“Slender poppies, in the fields like young ladies, in green dresses, and red umbrellas.”
This is how the well-known poet Georgios Drosinis describes the red poppies scattered in the fields wherever you look at this time of the year:
"Οι παπαρούνες λυγερές στον κάμπο σαν κοπέλες με πράσινα φορέματα και κόκκινες ομπρέλες"
What Drosinis doesn’t mention, though, are the yellow daisies we see all around us at this time of year… Nor does he mention the wild greens – or ‘agria horta’ (άγρια χόρτα) – which have made delicious spring-time meals for generations of Greeks and Cypriots.
You might say that there’s no place in Greek poetry for salad and vegetables… But on the contrary, in the poems and songs of our country, everything gets a mention – from bread and waterjugs to okra and olives!
In fact, the wild greens that honour our fields, hills and mountains come February and March also get a mention by a foreign writer, William Miller, in his book ‘Greek Life in Town and Country’:
"The sacred rock of the Acropolis produces a mustard plant from which an excellent salad is made and in February numbers of women may be seen collecting herbs and digging up roots on the Pnyx and near the monument of Philopappos, which they cook and eat..."
Gathering edible greens
Miller's picturesque description is engraved in my memory from my own childhood years. Gathering ‘agria horta’ was a great tradition for my family, as it was for everyone at the time: you only had to look to the fields to see them dotted with the colourful forms of people picking their lunch or dinner.
My parents used to make a picnic out of all these spring Sundays. Their favourite place was a field that had 36 olive trees and was embroidered with poppies and daisies.
Scattered everywhere in between were all sorts of ‘agria horta’:
How to prepare wild greens
Some of these green vegetables are delicious fried with eggs; others can be boiled with pulses, or simply boiled and eaten with olive oil and lemon juice.
My siblings and I would play endless games in this field with its 36 olive trees and its carpet of greens and wild flowers.
In between our games we’d pick and eat ‘λαψάνες’ (lapsanes), the white mustard plant. We’d help our parents fill bags of all the various greens scattered around us. Our parents would then both rest on an olive tree – always the same one, and I still remember every crease and wrinkle of its aged trunk – and they’d cut and clear the greens we’d gathered, removing the ends and inedible parts.
The cleared parts of the plants would then be placed in big bags, ready to carry home.
Lunch would be ready quickly, as my mum would boil, strain and serve the greens simply with olive oil and lemon juice, bread and olives. If she had more time, she would sometimes cook more complicated recipes.
This Sunday I did just that. After gathering several armfuls of greens in the fields around my house, I boiled and strained them, then added them to a pot where I’d lightly fried some garlic in olive oil. In another pot I fried some more garlic and added fresh squid to it (this is allowed on weekends during the pre-Easter fasting period!) I added some quartered potatoes, and cooked everything over a low heat so it absorbed all the delicious juices and flavours that this rich earth has to offer us!