Horta culture


I’ve heard Greeks declare that horta (χόρτα) means weeds, making us a nation of weed eaters. Well, no. We eat horta, which are not at all weeds. They are as distinct and various as flowers. Better tasting, too.

At the grocery store, non-Mediterranean types sometimes ask me what I do with the horta in my cart. Couldn’t be simpler, I explain. Boil in salted water and then dress with olive oil and lemon juice. For a change of pace, you can also steam or sauté them with garlic and chilli flakes.

The horta family embraces dandelions, chicory, rappini, beet greens, kale, mustard greens, amaranth (βλίτα), Swiss chard and countless other varieties. The category is elastic and non-scientific, hardly a family at all.

If they’re green and leafy, cook easily, marry well with olive oil, and won’t kill you or cause parts of you to swell up, they’re horta.

Kathryn Hughes, reviewing a recent biography of Edward Lear in The New York Review of Books, begins this way:

One day in 1848 Edward Lear, professional traveler, artist, and purveyor of nonsense, entered a small Albanian village and, spotting a stream full of watercress, pulled up a clump to have with his bread and cheese. Excited by the sight of a tubby foreigner eating weeds, local children proceeded to present the peculiar visitor with a series of even more outlandish snacks — a thistle, a stick, a nice juicy grasshopper. Soon everyone was laughing, none louder than Lear, who recalled that “we parted amazingly good friends.”

For me, a committed horta eater, this passage confirms that weeds are in the eye of the beholder. Horticulturalists tell us as much. Scientifically, there’s no such thing as a weed. But to a gardener, if you don’t want it growing in your garden and don’t expect to make a meal of it, it’s a weed.

Black Bridge

Most families in Park Extension didn’t own cars, so you’d often see Greeks boarding the 179 bus, headed north of the elevated Metropolitan highway, into what were then the wilds of l’Acadie Boulevard.

We called this area Black Bridge, after a railroad bridge running east-west and just visible from Park Ex, if you looked along the north-south track running parallel to Durocher Street.

Black Bridge had legendary status. The untended fields, littered with tires, rebar and burned out cars, and fringed with clusters of bushes and trees, were rumoured to harbour all kinds of wild activity. Kids learned to smoke and drink at Black Bridge. They lit bonfires and had knife fights. Boys hunted birds with pellet guns and slingshots. They returned home bloodied and bruised, refusing to say anything. If a girl got pregnant, it happened at Black Bridge.

Today, this area is entirely paved over. A Costco squats nearby, surrounded by dozens of other big-box stores and strip malls, and serviced by acres and acres of parking lot.

But back then, the surrounding fields yielded enough horta to fill dozens of plastic shopping bags, which the foraging Greeks would wrestle back onto the 179, on their return trip to Park Ex.

On one such expedition to Black Bridge, with my mother and a crew of aunts and neighbours, I left the women pulling greens in the stony field and wandered toward the distant railroad track. Here I ran into a couple of classmates from Barclay School. Glen and Barry were taking turns listening for an oncoming train by placing an ear on the track and holding up a finger for silence.

“I think I hear something. Do you hear something?”

This went on for many minutes, during which neither of them invited me to listen and render an opinion. Eventually a freight train did roar by, but we all heard it coming at the same time.

When it was gone, Glen pointed across the field. “Hey, lookit the fuckin’ peasants.” At this moment my mother straightened up and waved. “Hey, Speez, what are they doing, picking weeds or what?” They both laughed.

“Don’t ask me,” I said. There was a brief silence of mutual assessment. A shifting of cultures and histories, and then a realignment that would stay with me for years. “Yeah, picking weeds, I guess. Fucking Greeks.”

My classmates eventually drifted away, and when they were out of sight I re-joined the women and we lined up at the bus stop, the heavy bags of dandelions beside us bursting with horta, a lingering cargo of shame.

At home, more hours of work lay ahead. On these expeditions, each woman might have thirty or more pounds of dandelions to clean. The kitchen sink was too small, so they’d scrub out the bathtub and spend hours washing and rewashing the horta, setting aside some for the week’s meals, and blanching and freezing the rest for winter.

