(adapted from an article written for the Yale Epicurean, entitled Hórta Culture: A Cretan quest for wild foods, April 2012)
I learned about hórta months before I got to Crete. They came up in everything I read, with every person I talked to. They were a mystery, an edible myth I had to verify by finding and eating them myself.
Hórta are, in short, wild greens. They can be anything, I’m led to believe, that is green, grows in the mountains or on the side of the road, and good to eat. With dozens of different types, they vary with the season and region – but in any one place there is always something to gather. And though many Greeks carry their own strongly rooted food traditions, most will cede to Crete a particularly ardent loyalty to its own specific food culture, informed by a proud self-sufficiency and a passion for wild foods.
I saved the plane from Istanbul to Athens for Greek history. Crete’s is both bright and tumultuous: the seat of the advanced ancient Minoan civilisation, since occupied by Myceneans, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans, Arabs, and Nazis. During the occupation of WWII, foraging for hórta was largely how Cretans stayed alive.
Athens to Heraklion was for scribbling down useful words in my notebook. Most were of food. I went over the letters “χόρτα” three or four times, engraving them through the page with my plastic bic.
My habit drew attention. The man next to me, a young Cretan living in Athens, was returning home to see his family. His mother was cooking dinner tonight. I asked about his favourite Cretan foods: tyropites, myzithra. “And what about hórta?” I pressed, intent on drawing forth clues to aid my quest. “Ah, yeah, my mom makes great hórta.” He knew some of their Greek names, and none of their English ones.
The flight double-backed to Athens because of fog in Heraklion, and triple-backed once the ground was clear. I picked his brain for hours but that was all I got.
By my second day in Crete I was itching to get out of the city. So far, I’d found streets lined with orange trees, but not much in the way of hórta. We took a bus to Knossós, the largest ancient Minoan site, and after wandering the ruins made our way further out to visit a local winery in Skalani. We told our taxi not to wait. I looked forward to the wine, but even more, I think, to the walk back through the hills.
The almond tree, it seemed to me, is the Cretan highway shrub of choice. Boughs of bitter orange hang over main roads and side streets, in the spaces between backyard groves of olive. Behemoth fig trees serve as punctuation.
It was just after the rain and the snails were out.
I stood at every new corner, astounded, convinced this was some sort of benign illusion. My gaping mouth provided ample amusement for our host. And though I couldn’t tear my eyes and hands from the roadside bounty, my mind kept drifting to more modest plants, the greens at my feet that may or may not be what I really sought.
Gradually, they began to show themselves: slender bulbs of wild fennel, as wide as my thumb and no longer; pungent shoots of some sort of allium; broad, leafy folds of adult arugula; purple bursts of young amaranth, or vlita (one of the words I learned from my airplane friend). “Hórta!” I exclaimed whenever I got the chance, giddy and eager to gather. “No, these ones aren’t good, they’re dirty and near the road,” my host admonished. High standards; I can appreciate that. My enthusiasm deferred, and grew stronger.
The next day, we headed back up into the mountains to a small town called Archanes, our base camp in hiking Mt. Juktas. Almond and fig trees nodded lustrously, aiming to distract me as we picked our way through hexagonal rows of olive trees planted on the lower slopes. But I was determined. Today was the day.
We began our ascent up the steeper face, fanning out and picking our individual ways among the geometric thorns and boulders of gypsum. At a certain height, I became enveloped in the smell of salvia – sweet, earthy, overwhelming. I picked some young buds to have with lunch at the summit.
Oregano too. It grows everywhere.
Fresh herbs, fresh air.
After our picnic, we wove ourselves along the ridge, heading back down towards the valley in the falling light. Our host from Archanes took us to his favourite taverna in town. We were ravenous and asked for a feast: dakos, a type of double-baked barley ring, topped with minced tomatoes, feta, olive oil, and oregano, left to sit to absorb the juice; fava, a warm, thick purée of fava beans with feta, olive oil, onions, and parsley; tzatziki of strained yoghurt, mint, and garlic; a sort of vegetable omelet. And then there were the snails: Hohloi boubouristoi, a Cretan specialty of foraged snails poached in olive oil, dark vinegar, and rosemary. Supple, fragrant, and impossible to eat without gusto.
And, at last, the hortápites – hand pies filled with cooked hórta. The cook brought them out piled on a plate, the flaky, egg-washed crust glimmering in the firelight. I hefted one into my palm and bit in with reverent triumph. Aromatic steam filtered down my throat. Dill, vlita, fennel, ramps. Bitternesses I didn’t know. Baffling simplicity – greens and pastry – hiding layers of old friends and strangers you can’t help but look in the eye. Oh yes – hórta were definitely a real thing.
The meal ended as most do in Greece: with three or four complimentary desserts and a round of ouzo on the house. A thick slab of halvah, a hill of little fritters with honey, bitter orange sponge cake doused in syrup, small cheese pies, and the cloudy anise liqueur. The hortápites were still with me as we left into the cool night. The snails, though – the snails haunted me all the way back to Heraklion.
The day before our flight, we sat on a beach in Matala, a small town on the southern coast. We had just finished exploring the caves in the sandstone cliffs: once ancient Roman burial sites, used more recently as recluse hippie abodes.
Our host lit a cigarette, dug into his pockets, held out his hands: prickly pears the colour of Castilleja. “I picked them while I was waiting for you at Phaestós. They make your hands itchy but they’re delicious.”
He handed us each one, and looked out towards the bay. Fleshy, perfumed, slightly sweet.
I let no juice drip, until the last bite, when I paused to think. A tingle spread in my hand, past the first fruit, and the second, lingered even after I washed my hands in the shallows.