Easter preparations begin on Holy Thursday when the traditional eggs are dyed red and sweet Easter bread may be baked.
Lampropsomo (=bright bread) or lamprokouloura (=bright circular bread) is rich in eggs and butter (foods forbidden during Lent) and is often decorated on top with spring flowers, leaves, crosses and snakes made of dough. A red egg, symbol or rebirth, renewal and blood of Christ is usually -but not always- part of the decoration. Avgokouloura (circular bread with an egg), avkoula (large egg), kokona (lady), koutsouna (doll),
Jesus’ foot ,
breads made into snail or snake shapes,
the names of Easter breads vary according to the region and their shape. Many food words in modern Greek can be traced to other languages. Turkish is frequently a source because of the 400 years of Ottoman domination. Thus tsoureki (Turk. çörek), another well known Easter bread, comes by this route.
It has the flavours of mastic or mahlep or both, depending on the regional preferences. Once made only at Easter, tsoureki is now mass -produced and found everywhere in the country, all year long.
A VERY EASY TSOUREKI RECIPE
2 k. flour
200 gr yeast
240 gr lightly warm water
550 gr sugar (or less)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp mahlep, toasted and ground
1 tsp mastic powder
10 eggs lightly beaten + 1 egg
140 gr milk
100 gr orange juice
500 gr butter or 250 gr butter + 250 gr extra virgin olive oil
1 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 20 minutes. Add the ingredients in the order they are listed and on a floured surface or in a mixer, knead the dough for 2-3 minutes. Form ropes, each about 25 cm long and twist gently. Braid sets of 3 ropes and place them on greased baking sheets or baking pans and allow to doubled. Brush with beaten egg. Place the boiled, dyed eggs. Bake tsourekia in preheated oven (175 C) for 30 minutes or until golden brown. ________________________________________________________________________________ On holy Saturday, Easter breads and red eggs are placed in baskets and then they are taken to church to be blessed. Some of them will be given as gift to godparents from children. In earlier times the newly married women also offered Easter bread to their parents in law. _____________________________________________________________________________ Since Easter Monday is associated with funerary customs, it is common for people to visit the cemeteries and place red eggs, Easter breads and cookies on the graves. The departed can thus share in family joys. ______________________________________________________________________________
A wild, Dionysiac festival of fertility, found under the misleading name bourani, marks the beginning of Lent in Tyrnavos. Bourani is a thick, oil-less, spinach-based soup served on Clean Monday. During the cooking of the soup the bourani- people tease each other with phallic symbols, while huge phalluses are taken in a procession through the town and male dancers rub against ground with different parts of their bodies singing “dirty” satirical songs, such as the “How do the Devil’s monks grind the pepper?”. Pepper is a frequent metaphor for sex in the Greek folk poetry.
Passers – by are grabbed and rocked over the pots of the boiling bourani. They must give the soup a stir, drink tsipouro and kiss the model phalluses before they are let go. Anyone who kiss the phallus is rewarded with ash on the face. The ash indicates – you’ve been done, you are free to go. Until World War II, only men participated in the festivities and many of them masqueraded as women. Today, even children take part in bourani.
Of course, Clean Monday is the only time such behavior is permitted.
It is really interesting that a rich aubergine and lamb dish, the Arabic buraniya, was transformed by the Ottomans into various vegetable- meat dishes and vegetarian stews. Quite often vegetable boranis were cooked together with rice or bulgur and then topped with yoghurt. The oil – less bourani of Tyrnavos, has its roots in those vegetable dishes.
1/2 kg spinach
250 gr. nettles
250 gr. wild sorrel
2 cups of water
optionally 1/2 cup of olive oil
3 tbs of flour
11/2 -2 tbs vinegar
salt and pepper
Add washed, chopped greens to a pot and cook about five minutes, stirring frequently so they don’t stick to the bottom. Add 2 cups of water, salt, pepper, vinegar (and olive oil). Bring to a boil and then simmer over low heat for 1 1/2 – 2 hours.
