Cured lean pork – a Byzantine tradition.

In his lettter to Alexios Pantechnes, Ioannis Tzetzes,  a 12th century Byzantine scholar, thanks him for his gifts which were spices and a living partridge, adding that he preferred slaughtered animals to alive ones, because he could not suffer seeing blood from slaughterd animals. But, if Alexios would like to send him meat he should send meat prepared by cooks or preserved or fresh meat drained out of blood.

Generally the consumption of fresh meat on a large scale was a priviledge enjoyed by the wealthy Byzantines. For poor people like Tzetzes fresh meat was a luxury. Thus, he relied mainly on eggs, dairy products, legumes, cheap part of meat and taricha (processed fish and meat) for protein.

Pork appears to have been the most popular source for preserved meat.

Since pork produces meat and more pork, and in an extremely crowded city like Constantinople pigs were raised even in houses, preservation was the only effective solution to protect meat for an extended period and store food to one side….

….if people didn’t want to sell the living piglets.

In another letter, Ioannis Tzetzes describes his housing conditions. He lived on the second floor of an apartment in Constantinople while on the third a priest lived together with his children and piglets.  Tzetzes couldn’t do anything against the endless suffering of the flood of urinating children and piglets. Obviously, the priest not only raised and sold pigs but he cured their meat too.

How was meat preserved in Byzantine times? Salting was the most common technique. Salt was also used in conjunction with sun–drying and, less frequently, with smoking.


Et voila!

This is apaki, salted and -optionally- smoked  lean pork, which is  very popular in Crete until nowadays. The 12th century Ptochoprodromos’s satire provides a testimony on it. The poet had found his father cooking a piece of slightly salted apaki which was well covered with fat.

I  salted my apaki and 30 days later  I  smoked it at 100 C for 10 hours,  using olive wood together with oregano, marjoram, thyme and sage for smoke. The meat shrinked.  Excellent stuff though.



This piece has been cured in salt and vinegar mixture for 48 hours (a popular technique in Crete). Sage and thyme added their flavor to the meat. Then I patted dry the meat and I smoked it  with apricot wood.  Marvelous taste!!



This one has been left in wine vinegar for 3 days.
I am going to cover it with a thick layer of salt and black pepper. No smoke. And yes, I am curious about its taste.

You can add apaki to omelets, legumes, pulses, vegetables, salads, or  just cook it for 6-7 minutes in orange juice and you’ll have a delicous meze for raki and  a great companion to pasta and rice.





Greek  Easter means lamb  but  the least physically attractive part of the animal, the head,  is what is treated as unparalleled delicacy.
The tradition of serving lamb head  at feasts and special occasions is still a popular custom, particularly among islanders, though it often inspires disgust to several of the foreign guests.


Popular items derive from it: jaws, tongue, cheeks, brain, eyeballs… 


The  eyeballs once were offered to guests as an act of hospitality, and to children as a magical act within the framework of analogic magic,  intending to maintain good vision.

CHRISTMAS #2. Pig killing & animal sacrifice


Large numbers of pig carcasses are hanging on hooks in butcher shops. Christmas day is near….
Because the pig is the traditional meat for the most regions in Greece. And the days before and after Christmas is the peak of the pig killing season which begins  around the feast of St Demetrius (26 October).
Is there a connection between pig slaughtering and ancient animal sacriface?

It is known that ancient Greeks sacrificed pigs to Demeter, greek godess of agriculture and fertility, to her daughter Persephone and the chthonic dieties. Why? Partly because of the special powers attributed to pigs on account of their association with fertility and abundance of flesh and blood. Partly because of their association with dirt; since evil spirits were often equated with dirt, pigs’ death became equated with evil spirits’ death. For the same reasons pigs symbolized the ancient Greek vegetation daemon with the ambivalent powers to give fertility and destruction. Moreover, these animals were particularly important in rituals practiced by and for women (such as Demeter’s festivals). Why? Women were linked to fertility, however like pigs, evil spirits and the dead, they were considered ‘dirty’ when not ritually purified.

