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.
5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
A generous pinch of salt
800g baby spinach leaves
400g good feta cheese
Zest of 1-2 lemons
1-2 tsp dried dill
20g fresh sweet cicely or dill, finally chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
150ml whole milk (you can also use a good quality natural yoghurt)
2 large free range eggs, beaten
x4 large sheets of filo pastry
Aleppo pepper (optional)
How I make it
Heat an oven to 180C.
Place a large frying pan over a medium/low heat and add a little water. Wilt down the spinach leaves in batches and place into a colander to drain. Allow to cool, squeeze out any excess liquid and roughly chop.
Wipe the pan clean, add 2 tbsp of the olive oil and fry the onion and garlic until sweet and translucent, around 20 minutes. Place into a large mixing bowl and, when slightly cooled, add the spinach leaves. Crumble in the feta cheese before adding the lemon zest, a generous grating of nutmeg, the dried dill and the sweet cicely (or dill). Season to your taste.
In a smaller bowl, whisk together the milk (or yoghurt), the eggs and the remaining 3 tbsp of olive oil.
Take a large pie dish and arrange the filo sheets over it brushing each layer with olive oil, allowing each sheet to overhang the dish. Tumble in the spinach and cheese mixture and carefully cover with the egg mixture. Sprinkle Aleppo pepper across the top (if using). Gently fold over the overhanging filo sheets to cover the pie.
Brush with olive oil 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 one my French new potatoes with wild garlic and spring greens with toasted hazelnuts and lemon.