Add flour to 5 tbs of warm water and stir well until flour is completely dissolved. Add the mixture to the greens slowly, stirring continuously. Simmer for 5 minutes and serve.
Τhough I was raised in a non religious middle class family, the consumption of special Lenten foods didn’t differ from other middle class housholds, apart from the fact that it had to do with folk rituals rather than religion.
When I was a child, crab meat, black caviar, botargo, taramas, taramosalata, halva, date palms and coconuts were the sine quibus non of the Cretan urban Lenten diet. I remember my father putting caviar on a thin slice of toasted bread, asking me to hold the bite into my mouth for a moment and feel the fresh sea fragrance and the funny texture.
That caviar was coming from Evros, a river flowing into the Thracian sea (N. W. Greece), which sustained a small fishery and caviar canning operation of sturgeon (Acipenser sturio L.). Overfishing, reduction and pollution of Evros’ waters caused devastation to sturgeon populations and the collapse of caviar industry, in 1975. One year before the collapse of fishery, the military dictatorship had fallen in Greece, so, pretty soon the imports of Russian caviar began. However, it was unaffordable delicacy for most Greeks. Hence the consumption of the precious black eggs was limited to only the most special occasions. Of course, we still eat halva, date palms, coconuts, tarama and botargo ( though a costly delicacy too).
Being luxury or not, fish roe is regarded as the characteristic food of Lent. This paradox of fasting from fish but not from fish eggs is not quite similar to the paradox of the prohibition of wine and olive oil (though grapes and olives can be eaten). Wine and olive oil are not allowed during fasting because they are processed foods and they afford pleasure -moreover, you can drunk on wine- but why is the consumption of taramas, caviar and botargo not forbidden? Aren’t they processed fish eggs, don’t they afford pleasure? In the late 18th century, the scholars of Greek Enlightenment–an intellectual movement that combined Western liberal thought with ancient Greek spirit- emphasized that this form of fasting had no logic. But the tradition was stronger. During Ottoman occupation, these paradoxes were encouraged by the Orthodox Christians who lived among Jews, Muslims and Catholics. Their traditional fasting practices were linked not only to religious beliefs but also to ethnic behaviors. In other words, they were an affirmation of cultural identity.
Black caviar is considered the best quality of fish roe, avgotaraho (botargo)- the salted, dried and wrapped in wax, ovary of female cephalus- is an expensive delicacy, and taramas- the salted and aged roe of cod or carp- is the poorest quality. All of them are greatly appreciated.
The appreciation for fish eggs is traced back to antiquity. However, Byzantines became familiar with the word caviar no earlier than 9th century. As for botargo, the physician Symeon Seth mentioned it in the 11th century (Properties of Foods, p. 125)*; it “should be avoided totally”, he noted. Of course, his contemporaries rejected his advice.
The consumption of caviar, botargo, taramas- foods which are not “real” foods but delicacies- was social indicator in Byzantine society. Taramas was consumed by the poor, while black caviar was imported for the aristocrats, the wealthy and the notables. Monks of highest degree or of noble origin were also enthusiastic eaters of caviar and botargo. In 11 and 12 th centuries, the monks of higher status were fasting during Lent on oysters, clams, crabs, squids, lobsters, botargo, and black caviar imported from Tanais (Don) on the sea of Azov (Black sea) or from Caspian Sea.
Although this trend in Greek fasting diet continued in Ottoman times, in the late 18th century black caviar became affordable to common people. Ioannis Varvakis**- a Greek whose business issues were related with systematic production, conservation, standardization and trade of caviar- became the first major international black caviar leader. “He exported so much caviar to Greece in the late 1780s that he had to employ thousands workers.” (Saffron, Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy, p. a:64, 2001) As Thomas Smart Hughes pointed out, in Ioannina (N.E. Greece) in 1830 ” Botargo, which is the roe of the red or grey mullet, and caviar, which is that of the sturgeon, imported from the Black Sea, is much relished, especially during the season of religious fasts.” (Travels in Greece and Albania, vol. II, p. 24, 1830). And Christopher Wordsworth, describing the commodities with which the Athenian market was supplied in 1832, mentions barrels of black caviar, among other things. (Athens and Attica, Journal of a Residence there, by Cristopher Wordsworth, 1834, 2004).