But in the year 392 A.D., the Olympic Pantheon was officially pronounced dead by Theodosios the Great, who made Christianity the state religion of the Byzantine Empire. The truth is that the 12 ancient Gods had already declined, despite the fact that Christianity had absorbed many strands of ancient religion and philosophy. Did the animal sacrifices of the pagan Graeco-Roman world decline, as well?
Like a large part of the ancient Greek worshipping system which had been transformed and survived within Christianity – f.i. the hero and heroine cult, the honor paid to the dead etc.- conceptions, faiths, rituals and the strong tradition of animal sacrifice did transform too. Despite the criticism of the Fathers of the Curch, the decisions of Ecumenical and local Synods and the condemnations, animal sacrifice was much common among laymen throughout the Byzantine and post-Byzantine world. Why? Because on the one hand the Church did try to separate its cultic code from this kind of sacrifice but on the other hand it did not reject certain cults and rituals that had derived from the pagan religion. Why? Demetrios Constantelos (Christian Hellenism) has observed that ‘There were at least two distinct cultures during both the ancient and mediæval periods of Greek history: one peasant and one urban and elite. Mediæval peasant culture had more in common with ancient peasant culture than with the contemporary Christian culture of the educated urban elite, since it could more readily accommodate the lower forms of religious beliefs and practices.  So, in its attemp to spread the Christian faith, the Church did not systematically reject customs and beliefs that existed before and outside Christianity.
Until the 1960s, pig slaughtering was an important social occasion and a necessity,
for it meant full and plenty for all. Today pig killing is restricted in certain Aegean islands and mountain areas. However, killing and butchering are always done by the men who first make the sign of cross on the pig’s head, but it is always the women who make sausages, cure and smoke bones, meat, fat, cook, etc.

Some of the blood is poured on the fields or on the animals to ensure fertility and prosper through sympathetic magic.


 This place has stolen my heart.


Karanou is the village where my father was born and lived until his twelfth birthday, and where my sister and I spent a part of our childhood’s and teenagehood’s summers….

When we were free spirits playing in the olive groves…..

 finding paths in the oak forest and sharing secrets with our friends.


In this land nature amalgamates with the dream and memories and makes the village the sort of place that a child remembers for the rest of its life.


Moreover this magic land is highly fertile: olive groves, chestnut trees, fruit trees, grapevines, wild herbs, wild greens, vegetables, legumes grow in great abundance. In past wheat and barley were cultivated as well. Thus wild green, vegetables, legumes, cereals, olive oil, snails, black and semi- black bread, rusks, goat milk and goat cheese and lots of fruits had been the central part of the daily diet of the inhabitants until the early 1990s. A little fish (often dried), meat on days of religious celebration, weddings and baptisms as well as on every Sunday, one or two glasses of wine with the food, were also included.

Unfortunately, this diet has been changed in the two last decades. Younger people eat frequently and in large amounts animal base products, they seem to have replace the moderate use of wine with lots of tsikoudia and beer and they get less and less exercice. The change has already affected their general state of health. Overweight, heart attacks, cancers are not uncommon among them, while the older people live up 100 years.

The photo here is of my grandparents’s house.


Four are the characteristics of it: its age (it was built in 1876), its position (it sits on the top of a rocky hill and yes, the view is amazing), its ovens and the wine cellar.
Wine production for home consumption is a traditional activity in this area. This is the reason why wine cellars are a must-have for the houses. The wine is stored and aged in wooden barrels.


Directly fired wood –ovens (made with bricks or clay) are very common in the mountainous and semi-mountainous villages of Chania. However, the house has one of the largest in the area: its diameter is about 2,10 m. The entrance is above a double fire – place which is used as a source of heat, for roasting or for cooking in special occasions.


Both cooking fires are used simultaneously for the most ambitious of meals.

The second wood –oven is under the exterior ladder and has been built poorly, just in one day.


Its baking capacity is for one 40 cm baking pan. Its construction is simple: flat bricks were used for the floor and an igloo -shaped basket (gr. kofini) was covered with 3 different mixtures of clay (a:clay, lime and straws, b: broken bricks and clay, c: mixed clay with lime). Three- four days later, a large fire was built in the oven to dry it and burn the basket. After that, it was ready to cook for the first time. None-the-less, it lasts a good 30 years.

The third oven is an electric one.


It cooks fast and is also necessary when the weather is windy and there is danger of fire. I think it’s an italian patent. It allows for some pleasures like small pies, stuffed vegetables, baked poultry or meatballs on a bed of sliced potatoes and zucchinis.
For the meatballs I used 800 gr minced meat (200 gr lamb, 300 gr pork, 300 gr beef), 250 gr stale bread, soaked in water and perfectly squeezed, 1 large onion finely chopped, ½ cup chopped tomato, 1 tbs red vinegar, salt and pepper.
The nature really offers a wide array of perfect options for flavoring: thymbre, thyme, oregano, fennel.
I chose to add leaves and flowers of fresh thyme.



