Why do you travel? To experience different cultures? Watch beautiful landscapes ripple in waves towards the horizon? Flex your adventure muscles by climbing crazy-high mountains? Or maybe, even, to get a tan? (Although if that’s really the case, a bottle of holiday skin would be much cheaper. Just saying.)
You can probably see where this is going. Wanderlust grips me for many reasons, but there’s always one dominant factor steering me towards a destination. Food. For me, the adventure of travel is in scouring a destination for that dish that reduces the English language to a pile of rubble, as I struggle to find a suitable word that adequately describes the joy of each mouthful. Add my pesky vegetarianism into the mix, and seeking out meals can become a full-on Indiana Jones-esque expedition, as I wade through countless looks of confusion, bursts of laughter and plenty of utterances of “But, Señorita, it’s chicken. This ok, no?” to find my veggie prize.
I always leave each destination inspired, vowing to recreate dishes back home in old Blighty. But while I give it a damn good try, I never quite manage it. Why? Because there’s always a vital ingredient missing, an ingredient that even the most thorough raid of Millies or the Spice Corner in Leeds Market can’t unearth. It’s the twinkle of the lanterns on Hoi An’s waterfront. The shape of Sugarloaf Mountain towering above Ipanema Beach. The moonlit silhouette of the Acropolis. These are the backdrops to dishes that can’t be captured on film, the ingredients that can’t be replicated.
Reimagining a classic
Enter, Destinology’s ‘Reimagine a Classic’ competition. Aside from my exploits as a top 25 finalist for ‘Best Jobs in the World’s’ Taste Master, I’m not really one to enter competitions, but this one caught my eye. (And not just because of the prize, before you ask, although hello, luxury mini break.) It was the idea of reimagining a classic dish, rather than recreating it. When you take the pressure away of trying to recreate an exact version of a dish, everything changes. No longer resigning yourself to failure by replicating a much-loved classic, you’re giving it a new meaning. A new context. A new memory.
Deciding on a dish to reimagine was easy. It had to be Spanakopita, a classic Greek filo pie filled with spinach and feta. One of my all-time holiday favourites, me and this dish go way back to the 90s, when I was rocking the velvet chokers and plastic backpacks currently draped on mannequins in vintage shops for real.
Spanakopita and me
You may have read the origins of my love affair with Spanakopita in one of my posts for the Culture Vulture last year, so skip ahead if you already know the story. If you don’t, allow me to set the scene. Mum and Dad had taken me and my Brother to Greece for our summer holiday. It was August, sometime in the late 90s, and it was bloody HOT. Energy zapped and tummies rumbling, we piled into the hotel’s air-conditioned buffet restaurant to escape the sear of the midday sun. Lunch was served on help-yourself silver platters, the contents of which incited inevitable grumbles from some.
“How the hell do you pronounce that, Clive? And WHAT is that?!” yelled the lady in front of me, picking at her peeling left shoulder and wrinkling her crimson nose.
“I don’t know June, looks a bit iffy to me. ‘Ere, just have some chips – safer than this foreign muck”.
They piled their plates high and sloped off, leaving me to assess the situation. There were the remains of the usual suspects – pasta, pizza and the few paltry chips left after Clive and June’s obliteration, but there was also a pie. There was something about this pie. Maybe it was the strange name, maybe it was the fact that nobody had touched it, but I had to try this pie. I served myself a slice, hurried back to our table, and took a bite. And that was it. A crisp, flaky wrapper of filo encased a filling so sensational that my mouth instantly waters every time I think about it. Salty feta on the brink of melting was entwined with irony spinach, imbued with the distinctive tang of fresh dill. Simple, but utterly magical; I’d never tasted anything like it and 20 years later, Spanakopita remains one of my favourite ever meals.
Although I could never compete with the real thing, over the years I’ve perfected my own version. The ingredients do the work for me, if I’m honest: simple, quintessentially Greek flavours that instantly conjure white-washed angular buildings jutting into a cyan sky, olive grove-fringed dusty roads, and pebble-dotted caramel beaches lapped by aquamarine waters. Reimagination or not, you don’t mess with those sorts of flavours. If it ain’t broke, and all that.
So, instead, I gave it a new outfit. The Spanakopita I’ve eaten in Greece is rustic – and I mean rustic in its truest sense, before poncy restaurants ruined the term with their wooden boards and burlap placemats. The proper Greek Spanakopita I remember is unapologetically inelegant: giant, no messing slabs served in paper bags from dinky bakeries.
I went for the opposite. Spanakopita Cupcakes. Dainty filo cases encasing a filling as close to the real thing as I can create, this reimagination of Spanakopita is elegant. Delicate. A little bit beautiful. The perfect party treat, they provide a centrepiece for the alchemy of treasured memories with new ones. A housewarming, perhaps. A birthday. A special dinner party. Or even just a Saturday night with a loved one.
So there you have it. Spanakopita, reimagined. Thanks, Destinology for the challenge – it’s been a pleasure.
Recipe: Spanakopita Cupcakes (makes 12)
- One pack of filo pastry (you’ll need six sheets)
- 200g spinach
- 200g feta, crumbled
- 2 tbsp dill, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp oregano, dried
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Butter, melted (use as much as you need – and worry about the calories later!)
- Salt and pepper, to season
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Heat a knob of butter in a large pan on a medium heat. When the butter has melted, sauté the spinach until wilted. Remove from heat and leave to cool.
- In a big bowl, combine the crumbled feta, dill, oregano, lemon zest and egg. Mix well. When the spinach has cooled, add to the bowl with the nutmeg. Season and mix well, then leave to let the flavours mingle. Allow at least half an hour, although overnight in the fridge, covered, is best.
- On a clean surface, lay one sheet of filo pastry flat. Brush with melted butter, then add another layer on top. Repeat four times. With the remaining two sheets (if you’ve bought a pack of 6 sheets), cut in half lengthways and repeat the process, so that you have four buttered layers.
NB. Keep the unused filo pastry covered with a damp towel as you brush each layer to prevent it from drying out.
- Using a measuring tape or ruler, cut the pastry into 4inch x 4inch squares.
- Brush a muffin tin with the remaining melted butter and place the square into each well, creating a case.
- Fill each case with the feta and spinach filling. The filling should reach the top of the well.
- Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Keep checking throughout the process to avoid the edges burning.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool for ten minutes. Enjoy hot or cold.
How would you reimagine a classic dish?