The sources also mention imports of red caviar from Constantinople, the Black Sea and the coasts of Asia Minor. The taramas merchandised in the Aegean islands was mainly made from eggs of cheap fish.
But four years before the World War I, the caviar consumption was reduced. Most of the famous Russian caviar was consumed locally and the exported eggs became very expensive: “The long fasts enjoined by the Orthodox Church lead to a very large consumption of salt fish and caviar — not the Astrakhan caviar, which is as costly as in England — but red caviar, which is imported in tubs. This is pounded with garlic and lemon juice into what is called tarama salata and is eaten with oil. It is a distinctively Greek dish”. (Ferriman, Z. Duckett, Home life in Hellas, Greece and the Greeks p.181, 1910)
Τhe Russian black caviar had become again a perishable delicacy, a status symbol.
“Crush an onion (in a mortar), add black caviar, one boiled cooled and puréed potato, bread soaked in water and squeezed dry; stir constantly till the mixture becomes thick, add some olive oil and vinegar while stirring , add some lemon and olive oil, decorate with parsley and serve.” (Alexiades B., Megali oikogeneiaki mageiriki & zaharoplastiki, 2nd ed. 1905)
In a food processor put all ingredients except potatoes, olive oil and lemon juice, and blend. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the potato puree and half of lemon juice. Stirring constantly add the olive oil slowly. Taste when the oil has been absorbed and add more lemon juice if you like.
The roe of lobster, sea urchin, octopus, salmon, sardine, mackerel, herring, sea bream and several other fish is considered a delicacy. The roe can be eaten fried, baked or roasted over charcoal embers. If the roe is small, it can be cooked inside the whole fish.
This roe has been cooked inside the grilled mackerel. It was served sprinkled with pepper and drizzled with lemon and extra virgin olive oil. If you prefer a more robust taste substitute the extra virgin olive oil for slightly bitter green olive oil.
As a puff of wind, the psyche leaves the body at the moment of death.
Marble grave stele of a little girl, ca. 450–440 B.C (commons.wikimedia.org/)
Then, either enjoying the easy life in the Elysian Fields or wandering as weeping shadow among the pale asphodels or ascending to “a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of repose” * the psyche needs honors. In an unbroken continuity from ancient Greek times through the Byzantine era to the present, offerings of food hold an important place among the dead honors.
Funerary banquet scene, IVth cent. BC
(Nat. Mus. Istanbul, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki)
On the days that departed souls return to the upper world, they cannot find peace if not treated graciously. Because there is a popular belief that souls return to earth. They freely roamed the ancient Athens on the third day, called Chytroi (Pots), of the Anthesteria, a festival in honour of god Dionysus. They wander at the places they had loved during their lifetime and they sit in the trees watching the living, according to Greek folkore. On Psychosavvata (Saturdays of the souls), that is the two Saturdays before the Great Lent and the first Saturday after it, the dead are the breath of wind and the shadows at the Carnival feast.
Though traditions vary from town to town, its a common place that souls cannot find peace if not treated graciously. Therefore, people have to act accordingly. Beautiful flowers and burning candles decorate the graves; bread and kollyva, a mixture of grains which echoes the ancient Greek pankarpia (all fruits) or panspermia (all seeds), are offered to the neighbours or brought to cemeteries. Cheese, cheese-pies, halvas etc. are included in small lunches at the grave sites (Crete) in remembrance of those who cannot be seen.
