Foods associated with the feast of Annunciation in Byzantine monasteries

Monastery of Vatopedi. The dining room.

(Photo credit:

  ” The feast of the Annunciation on March 25 was bound to occur sometime during the Lenten fast, sometimes even during Holy Week, leading many of our authors to make special dietary provisions for it. Without discussion of possible complications,  Stoudios  enjoins the celebration of the feast of the Annunciation with fish prepared with olive oil and accompanied by three measures of wine. In the tenth century,  Latros  does likewise, prescribing fish and the use of olive oil “with moderation.”  Black Mountain also considers this feast a legitimate reason to break a fast with two meals, including any available fish, prepared with oil and accompanied by wine.

According to Evergetis , its monks were to eat fish on this feast if it was sent by benefactors, but the item was not to be procured deliberately. Leftovers were to be consumed freely on the following day, but if there were none, the monks were to be given two dishes prepared with olive oil instead. If the feast fell during the first week of Lent, however, the festal concession would be reduced to wine of the larger measure and gruel. If the feast fell during the first three days of Holy Week, the monks would be allowed shellfish and wine of the larger measure in preference to the usual diet of legumes soaked in water, raw vegetables, fruit, and cumin- flavored water. In a controversial position,  Evergetis  declares, “we will do everything appropriate for the feast even if it should fall on Holy Thursday, or Good Friday, or even holy Easter Eve itself.”

Kosmosoteira , faithfully follows these provisions of its Evergetian model. Phoberos mostly does so also, but restricts the consumption of leftovers from the feast on fast days and omits Easter Eve from the list of days in Holy Week when it must be celebrated. Kecharitomene  permits a celebration with shellfish during Holy Week only on Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday (i.e., the non-fast days). Should the feast occur on Wednesday or on Good Friday, the nuns were to be content with cooked legumes and vegetables accompanied by olive oil. The Easter Eve fast was not to be broken.  Mamas , followed by  Heliou Bomon, makes similar provision for occurrences during Holy Week, but permits wine of the greater measure as a consolation on those days when cooked legumes had to be served for the feast in lieu of shellfish. Pantokrator  is not much different, permitting celebration by consumption of fish at any time in Lent, including on Holy Thursday, except during the weekdays of the first week of Lent and the other days of Holy Week. If the feast occurred during a day during Holy Week when fish could not be consumed, the monks were to have the consolation of the use of wine and olive oil.

The usually strict  Kasoulon  is uncharacteristically lenient on this issue, providing for a three-day feast (March 24-26) featuring food prepared with olive oil and good wine, with no discussion of possible exceptions to its celebration. The usual exception for Holy Week is found in  Machairas , however, when its monks were to be content with legumes, fresh vegetables, seasonal fruits, and hot water flavored with honey and cumin, though an occurrence on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday would be marked by serving wine of the customary allotment.”

Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents: A Complete Translation of the Surviving Founders’ Typika and Testaments edited by John Thomas and Angela Constantinides Hero with the assistance of Giles Constable Published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington, D.C.
Appendix B
The Regulation of Diet in the Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents
p. 1707-8

A snake on your pie

Greek Christmas breads and New Year pies have often  impressive decorations such as serpentine figures made of dough. The serpent is  a survival of the doctrine for the oikouros ofis*, the ancient home-protecting serpent, which believed to be an incarnation of Erechtheus
Of course, not only Erechtheus was depicted as a snake but also Ζeus Ktesios (the Acquirer), the protector of the storehouse, was represented as such. The Minoan snake-goddess was a house goddess too.  

The cult of the house snake still survives in parts of  Greece. Among farmers, we find the snake as a spirit of the earth, a spirit who possesses life-giving powers and ensues health and good fortune.  

New Year Pie. Bread Museum, Amfikleia

So, don’t forget to decorate your New Year pie with a dough- snake. 
May it bring you health, happiness and prosperity. 

Oikouros: the word is a compound of oikos= “house” and ouros = “a watcher”.
Ofis: snake

You might also be interested in: Vasilopita, the New Year Pie
                                                   Happy New Year Bread

Byzantine dreams and white bread.

