During the winter months, the beautiful Istanbul suburb of Bebek sits quietly on the European shore of the Bosphorus as if waiting for an errant lover. It was once the favourite resort of Ottoman aristocrats who built their grand summer houses here, dozens of beautiful white jewels glittering against a backdrop of verdant jade. Not many remain today save for the deeply romantic white art nouveau mansion that was commissioned by Abbas Hilmi II, the last Khedive of Egypt, but it is still universally regarded as one of the few places that one can completely shrug off the increasingly frenetic pace of the city. As the mercury rises, the waterfront cafes throw open their shutters and move their tables outside to provide a place in which to sit, to share lunch with friends, to catch up on news and to discuss pressing matters (there are always pressing matters). Early last spring, we were two faces in that crowd, marvelling – as we always do – at the easy elegance of the people and their ability to live in the moment. We ate creamy cheese and spinach filo pies still warm from the oven alongside bowls of hummus, a fresh herb salad and pickled beets and, of course, rakish glasses of raki in which a single ice cube rattled. I am happiest at times like this, when there’s no plan, only endless possibilities. As a homage to all that, I’ve just made this delicate spinach and feta filo pie with sweet cicely. I wrote this story whilst the pie was baking as I sipped on a Sicilian blood orange gin with fresh grapefruit juice, the sweet sound of rain falling against our French windows.
7 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
A generous pinch of salt
400g baby spinach leaves
200g good feta cheese
Zest of one lemon
20g fresh sweet cicely, finally chopped (you can also use fresh dill)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
75ml whole milk (you can also use a good quality natural yoghurt)
1 large free range egg, beaten
x4 large sheets of filo pastry
How I make it
Heat an oven to 180C.
In a large frying pan, heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil. Add the onion, the garlic and a pinch of salt, cover and leave to sweat over a medium heat for around 15 minutes until they are sweet and translucent. Then add the spinach leaves in batches, allowing each batch to wilt before adding the next. Allow to cool and then squeeze out any excess liquid. Turn the spinach into a large mixing bowl, crumble in the feta cheese and add the lemon zest, a generous grating of nutmeg and the sweet cicely. Season to your taste.
Then, in a smaller bowl, whisk together the milk (or yoghurt), the egg and the remaining olive oil.
Take a large pie dish and arrange the filo sheets over it, allowing each sheet to overhang the dish. Tumble in the spinach and cheese mixture and cover with the egg mixture. Gently fold over the overhanging filo sheets to cover the pie.
Brush with olive oil or melted butter and scatter with nigella seeds.
Bake for around 30 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and the filling is softly set. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving. I served this with my French new potatoes with wild garlic and spring greens with toasted hazelnuts and lemon.
Keep any leftovers in the fridge for up to two days, just crisp it up in an oven for five minutes before serving.