Last week I spoke with Marianna Leivaditaki about her new book, Aegean. I’ve met Marianna through her cooking, the wonderful modern tapas of Morito Hackney. Below you can read more about Marianna, the new cookbook and enter the giveway, to claim one of the 5 copies.
Marianna, tell me a few things about you. What inspired you to become a chef?
I was very lucky to grow up in Crete, which is an absolutely amazing place. My parents run a seafood restaurant in the area of Halepa and I was brought up there, where we spent every single evening, all our lives, really. My dad is a fisherman, my mum, has passed away, but she was the person that run the front and obviously she cooked and did all these amazing things, she could do everything! So, I was brought up in a culture which was all about food, good food and fish, fresh fish, everything we ate was the best quality. We lived in a house that the only thing you could find in the freezer was ice-cream because my dad believed you must never eat anything frozen (laughs).
I was always surrounded by very good food and loved it. As a little girl, I used to go around and ask for recipes. When my parents were very busy, I would often cook lunch and experiment with things that we wouldn’t usually have; normally we’d eat fish every day. I was always involved in that. With time, I wasn’t that interested in food, I didn’t really want to be a chef, I just enjoyed good food. I left home when I was 18, I came to England to study psychology, I did a Masters in Forensic Psychology, I worked in the field for a bit and then I got bored and I went travelling. I think that’s the period when I started becoming really interested in food again.
I cycled through France and Spain for a few months. I was getting into the markets, cooking every day outside the tent where we camped. It was a new period for me and I was getting into it. So this was the start of it. After my travels, I worked in a farmers market in Canterbury. It was an incredible eye-opener for meeting British produce and seeing what this country produces: all the amazing dairy and it really added to it. Then I decided to go back to Crete, that’s when I went back to our restaurant kitchen. I ran it together with my brother, and I thought: sod everything, this is what I want to do.
I found myself reading endless amount of books and experimenting all day long, feeling really as if I was in love. I could feel the tingle, it was really exciting for me. Then I thought, maybe this is for me, this is what I need to do. I had a fantastic time doing that but then I got bored in Crete and I had to leave again, I came to London rather than going back to Kent.
I went straight to Moro, my favourite restaurant when I was a student. I couldn’t go very often, as I didn’t have the money or the budget, but whenever I could, I did. So I went straight there and asked them for a job, there was no job in the kitchen. Can you waitress? I said, yes! I started waitressing and slowly I got in the kitchen and that is really the start of it. A couple of years on, I was head chef and 4 years ago, we opened Morito in Hackney and that’s all together 11 years.
You mentioned you did a lot of travelling, how much travelling has influenced the way you cook?
A lot! I don’t consider myself as an extremely well trained chef, because there are lots of things, techniques, funny things that I don’t know how to do. I feel like I am a chef that has come from simply cooking and eating really good food. My travels have just allowed me to develop my style as a chef, which is not traditionally Greek, it’s not Middle-Eastern, it’s just a marriage of cultures that have similarities and can be brought together. Travelling has allowed me to do that, it gave me the key to open these doors, enabled me to see the similarities and be able to marry ingredients and flavours, things I would never have done if I hadn’t travel.
We talked a lot about Morito and the influences of your dishes. What can a guest expect when they come for the first time to Morito? What are they going to taste?
The menu covers the Eastern Mediterranean and it has a Spanish element, following from the original restaurant, Moro and then Morito, tapas. But I think, generally, if I were to describe the experience, it would be the flavours!
The ingredients are simple but very, very good. Flavour combinations are robust and powerful, they have something to say. That’s why the experience is encouraged to always be a shared experience of food. You can try lots of different things and have all these little explosions happen.
We encourage people to share plates, obviously it’s not as easy with COVID. But, you get to try more things and you leave with more flavours and pictures in your head and that’s what we want to create. We want to create memories.
Morito is a fun place, the food is bright, it’s loud. You have to shout to each other when it’s busy. It has these blue colours and it could really be anywhere in the world, in Spain, in Turkey, in Greece or Morocco, you could be anywhere.
I’m going to jump to your new book, the first one, Aegean. Could you tell me a little bit about the book, what people are going to find in it and most importantly how did you feel when you saw it printed?
I avoided it! I couldn’t believe it was mine. I didn’t open it for at least 3 days. My copies arrived, sat on the dining room table and I just kept walking passed it, giving it side looks as if it was someone I didn’t like. It was quite funny, my partner Alex, was like
Why aren’t you opening the book, have you looked at it?
No, no, I know what’s in it!
It was this kind of period, I couldn’t quite believe it’s mine. It’s amazing that I had this opportunity to write a book and I am so grateful for my publishers and agents who believed in me, encouraged me and found the way to do it. It’s one of my biggest achievements I think.
The book is like a journal, it’s not like a recipe book in my mind. Yes, it has recipes, it has pictures of the recipes. But it also has stories, that are real. The reasons why I love cooking so much, why I cook the food I do. I was allowed to make it like a journal and that’s the best thing about it.
Do you have a favourite recipe from Aegean to share with us?
The book is separated into the Sea, the Land and the mountains. I think this is a very good division, because I do see all those things as completely different places. I think the people that live in them and the food they cook is so different. It’s like being in 3 different countries in a way but still in Crete.
