Celebration of growing up Greek in Australia

Tapestry of Greek family, food and history stirs hearts and senses

Book Reviews
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Olympia Panagiotopoulos draws on her mother's stories and recipes in a beautiful memoir of growing up Greek in Australia.

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OLYMPIA Panagiotopoulos celebrates all that it means to grow up Greek in Australia, including 50 recipes handed down from her mother, in a beautiful new memoir.

Tens of thousands of Greeks arrived in Australia in the 1950s: Olympia's parents Fotios and Giannoula were among them.

With their village marred by war and poverty, the couple turned to Australia, rumoured to be a land of opportunity where hard work brought reward.

Armed with only a handful of key English words, they set off to make a new home and new life.

Beneath the Fig Leaves: A memoir of food, family and Greece beautifully weaves stories and recipes while paying tribute to the courage shown by those who crossed oceans in search of a better life.

Olympia retells her mother's stories, regaled under the shade of a fig tree in a garden in Melbourne's west.

Here's a taste of what's on offer, including Giannoula's mouthwatering baked salmon recipe:

It is a beautiful Saturday morning and I decide to visit Queen Victoria Market to buy a red snapper for my mother's baked snapper recipe. As a child, my parents' Saturday morning trips to the market filled me with excitement and anticipation. They would take the green bus from Gordon Street in Footscray there and back, walking home from the bus stop with their many shopping bags while I huddled under a blanket on our green vinyl couch watching New Faces and The Beatles cartoons, waiting for them. I would run to the door when they arrived home, searching through the shopping for the white, jam-smeared bags that were usually still warm. While Mother and Father sorted through the shopping in the kitchen, I was on the couch eating my jam-filled parcels. I imagine most people who grew up in Melbourne have childhood memories of Vic Market and doughnuts.

With my mind on Mother and Father and life back then, I check my list and head off in search of the tomatoes. I can feel Father next to me, reminding me how to pick them, the way they should smell and feel in the hand. We often ate them whole with a little salt. I reach for the plump, ripe fruit, picking it up and smelling it; it's good and I'm sure he would agree.

I arrive at Mother's and sing out to her from the gate, carrying the shopping up the driveway and into the kitchen.

'You went to the market?' Mother says excitedly.

'Yes, and look,' I reply, reaching for one of the bags. 'I have a surprise for you, Mum.' I try to hold back tears but they begin rolling down my cheeks as I pull out a crumpled paper bag filled with doughnuts.

Mother laughs at first but her expression changes when she sees my face. 'Come,' she says, wiping her eyes and mine. 'We will have tea.'

In the garden, the autumn sun shares my delight, blessing us with its warmth and illuminating the fig leaves. Butterflies chase each other through the pumpkin leaves and the chickens cluck nearby as they go about their morning business. I sit in the shade of the fig tree with my doughnut and a cup of tea while Mother picks the mint, fennel and parsley I will be using tonight. I can't wait to get home and into the kitchen. The snapper is all I can think of, and with the lovely warm weather, dinner in the garden seems perfect.

Mother comes home with me and I begin cooking. She wanders in and out of the kitchen offering help and advice, eagerly awaiting the evening's feast. I tell her it is supposed to be a surprise, so she heads outside and busies herself in my garden. Between cooking and table-setting, I leave a message with a family friend whom we haven't seen in years, inviting him to dinner. The snapper needs an audience. My invitation surprises him; he remembers our family gatherings fondly and accepts. Besides, he adds, the snapper is too much of a temptation.

It is nearly midnight when I clear the last of the plates. Our dinner party has ended and I linger in the kitchen a while, reflecting on the day's events. I think about my trip to the market, the glorious red snapper and the spontaneous dinner invitation; such simple acts that brought old friends together in a spirit of love, gratitude and celebration.

Giannoula's Baked Snapper

This dish is a tradition that has graced our table for as long as I can remember. I vividly recall my mother setting a large baking tray down in the middle of our kitchen table in Footscray. A whole snapper was an impressive sight: the crispy red-orange fish and tomatoes, the green of the mint and parsley, and the golden potatoes and lemon wedges that nestled around the edges.

I loved to tear off chunks of crusty bread to soak up the onion, fennel and juices from the pan - I still do.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large red snapper (approximately 1.25kg), cleaned

4 medium potatoes

2 celery stalks with leaves

extra-virgin olive oil

2 large onions, sliced

1 fennel bulb, sliced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 sprigs mint

1/2 cup chopped wild fennel

1/2 cup chopped parsley

salt and pepper

3 lemons - 2 sliced, 1 cut into wedges

3 overripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 cup hot boiled water

Method

Preheat oven to 200°C. Rinse snapper and set aside. You will need a large baking tray for this recipe, one that can also be used on the stovetop.

Peel and halve potatoes lengthways and cut each half into thirds. Chop leaves off celery stalks and set aside. Peel and halve celery stalks lengthways then cut into 5cm pieces.

Heat 1/2 cup oil in the tray on the stovetop. Add potatoes, celery, onion, fennel and garlic. Saute for 3-4 minutes before stirring through the mint, wild fennel and half the parsley, then turn off the heat.

Push vegetables away from the centre of the tray to create enough room to sit the fish in the middle. Season the snapper cavity with salt and pepper and fill it with celery leaves, remaining parsley, 4 slices of lemon and 2 spoonfuls of sauteed onion and garlic from the tray. Season the skin and vegetables with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, use a fork to mix together tomatoes, tomato paste and hot boiled water. Spoon mixture over the snapper and the vegetables. Arrange remaining lemon slices over the top of the fish and drizzle everything with a little oil. Nestle lemon wedges among the vegetables. Finish with one last sprinkling of salt and pepper.

Cover the tray with aluminium foil and bake for 25 minutes, then uncover and cook until skin is slightly crisp.

If vegetables need a little extra time in the oven, lift the fish onto a platter and cover with aluminium foil while they continue baking until golden. Serve with salad or rice.

Beneath the Fig Leaves by Olympia Panagiotopoulos (Affirm Press) $32.99 at good bookstores or HERE

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