An Exceptional Use for Oregano
A long, long time ago, when I was young and unencumbered by such things as a career or a mortgage, I spent several months traveling around Europe by myself with a backpack, a railpass, and very limited funds, visiting 9 different countries. Each country had its own unique personality, its own language, its own flavors, and its own currency. Every time I crossed a border I sensed a new adventure was on the other side.
I recall Greece with particular fondness. Some of my favorite food memories of that country are….
- the ubiquitous roadside eateries serving the exact same, never-changing, delicious menu of spit-roasted lamb, frites, salad, and wine for about 3 dollars
- the dense chocolate coconut stick confections sold by Athens’ street vendors in the Plaka
- the luscious fresh creamy yogurt, so thick a spoon could stand upright in it
- the faint aroma of cinnamon in all the tomato-based casserole dishes, like moussaka and pastitio.
- the surprising discovery that Greek salad, real Greek salad, contains no lettuce
One beautiful fall day, Greg and I were traveling through the rugged countryside of Crete on a rented motorcycle. I had met Greg two weeks earlier in Rome, one of the stops on his year-long trip around the world. We discovered we had a lot in common so we teamed up for a few weeks to explore southern Italy and Greece together.
We stopped the bike at the top of a peak to admire the gorgeous view. A small old man dressed in an ancient black suit tottered over to us from a nearby house and began chattering excitedly to us in Greek, and then in German, neither of which we understood. He realized we were American and although he didn’t speak English, he did know a few English words.
“Goot vine!” he announced as he waved around an unlabeled bottle.
“Good wine,” we interpreted.
He poured a little wine from the bottle into a glass he was carrying and offered us a taste. It was pretty good wine, homemade by him we surmised.
“50 Drachmas,” he offered for the bottle, which at that time was the equivalent of fifty cents. We found him adorable and wanting to support the local economy we purchased a bottle of his wine for a pittance.
He returned to his house and then quickly came running back to us, waving something in his hand and exclaiming, “Goot elinika!” We didn’t understand that word but when he presented us with a small clear plastic bag containing some dried green herbs we were momentarily taken aback. Greg and I looked at each other, wondering if this old Greek man in the middle of the remote Crete countryside was trying to sell us marijuana. I opened the baggie, inhaled its fragrance, and smiled. It was wild oregano, which he had gathered from the local hillsides and dried to sell to tourists that passed by.
To this day, whenever I cook with oregano and catch a whiff of its aroma, I am reminded of that old Greek man and my adventures in Greece. Were he to offer me some of his oregano today, this is what I would do with it.
Provoleta al Oreganato
From an ancient issue Bon Appetit
This simple appetizer or snack for two is sort of a rustic Italian fondue. As it cooks, the kitchen smells exactly like a pizza parlor.
1/2 pound Provolone cheese, in one thick round slice (about ½ inch thick)
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled (or two teaspoons of fresh oregano)
1 finely minced garlic clove
2 tablespoons olive oil
sourdough bread slices
Preheat broiler and set rack 6 – 8 inches below heat source.
Set cheese in small, shallow round baking dish, just the size of the round of cheese. Sprinkle with oregano and garlic. Drizzle with oil. Broil until cheese melts, about 8 minutes.
Serve immediately. Use small knives to spread cheese mixture on bread slices. As it cools, it will firm up and may require reheating.