Spring is the time to get out into the fresh air and gather new greens

Wild greens (horta) are so much a feature of the Mediterranean diet it is impossible to imagine Greek cuisine without them. Supermarkets usually just stock vlita (Amaranthus retroflexus, A. virilis, or pigweed as it is commonly known in English), chicory (radhikia in Greek) or spinach, and although there are an increasing number of other varieties available, they often come at a price. Not everyone has the time, patience or knowledge to go into the hills to pick their own. The uninitiated are often wary about picking greens from hillsides and so they should be, as many are either inedible or of doubtful value. This is a great pity, given the wide variety and nutritious value of wild greens. The best way to learn is to go out with an experienced horta gatherer, armed with a collection of plastic bags (remember you have to carry them home, however!), a sharp knife and some stamina. In a small group of two or three (any more and you will have to spread out over a wider area), it is a companionable way to spend a few hours out in the spring sunshine. Getting information There are few sources in English on Greece’s horta, but one of the best, albeit brief, is in the final chapter of Mary Jacqueline Tyrwhitt’s book «Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside» (published by Denise Harvey), including tips on when to find them and how to cook them. Myrsini Lambraki’s «Horta» (Trochalia Publications, Athens, 1997) is an excellent Greek-language source of information on the different species. Another of her books, available in English, French and German, is «Herbs, Greens, Fruit» (ISBN 9609151345). Some of the more popular species described in Tyrwhitt’s book are bitter chicory (Cichorium intybus, radhiki), spiny chicory (Cichorium spinosum, radhiki tis thalassas), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare, maratho) common mallow (Malva sylvestris, molocha), purslane (Portulaca oleracea, glistridha, also known in parts of the Peloponnese as chlimindres), white mustard (Sinapis alba, vrouves or lapsani), black nightshade, (Solanum nigrum, mavrokoutsa, mavrohorta, or stiphnos), dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, agrioradhiki, radhiki tou vounou, or pikralidha), ordylium (Tordylijum apulum, kafkalithra or kafkalidha, also known in the Peloponnese as myrialidha, good for adding to other greens in pies). Rocket (Arugula, rokka), which has also become popular in recent years, springs up everywhere there have been forest fires – collectors of greens have had a good harvest on Mt Hymettus in recent years since entire slopes were destroyed by forest fires. A plant that is considered a great delicacy but is very difficult to harvest as its leaves sprout between sharp thorns is known in the Peloponnese as yialolachano, which grows on rocky coastlines (often difficult to access). In different parts of Greece, different names are given to greens. On the island of Crete, for example, there are more than 15 kinds, includingtsohoi, galatsides, hoiromourides, maratha, stafilinakoi, maroulides and stamnagkathi (a kind of wild chicory rich in omega-3 fatty acids as well as a number of vitamins and proteins). An organic brand of the latter sells in a supermarket chain for nearly 15 euros per kilo. The water in which many of these are boiled is also extremely nutritious. Green leaf vegetables generally are good sources of vitamins A, B, C, E and K, calcium, chlorophyll, iron, lecithin, magnesium, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, potassium, amino acids, trace elements and contain up to 30 percent protein. Chicory greens are low in saturated fat, and very low in cholesterol. They are also a good source of thiamin, niacin and zinc, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin A, C and E, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and copper. Dandelion greens have been used since antiquity as a diuretic, a liver tonic, to treat skin conditions and many other health problems. One cup of cooked dandelion greens has more calcium than a cup of cottage cheese but only 34 calories. It provides 12 percent of the recommended fiber intake, 19 percent of the iron and 28 percent of vitamin C, and 85 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin A. The one-cup serving also contains 2.1 grams of protein, many minerals, including potassium, magnesium and phosphorus, as well as vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, B6 and folate. Some of the plants are also useful in other ways. For example, in the best tradition of companion planting, nature has ensured that wherever the stinging nettle grows, there is also mallow, which can be rubbed on skin that has been stung by the nettle, to soothe away the irritation. But don’t experiment for the sake of it – you want to avoid contact with stinging nettle at all costs, as it can result in a nasty allergic reaction in some people. Tips on picking greens Obviously no one wants to eat anything that has been trodden on, or from an area where domestic animals have been wandering. It is also a good idea to avoid gathering greens near cultivated fields which might have been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. Try not to uproot the plants as many of them will send out new shoots from the root or stem. They’re best cooked immediately, but if you wrap them in a damp paper towel in a perforated plastic bag, they’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to a week if the paper towel is kept moist. Don’t wash them until just before you cook them. Pick all the damaged and rough pieces off the plants before you wash them, and don’t soak them or you will leach out nutrients. As for boiling them, opinions differ. Some people say you need lots of water, others recommend using just enough to cover them.

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