They never picked greens in a public park because people walk their dogs there. I often pointed out, not unreasonably, that gophers, squirrels and birds also make their homes where Greeks forage. Why was some animal urine and feces less objectionable?

I never received a satisfactory answer.

On the wild side

Supermarkets stock some basic varieties of horta, but these are cultivated. Where you need a slab of feta, good olive oil, bread and olives to make a meal of farmed horta, wild horta need hardly any accompaniment. Olive oil is necessary but enough.

Wild greens are so superior to their cultivated cousins, they may as well be different plants. Take wild dandelions, for example — intoxicatingly bitter, with a minerally flavour of soil, iodine and, I suppose, worm flesh and other microscopic edibles.

To my mind, wild dandelions are horta royalty, and yet they’re the most common and homely greens of all. A paradox: a stubborn peasantry that sprouts everywhere and resists every effort to eradicate it.

Wild dandelions will occasionally appear in Greek supermarkets, and when I’m lucky enough to see them I’ll bring a bag home.

I’ve often wondered where they come from. So I recently asked a friend of a friend who works for one of the big produce importers at Montreal’s central market. Apparently, when air-shipping rates drop low enough, the importation of wild greens becomes temporarily feasible.

A yiayia with rheumy eyes and a bristly chin in a remote Cretan village. It’s early morning, before the sun roars into the sky and makes work impossible. Bent over, she picks horta in a stony field, the delicate roots flecked with dirt, the tops kissed with dew. She carries her brimming basin to a local market, where it joins other horta from other yiayiades. A wholesaler buys the lot and the gathered yiayiades burst into a chorus of blessings. The wholesaler ships the cargo to Athens, where cases of the assembled horta trundle up a motorized ramp and into the belly of an airliner. Twenty-four hours later, wild horta appear in a Park Ex grocery store.

The logistics are impressive. The wild but perishable horta are still edible and yet manage to cost less than caviar and printer toner.

My garden

Today, I have a big lawn that is covered with dandelions each spring, and each spring I’m tempted to boil up a batch and douse them with oil and lemon juice. People warn me against it. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, dog, squirrel and cat piss — there’s no end of hazards.

So I fill garbage cans with dandelions and drag them to the curb for the Monday morning pickup. I can’t bear to call them horta. They’re weeds.




Dreams of Lisbon

After Porto, Lisbon is a thunderclap of light. The Portuguese sketchers we met in Porto tried to prepare us. They told us that Lisbon is a “brighter” city. But we didn’t understand how very different the quality of light actually is until we arrived at the Santa Apolónia station and emerged from the shadowed interior into a blinding vista.

The light seems magnified by the city’s building materials and physical situation — the whitewashed walls and pale stone. But also by the much wider river valley along which the Tagus River, far broader and deeper than the Douro, flows and shimmers in the sun.

On our second day, a massive Disney cruise ship, decorated with Mickey Mouse ears, heaved into position and remained squatting there for forty-eight hours.

We stayed within sight of the Disney ship, in the ancient quarter of Alfama, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve visited on our travels, I’m becoming a little doubtful about their standards of admission. It won’t be long before Decarie Hot Dog is also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its fryer oil protected as a cultural legacy for future generations.

The ancient neighbourhood of Alfama, spread out before us.
The light is blinding, and so the shadows are sharp.

The Greek confidence man

On our second-to-last day, while Shari sat in a hilltop churchyard to sketch the pattern of clay-tiled roofs below, I wandered the dusty cobbled lanes. Rounding a corner, I discovered a small used-book store with a number of English books in the window — mostly out-dated guidebooks and beach novels.

Inside, a young woman sat behind the counter, wearing an old-style patterned blouse and smoking a cigarette. She barely looked up when I entered.

In the corner, a box of English books rested on a chair alongside a hand-drawn sign — ONELY €1. Digging through, I found an old paperback translation of a Portuguese novel titled Dreaming Worlds, written by Hingston Vinheiros. By the looks of it, Dreaming Worlds had been produced on the cheap, with a cheesy illustration of people fleeing a flying saucer, which bears no connection to the story inside. The book didn’t name the translator. Nor did the copyright page list the date of the original edition, although the edition I found is marked 1963.

