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Food is therapy for MasterChef winner Irini Tzortzoglou

By Features Reporter

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Irini Tzortzoglou grew up in Crete. Picture: David Loftus/PA
Irini Tzortzoglou grew up in Crete. Picture: David Loftus/PA

A couple of well-known Greek cheeses and, of course, Greek yoghurt might very well be staples in your fridge, but apparently we’re really missing out.

“It bugs me in a way that after all these years, people are still only familiar with feta and halloumi!” says Irini Tzortzoglou. Manouri, for example, has a “wonderful texture, very creamy and not as salty. The moment you take it anywhere near a fire or olive oil it comes into its own,” she adds.

Tzortzoglou was the winner of the first all-female final of BBC’s MasterChef when she lifted the trophy last year. The 60-year-old, who hails from a tiny village in Crete, impressed judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace with her sophisticated, modern take on traditional Greek fare, and she still can’t quite believe it now.

“I feel like a star!” she says, laughing, when we talk over the phone. “I was saying, ‘I’m just happy to be going through, I don’t know what’s wrong with the judges!'”

Tzortzoglou’s endearing warmth and cheerfulness won many hearts during her stint on the show, which has led to a new later-in-life career in food – a passion deep-rooted from a childhood growing up on her family’s farm and in the kitchens of her grandparents in the village of Ano Akria.

“We grew grapes and made sultanas, and olives we had to pick in the middle of the winter – my little fingers were frozen but I had to be there after school and on non-school days. The children in the farming community work! So that contact with food and soil and the earth, it’s in my DNA,” she says.

At home, where she grew up without electricity, they ate “things that didn’t go off” – like chickpeas and broad beans. “Anything that grew in the sun in the mountains would be dried to have in the winter months. In the summer it would be a lot of vegetables, in the spring many wild greens,” Tzortzoglou recalls. Her grandfather had 100 beehives so they ate a lot of dairy with honey – a classic Greek combination.

Preserving might be trendy now but back in Crete, her family preserved ingredients out of necessity. “We’d smoke them, brine them or cure them, or put them in clay jars and bury them in the ground or somewhere cold.”

One set of her grandparents were affluent by local standards. “They had many fields, my grandfather was a priest, the house was always full of visitors and my grandmother was cooking for about 20 people every day.” As the only granddaughter at the time, “I was constantly around my grandmother’s skirt, looking, trying, dipping my finger, being a nuisance, sometimes helping, but not often,” she adds.

“My father’s parents were very poor people, who came over as refugees from Asia Minor [now Turkey]. They’d cook simple things and cook them very, very well. They were inventive because they had very few things and they had to make the best of them.”

Her parents and both sets of grandparents’ deeply-rooted influence is celebrated in Tzortzoglou’s first cookbook, Under The Olive Tree: Recipes From My Greek Kitchen – which includes her grandmother Yiayia’s pancakes with cheese, honey and cinnamon, ‘garides saganaki’ – king prawns, peppers, ouzo and feta, and ‘fasolakia ladera’ – runner bean and tomato casserole.

A couple you might even recognise from her time on MasterChef, like trahanas – cracked wheat – soup . “It’s so basic it could go back 4000 years but it’s so delicious,” she says. Essentially, wheat is cooked slowly in soared milk, before being moulded by hand.

“When I was a little girl, I’d take it into my little hands, dig my fingers into it and make a little fist with it. These would then be dried in the sun on a terrace and stored in fabric sacks. In the winter, we’d add them to casseroles and soups.”

Tzortzoglou has lived in the UK – London then Cumbria – for 40 years now but still has a base in Ano Akria, and its food culture has never left her. It’s standard, she says, for neighbours to bring each other food unannounced. “It goes beyond giving them food – because they might already have food – it’s passing this feeling to each other that you are supported, you are not alone, you are nurtured.”

Food is less structured in Greece, she explains. When you cook, you make more than you need and bring it out at a later meal. “You end up having four or five different dishes on the table,” she says, “so if you go to my uncle’s house, you will get a feast, but that’s not because he cooked that moment for you, he will have cooked for the day but then he will bring out 10 other things he’s got in his fridge.”

Typically, much more time is spent preparing, cooking and eating. “Food is very slow,” she says of Greek culture. “Here [in the UK], I’ve been known to eat standing up and rushing to the next thing, and that’s not a good way to be.

“At the Greek table, food was therapy, whether it was preparing for the other women of the family, and you talked and you cried and you showed your anger with your husband or your mother-in-law – it was the table where you resolved little things.”

And there’s a freedom about Greek food – so don’t be a slave to the recipe, she says. “You’re creating something to feed your family, to entertain your friends, to be hospitable, so be relaxed about it. Cook with love and people will love it.”

In her childhood days, her family farmed organically, without even knowing there was another way, and today that’s more relevant than ever.

“People should read more before they buy blindly, ask questions: Who is the producer? Where was it harvested? Where was it packaged?

“We need to be more selective as to what we eat and understand it more.”

  • Under The Olive Tree: Recipes From My Greek Kitchen by Irini Tzortzoglou is published by Headline, priced £25.

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