Costa basting his whole lamb on a spit
Being invited to someone's house for a meal is one of life's greatest pleasures and privileges. So when I was invited to a lunch at Costa Georgiadis's house on a beautiful Bondi day with blue sky and a cool breeze I knew I was in for a wonderful treat. George is a Greek Gardening God and as he is Greek, for lunch he and his father cooked up a lamb on a spit for us. George energetically zips around the place with his prolific beard flying about. His father Stan is a lovely man who proclaims himself "deaf as an owl" and has "never had a beard-I told him that they'd need to shear him like a sheep to get rid of it" and who got up at 5.15am to start the lamb even after Costa told him not to and rest. Stan was born in 1930 and has been cooking this dish since 1960. The lamb itself is basted in a "secret" marinade which is not so closely guarded a secret anymore. For the whole lamb they used almost 2 litres of marinade basting the lamb with it and the marinade is a mix of olive oil, lemon juice, black pepper and garlic. And another secret weapon? Stan's device - a custom made Stainless Steel Syringe to inject garlic cloves into the meat overnight to impress the flavours into the meat.
At 1 o'clock, eight hours after the lamb has been turning and cooking Costa slices tenderly soft pieces off the lamb and we go inside to eat lunch in the garage where he and his family friends also ate lunch in one of the episodes. The garage, like most family homes is a snapshot into the last few decades of a family and there's a pair of fishing waders hanging from the ceiling. "Why do you have them?" we ask him and he says "I thought I could use them sometime". Sounds like the famous Jousting Sticks quote from The Castle. There's a painting of Queen Elizabeth II that has been taken down for the occasion and a plant which was his grandmother's that is always brought out around Easter and other celebratory times and that sits on the side as if it were part of the guest list.
The lamb is beautifully tender and zingy with an intense lemon flavour that goes so well with the meat. Lamb can be a rather fatty meat and the lemon cuts through it perfectly. There are also salads, a lovely soft olive bread and the best taramasalata dip I've ever had and I roll out of there a very contented guest. A few days later an oregano plant arrived on my doorstep and I was reminded again of this lovely lunch and with it a note attached from SBS they'd love to line up a time for me to interview Costa. I was more than happy to do so as I wanted to know more about growing things to eat. The only problem? My black thumb. Yes I can kill plants.
Talking to Costa Georgiadis with a set of predetermined questions is hard. Like his whole outlook on life, conversations are organic and spring from references within a conversation. As a result, I quickly discarded my preset of questions and we just talked. What was supposed to be about 30 minutes ended up taking about 3 hours but it was 3 hours talking to someone where you didn't notice the time. And he came over for a so called short interview one weekend evening over a piece of Lemon Meringue Pie - using Meyer Lemons from Costa's garden, that precious commodity that is rarely seen in the shops here. Yes ladies and gents, I finally got my greedy paws on some Meyers and I had to make a pie and who better to share it with but Costa? And then I got to ask him all about gardening from the perspective of a foodie.
What is Costa's Garden Odyssey all about?
The concept was getting across all the parallel universes: organics, biodyanmics, permaculture, Mandala, the importance of soil fertility, composting, worms and chickens. My grandfather was doing that sort of stuff and all the people in the little Greek Island villages were too but they're not calling themselves permaculturalists, they're not (calling themselves) an organic, biodynamic farmer but they are. They know they can't spray everything and kill the entire insect ecosystem.
How did a boy from Bondi which is a beach suburb get such a love of gardening and nature?
I took my first steps up in Bylong Valley on my godfather's farm and spent a lot of time there up until I was 13. Then my godfather had to sell for family reasons and it was really kind of sad and I was just getting to that age where I could ride a horse and I was so bummed out. My grandfather had a market garden in Nyngan and you can ask dad - he and his brother would have to go to the farm before school and they needed two of them to lift the onions. The onions would be all different sizes and they'd send them off to the market and sometimes they'd get nothing for them as they'd say they're too big. He was growing them all organically back then.
*That's still a battle nowadays. Many growers get boxes of Fruit & Vegetables that are rejected because they are the wrong shape. *
The frustrating thing is this it is our conditioning that is keeping this going where people can start to actually accept getting potatoes when they're dirty because they grow in dirt and carrots that have hairs on them. Hairs aren't a beard (tugs on his considerable beard) but they're roots and that's what's feeding them. When you have apples that have blemishes, like an apple that has rubbed against a branch, suddenly they're (gestures throwing over his shoulder) grade 7 for the horses, get rid of it.
I'm all about food. Tell me about Heirloom tomatoes.