But here’s the really curious thing. A few days earlier, I had read an article in the July 30th issue of The New Yorker about a Spyros Enotiades, who worked for years as a DEA informant. Basically, his job was to infiltrate the society of violent and hyper-suspicious drug lords, and to convince them — through his language, manners and charisma — that he was, like them, a high-stakes criminal. His heroics as a world-class con put many criminals behind bars.

I positively devoured the article, not just because it profiles a Greek confidence man — Greek trickster figures date all the way to the Odyssey — but mostly because he spells his name with a y, as I do, instead of an i. This is the pettiest of reasons for reading a long New Yorker profile of an obscure con man. But I lead a quiet life and am easily impressed.

Around the corner, down a flight of steps, I found a small bookshop.

Feeding the dreamer

In any case, it was barely two days later, and as I thumbed through this yellowed paperback in a tiny bookstore in Lisbon, out from its pages jumped a character named Spyros. Without any more examination of the book, in high excitement, I handed over a one-euro coin and began walking back to our rented apartment, repeatedly tripping over the cobbles as I buried my nose in the book, seeking this other Spyro.

Dreaming Worlds is a work of fantasy. It tells the story of a rich man in Lisbon who gradually withdraws into himself, quits society and stays in bed. He spends his days dreaming about a universe where rebel androids have exterminated all humans and created a society governed by reason and good sense. Eventually a small faction of these androids, working in secret, begins to experiment on life forms, with the intention of restarting humanity — a second chance, as it were. Long conversations ensue in which androids discuss humanity’s deep-seated flaws and…I began to yawn.

The idea wasn’t new. It’s been covered by the science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became the Blade Runner movies, and by other writers.

But what happened outside this man’s dreams held me tighter.

Over time, the dreaming man’s family begins to forget about him. They find they can get on quite well without his presence, although they continue to bring a tray of food and water to his door each morning.

As the years pass, forgetfulness, or a kind of sympathetic dreaming state, also overwhelms the family. Only the iron ritual of feeding the dreaming man remains intact, which various members of the family continue to honour. As the home’s inhabitants come and go, as marriage, birth and death alter the size and composition of the family, so, too, does the house change.

During one period of heavy remodelling, the doorway to man’s room is walled off to create a new wing. However, the construction workers are instructed to leave an opening near the floor, so family members can continue to slide a tray of food and water behind the wall, even though they’ve long since forgotten why they do this…

While reading the book, at several points I wondered about the quality of the translation. The language was flat and awkward in many places. It reminded me of reading an English translation of the great novel, Blindness, by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, José Saramago. Here, too, the wooden prose seems to emerge from a Portuguese speaker who has no feeling for idiomatic English. It’s a translation, but it hardly matters. Saramago’s pitiless vision burns through the lead-footed language.

(Maybe this just a late style of certain great writers? I’ve noticed the same awkward prose in John Coetzee’s later novels, as if winning the Nobel finally gives them permission to not try as hard.)

I don’t know how Dreaming Worlds ends because, as I eventually discovered, its final pages — however many remained — have long since fallen out.

And, by the way, the Spyros that jumped up from its pages turned out to be a Greek servant who prepares the dreaming man’s meals. He also functions as a kind of oracle in the novel. But as I said, I don’t know how the book ends.

We’re back in Montreal now. I’ve looked for more information about Hingston Vinheiros, but have yet to find anything. Let me know if anything comes up.

On the left, a small section of the 16th-century Casa dos Bicos, our favourite building in Lisbon, with its facade of pointy titties. It also houses the Saramago Museum.
Forget all my nonsense about High Encrustation being a characteristically Portuguese architectural and decorative style. The cloister inside the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, just outside Lisbon, is magnificent and worth visiting. 
A view from a tower of people studying the many achievements, some questionable, of Portuguese navigators, explorers and colonizers.