Life

MasterChef champ Irini Tzortzoglou: 'Cook with love and people will love it!'

Reigning MasterChef champ Irini Tzortzoglou chats to Lauren Taylor about her childhood in Crete and what we can learn from the Greek way of life.

Reigning MasterChef champ Irini Tzortzoglou
Lauren Taylor

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 4,000 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 made 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 England – 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, 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

Irini Tzortzoglou's olive and rosemary bread

:: OLIVE AND ROSEMARY BREAD

Ingredients

2tsp dried active yeast

A pinch of caster sugar

300ml warm water

500g plain flour

100ml extra virgin olive oil

30g stoned Kalamata olives

Tips from a few fresh rosemary sprigs

Fleur de sel and extra virgin olive oil, for sprinkling

Method

1. In a bowl, mix the yeast and sugar with the warm water. Cover and put in a warm place for about 15 minutes, or until you see bubbles on the surface.

2. Place the flour, olive oil and a pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and add the yeast liquid. Using the dough hook, knead the dough for five minutes at a medium speed. Alternatively, knead the dough by hand on a floured surface for about 20 minutes, until it is shiny and elastic.

3. Place the dough in a clean bowl with a little oil, cover the bowl with cling film, then a dry tea towel, and leave in a warm place for about one hour, until it has risen to double its original size.

4. Knead gently again, then shape into a flat piece about 2cm deep and place it on a baking tray lined with baking parchment or a silicone baking mat.

5. Gently push the olives and rosemary tips into the dough, sprinkle with a little fleur de sel and extra virgin olive oil, cover with a slightly dampened tea towel, and leave for 30–60 minutes for it to rise some more.

6. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Put the bread into the oven and bake for about 30–40 minutes. Remove when it is golden in colour and hollow when you tap it underneath.

Irini Tzortzoglou's red mullet, courgette and pine nut risotto

:: PAN-FRIED RED MULLET, COURGETTE AND PINE NUT RISOTTO

Ingredients

(Serves 2)

For the red mullet:

4 fillets of red mullet

25ml extra virgin olive oil

A squeeze of lemon juice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the risotto:

750ml fish stock

50g pine nuts

2tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

100g risotto rice

100ml dry white wine

1 courgette, cut into matchsticks

For the sun-dried tomato cream:

6–7 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained

2tbsp Greek yoghurt

2tbsp double cream

50ml extra virgin olive oil

2tbsp white wine vinegar

A pinch of dried rosemary

For the pickled radishes:

50ml white wine vinegar

50ml water

25g sugar

4 small red radishes with leaves attached, thinly sliced

Method

1. Heat the stock in a saucepan, then keep it on a low to medium heat during the rest of the cooking process. Bring a small frying pan to a medium heat. Add the pine nuts and shake the pan while they turn a golden colour. Empty out on to a small dish and leave to cool.

2. To make the sun-dried tomato cream, place all the ingredients in a small blender with half the cooled pine nuts and blitz to a smooth cream. If your blender is not powerful enough, you may need to pass the cream through a sieve to remove any tomato skins. Taste and adjust the flavour with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, or a drop of lemon juice. Spoon the cream into a squeezy bottle or a piping bag, or into a small bowl, and set aside.

3. To pickle the radishes, put the vinegar, water and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the sliced radishes and leave to cool.

4. To make the risotto, bring a sauté pan to a medium heat. Add the olive oil and shallot and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the garlic and the rice and toss to coat them in the oil. Cook for two to three more minutes, then add the wine and cook until it has evaporated.

5. Start adding the stock a ladle at a time, stirring constantly and not adding more until the previous ladle has been absorbed. Towards the end of the cooking time (about 20 minutes), add the courgettes. When the risotto is fully cooked, stir in the rest of pine nuts.

6. To fry the red mullet, wash the fillets and pat dry. Put a large non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. Lay the fish in the frying pan skin-side down and press down gently, using a spatula. Try not to overcook the fish, as its flesh will toughen – depending on the size of the fillets, two or three 3 minutes should be enough.

7. When the fish is cooked, transfer it to a plate and season with a little lemon juice and flaky sea salt. To serve, spoon some risotto into the middle of each plate, place two red mullet fillets on top, followed by a few pickled radishes, and drizzle the sun-dried tomato cream all around the plate.

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