Most of the fruit that's grown is a hybrid created and most of the criteria on which they're created are: packaging, storage, transportability and colour but where's taste? They want thick skins so they can handle being put in a box and can cop a bump. We want them to fit into a ring this big because that's the kind of predisposed image and people expect a nice red, round tomato. So these have been grown and they've picked the varieties over time. Whereas the Heirlooms are the ones that have been picked over history and kept because of flavours. These are the ones that are picked purely for their flavour. This guy Clive from Diggers Seeds in the early 70s was getting frustrated at the supermarkets that were culling and picking 1, 2 or 3 varieties and all of these other Heirloom ones, unless someone suddenly did something are all gone. So he started this mail order seed club and you can write in and get the seeds delivered. The essence of it is that these are grown for taste and the ability to be grown in your backyard easily and simply.
If you have an apartment or aren't that great at gardening where's the best place to start? I've got a black thumb and have even killed a cactus but want to grow things that I can eat.
My 8 year old goddaughter in Melbourne decided she wanted to grow some tomatoes and so we planted 3 pots and they lasted all season. It served the family the whole summer and they make 20 to 30 kilos per plant. Whether it be tomatoes or whether it be leaf greens like Rocket or Cos there's another layer. You can always buy organic but when you can grow it at home you start to look at actually eating something within an hour of when it was picked and the longer it sits the less value it has. You can walk outside pick a dozen leaves off a dozen plants and suddenly there's a salad and you wash it and put some dressing on it and then it's ready. That has nurturing value. That's the catchline of the show, nurturing the body and soul and we're trying to feed the soul. We try and feed the soul through the philosophical and spiritual connection but also feed the soul with food and understanding and getting into the cycles and seasons.
I haven't been able to find Meyer lemons anywhere...
Now there's a simple one when you said before can I grow something. To have nice pot with lemons or a lime tree. You go out a buy a lime and put it on the scales and it's $1.80 for one! That's one lime - one lime, one unit!
We talk about seasonality and the consequences about buying out of season. The price is one thing but it's also the environmental cost. You want to have some R2 mango that has come from the back blocks of Asia just so you can have a mango in Winter. Same with the blueberries- they come down at Christmas time at $2 a punnet but get them out of season and you can still get them out of Coffs but they have to walk over the whole property and pick one here and one here and here and here and there and they then send them down and then of course they cost $8 or $10.
One thing I loved about Europe or Austria is they have a wochen or a week, well actually it's more a month so it's "Spargel Wochen" which means "Asparagus Week" and you go in there and there's all sorts of recipes and they're cooking asparagus because it's cheap and then then it's Wild Wochen which is Game and then it's Plum and then it's Peach. I really dig that whole seasonal thing where they celebrate it. This so called wealth where you bring something in just because you can kind of loses in the end.
**I loved Humberto Uriola's (Episode 3) idea of a green city. Do you think this will eventuate in our time?
I've known Humberto for a long time. For that episode we spent a couple of hours with him and what he's contributed thus far has been phenomenal. He spent a lot of money early on trying to keep the patent. When he took it to the patent people by the next day the patent people were having a go. If it wasn't them they got the information out to others that copied it. In those first years he was spending his own money and it cost a lot of money to make the die to cast the mold. He almost went under to try and fight these legal battles. People have copied it and they call it drain cell and his is called drainage cell and you can get away with that! He now just says that's the way it is but as long as it's helping to green the cities.
You meet so many people during the course of a season...
All of these people are co-hosts. I'm kind of facilitating and slinking my way through and they're actually joining the dots. It's not me telling the story, it's them. I'm not saying anything. I ask the question but I really wanted to make sure that people like Humberto and Clive from Digger's Seeds are put out there and have a spotlight on them.
(Interrupted with some lemon meringue pie). I could go to any manner of top cafe restaurant and say give me a Lemon Meringue Pie and if they wheeled that out you'd be happy. Mm that is a cumulus cloud, you don't even need to chew you just slurp? Yum! I tell you what, just deliver this to my house and I will sing your praises!
Which is your favourite episode or segment?
(Thinking) In terms of favourites the Riverwood Community garden where there's two guys that are best mates but they cant speak the same language but they've been sharing each other's produce and they've suddenly got a chance to explain their feelings to each other. This is what it's about. The garden's keeping them alive. They've both got their ailments and they're not sitting in the corner of their house waiting to go. They're growing and exercising and the Vietnamese vegetables. Forget wheat grass shots you just snip snip and then straight into the mouth. Instant health shot straight in the veins. Here was an 86 year old man just crouched down on his haunches for 10 minutes. I reckon most people at 40 would struggle.
Permablitz (episode 3-where a group of people create a permaculture garden in someones yard in a day) is a great concept....