….Getting or eating or merely seeing a loaf of white bread signifies harshness and strife for any dreamer.
….If someone dreams of eating  white bread he will get profit sufficient for life’s sustenance. But if the bread is hot, he will fall ill
(Dreambooks in Byzantium: Six Oneirocritica in Translation, with Commentary and Introduction, Steven M. Oberhelman,  p. 114,198, 2008)

Dreambooks are one of the oldest forms of practical literature. Of course, same dreams may not get the same interpretation in different books.  

Beside its meaning in the dreams, white bread  was considered the best in quality  among the Byzantines. 
Highly milled white bread is less nutritious than wholemeal  bread, but this was not understood either in Byzantium or in antiquity. Actually it was not understood until few decades ago. Throughout history white bread has been preferred to wholemeal bread because there are clear links between it and social prestige. The best-quality white bread was consumed by well -fed wealthy people and affluent bakers.

The compiler of  De Cibis, an early Byzantine Greek book of foods,  give us directions for  how to make good white bread:   

”White Bread made from wheat is the best and most nutritious of all foods. Particularly if white, with a moderate use of yeast and salt, the dough kneaded midway between dryness and rawness, and with a little anise, fennel seed and mastic, it is very fine indeed. One with a hot constitution should include sesame in the dough. If wishing to add more moistness to the bread, knead in some almond oil.”*

Τhe fine white bread is the best because of the superior quality of wheat, the eleventh-century physician Simeon Seth says. The reason is the raw grain can scarcely be broken by the teeth.** 

*Dalby, Andrew, Flavours of Byzantium, 2003.
**Syntagma de alimentorum facultatibus (On the properties of foods)

A Taste of the Past: Pastirma

A large number of the refugees from the 1922 Greek – Turkish population exchange were Karamanlides, Cappadocian Greeks who only spoke the Turkish language but wrote it in Greek characters. They left what had be their home for thousands of years and were  relocated into the Northern  Greece. The resettlement was very hard for them as they had different traditions and they didn’t understand the Greek language. Most of refugees saw a huge drop in their standard of living. However, Karamanlides brought with them the art of pastirma, hence a serious income for some families came from its production and sale. 

Pastirma or basturma (Gr. pastourmas), the wind-dried meat has been made in Anatolia for hundreds of years. Apoktin, the Byzantine air -dried salted meat, was one of its forerunners. Apoktin  could come from various meats, including pig, goat, wild goat, sheep, billy goat, even fish or cuttlefish but pastourmas comes mainly from beef or camel meat. In a culture that rarely eats beef pastirma is an exception. 

We are introduced to the word pastirma no earlier than 1624 (Narh Defteri). 38 years later the pastirma from a  pregnant cow’s tender meat was counted among the luxuries of Sultan’s banquets. (Baudier, 1662, p. 65)  

As Patric Leigh Fermor writes, a Greek refugee tavern- keeper from Iconium described how his pastourma was made “Υου get a camel or an ox, but a camel’s best’, he said with elliptic urgency, ‘then you put it in an olive press, and you tighten it up till ecery drop of moisture has been squeezed out. Every  drop! Then cut it up in strips and salt it, then lay it in the sun for a month or two – best of all, in the branches of a tree, so that the wind cures it as well – but in a cage, of course, so the crows can’t get at it.’ Then it is taken down and embedded in a paste of poached garlic and the hottest paprika you can find on the market, reinforced by whatever spices of the Orient are handy. When this has again been dried to a hard crust, it has the consistency of wood: it keeps for years. Thin slices, cut off with a razor-sharp knife, are normally eten raw; occasionally it is cooked, when the aroma, aways unmanning to the uninitiated, becomes explosive. The taste is terrific and marvellous, but anathema to many because not only is the ordinary smell of garlic squared or cubed in strenght- breath emerges with the violence of a blowlamp- but a baleful redolence of great range and power surfaces at every pore; people reel backwards and leave an empty ring around dinner, as though one were whirling in incendiary parabolas. (The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos) 

The layer of tsemeni is an innovation of the past 150 years, however the simply salted pastourma (without tsemeni) is still found, under the name Roumeli pastirmasi. 

Recently, Phanis Theodoropoulos, owner of the famous pastourma and soutzouki charcuterie ‘Arapian‘  and Paraskevas Sarimpoyias, a descendant of a Karamanli family and owner of ‘Sary‘ company (a fourth generation workshop for the production of cold cuts based in Drama)  joined forces to open ‘Karamanlidika of Phanis‘,  a charcuterie & fromagerie with a smattering of tables. 