 I dipped one of my hands in red wine while shaping the meatballs.



The aroma was fantastic!


And this is my shelter next to the front yard, made from the branches of two tall and strong turpentine trees (Pistacia Terebinthus). Under these trees I played many of my childhood’s games.


Their shade is perfect for morning coffee, writing and reading or spending relaxed time with family and friends.
By the way, the nuts of turpentines are almost ready for harvest.


If they are roasted, they can be used in village bread.

Wild blackberies are almost ripen…


 oregano is almost dried…


 but we patiently wait to have walnuts,




 and quinces….


 in late September.


  • With the autumn still in, quinces are in eating season….   And yes, I love quinces. Despite their declining in favour in modern times, I love their fine taste, the way they go into both savory and sweet dishes. Baked, cooked or poached they reveal a devine aroma and take a beautiful deep pink color.
  • The high acidity of quinces (gr. pl. kydonia ) counteract the greasiness of the foods, so they are ideal for fatty meats. KIDONATO, a dish that involves quinces and pork, lamb or veal was common in past. It was prepared mostly by the Greeks who lived in Constantinople, it could be found all over Greece though.This particular combination of meat and fruit appears to be derived from the Persian cuisine via Ottomans. In Persia the marriage of sour fruits, such as quince, and meats is found in many traditional dishes. Also, Persians stuffed the peeled and cored quinces with meat and transformed them into dolma. It seems that the Ottomans adopted these recipes in the 15th century. The following recipe of stuffed quinces is wonderful as a first dish. It  maps a little piece of personal history too.


In the year 1890, my grandfather left his family behind in Ottoman occupied Crete in order to study at the University of Athens. Having 2 older brothers already studing, 6 younger brothers and sisters in Crete, but not having a rich father, he soon started looking for a job. And indeed, he found the perfect job for a student. He was employed as a dog walker by the dioikitis, the chief officer of the National Bank of Greece.

Living in the house, he saw that the kitchen was the perfect place for night reading, after the cook and the servants were not rushing around to prepare meals and the sound of clattering pots and dishes had been disappeared. Besides, the cook was very fond of the boy and soon wrapped him up in the blanket of care. My grandfather could count on him to have coffe and cookies or a meze or fruits on the table, while was reading.

The daily diet of dioikitis and his family was based on traditional Greek food but the elegant banquets were based on French cuisine according to the upper class’s food fashion.  However, both categories were blended with some Eastern elements. Because the cook was French in culinary training but Constantinopolitan in origin and the dioikitis enjoyed his cooking. What a surprise for the guests to find savory stuffed quinces (kidonia gemista), a fruit dolma, on the menus of the elaborated banquets given by dioikitis!

My grandfather, for his part, encountered the novelty at the home of dioikitis and could not resist to cook it some years later, when he returned to Crete. You see, the cook had patience to teach and my grandfather was getting joy from cooking. And he did not only become brilliant with food but he also teached his children, so they all grew up in an atmosphere in which cooking is a pleasure for both males and females.





6 large quinces similar in size

400 gr ground meat (lamb or beef, or both of them)

1 tbsp rice

1 cup grape juice

100 gr. almonds, chopped and blanched

1 ½ tbsp raisins

4 tbsp butter

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground cloves

salt & pepper

Wash the quinces under cold running water to rub off any fuzz and peel them. Cut off the tops and hollow out, leaving 4 cm pulp on all sides. Save tops and set the quinces aside. Brown the ground meat in 2 tbsp butter. Add 2/3 cup grape juice, rice, salt, pepper, cloves, cinnamon. Mix thoroughly. Cook until the liquid is absorbed. Let the stuffing cool and fill the fruits with it. Replace the tops and place in greased baking dish. Pour 2 tbsp melted butter over the quinces. Combine 2/3 cup water with the remaining grape juice and pour into the baking dish. Cover and place in preheated oven ( 190°C, 50-60 min.) Check to see if fruits are done. Serve them, while still warm.

UPDATE: November 16, 2008.

Here are two great quince recipes posted by two fellow bloggers:

A) Beef stew with quince (Kydonato kreas), by Food Junkie

B)Poached quince with manouri filling, by Kalofagas.

