Inspiration. From the Latin ‘inspirare’. Literally: to breathe in. To breathe deeply of the beautiful, of the otherworldly. Many moons ago the world believed that inspiration came from Muses – sweet poetry, the most famous of myths, and masterpieces alike, all the work of slender maidens draped in silk, with gold leaf belts and tight ringlets artfully coifed atop their dainty little heads. Legend has it that they lived on top of Mt Helicon – in the very heart of the Greek peninsula. If you ask me, though, inspiration – the kind that you get really excited about, the kind that never dates – occurs when you witness worlds colliding. That moment when minds come together. The more diverse the minds, the greater the impact. Like rainbow coloured fireworks in a cold, silent winter sky.
I travelled to Portugal last month to take part in a workshop. There I found inspiration. My muses – minus the stylised ringlets – were Beth and Sanda (who led the group and whose work on their sites – Local Milk and Little Upside Down Cake – I adore), and the other ladies taking part – Leslie, Sif, Olaiya, Lisa, Eve, Alice and Nathalie. Talent, wisdom, imagination, style, drive, energy, vision, languages, discussion, traditions – they all abounded. Rare to find so much shared and so much distinctiveness all in the one place. In the space of three days, I learnt so much. It was ostensibly a photography workshop – so I learnt how to shoot manually, all about the golden hours, how to navigate choppy post processing waters and the value of negative space.
But what I really took away from the workshop – a lesson for life – is how much more there is for me to learn. And how exciting that journey promises to be. There, on the Portuguese coastline, I spied my place in the world, through the dream clouds that enshroud it – metaphorically speaking, that is. And there, I gained the confidence to know that when I do get to my ‘there’ – to my magical place, my own Mt Helicon – I will stand with my feet firmly set in the ground and my head held high. Metaphors aside, Beth and Sanda’s workshop gave me the confidence to name my dreams and to enjoy chasing after them. Basically – it gave me inspiration.
We stayed at a place called Uvo do Monte – once upon a time a blueberry farm, now a converted bed and breakfast slash seaside resort slash utter rural idyll that I desperately long to return to. Think rough stone work and pine firs. Pink washed walls and wrought iron beds. And a characterful resident pussy cat. A spot so quiet and so still, that if you hold your breath, ever so tightly, you can hear the dulcet song of the sea in the background – as if suspended in the air.
We cooked and ate and photographed. Non stop. From the sunrise until long after the sun had set. The ingredients rough, raw and fresh. Local and exquisite. Strawberry and thyme galettes, fava bean soup, rosemary sugar biscuits, blueberry lemonade, grilled sardines and salted focaccia warm from the oven. We picnic-ed on the nearby beach, hot sand under our bare feet. A makeshift canopy to give us shade at midday, and a roaring bonfire to warm us at night. All very Robinson Crusoe – in a pleasing, leave your troubles far behind you kind of a way.
Perhaps the biggest treat of all was cooking alongside others who relish the art of chopping and whipping and sifting, with the same nutty passion as I do. I love how every cook has a favourite trick for greasing a cake tin, or for peeling an onion - each little idiosyncrasy paints a picture in miniature of its chef’s singular style.
I got up early one morning to bake with Beth. A fennel scented bundt cake with buttermilk and olive oil. The scientific precision with which she cooks - so technical and so very different from my own throw-everything-in-a-bowl way of doing things - opened my eyes to how pleasingly satisfying science in the kitchen can be. The moment I landed back home, I was struck by an overwhelming urge to bake these miniature olive oil cakes – with a dash of cointreau and fresh sprigs of rosemary. And to buy a set of digital scales.
I watched carefully as Sanda made a burek for our picnic – exquisitely fine pastry filled with melted cheese; entranced by the rhythmic way in which she brushes each sheet of paper thin pastry with oil. Hypnotic – like the pendulum in a grandfather clock. To me burek says exotic, it says leisurely holiday on a deserted Greek isle, and sand filled sandals. But for Sanda, it is a dish of home and of childhood nostalgia – she remembers her mother making it. Collision of worlds. Same dish, so many different memories. So many different meanings.
So this recipe is inspired – by Sanda and by Beth. I adapted a recipe for burek that Sanda sweetly shared with me. I tossed in a handful of tender baby leaf spinach, a bunch of fresh tarragon – sweet and liquorish-like – and a few crisp walnuts for added texture. And then a dollop of ricotta to top it off – well, just because where spinach goes ricotta follows. That’s how the world works. My world, anyhow. I have made burek quite a few times since returning from Portugal. It’s our son’s new favourite dish and when I want to treat him, that’s what I cook. It pleases me that burek will one day be a part of his childhood memories.
But for me – when I eat it – I think of my muses. And I smile.
- 600g baby leaf spinach
- 200g feta cheese
- 250g ricotta cheese
- 200ml crème fraiche
- 100g walnuts
- small bunch of tarragon
- 2 eggs
- 2 x 270g packets of ready made filo pastry
- Sunflower oil for brushing
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Lightly steam the spinach leaves for 15 minutes until wilted, then press the spinach in your hands to squeeze all the water out and throw it into a large mixing bowl. Crumble the feta into the bowl, spoon in the ricotta and the crème fraiche. Mix well. Roughly chop the walnuts and the tarragon and add them to the mix. Then lightly beat the eggs and pour them in too. Stir until well combined. That's your filling.
- Grease the baking dish - in this case a paella pan - with oil. Take a sheet of filo pastry and brush it with oil, place a few spoons of filling on the top of the sheet of pastry (on the longer side), leaving roughly 2cm empty. Roll the pastry into a parcel, gently lift it up and curl it around the centre of the baking tin. Continue until you finish filling all the pastry, creating a snail shape in the dish. Brush lightly with oil and bake in the oven for 40 mins or until golden brown on top.
- Serve hot or cold - perfect picnic food.