Pastirma with bulgur

Here you can find a great selection of aged cheese, cold-cuts, gourmet products and a small menu of some of the most characteristic Karamanlidika dishes. The menu is based on suggestions made by Paraskevas Sarimpoyias and Stella Spanou, a chef, cookbook author and photographer from Thrace. Small menu, great taste!

Easter bread and the number 8

Symbols for warding off the evil  influences and christian symbols play an important part in the Greek festive breads.  In parts of Greece, the early Christian tradition of number 8, symbol of Jesus resurrection,* survived in the Easter breads. However, today, its meaning has been almost forgotten.

8- shaped bread

2 k. flour
200 gr yeast
240 gr lightly warm water
1 tb honey
2 tsp salt
2tsp coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp mahlep, toasted and ground
10 eggs lightly beaten
380 gr milk
 250 gr butter + 250 gr extra virgin olive oil
4 hard boiled egg, dyed red
Dissolve yeast in the water and add about 1/2 cup flour. Mix thoroughly, cover with a cloth and set in a warm place to rise for 2 hours.
Add the ingredients in the order they are listed. On a floured surface  knead the dough for 2-3 minutes and let rest for 2 hours. Knead again for 2-3 minutes until elastic and smooth.
Form 4 ropes and twist in the shape of 8. Place the breads on  greased baking sheets and allow to double in size. Brush  with beaten egg. Place the dyed eggs. Bake breads in preheated oven (175 C) for about 40 minutes or until golden brown.

*Jesus war raised on the day after the Sabbath, which is the 8th day.

Για Ελληνικά εδώ

Magic rain and the wish for water

Rituals of Magical – Rain Making in Modern and Ancient Greece: A Comparative Approach
and From Modern Greek Carnivals to the Masks of Dionysos and other Divinities in Ancient Greece are two very interesting articles about the  Kalogeros (monk), a carnival ritual associated with something that is a deep concern in Greek  culture: magic rain and the wish for water:

Both of them are written by Evy Johanne Harland.

”On Cheese Monday, the Kalogeros, followed by other painted characters visit the houses of the village, and are treated with wine, ouzo, and food. The housewife sprinkles the Kalogeros with polysporia, a symbolic mixing of grains, through a sieve. As a counter gift, he swings with his “sceptre” in order to mix the grains
with water and earth, while wishing a lot of rain and a plentiful harvest. The Kalogeros plungs his “sceptre” with the cloth into puddles, soaks it with muddy water, and smears the celebrants with it. The aim of the  procession is to assure the rain and a plentiful harvest. When they have made the round of the village, they end up in front of the church, where the entire village is awaiting them. Here, a play, a parody of ploughing and sowing, begins: “May the water-melons grow as  big as the Queen’s breasts, may the maize grow as long as the King’s prick” – all the actors in the agricultural play join in the recitation. Simultaneously, they sow “polysporia”. Two men take the place of a pair of oxen, yoked to the plough, and everybody invokes the buried grain so it may come back to life again. The Kalogeros is the rain-maker, who symbolizes the forces of vegetation and the fertility of the earth. Babo also belongs to the ritual. This is a man dressed up as an old woman. Babo holds a cup with “holy water”, i.e. women’s spittle and a sprig of basil in “her” hands and “she” sprinkles the holy content on the male articipants. “Her” assistant holds “The Invincible Life’s Powers” in “her” or his hands. This is the male sex organ in the form of a lyre, to be deposited on the earth when it has been “ploughed” and “sown”. The assistant pretends to play, while “she” utters magical fertility formulas. In ancient and popular Greek, Babo or Baubō is a wet-nurse, and symbolizes nourishment.” ( From Modern Greek Carnivals to the Masks of Dionysos and other Divinities in Ancient Greece, p.115-6)

Ancient Eros

 Alexis, dwelling on the aphrodisiac properties of bulbs, says: “Pinnas, crayfish, bulbs, snails, buccina, eggs, extremities, and all that. FIf anyone in love with a girl shall find any drugs more useful than these . . .(Athen. 63F)
and pharmaka (drugs) and enchanting charms for passion (φίλτρα θελκτήρια έρωτος). 