I don’t know if I can choose a favourite. I am the biggest fan for a simple sea urchin and fresh bread. And that is not about chefing, it’s about cooking and finding an incredible ingredient that the sea has to offer and eating it. Things like simple grilled fish with bitter leaf salad.
I think when I am at home, alone or with my family, I like really clean platting and I think the sea chapter in my book is one of my favourites but saying that, there are a few dessert recipes.
I’m not a huge dessert person at all, I’ve never had a sweet tooth, I didn’t even eat my own birthday cake until the age of 12, I wasn’t that kid. But a few years ago, I put together this recipe. It resembles a deconstructed galaktoboureko, in a way, without the syrup and in the book I’ve got this recipe which is crispy filo with semolina custard and mangos from Crete. I’m going to pick that, even though I’m not a sweet person I can eat a whole bowl of it. It’s incredible, it’s sweet, it’s fresh and filo is crispy, it doesn’t go soggy like all the syrupy filo desserts we’ve got around us growing up. It’s one of these amazing desserts that even for me, is brilliant!
Cryspy Filo, Custard and Cretan Mangoes
- 3 tbspn melted butter
- 6 sheets of filo pastry
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
For the custard
- 400 ml 14fl oz double cream
- 200 ml 7fl oz whole milk
- 2 cardamon pods seeds removed and crushed
- 6 egg yolks
- 100 g 3 1/2 oz caster sugar
- 1 tbsp fine semolina
- 3 fragrant mangoes
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Depending on the season, you can change the fruit in this dessert. In autumn, I love plums with a touch of sugar and a splash of water pouring them on top.
- Preheat the oven to 160 oC / 325 oF / gas mark 3
- To make the custard, put the cream, milk and cardamon in a pan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to minimum and let it simmer while you whisk the egg yolks. Using an electric mixer, whisk the yolks with the sugar and semolina until pale and creamy. Take the cream off the heat and, quickly, whisk in the egg mix. Return to the heat for another few minutes or until the custard thickens. Transfer to a dish and chill in the fridge.
- Place a sheet of pastry o a small baking tray and brush generously with some of the melted butter followed by a sprinkle of sugar. Place another sheet on top and brush with more butter and a sprinkling of sugar. Repeat this until all six sheets are layered on top of one another in the tray. Score the pastry with a sharp knife into squares or diamonds. This will allow air to enter the pastry and it will puff up in the oven.
- Cook in the oven for 20-15 minutes or until golden brown. You want all the layers to be golden and crispy, so check the bottom layers before you take it out of the oven; if they are not crispy, turn them upside down and cook for a little longer. It does not matter if the pastry brakes up a little as this is what you will end up doing to it anyway. Remove from the oven, place on a rack and allow it to cool down.
- How you prepare the mangoes is up to you. If you want texture, you can remove both sides of mango flesh from the stone, score them and use the little skinless cubes or you can scoop all the flesh out to end up with bigger chunks. You could also make a puree by blitzing it. Mix the mango with the lemon juice and let it sit.
- To serve, break some golden filo on a plate, pour over some custard and then the juicy mango. Other soft fruit, like strawberries, raspberries and peaches, are also delicious here.
When not in the kitchen, what’s your favourite place in London?
My goodness, wow. Well, if not in the kitchen I love to go to places where other people cook for me. Every opportunity I get, I love to go to a nice restaurant. My favourite
is to get into the car and drive for an hour, an hour and a half, two hours out of London and go to a very nice restaurant out of London, wherever that is, so I can feel I left the city for a bit. Going for a really long walk whether it’s on the hills or by the sea and then just sit down and have someone cook for me something amazing. That’s what I love doing.
Do you have favourite restaurants, could you name a couple?
Absolutely, I love the Good Shed in Canterbury. I used to work there, some 20 years ago. It has an indoor market with an onsite restaurant, using seasonal food. The meat is from Kent, the fish is from the area, nothing travels far away, you know what they are doing is incredible and I always love it.
And then in London the places I love going to are the places that are Mediterranean, in ambience more than in food. I love going to Rochelle canteen, I love going to a tiny Italian restaurant by Columbia road called Campagna because the building
For me it’s the surroundings when I treat myself and when I go out, yes of course I want good food, but I want to feel I’m in a special place. I had lunch at Rochelle not long ago and these grapevines outside with grapes hanging over my head, it’s absolutely amazing!
You feel you are transported somewhere else it’s almost the same way I wrote my book. I want people to see and smell and feel what I’m talking about.
The giveaway will be open from today until Sunday, November 8th. The winners will be selected through random.org and you will be notified directly by me. The 5 winers will be able to see the results on the Monday. There are no restrictions as to your place of residence, this giveaway is open worldwide. In order to enter the competition and win a copy of the Aegean, please follow at least one of the actions below: Register to the newsletter of Eatyourselfgreek.com & Leave a comment to this blog post If you would like a second chance to win a book, I’m also doing this giveaway on Instragram and Facebook. Just follow me there and check out the instructions on the giveaway post.
Thank you very much to all who participated, the competition is now closed and the winners have been announced on IG!
Marianna & Eugeniaby