Kleftiko means stolen. Apparently lambs were taken from Greek farmers by Klephts centuries ago, who cooked the animals in pits in the ground to hide the smell of cooking so they didn’t get caught. It also sealed in the flavour so cooking lamb kleftiko underground continued for many years because the results were so delicious.
I first tasted the dish in Cyprus in 1975, the year after the Turkish invasion. My husband had been there during the war the year before, working for the BBC. He loved the island so much that we went on to have many holidays there in a house by a beach called Coral Bay, which had one restaurant, owned by the Charalambous family. Their kleftiko was delicious. It is a good recipe for feeding hoards of people so we also ate it at weddings of members of local families we got to know.
Crush the garlic, oregano, lemon zest and juice, cinnamon and oil to make a paste. Make slits in the lamb with the tip of a sharp knife and rub in the paste, pushing it into the slits, and season with salt and pepper. Cover with a food bag or cling film/plastic wrap, and leave in the refrigerator to marinate overnight.
Remove the lamb from the refrigerator a good hour before you want to cook it so that it returns to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 160°C/315°F/ Gas 2–3.
In a large casserole dish, put in the potatoes and bay leaves, and place the lamb on top. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid and put in the oven for up to 4 hours until the meat is very tender. Take off the lid and paper and baste the lamb with the juices. Turn the heat up to 220°C/425°F/Gas 7 and return the lamb to the oven for about 30 minutes until browned.
Make the Greek salad by tossing together all the ingredients. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle over the dried oregano. Stir together the ingredients for the mint yogurt.
Serve the lamb and potatoes with the mint yogurt and Greek salad.
Herbs by Judith Hann
Recipe extracted from Herbs: Delicious Recipes and Growing Tips to Transform Your Food by Judith Hann © Nourish Books 2017, commissioned photography by Tamin Jones. £20.
Visit our Greek food hub for more delicious Greek recipes, including lamb kebabs with spicy relish, beef stifado and vegetarian moussaka