And  spells to heighten the drama of eros, spells to dissolve the unhappy love and cure the pain. 
And antaphrodisiacs.
And poisons.

Oh  eros is so complicated!* 

Take wax [or clay] from a potter’s wheel and make two figures, a male and a female. Make the male in the form of Ares fully armed, holding a sword in his left hand and threatening to plunge it into the right side of her neck. And make her with arms  behind her back and down on her knees. And you are to fasten the magical material on  her head or neck. Write on the figure of the woman being attracted as follows: On the head: VM; on the right ear: VM; on the left ear: VM; on the face: VM; on the right eye: VM; on the other; VM; on the right shoulder: VM; on the right arm: VM; on the other: VM; on the hands: VM; on the breast: the name, on her mother’s side. Of the woman being attracted; on the heart: VM; and below the lower belly: VM; on the pudenda: VM; on the buttocks: VM; on the sole of the right foot: VM; on the other: VM. And take thirteen copper needles and stick one in the brain while saying “I am piercing your brain, NN”; and stick two in the ears and two in the eyes and one in the mouth and two in the midriff and one in the hands and two in the pudenda and two in the soles, saying each time, “I am piercing such and such a member of her, NN, so that she may remember no one but me, NN, alone.” PGM 4.296-466). 

*Eros in the context of ancient Greek culture was not flowers and happiness. It involved annoyance and pain on the body and soul.

Christmas with the Emperor

The Byzantine celebration of Christmas attracted the attention of the Arab Harun ibn Yahya, who had been captured by the Byzantines in 911/12.  Leo VI, the Wise, had already introduced an innovation according to which muslim prisoners were invited to the official banquets during the Christmas and Easter ceremonies and other court events, possibly to replace the missing ambassadors.*
Harun left us a description of a Christmas banquet with the Byzantine emperor.

English version of  Harun’s arabic description, A. Dalby, Flavors of Byzantium, p.118-9

As you already  read, there was a gold table for the emperor and there were gold  dishes, dishes encrusted  with pearls and rubbies, music, an organon  and everything that could impress the others.  Communal chanting was not unfamiliar during those Christmas banquets. At another banquet,  attended by the patriarch, abbots and monks, the beef was accompanied by chanting directed by two domestics. ”The hymns were a way both to create and express church consent to imperial rule, but also to transform the banquet into a Christian meal, a kind of hierarchical agape. non-communal chanting was sometimes performed at banquets by choral singers placed behind curtains, praising the emperor in every key.” (Eat, drink and be merry)

Harun didn’t described the food. Such description was apparently viewed as inappropriate.
But, Theodoros Prodromos, writer of  the 12th century, well know for his prose and poetry, mentions Christmas in his verses. December: I hunt hares, enjoyment from the wild; I fill my dish with tasty partridges, and I celebrate the Feast of Nativity, which is the greatest feast of the Word of God. Avoid taking generous amounts of  foods, I say, and reject the melancholy cabbage.” ( Verses on Dietary Rules, Ideler 1841, v.1, p.420)
According to the dietary calendar attributed to a certain sophist Hierophilos, Byzantines should follow those recommendations:  December~ During this month do not eat cabbage  or water mint. Meats as for November, similarly with fish and vegetables and fruits and wine and pulses and leek broth… Do no eat lentils. Take fenugreek soup in moderate amount. Do not eat caper and green olives in brine (kolymvades); eat black olives in honey vinegar and sinapis…. (ibid, p. 417)
Hierophilos recommends the following food in November:
Deer, beef, hare, male goat, wild boar, wild goats, gazelle and all game birds; lean meat, double cooked, hot and spicy, and suckling animals. 
Eat any fish except the wet ones; do not eat rainbow wrasse and gugdeon. Use pungent flavours, such as pepper, leeks and mallow. Avoid  broad beans, lentil and lupins. Among fruits don’t eat dates and bay berries; eat the rest of fruits. Drink old and flavorful wine. 

Now, you can imagine what the emperor might have eaten…. 

*Liliand Simeonova, In the depths of tenth-century byzantine ceremonial: the treatment of Arab prisoners of war at imperial banquets, BMGS 22 (1998), 75-104.

