It could be said that I’m looking a little bit sunkissed at the moment. For me, a paler than pale English rose (I’m only half Welsh, after all), this is unprecedented. And it wasn’t last week’s holiday in Athens that did it. No, I slathered on the factor 50 for most of our five days in the 28C heat. Now I’m back home, it’s still sunny, but I’ve not been as slap happy with the sun cream, hence the brown(ish) arms.
It’s been a while since I took a soujourn in the sun (October 2016 to be precise) and I’ve been craving that tide of heat that washes over you as soon as you step off a plane in a hot country. If I need to check my privilege, I will gladly do it right here and now. But it’s been a rollercoaster year, and heck, I wanted a holiday. Truth be told, I insisted on one.
I live for holidays but I’ve never caught the travelling bug, probably because I don’t own a backpack and the idea of choosing to go camping baffles me. Give me culture, cafes and cathedrals over hiking in Nepal or an all-inclusive beach holiday any day. I love a good city break and Athens was just the ticket. Like most European cities, it has a chequered history, winding streets to explore, a very relaxed attitude towards driving and hot, hot sun.
There’s also a hell of a lot of poverty and you’ll find armed police on nearly every street corner. Greece isn’t as relaxed as it used to be since its economy went to the dogs and it’s heartbreaking to see, especially because the ancient Greeks were the founders of civilisation. We visited the Acropolis, an ancient citadel high above the city, to see the remains of several ancient buildings, and it’s a truly fascinating place. At the National Archaeological Museum, I was blown away by the sculptures, especially as some of them dated back to over 4,000 years ago. In Britain at that time, we made do with mud huts.
The food in Athens is pretty good, too, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much this vegan and veggie pair could choose from. My darling man isn’t half as excited about eating as I am but dutifully navigated us to some of the top picks from Happy Cow, a sensible decision as I can barely tell my left from my right, let alone read a map.
We found vegan gelato aplenty at Full Spoon, and Greek salad and huge slices of jackfruit pizza at Vegan Nation, a cute little café and juice bar. We loved some places so much that we headed back for second helpings. Avocado might be a little touristy but it does some wonderful things with vegetables and is home to one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, the vibrant vegan. We went to Mama Tierra three times because it’s that good and serves up hearty Greek classics with a vegan twist. I tried a vegan kebab, soutzukakia (‘meatballs’ made with aubergine) and my favourite, moussaka with a creamy coconut sauce.
I’ve long been a fan of moussaka because I ate it so much of it as a kid – my mum was an adventurous cook so go figure. You can find the recipe in my book, The Occasional Vegan, but because I’m basking in that post-holiday glow, I’ll share it with you here.
This goes down just as well on a balmy summer’s evening (so make the most of it while you can) or on a wet and windy night. With a rich lentil base and creamy béchamel sauce, you’d never guess that it’s vegan. The beautiful photograph is by the very talented Manon Houston.
1 hour, 15 minutes
For the lentil base
200g green lentils, rinsed and drained
1 large aubergine, sliced into thin rounds
1 green pepper, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
2 x 400g cans tomatoes, chopped or plum
1 large onion, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped finely
4-5 tsp tomato puree
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cinnamon stick (or 1 tsp of cinnamon powder)
4 tsp parsley, chopped finely
2-3 tsp mint, chopped finely (or 2tsp dried)
For the béchamel sauce
500ml soya, nut or oat milk
2 bay leaves
1 onion, peeled and roughly sliced
4 tbsp plain flour
3 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tsp vegetable stock powder
¼ tsp nutmeg, grated
Salt and black pepper
In a large pan, heat 1 tbsp oil over a low to medium heat, then add the onions and garlic and fry for five minutes. Now add the lentils, peppers, tomatoes, tomato puree, parsley and cinnamon, plus 300ml water. Season generously with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat, cover the pan with a lid and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
While the lentil sauce is cooking, make your béchamel sauce. Place all the ingredients, except for the oil and flour into a saucepan and mix together. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and set aside and allow to cool. Remove the onion and bay leaves using a slotted spoon. In a separate saucepan, mix together the flour and oil with a dash of milk until you have a smooth paste. Gradually, pour in the milk mixture, whisking or stirring constantly. Place the pan on a high heat and bring to the boil, whisking or stirring all the time, until the mixture thickens to a smooth sauce. Make it as thick as you like by adding extra flour – or you want a thinner sauce, add more milk. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat. Remove the cinnamon stick and discard.
Preheat the oven to 200C. In a large bowl, mix the aubergine slices with 2 tbsp of oil, making sure to coat each slice. Season with salt and pepper. Heat a large pan over a medium heat and fry the aubergine on both sides for 2-3 minutes, or until golden brown.
Take an ovenproof dish and layer the lentil sauce at the base, then layer over the aubergine slices and the chopped mint. Now pour over the béchamel sauce and spread evenly.
Place on the top shelf of the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes.