Wednesday, November 16, 2011



My earliest memory is that of food. When I was a year and a half old, my parents went to Nepal for three months to have a few adventures and visit a few friends, and I tagged along. And if I let my mind slip sideways and approach the memory as I would a skittish stray cat, I can remember sitting on a stone wall, the roughness of the stones pressing into my thighs, and eating a mandarin. The mandarin is large in my baby hands, and beside me I can see the pattern of my beloved friend Gwen’s brown tweed skirt.

My second oldest memory is of swinging my legs from the neighbour’s kitchen bench and having olives popped into my mouth. My neighbours were Greek and I spent hours there every week watching George make endless tiny cups of thick black coffee and Tina cook up a storm. For a long time, my parents were puzzled by my birdlike appetite and burgeoning size until they realised quite how much the neighbours fed me.

There’s nothing like fresh Greek food. Eating it takes me right back to George and Tina’s vinyl chairs and seventies brown kitchen, and the view out to their grapevine. Behind the vine was a fire pit, dug into the lawn for the Paschal lamb; thinking of that lamb makes my mouth water even now.

Three decades later, I am drifting through old memories as I cook up a storm in my own kitchen and gaze out into our own grapevine. It’s the time of year when vines go a-roaming. New shoots sprawl abundantly, looking for something to catch on to, and so, before heat burns and fungi attack, it is time to make dolmades.

Dolmades are quite simply vine leaves stuffed with rice and other goodies. I fill mine with fresh herbs, and use the leaves from our vines. While you can certainly buy preserved vine leaves, fresh vine leaves are a whole ‘nother thing: they taste light and sweet and clean.

For this recipe, you need about fifty vine leaves the size of a Cornish woman’s hand, that is, my hand – or what is probably about the size of your palm. Obviously if your leaves are larger, you will need less; smaller, you will need more. Don’t strip the leaves off the vine one by one, as this will weaken the vine. Instead, remove a long unwanted shoot, then strip the leaves off that.

If you don’t have a grapevine of your own, there are plenty throwing two and three metre long shoots into the laneways. If you decide to glean such shoots, respect the vine and the owner. Take clippers, and cut a couple of good long stems to the fence line – don’t just shred the leaves off, don’t go over the fence line, and take only what you can use. When I'm out walking, I carry a stout pair of scissors in my bag to collect herbs and greens and no one has ever done anything but smile and nod as they see me carefully snipping fennel tops, parsley, bay leaves and all the other goodies that grow for free.

I may not be Greek, but George and Tina gave me an early education in food and I have taken on the mantle of gleaning and eating great quantities of herbs and bitter greens, vine leaves and fennel tops. And as I do so, I think of my old neighbours with gratitude.


- about 50 fresh vine leaves
- 150g long grain white rice
- about 350g brown onions
- ½ cup fennel tops
- ⅓ cup parsley, about 10 – 12 stalks
- ¼ cup mint
- 150ml olive oil
- a lemon
- salt

First, select your vine leaves. For the rolls, choose those which are whole. Reserve any torn leaves for lining the pan. With your thumbnail and forefinger, snip the stem from the base of the leaf. Wash well. Bring a pan of lightly salted water to the boil. (I use the same wide frypan that I will later use to cook the dolmades). In batches, drop in the leaves and hold them under the water for a bare minute, then fish them out and let them drain in a colander. They will change from bright green to khaki in that time. Place the rice in a medium sized bowl and cover with cold water. Let it soak for fifteen minutes, then drain it in a sieve and rinse well.

While the rice is soaking, chop the onions very finely. The onions hold the rice grains apart and give the dolmades a delicate lightness, so keep them small but do not grate them or pulverize them in a food processor. You do not want a mush! Chop the fennel, mint and parsley. Mix the rice with the onions, the herbs, 75ml olive oil and half the lemon juice.

Line the base of a wide heavy based frypan – you may as well use the same pan as was used for blanching – with vine leaves. Start with the holey ones.

Now take a blanched vine leaf and lay it flat. Place a heaped teaspoon of filling at the base of the leaf – and use a bit of common sense here: a large leaf may need more filling; a small one, less – and then form it into a rough tube. Roll the vine leaf once, fold in either side, and continue rolling to the end. Place it in the frypan.

Pack the dolmades tightly together. When you have run out of filling, drizzle the rest of the olive oil and lemon juice over the dolmades. Gently place a plate upside down on top of the dolmades to hold them in place, then pour 250ml hot water into the pan.

Cover and cook over very low heat. After 40 minutes, fish one out and test it. If it’s a bit crunchy, give it another five minutes, otherwise turn off the heat. Let them cool a little in the pan.

Take the dolmades out and arrange them on a plate. Serve warm or cold with slices of lemon. While they keep in the fridge for several days, they do lose some of their delicate texture and herbal sprightliness. They are best the same day – although even two days later they are far and away better than any commercial dolmades I’ve eaten!

Adapted from a recipe in the wonderful book, Greek Food, by Rena Salaman. Every recipe is preceded by a history of the dish and her fond memories of growing up in Greece. This is a lovely read, and the recipes are scrumptious! Sadly, it is out of print – but her later cookbooks may be worth a look.

(Backyard or gleaned locally: vine leaves, mint, fennel tops, parsley, lemon. Local: onions, olive oil. Somewhere in Australia: rice, salt.)

Healthy Mediterranean Cooking


  1. Where can I get fresh vine leaves in Melbourne?

    1. I pick vine leaves which hang over back fences into laneways - Carlton, Brunswick, Coburg and those other northern suburbs. I don't know where to buy fresh vine leaves, but you can buy partly dried, salted vine leaves at many middle eastern stores in the same areas e.g. Middle Eastern Bakeries in Hope Street, Brunswick. Soak the salt off, then use.