4 cups hulled wheat
2 cups ground blanched almonds
3/4 cup ground toasted hazelnuts
1 cup crushed toasted sesame seeds
2 cups toasted and powdered chickpeas
3/4 -1 cup pomegranate seeds
1 /2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cup currants
2 1/2 teasps ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground cloves
3 tsp finely chopped parsley
1 tsp salt
1 small bay leaf
Clean, wash and boil the wheat with the bay leaf and salt until it’s soft. Drain, place under cold water, drain again and let cool. Spread it on a clean towel and cover with another one to dry overnight. The next morning add cinnamon, ground cloves, parsley, 1/2 cup of powdered chickpeas, nuts, currants and pomegranate in the wheat. Mix very well. Place the mixture in a tray and cover it with sesame seeds and 1 1/2 cup powdered chickpeas. Press it smooth on the top. Shift sugar over kollyva and press smooth with a wax paper. Mix well before serving.
*Book for Commemoration of the Living and the Dead.
Don’t you just love the smell of first rain? It was raining all night and morning yesterday. Chania saw the first rain in four months! The scents of Rosemary, Sage, Lemon Verbena, Thyme, Mint and Lavender filled the air. Autumn has finally arrived.
In the mean time, the sun dried tomatoes and figs are ready for storing. The old tradition and art of preserving foods is still alive. On the other hand, the last fresh okras of summer will not be hung in the half shade to dry; they will be prepared for freezing.
They’ ll stay tender if you’ll follow this method: wash them after discarding stem edges and air dry before placing them in plastic bags in small quantities and freeze.
The seeds are well dried and are ready for storage until the next planting season.
Old Cretan varieties of cucumbers, watermelons, melons, zucchinis, pumpkins, amaranths, beans…. a precious gift that I received from a local farmer. They are saved from plants that have grown in his family garden for four generations. Farmers like him don’t only preserve a heritage, they also preserve genetic biodiversity.
Fish with okra
(Cretan Cooking by M. & N. Psilakis, p. 72-3, Karmanor ed. 2000)
1 kilo fish (preferably sea-bass, red snapper or saupe)
1 kilo okra
½ cup olive oil
½ kilo tomatoes
1 or 2 onions
½ cup lemon juice or vinegar
Clean the fish. Wash the okra, cut off the stems, and put them in a bowl doused with lemon juice or vinegar. Leave in the sun for 2-3 hours (this is so they won’t dissolve in the cooking).
Brown the onion in a pot and add the okra, the tomatoes, salt, pepper and 1-2 cups water and simmer till half cooked. Remove half the okra, place the fish on the okra in the pot and add the other half. Cook for another 20 minutes without stirring the food; only shake the pot from time to time to prevent the food from sticking.
(This dish can also be cooked in the oven).
Okra and tomatoes are a classic match in Crete. They are stewed together or when okra is fried chopped tomato is added too. Combining okra with fish is a characteristic of Cretan cuisine.
Here is what was served at a ‘before wedding’ party which was held in Karanou. The party was given by the groom’s family one week before the son got married. The wedding ceremony and the after wedding party (gr. glenti) were given at Athens.
The groom’s family is wealthy and the party was really crowdy, around 1000 people.
The food was the traditional for the weddings in the region of Chania.
When we arrived the ‘snacks’ were out: groundnuts, xerotigana (fragile fried pastry sweets coated with honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds);
semi-sweet bread and rusks;
graviera cheese and honey;
They symbolize the sweetness of marriage and wish the couple good luck and fertility.
To drink: raki, Coca cola, the local soft drinks: gazoza and lemonada, beer and red wine for the main course.
small pies stuffed with greens (kalitsounia), olive oils preserved in lemon juice, slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, fried lamb liver.
boiled goat, kid goat and lamb;
very hot pilafi (medium grain white rice cooked in animals’ broth) sprinkled with white pepper and served with homemade strained yogurt (rice also symbolizes fertility and prosperity);
tourta (pie stuffed with lamb and myzithra, the local fresh white cheese);
baked kid goat and potatoes;
tomato and cucumber salad;
and the roasted lamb heads were also so good!