Blood in Food. Recipes

Vinegared blood. (Xidato aima. Chania of Crete)

fresh blood from the pig’s neck

200 gr meat from the pig’s neck, 1 cm diced

1 onion finely chopped

3 tbs olive oil

 3/4 cup vinegar

ground salt ground black pepper

Strain the blood and add salt in order to prevent coagulation. Sautè the onion and meat, briefly in olive oil. Add some water and cook. When they are almost done add the blood, vinegar, salt and pepper and cook until xidato will be thick but pourable.

Aimaties.Based on a recipe from «Choirosfagia in Syros» by Filena Venardou, p. 61. (Βενάρδου Φιλένα, Τα Χοιροσφάγια της Σύρου, Αθήνα 2001).

60 cm cleaned and washed pig’s large intestine

1 tbsp pig fat

2 spring onions, finely chopped

1 tbsp olive oil

½ cup raisins ground pepper

4 allspice bean

½ tsp dried mint

olive oil for frying

Mix the fat with the olive oil, heat the mixture and sautè the spring onions until transparent. Add the blood, spices, mint, and raisins. Stir the mixture well and over low heat, to be thick. Cool to room temperature before stuffing it to intestine. Do not overstuff the sausage. Transfer the sausages in a jar and cover them with warm pig’s fat, until ready to use. Aimaties are served sautè in olive oil and cut in slices.

Blood in food

‘Do not taste dead flesh, nor touch blood’ S.Clementis I Rom.Opera dubia, PG, II, v. 220,175-6 ΙV.

Over the last 40 years, the Western European Christmas culture spread more and more in Greece. One result of this spread is the elimination of local customs, such as the slaughtering of the pig and the use of its blood in various dishes. In the past each family in the villages used to raise a pig which would be slaughtered on November or December, quite often on the last week before Cristmas and in some regions even on Christmas Eve. Some meat was cooked by the villagers during the day of slaugthering, but the most of the pork’s flesh was salted, smoked, pickled in vinegar, or cooked and stored in pig’s fat or in olive oil or it was used in a variety of sausages. Salted bones, lard, fat, jellies which were made with the pork’s head and the feet, etc., were among the most precious winter supplies of a peasant kitchen.One of the worth noticed home preparations are those made with the pig’s blood. The first reference to food made with blood comes from Homer’s Odyssey (Book 18). It is a stomach filled with blood and fat and roasted over a fire. During the ancient Laconian state’s meals people and army ate the Black Broth, a mixture of blood, vinegar and cereal. At ancient classical years the aimatitis hordi – an intestine or caul filled with blood, fat and crashed grains- was very popular. The oldest detailed recipe for a blood sausage, which is found in a compilation of 1th century AD attributed to Roman Apicius, is a rich recipe with no cereal, but chopped hard-boiled egg yolks, pine kernels, onions and leeks. However, the common blood sausages of the time were probably made with cereal, blood and fat.In Byzantium, the ancient aimatitis hordi was called aimatias and had remained so popular that survived up to our days as omathia. Currants and nuts enriched its flavor.

Today the use of blood in the food remains slightly outside the culinary mainstream. Perhaps because the animal blood presupposes direct contact with the animal. However many dishes of medieval or older origin are still found across Greece. Omathies, mathies or aimatίes, boumbari, a saucage of similar philosophy, the 17th century’s Cretan bouldouna or bouldouni, which is an adaption of the Venetian boldon, are preparations based on pig’s blood. Today the replacement of blood with lung and spleen is quite common. The bourdouni, which was also brought by Venetians in Corfu, is made with calf’s blood and pig’s fat. Although the origin of English black pudding, French boudin noir and Venetian boldon might be traced in the ancient Greek blood saucages through Roman cuisine, it is quite fascinating that this Venetian blood sausage returned to the old motherland. Since pig is the main traditional Christmas dish for the most Greek regions, omathies are eaten after the liturgy of Christmas morning, and they are the first feast food after the 40 days fast.

Another interesting dish is found under the name aima, which means blood, or xidato, a word that refers to food pickled or boiled in vinegar. Both names are references to the key ingredients, blood and vinegar. Aima or xidato is the first dish served to the slaughterer and to the neighbours who come to help with the killing.