If you're not a green thumb you'd lookout into your garden and think My god, where would I begin? and "Where would I spend the money?" and "Where would I buy it?" and you can sit down and talk to these people and get a design and it gets implemented. You look at the transformation and that was done by paper, compost and manure and some old bricks and some recycled timber and some chicken wire and timber and there's no reason why you can't do that and still create some beautiful looks and make a brick pathway if you want to make some more design to it.
Can you give us a garden tip?
If someone wants to make a start, just get a worm farm. Put your kitchen scraps and leftovers and put it in your worm farm and start to build your worm farm and start to build worm castings to put on your one or two pots. You'll have a backyard that's just going off.
Can you do it in an apartment without it being smelly?
If you do a worm farm properly. If it's smelling you're not doing something right. Usually the reason there is that the worms are overloaded and then maybe the moisture level is either too wet or it's too dry and it's too exposed. It will only attract vermin if it's not working right.
It's a good start as it doesn't require turning and you add water once a week. You can buy ones premade and they're called Worm Cafe. They're in trays and you start in the bottom, you put them in and then the worms and then a layer of lettuce leaves and carrot and old apples and then put some leaves and water and then put newspaper or a hessian bag on top to cover the top so you don't get little insects and that's it.
Salads served at his lunch
The Chinchilla watermelon episode looked like lots of fun. Where do you buy these juicy Watermelons?
They're not labeled like that but just ask your local fruiterer as they get them in boxes that say Chinchilla melon. I could rabbit on for years about them. We had one and a half hours to shoot it and then to get to the Watermelon festival and they were waterskiing with Watermelon on their feet.
And then there was the guy headbutting the watermelons?
I'm telling you that guy did 49 in one minute and that's a world record but I don't think there are any challengers (laughing)! When they say you have to break it, you have to smash it. He's whacking it. Could you imagine whacking that? He has this really big forehead and he was trying to get 60, 1 a second but he did 49 which is ... I reckon if I did 3 my head would be ringing.
What's he like to talk to afterward? Is he making much sense?
I said So Johnno how you feeling and his eyes were like something out of Wiley E. Coyote that has just had the steel anvil drop on him. I asked him Are you going to give it another try next year? and he said I think I'll retire now Costa.
How long has the beard taken to grow?
Hmm let me see, I was in Cairo and then we headed North it got cold and I couldn't be bothered shaving which I hate doing anyway so it was in November 1991. So what's that 18 years?
Do you trim it?
Only around my mouth so that I can eat without you seeing half the lemon meringue pie. I love not having to shave.
You and your dad Stan are a team...
Driving around Europe we had the best time. We went just two years ago, we had a really nice trip because we're sitting on the other side of the car his good ear is the left so we had the best trip because here (Australia) we're having a regular conversation and then What? Can you repeat it? and by the fifth time you've missed the moment, you've missed the view and you're getting bit prickly because you can't be stuffed saying it for the fifth time. So I want to get a left hand drive.
Dad developed this idea for the lamb that you had and he got a friend over the road to make it because he worked as an engineer at Colgate Palmolive so he could make anything so it's this big syringe and it's Stainless Steel and at this end there's a hole and you can peel the garlic and you cut your cloves in half and squeeze it in there and you inject the lamb the night before and it sits there and as it cooks the garlic infuses through.
That lemon recipe is also really good on fish. Buy a beautiful piece of wild barrramundi, a nice thick fillet and put it in the grill and sprinkle that on it and grill slowly on number 4 or 5 and it's also great for chicken. We do that at Easter. Dad gets a whole lot of chickens and then breaks it up and puts it on the BBQ. He usually uses Eureka lemons as they're tarter.
Bouzouki player outside his house
Are you ready for fame?
In this neck of the woods because I do a lot of refereeing (Rugby) people know me. But in saying that, I was in a nursery in Dural and this guy was hedging around and he came up to me and I think he was Italian and he supplies plants to this nursery. He said Oh are you on that television? I seen you on that television....
I saw a lot of comments on your website like This guy referees my matches and then there was someone that said something along the lines of Move over Jamie Durie. Jamie's just warming the seat next to Oprah for you.
(Laughs) I'll have to see whether I know the person that wrote that one. It's funny because people are starting to notice but my life is there (measures 20 cms with his hands) and my time in television is there (measures 3 cms with his hands) so it would take a long time in tv before it would come near affecting that much of my life. What I am is because of that (measures 20 cms), not because of that (measures 3 cms).
By now the talk degenerates into devising riders for Costa, stretch Hummers, finding him a wife and him helicoptering in to check on the status of our worm farm.
Costa's Garden Odyssey bursts onto the TV this Thursday night the 27th of August on SBS at 8pm. I mean it - he will literally burst onto your screen such is his enthusiasm, hand gestures and body language. His show takes gardening and looks at it from all different perspectives: environmental, community, spiritual and practical and each episode in some way discusses food and gardening. It's Holistic Gardening.