Greek-Australian author Olympia Panagiotopoulos shares stories of family, food and love in her new memoir, transporting readers from her mother’s garden in Melbourne to the village garden of her parents’ homeland. Read an extract from Beneath the Fig Leaves below, and try your hand at her recipe for Fig Leaf and Vanilla Cream.
The air is sweet with lemon blossom when I stop at Mother’s for tea. Since my eldest daughter Natalie left for a year in Spain a few weeks ago, I have been visiting most days. Mother has lived alone since 1993, the year Father died. We are glad for each other’s company.
‘The garden is peaceful,’ I tell Mother as we sit in our usual spot under the shade of the fig leaves. I peer up through the tree to the blue sky. The fig and orange leaves overlap, as though the palm of a fig leaf is reaching to pick an orange. ‘Look, Mum, the fig tree and the orange tree are holding hands.’
Mother is preoccupied. She has just planted her tomatoes and is afraid the chickens – Autumn, Summer and Spring – will devour them. I watch them strut about their coop, jumping up occasionally onto the low stone wall to get a view of the activity.
‘One of them got out,’ she says, watching the chickens, ‘went straight to the tomatoes and began pecking and scratching at the ground.’ She scratches through the air with her hands. ‘Do you believe it? They can’t wait to get out and scratch through the dirt!’ Mother’s chickens are like her children, she loves them and they love her. She shows her love by making certain they are clean and their house is in order, that they are cuddled and talked to, fed and put to bed and, at times, let out to play.
‘Would you like to be inside all day and not get out into the garden?’ I ask her. ‘You can’t wait to get out there and scratch about the soil. Even when it’s cold and windy and looks like rain, you’re out in the garden. They must take after you.’
She laughs. ‘As long as they eat the bugs before they get to the tomatoes, I don’t mind,’ she says. ‘Now, if only the chickens could scare away the other birds.’
In the cooler months, there is peace between Mother and the birds that feast off her garden but, come summer, the battle begins. The broom comes out, fallen fruit gets hurled through the air and when Mother gets serious, she brings out her makeshift scarecrows: coathangers dressed with old clothes and hats that she hangs in the trees. To combat the bugs, she runs her own pest-control system to chase away the earwigs and other insects that love to eat anything they can climb on.
Everything that has life has a home in my mother’s garden. Nothing is wasted and everything is nurtured and loved – except the bugs and birds, of course.
Fig Leaf and Vanilla Cream
As a child, I spent many an afternoon with my parents visiting their Greek friends. Visiting meant sweets would be served, and more often than not this included vanília – vanilla fondant – a shiny, smooth, creamy paste that was thick, sweet and gluggy on the tongue, served on a spoon in a glass of water.
In the summer of 2006, when I was holidaying in Greece, my aunt proudly carried a tray of vanília-loaded glasses onto the veranda. My daughter Isabella was a little unsure and with the first mouthful decided it was not for her, hurrying to throw the contents of her glass over the balcony when her great aunt returned to the kitchen. I covered my mouth as I laughed, remembering the thirty-eight-degree day twenty-five years earlier when I had thrown pieces of smoked eel over that same balcony in a panic. Isabella was alarmed to see the leaves of some of the bordering plants and flowers splattered with the vanilla paste. Unable to wipe the cream from the leaves, she tore them off. The rest of us were a little more subtle and felt obliged to finish the glass.
When my aunt returned and noticed the empty glasses, she asked, ‘Would you like some more?’
This dessert is a vanília of another sort, in fond memory of afternoon visits and the promise of something sweet.
4 fig leaves
1¼ cups full-cream milk
½ cup pure cream
1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthways, seeds scraped
zest of 1 lemon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons honey
3 teaspoons cornflour
4 figs, sliced
1 tablespoon pistachios, roasted and finely chopped
Rinse the fig leaves and pat dry with kitchen paper. Pour milk and cream into a saucepan. Add the vanilla bean and seeds, fig leaves, lemon zest, nutmeg and cardamom. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and then remove from heat.
Whisk egg yolks, honey and cornflour in a bowl until combined.
Remove fig leaves and vanilla bean from saucepan and gradually whisk the milk mixture into the eggs. Once thoroughly combined, pour the mixture back into the saucepan and stir on low to medium heat using a wooden spoon until it thickens. The custard should be smooth and coat the back of the spoon.
Pour into individual dessert glasses or cups, cover with plastic wrap and chill until set. Finish with sliced figs and roasted pistachios.