The reason of dishes based on blood is clear enough. According to the economical rules of rural societies almost everything is eaten. When a pig is killed a large amount of blood becomes available. Blood has a very short life, so people had to find ways to preserve it. Besides, one of the most serious characteristics of eating blood-foods is the ancient idea of totemic Communion. Greeks of very past times used to sacrifice a bull to Dionysus Zagrea- one of the precocious forms of god Dionysus. They believed that eating his raw fleshes would drink the blood of god and take his force. Much later, the Christianism substituted the blood with the wine, and used it as symbol of blood of Christ. Simultaneously, following the Judaic tradition, the Christians prohibited the consumption of animal’s blood because the immortal soul lives in it. The punishment for such signs, according to the 67th rule of the Synod of Troulos, was the aphorism and the lost of eternity. The Byzantine State, connected with the Christian church, imposed severe punishments to those sold or ate blood foods. The 58th Neara, one of the laws of the emperor Leon the Wise, imposed humiliating hair cut, confiscation of property and exile to those who broke the prohibition. However, the tradition was powerful and the Christians did not stop using animal’s blood in certain foods, just as the pagans did.


  • The name of the first common Greek quince variety is kydonion melon, which means the apple from Kydonia. Kydonia was the principal Minoan city in the west of Crete and quince may have been indigenous to it.  The kydonion melon is mentioned in Greek poetry of 6th century BC. Strouthion melon, the second very known variety, appeared in the 4th century.
  • The Greeks dedicated the quince to Aphrodite. The godess was often represented with the golden apple of Esperides in her right hand, the fruit with which she was awarded by Paris. This legendary fuit, was in fact a quince. So, it is not accidental that the quince was regarded as symbol of Love and Fertility. Plutarch mentions the ancient wedding custom of a quince eating by the bride and the bridegroom, a custom that intended to insure fertility. (Plutarch’s Lives, Solon 20)
  • Ancient Greeks estimated the medicinal values not only of the fruit but also of its extract. In Hellenistic period, Ikesios Smyrnaios mentioned the digestive virtues of the quince extract. He also proposed that it as a perfect companion to wine and a good medicine for lethargic fever (‘About material’). The island of Cos produced a famous quince extract.
  • In past, quince was on the top of the list of fruits, because of its high natural pectin content. Byzantines  regardered it as a digestible fruit and kept on making a wine from quinces that was already mentioned in texts of 1st AD. The kydonaton, a thick quince jelly, was the serious Byzantine contribution to the quince’s subject. The name (and the preparation) of this popular preserve was probably the ancestor of French cotignac or condoignac, a high appreciated jelly of 16th and 17th century. This delicacy was considered as a gift for kings, since it was made with honey of fine quality, good wine and spices.
  • Until the end of 1960s, a meal or a visit ended with a spoon- sweet called peltes*. Although it had its origin in Byzantine kydonaton, the name  bears witness to the long Ottoman domination of Greece.  It was served in small silver bowls, surrounded by glasses of water and the guests after eating it with a spoon, used to take a sip of water and place the spoon in the glass.
  • The quince jelly is not very popular today; however, in autumn the traditional Greek households prepare grated quince spoon sweet which is served by its own or on the top of strained yogourt.
  • Quinces stuffed with nuts or rice pudding, baked in oven, are mentioned in the personal cooknotes and women’s magazines of the first decade of 20th century.
  • Burying quinces in hot ashes for most of the day and serving them hot, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, was a rather common practice in the villages of Western Crete.
  • The high acidity of the quince counteracts the greasiness of the foods, so it is a balanced companion to fat meats. Until nowadays, Zakynthians (Ionic islands), serve the Christmas turkey or meat with mostarda dolce, a sweet mustard of medieval origin, which is made with quinces boiled in sweet wine or must.
  • Lamb, pork and fat castrated cocks are cooked or baked with quinces in several traditional recipes, although this combination is not quite in fashion today.
  • The recipes of stuffed quinces begun to appear in the big cities of Greece during the last decades of 19th century. Quinces stuffed with minced meat and/or mushrooms are mentioned in the women magazines of 1890. Some years later, pine nuts were added to the minced meat’s stuffing, impling the impact of the eating habits of Greeks who came to mainland from Asia minor in 1922, after the Greek defeat by the Turks. In fact, the combination of sour fruits, such as quinces, is traced back to ancient Iran.
  • It is very interesting that towards the close of the first decade of 20th century, smashed quinces appeared in elaborated recipes of sweet omelletes  or pastitichios with layers of mashed quinces and pieces of ham or breasts of birds.

Stuffed quinces (1919, Anna’s Kandilieri cook-notes) ‘Take whole quinces. Peel them well and cut the upper part. Dig with a small knife and fill with well pounded almonds, 1 beaten egg and some honey. Dissolve a cup of honey into water, pour it over the quinces and send them to the oven.”

*Ottoman word of Iranian origin.