Then fruits and ice cream.
Then dances. According to tradition the bride’s family danced first, followed by the family of the groom, then friends of the bride and friends of the groom. When these dances were over, men and women begun to come up to the stage to dance or joined in the chorus of a song. At weddings and celebrations Cretans often shoot in the air with their guns. This marriage was not the exception. Accidents from stray bullets have become so common that many musicians refuse to play in certain areas. The endemic gun- ownership and shooting is traditionally regarded as part of Cretan culture and pride and remains widespread on the island though it is an expensive and dangerous habit. Today Crete has the highest ratio of guns per head in the European Union.
One must sacrifice to the gods for three purposes: to give honor, to show gratitude, or because of one’s need of good things. (Theophrastus, On Piety, frag. 12, Potscher, 42-4). And in return, the ancient gods were pleased with the expressions of human gratitude (sacrifices, libations, offerings, dances etc.) to them.
This complex of ideas ‘ man asks, gods give, man gets and shows gratitude, gods are pleased’ is expressed in ancient greek with the term charis (χάρις). Charis means favor, a favor which is expected to be repaid. The idea of charis plays a particularly important role in Orhodox Christianity as well. That’s why the ‘oral’ statement becomes more prominent when there is an exchange between God or Saint and the offerer.
The photos are from St. Fanourios’ celebration (Kalamaki, Hania/Crete). As his name implies, Saint Fanourios reveals lost things, people, animals, even solutions to problems if one invokes his name (Fanourios < ancient greek verb Faino = reveal). The promised offering in return for Saint’s help is a sweet pie, a fanouropita. Sweet breads and cakes are important part of many Christian traditions and their origins are traced back in time. In ancient Greece they were a very common form of offering ; many different kinds of them are mentioned in ancient literature.
According to St. Fanourios’ custom, the pies are brought to the church (especially those dedicated to the Saint) where they are blessed by the priest.
After Mass, they are offered to the faithful.
Today, as in ancient times, these sweet offerings are not only objects which are given as gifts to the Saint but also unify the community, bringing it together for a solemn and also festive occasion.
(Not much is known about Saint’s life, except that his icon was discovered in Rhodes, around 1500 AD. The torture scenes on the icon shows Fanourios being stoned, in prison, being slashed, standing in front a Roman magistrate, tied to a frame, thrown to wild animals, crushed by a boulder, holding hot coals etc. According to one tradition that is not formally hold by the Church, the pies are also offered to grant rest to the soul of the saint’s immoral mother. St. Fanourios is commemorated on August 27th, the day his icon was found.)
Beat the olive oil with the sugar until creamy. Add the baking powder dissolved in the cognac and the baking soda dissolved in the orange juice. Add the raisins and the walnuts, the cinnamon, the clove and the zest, beating all the time.
Add the flour slowly, beating until you have a thick batter.
Pour the batter into an oiled baking pan and bake in a moderate oven for +- 50 minutes. (recipe: Smaragda Desipri, 1920 -2005)
During last years the Greek traditional cuisine and local culinary practices are in the focus of interest not only for tourism but also for food editors and writers. An intense interest for traditional food emerges also from the blogs of second-generation Greek immigrants. Since local and traditional food is linked to the heritage, culture and identity of a country, food helps to express who we are and which our roots are. However the question is, what does ‘traditional’ really mean?
Traditional food according to the European Parliament means that a food’s ingredients or composition or production or processing method show its transmission between generations. A food is called traditional if has been used “since before the Second World War”. (16-03-2006)
Despite this, traditional food can mean many different things for different people: it is a link to the local history and culture; it can be associated with respect for the environment, health benefits, better taste; it implies authenticity, purity or the desire for authenticity and purity, etc.
