My first moussaka was on the ferry from Piraeus to Crete. It was 1979, the end of my second year at uni, and I was travelling with Sara, Rob and Elli in a camper van though Greece. On a whim, or because it was the first ferry to sail, we decided to go to Crete.
The signs indicating the location of lifeboats were in French and English and the walls were decorated with views of the White Cliffs of Dover on this former English Channel ferry. Yet there was no doubt we were in Greece, surrounded, as we were, by extended Greek families with their belongings wrapped in colourful blankets, tied up like a sack. Old men smoked their strong cigarettes, older women with headscarves slept on their makeshift sacks and children played games on the deck. I didn’t see a goat but it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had.
We were travelling deck class. I was contentedly cocooned by all this hustle and bustle, the shouted conversations, the clatter of the backgammon games, the welcome gentle breeze after the heat of the day, the prospect of sleeping on deck under the stars. I didn’t think it could get any better. And then I found my moussaka.
We had descended into the chaotic deck class canteen, heaving with hungry travellers. Burly chefs guarded the food in giant catering tins, with ladles as weapons, to beat us off if we didn’t take it in turn. It was a scene reminiscent of an old school dining hall, hungry children queuing for food while dinner ladies kept us in line. Except in Greece there is no such thing as an orderly queue.
The moussaka was divided into huge portions. Meat sauce, rich with tomatoes and onions, interweaved the towers of aubergines and potatoes, held firmly together by a thick white sauce. A savoury layer cake, glistening in olive oil. I pushed my way to the front of the gesticulating crowd, caught the eye of one of the cooks, pointed at the moussaka and thrust a few thousand drachmas into his hand to seal the deal.
Moussaka. It’s as if all the food and flavours of Greece have collided in one dish. Giant red tomatoes, ripened in the sun, deep purple aubergines, lamb combined with cinnamon, fresh oregano, custardy béchamel sauce, made with Greek yoghurt and fresh eggs, left to cook slowly all day, then cooled so it could be cut into slabs. And this moussaka had been cooking long enough for all the spices, herbs, tomatoes and olive oil to meld together; the taste of Greece in one delicious mouthful. My senses were bombarded, and Alice in Wonderland like, the moussaka said, ‘Eat Me!’
I’d been in Greece for about two weeks and had got used to lukewarm Greek food. I had discovered salads bursting with flavour, sprinkled with salty feta cheese; so unlike the English limp lettuce Sunday tea salads. Yoghurt and honey for breakfast, enormous juicy melons and apricots, souvlaki, retsina and Fix beers.
I had enjoyed meals in taverns on the beach and high in the mountains. Food was good, plentiful and cheap. Yet this moment has stayed with me. I can still smell the aroma of herbs and spices, can still see the olive oil seeping out of the sauce, and recall the taste of my very first moussaka.