Nikos and Bianca Tsagkataki met at university in Scotland and were brought together by their love for Mediterranean flavours, albeit from opposite shores of Mare Nostrum. Against stereotypes about Greek men, Nikos is the one who does most of the cooking in their household, especially where pastry artistry is concerned. Thus, faster than you can quip ‘opa!’ at a sirtaki contest, they started a miniature cottage industry of traditional Greek delicacies known as ‘Binky’s Kitchen’ in the local artisan markets’ circuit, where they sell handmade preserves, but they also take orders for door-to-door delivery of sweet and savoury confectionery.
The passion for cooking and his ability to cook proficiently was sparked in young Nikos by his mother and grandmother, as one may guess. His mother Dorothea applied a reverse psychology masterful trick to make sure her sons carried on the culinary tradition: when they were teenagers, Nikos and his b rother Giannis were left home alone by their parents who day-tripped to the countryside or the coast. Nikos reminisces: “My mother used to leave some food in the fridge, healthy and fresh but not our favourite, next to the raw ingredients for our favourite dish and notes for its method, plus some pocket money which we could have spent for either take-away, grocery shopping or going out to the cinema or disco. If we wanted to save that money for leisure purposes we had to either eat the food we disliked, or cook our favourite dish from scratch. Soon we mastered the technique and learnt to explore other recipes. This grew into a passion that made me serve myself hearty meals when away from home and also pushed me to go hunting for the right ingredients and farmer markets or in the fields when possible. As a young boy, I spent my summers in the countryside with my grandparents who taught me how to find and pick wild herbs, how to dry and preserve them and how to use them to flavour my dishes. They also taught me how to select wild mushrooms, and tell the edible apart from the poisonous. I can do that in Crete, but here in Spain, no, I wouldn’t trust myself to pick the right ones.”
“Binky’s Kitchen has been growing for six years,” says Bianca, Binky for her friends, who is the public face of the business and takes care of customers’ service, administration and PR, while Niko bakes galaktoboureko and baklava, or rolls vine leaves and rice into flavoursome dolmades. “It is a very small business, nothing more than a hobby, because we don’t want quantity to override quality, and we strive to cook for others as if they were guests at our table,” Bianca says. And Nikos adds: “I always sample my batches before delivery and if it doesn’t taste good to me, it isn’t good for my customers either, so I don’t deliver it at all.”
Their recipes are mostly vegetarian and vegan, as they bank on the goodness of spices, herbs and fresh vegetables. This doesn’t mean that Nikos cannot bake one mean moussaka – on the contrary! – but he explains how a typical Greek feast, like elsewhere in Med cuisine, features a main meat or fish dish, surrounded by a plethora of sides and salads that can easily turn into stand-alone platters. “There’s a misconception that moussaka is like lasagne, substituting aubergine slices to pasta sheets, but the main difference is in the flavouring for the mince: it’s a blend of spices including those that Europeans wouldn’t immediately associate with savoury, like cinnamon, that gives it its intense scent and taste,” Bianca explains. Of course the sultry flavour can be equally achieved for vegan moussaka, should you require it made with soy mince! “And the béchamel,” Nikos echoes, “that is like the icing on the cake: not too thick, not too thin, continuously stirred in the pot to avoid flour lumps, and at its turn flavoured with a balanced mix.”
Moussaka is one of those crockpots that gain in yumminess if they are baked in the morning, let to cool and later reheated for dinner, which allows for all-day deliveries and for home-freezing if customers want to enjoy it in small portions over the weekend. Thursdays and Fridays are the busiest days in the kitchen for Nikos who also has a full-time day-job with Israeli firm Playtech, and for Bianca who is a part-time bank teller.
“There’s a lot of stirring and mixing and blending in our cooking,” Bianca admits, “especially when preparing jams. You cannot leave them one minute alone or they will stick!” She uses vegetable pectin only and quince as jellying agent for her preserves and chutneys, which often marry two fruits you wouldn’t expect to work so well together. Quince is common in Nikos’s native Crete, where from he also sources his herbs and spices, especially his favourites, thyme and oregano, since the different saturation of soil minerals bestows different nuances to their scents, even if grown roughly at the same latitude and under the same climate of their Andalusian counterparts. He does scour the ‘wilderness’ for herbs and other treasures to enrich the dish, though: “I ride my bike for hours around the hills, and climb rocks just for the thrill of picking wild asparagus.”
“That’s why we keep our production relatively small: we don’t want to be overwhelmed by orders and turn our hobby into a chore. We have a steady core of satisfied customers and word of mouth is the best publicity,” they say, adding that they are fully registered with the Environmental Agency that carries out regular health & safety checks at their kitchen.
It all started with fresh cheese, Bianca says: “I used to make, and still do, fresh cheese pressed according to the ancient recipe and preserved in olive oil and herbs. I use vegetarian rennet and Cretan oil when possible.” Niko adds: “Cretan oil is dense and distinctive, so it adds character to the fresh cheese when it is absorbed.”
Baklava sell out like hotcakes at Binky’s Kitchen’s Calentita stall every year – except last edition which was held one week earlier than customary and they were away from Gibraltar! “This gap year has brought us the idea of coming back next year with a hot moussaka stall; we just have to sort out a portable oven,” Nikos shrugs.
The what-with-what of Binky’s jams:
Pear jam with cheddar
Apple jam with pork
Sweet chilli with gammon (a good idea is to smother the uncooked gammon with the sweet chilli before going in the oven is it forms a sweet and sticky glaze)
Tomato & honey with fresh cheese
Red onion chutney with goat cheese, then warmed in oven and spread over toasted baguette
Fave herbs & spices:
All-time favourites are oregano and thyme, whose pungency cannot can’t be replicated unless you go into the mountains of Crete and pick/dry it yourself!
Dill is used for fricassee and dolmadakia.
Dittany (Diktamos) is an ancient Cretan herb used for centuries to make a tea believed to heal a variety of ailments from digestive disorders to toothaches. Not as common now with the younger generations as it is with the grannies.
Meanwhile, Binky’s jams are available from Bautista in Market Lane. Visit her Facebook page for orders.