Every year, as spring approaches, I call my Yiayia (granny) in Corfu to let her know of my imminent arrival. I have spent most summers on the island since I was a child, so the “welcome” meal I always request from her should come as no surprise, but still, she asks. The answer is always the same: “Tsipoures kai skordalia!” (marinated sea bream with punchy garlic and potato dip).
My closest friends have been visiting me and Yiayia (who is also called Anastasia) in her tiny whitewashed home in Perivoli village (in the rural south of Corfu) since I was 13. They have all tasted her lemon- and oregano-spiked sea bream, charred on the outside, flaky and tender on the inside, served with chunky hand-cut oregano-sprinkled chips. The same goes for her skordalia, a creamy potato salsa that’s always dolloped on top of the fish. I’m convinced she started giving this to us when we were in our teens to keep the local village boys away. An entire bulb of garlic goes into it.
This is the meal that inspired my book Grand Dishes, a collection of recipes and stories from grandmothers around the world. Much to Yiayia’s annoyance, my friends Iska Lupton (a qualified chef and creative director), Ella Louise Sullivan (a photographer) and I made it our mission one summer to get to the bottom of my favourite dish, shadowing her in the tiny outhouse kitchen in July’s sweltering midday heat to pin down exactly what she did to make it better than any seafront taverna fish we’d tasted.
Once we’d shared images of Yiayia, her kitchen and her mighty fish and chips on Instagram, people began to contact us asking us to document their own grannies’ recipes and life stories.
And so Grand Dishes began, with us setting off to meet grandmothers around the world. Of course I’m biased, but even after cooking with women in destinations including Moscow, a private island in Croatia, a forest in Poland, a town in southern Sicily and across the US Bible belt, nothing compared to Yiayia’s grilled sea bream and skordalia. It was this dish, and the humble setting of my grandmother’s home, that I longed for in the dragging months of lockdown.
The kitchen fills with bouzouki music floating out of her 1980s radio as she sizzles bream over the fire
Yiayia cooks over an open flame in a crumbling outhouse with a bright-red door. In the summer, the heat in there is unbearable, but the smells are enough to make anyone stay. The kitchen fills with the sounds of bouzouki music from her paint-splattered 1980s radio, and aromas of wild thyme, oregano, garlic and lemon, as she sizzles silver sea bream over the fire.
Out in the alleyway that separates her house from the kitchen, we set a wonky wooden table alongside pillar box-red geraniums and old feta tubs sprouting lush basil. It creaks under the weight of homemade wine, the olives we picked last winter, Greek salad and an enormous platter of aromatic sea bream with a side of skordalia. It’s summer in a dish – one I recreate when I’m pining for Corfu and desperate for the sun on my skin and a fierce hug from Yiayia.
Greek marinated sea bream, skordalia dip and Greek salad
4 medium whole sea bream, gutted and descaled
Sea salt flakes, to taste
2 tbsp dried oregano
15 tbsp olive oil
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Juice of one lemon
With a sharp knife make three or four incisions along each side of the fish and rub all over with sea salt flakes before placing in a large dish. In a bowl, prepare the marinade by combining the oregano, olive oil and garlic. Spoon the marinade over the fish, rubbing the mix all over and inside the fish to coat.
Cook the fish over fire, on a barbecue or under a hot grill for 8-10 minutes each side, until the skin is blistered and the fish cooked through. Squeeze the lemon juice over just before you serve (don’t add it during the cooking as it will make the fish stick to the grill).
For the skordalia
8 medium floury potatoes, peeled and halved
1 head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
100ml olive oil
Juice of two lemons
Boil the potatoes in a large pan of salted water for 15-20 minutes, until tender. Drain and leave to steam in the pan for a moment.
Bash the garlic cloves to a paste in a pestle and mortar, or finely grate. (Yiayia’s pestle and mortar is a thing of wonder and big enough for her to add the potatoes, but if yours isn’t, simply transfer the garlic to the potato pan with the olive oil and mash until smooth.)
Add the lemon juice and season to taste, then add water, a few drops at a time, until it reaches a runny consistency. Serve with an extra trickle of oil on top.
For the salad
1 cucumber, roughly chopped
3 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
½ red onion, finely sliced into half moons
25 kalamata olives
1 long green pepper, sliced into rings (optional)
200g block of feta cheese
½ tsp dried oregano
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
Place the cucumber, tomato and red onion in a bowl, add the olives and mix. Spread out on a serving dish and top with the slices of green pepper, if using, the slab of feta and a sprinkling of oregano. Add lashings of olive oil and a sprinkling of vinegar, then place on the table and let everyone break off hunks of cheese as they serve themselves.
Serve with home-cooked chips sprinkled with oregano.