Vine Leaves

Last year my 25 year-old grape vine decided to leave home. After forming a close relationship with a telephone wire it soon reached half-way across the road and even produced a few bunches of black grapes dangling provocatively above the traffic. In March, it was time to curb its enthusiasm and major surgery was called for. Though I thought I’d overdone it when sap began to seep from the cuts. Yet within weeks dozens of pale green leaves had sprouted from every limb. 

These young tender leaves are perfect as edible wrappers for food before cooking. Sardines barbecued in vine leaves are superb. And a dish of stuffed vine leaves as enjoyed in Greece, Turkey, and Egypt  go well with pastis, ouzo or beer. Filled with spiced rice, herbs, pine nuts, and currants then served with minted yoghurt – ideally made with sheep or goats’ milk – these dolmathes or dolma are always popular. My recipe, made with French ingredients has evolved over the decades but owes its origin to Rosemary Barron’s superb book, Flavours of Greece (Grub Street). 

STUFFED VINE LEAVES

I prefer to use fresh vine leaves with their stalks removed and briefly blanched in boiling water then doused in cold water and drained on kitchen paper. If using jars or tins of preserved vine leaves, rinse them first in boiling water then several times in cold water until the surplus salt has been removed. 

40 vine leaves plus a few extra to line the pan

150 ml olive oil

6-8 spring onions, depending on size, finely chopped 

2 fat cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

250 ml cup long-grain rice, rinsed in cold water and drained in a sieve  

1 lemon, zest and juice

½ teaspoon quatre-épices or 

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon and also of ground allspice 

300 ml water or vegetable stock

3-4 tablespoons pine nuts

2 tablespoons washed currants

salt and freshly milled black pepper

2 tablespoons flat parsley leaves 

1 tablespoon fresh dill or herb fennel  

1 tablespoon coriander leaves  

Salt and milled pepper

For serving:

150 ml or more plain Greek-style yogurt

slim clove garlic, peeled and crushed with a little salt

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint leaves 

1 lemon, cut into segments

Arrange a layer of vine leaves, slightly over-lapping, in the base of a lidded pan or a cast-iron casserole. 

Pour half the olive oil into another pan over moderate heat and stir in the chopped onions and garlic. Cook gently for a few minutes until the mixture is softened then stir into the rice. Grate the zest from the lemon and add to the bowl with the spices. Pour in the water and slowly bring to the boil. Cook, stirring, until the rice has begun to swell. 

Remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped leaves of parsley, dill and coriander and stir into the rice with the pine nuts and currants then season with salt and milled pepper. 

Place a prepared vine leaf, vein side up, on a chopping board and place a heaped teaspoon  of the rice mixture near the stalk end of the leaf. Fold over the sides of the leaf and carefully roll it to enclose the filling. Place the filled leaves side by side in the leaf-lined cooking vessel, packing them in tightly to maintain their shape and making a second layer on top of the first if necessary.  

Pour the rest of the olive oil into the pan, add the strained juice of the lemon with cold water to just cover the stuffed leaves. Place a heat-proof plate on top and add the lid of the pan. Cook over moderate oven for 25 minutes then set aside to cool.

Serve the stuffed vine leaves arranged in a single layer on a dish, either plain, or with a bowl of Greek natural yoghurt mixed with chopped mint as a dipping sauce with lemon segments. 

SARDINES BARBECUED IN VINE LEAVES

My favourite way of cooking sardines. The fish acquires a smoky, lemony flavour from the vine leaves and the fire. 

Serves 3-4

24-30 sardines

fine sea salt

50-60 vine leaves, stalks removed

Rinse the sardines in cold water and drain on kitchen paper. Leave the fish whole and sprinkle lightly with salt. 

If dusty rinse the vine leaves in cold water and use scissors to remove the stalks. 

Wrap each fish in a vine leaf or two depending on size and place on a plate until the fire is ready for cooking. The best fire is made from vine clippings – sarments – but any fruit wood works well. Traditional charcoal is also fine when it has acquired a grey powdery surface suitable for barbecuing. 

Place a cooking grid over the hot fire and arrange the fish on top. Cook for 3-6 minutes turning the fish once until the flesh is firm and still moist. Serve with bread and wine.