O kourabiedes!!

 Grandma, may I have a kourabiedaki? (kourabiedaki is the diminutive of kourabies) This was my pre Christmas refrain as a child. A kourabiedaki, as if the diminutive word could make the kourabies look smaller and the result of eating it during a fasting period would be less important. Because the days before Christmas Day are not only about honey syrup, butter and sugar clouds. They are about expectations and children’s impatience as well.

This delicious cookie, also known as kurabiye (Turkey) ghraibeh or ghraybeh (Middle East),  might be the descendant of the medieval nuhud al-‘adhra (virgin’s breasts).  Four 13th-century cookbooks from the eastern Arab world  reflect a  fascination with this buttery delight.
In a guest post  on Anissa’s blog, Charles Perry explores the virgin’s breasts. ”The ingredient list is much the same: flour, butter and sugar, but there are some differences. The medieval pastry is made with toasted flour, while ghraibeh uses semolina, and ghraibeh is flavored with rose water and orange blossom water. And the proportions are different. Nuhud al-‘adhra uses flour, sugar and butter in equal amounts, but there is more flour in ghraibeh.”

A kurabiye recipe listed in the Ottoman Cookery, a collection of classic recipes of the Ottoman Empire  compiled byTurabi Efendi (1864), calls for 4 parts  flour, 2 1/2  parts sugar and 2 1/2 parts  butter (p.128) Another one calls for 2 parts  flour, 1 3/8 butter, 1 part sugar and 1 nutmeg (grated).
Although the typical ingredients of Greek kourabies are also flour, butter and sugar  I am very fond of the local variations favored in the Greek islands and Peloponnesos. Toasted almonds and orange blossom water give an explosive aroma to those kourabiedes.  

My mother’s kourabiedes
1 water glass extra virgin olive oil
1 water glass sheep’s butter at room temperature 
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup powdered sugar + more for coating
1 tsp soda powder
50 gr. almonds, toasted and chopped
1/3 cup brandy
blossom water

Preheat oven to medium (180c).
Beat the butter with olive oil by hand for 10 minutes. Cream the butter-olive oil and sugar in a bowl. You must have a very creamy and light mixture. Add the beaten eggs, stirring constantly.  Alternately add the baking sodadissolved in the brandy and 2 tbs orange blossom water to the mixture, beating after each addition until combined. Stir in almonds and add flour as necessary to make a soft and sticky dough.
Knead well. 
Mold into half moon, small ball or star shape  and place kourabiedes on a cookie sheet. Bake for 17 – 20 minutes until light golden and cracks appear at the top. Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with blossom water. After 5 minutes roll in the powdered sugar. When thoroughly cooled, sprinkle them with some more powdered sugar. 

Kourabiedes with olive oil
Kourabiedes with olive oil instead of butter are popular in the olive growing regions. 
Use the above recipe but  substitute the butter for olive oil and add 200 gr. almonds instead of 50 gr.


Ensuring abundance of food~ Polysporia

November sowning seeds. Manuscript, 1346, Vatopedi monastery

Religious rituals and symbolic practices in which food is used to secure the future harvest are still important in Greece. Their parallels are found in very ancient times, when fertility and food security were  matters of life or death.
Τhe 21th  of November is dedicated to the Presentation of Virgin Mary to the Temple. This feast is also known as Panagia Mesosporitissa (Panagia= Virgin Mary, mesos= middle, sporos= seed),  Panagia Archisporitissa (archisporitissa = the sowing begins) Panagia Aposporitissa (= the sowing is over) or Polysporitissa (many seeds) because of the offering of legumes and grains  of the latest harvest. They are boiled together and brought to the church in order to be blessed by the priest. Then they are eaten by those attending the liturgy, under wishes for a rich crop. It is said that the grains grow faster if they are sown until the 21th of November, thus,  there is a rain litany during the festival, if the rains has not started. 

Please click here to read about the rituals of magical rain- making in modern and ancient Greece. Pay special attention to the ”Celebration of the Presentation of the Panagia (the Virgin Mary) on 21 November in relation to the ancient festivals of Demeter”, p. 205-208. 
And click here for more feasts connected with polysporia. 

Για ελληνικά, ΕΔΩ!!