Everywhere in Greece there are little whitewashed churches perched on rocky hilltop peaks, reminding us of the sacredness of high places. Some are perched so high, in what seems almost inaccessible areas of dry, thorny scrub, that only nimble mountain sheep and goats can follow precarious paths. It is quite common that many of those high mountainous shrines are dedicated to Profitis Ilias (the Prophet Elijah).
On the 20th of July, when Profitis Ilias is honored, there are often pilgrimages to the hilltop shrines. In Messenia, in the Southwest of the Peloponnese, I learned it was also the custom on this day to gather dried wild oregano that grew among the mountain scrub. Great bunches of it would be tied and hung from the rafters in storerooms in houses around the area, providing a yearly supply of the most frequently used herb in Greek cooking.
Wild mountain oregano is much stronger than the British garden variety. I tend to buy my supply in Greece, or I am given it as gifts by Greek friends. I am partial to Cretan oregano, a place where (in the summer months) the dusty aromatic scent of this herb pervades the air. The taste of the herb does vary from place to place – a kind of herb terroir. It is possible, however, to buy it in speciality markets, labeled as either Greek or Turkish oregano – or sometimes simply as mountain oregano.
Slow-cooked Lamb with Lemon & “Mountain Herbs”
This could almost be described as “pull-apart lamb” as the meat is so tender and literally falling off the bone. It is slow-cooked, taking a total of 6 hours, so prepare ahead!
- 1 leg of lamb (approx. 6 to 7 lbs. with bone)
- 6 large garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 lemons
- 1 to 2 Tablespoons dried oregano
- 1 Tablespoon dried thyme
- Olive oil
- Waxy potatoes or New Potatoes
First, peel the garlic and cut into rough pieces. Place the garlic in a mortar with the sea salt and pepper. Grind with your pestle until you get a paste. Clean and trim the fat from the leg of lamb. With a sharp knife, cut a few slits into the leg meat, evenly over the leg. Push in some of the garlic paste into the slits. Juice 2 of the lemons.
Place the lamb in your clay pot which has been lightly oiled. You can use a Römertopf pot or something similar – just remember to follow the instructions for use (such as pre-soaking the pot). I use my handmade, dome-lidded peka which I described in my post on Serbian Šnicla. Pour the lemon juice over the lamb and sprinkle on about half of the oregano and thyme. Drizzle with a little oil. Place lid on.
Place the covered pot in the oven and turn the oven on to 300 degrees F. – no need to preheat. Let it bake for 4 hours. Meanwhile, clean your potatoes. I used new potatoes, but any waxy potato will do – cut into large chunks and leaving the skin on. Turn the meat. There will be quite a bit of liquid that has formed. Put the potatoes around the lamb. Squeeze the juice of the remaining lemon and sprinkle on the rest of the oregano and thyme over the potatoes and the lamb. Drizzle a little more oil on the potatoes. Replace the lid and return it to the oven for another 2 hours.
When the lamb has been cooking for a total of 6 hours, remove from the oven, lift out the lamb carefully to a cutting board and remove the potatoes from the broth with a slotted spoon. With a fork, pull the meat from the bone and serve surrounded by potatoes that have cooked in the juices, absorbing much of the meat and lemon flavor.
Pour the juices into a bowl, cover and refrigerate. Once cold, remove the hardened fat from top and discard. Use the broth for making risottos, soups, etc., but remember it is slightly acidic due to the lemons used in the cooking.