eat, and I can imagine the feasts to come. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a pork fillet ready for the pan.
Recipes from Aegean
We have permission from Kyle Books to share some recipes with you from the book, coming soon:
- Courgette and Feta Fritters
- Lamb Cutlets with Lemon and Oregano
- Greek Thyme, Oregano and Fenugreek Pork Fillet (with Tsatziki and Tomato & Onion Salad)
If you decide to buy this book after reading our content, please consider clicking through our affiliate link, located within the post and in the footnote at the end.
Kavey Eats received a review copy of Aegean: Recipes from the Mountains to the Sea by Marianna Leivatitaki from publishers Kyle Books (Octopus Group). Book cover provided by Kyle Books, all other images by Nicky Bramley.