But, anyway, what does authentic cuisine mean? The local, seasonal food most people eat most days at home? Is seasonal food traditional and vice versa? Yes, it almost was, before the popularization of refrigerator. Is traditional food local and vice versa? Yes, it is when the cultural contacts, the trade and wealth do not exist. In past the cooking of remote villages was almost totally local and in some cases ultimate poor. But, at the present time how many of us eat only seasonal local foods? Actually we are addicted to non-seasonal because we are addicted to convenience. It is very convenient to eat anything at anytime of the year.
Is traditional local food authentic and pure? During Greek history there were plenty of people demanding authenticity and purity in cuisine, focusing their interest on the “ethical disruption of traditional food” that was caused by cultural contacts. In fact, authenticity and purity is an illusion. Even worse, the demand for authentic or inauthentic food can become a fence to keep people in their places.
The truth is that adaptation and change affect even the local cuisine. Local cuisine may be not as dynamic as its urban sister is, may be even conservative and without distant horizons but is not unaffected by changes. Tomato is a New World crop. It is one of the hallmarks of summer Cretan cuisine, though has been viewed as poisonous by previous generations. Well, the Cretan cuisine before the tomato was much different in taste and color than today’s Cretan summer cooking.
Does Greek traditional food is healthy? Yes if the consumption of greens, vegetables and fruits, the extensive use of olive oil and the moderate use of meat characterize it. But… now we are talking about the cuisine of Crete and islands, aren’t we? I mean that Greek cuisine is divided into geographic regions with people having different kinds of sources, different cultural and dietary traditions and even distinctive food tastes. If a man will follow the diet of a small Greek pastoral community from 50ies, he will eat lots of dairy products, butter, fat and meat. If he will not walk a lot and does not follow the dietary restrictions of Lenten as his 50ties fellow did, he will probably trigger off a heart attack.
Does tradition mean that a woman born in 1970 cooks just like her mother and grandmother and grand -grandmother? What do they represent, an unbroken line of foods and methods? Obviously, she has the availability to choose, to adapt, to interpret and combine, in ways that her mother could not even dream of them.
Is Greek urban cuisine traditional? Let’s see the case of moussaka, one of the best known specimens of Greek urban cooking. Moussaka is an eggplant and ground meat dish covered with a thick layer of bechamel sauce. It can be made with other vegetables besides eggplant, such as zucchini or potatoes or artichokes or a combination of them. A Lenten version is dated already in 1920; a dish also called moussaka, is made with snails instead of ground meat and originated in Eastern Crete. A version which is not made with bechamel sauce and its last layer is of hardtack or beaten eggs was named in the Greek cooking books of 1929-1960 as “moussaka imitation”. Food scholars believe that the word moussaka is of Arabic origin; the root saqq in Arabic means chop. Some scholars also believe that Arabs introduced moussaka in Greece, when they brought the eggplant. They propose that Maghmumaor al Muqatta’a, a dish from the Baghdad cookery book, that is a 13th century Arabic cookbook, could be the ancestor of moussaka.
Eggplant was introduced into Greece in 12th century but there is no mention of moussaka until the late 19th century. Moussaka is also found in Turkey. In 1862, Turabi Efendi published the first recipe of mussaka (Turkish Cookery Book). The Turkish dish is made with eggplants, or other vegetables, cut into small cubes and ground meat either lamb or beef. It seems likely that turkish musakka is quite related to the Arabic recipe.
But what about Greek moussaka? In 1920, when the Ottoman occupation was still fresh, Nikos Tselementes, a Greek chef of Siphnian origin who grew up in Constantinople and trained in France, had already devoted himself to “clear” Greek cuisine of Turkish flavors. Thus, he added a French sauce, bechamel, to moussaka, in order to “free” the dish from its Turkish “past”. Moussaka, a Europeanised dish of Arabic origin which introduced in Greece via Turkey, became one of the characteristic dishes of Greek urban cuisine; it was needed many ingredients and plenty of time that a woman from an agro-pastoral community could not waste on a food.
The history of mussaka implies that urban cuisine is more responding to new ingredients, cultural and religious influences, trade and fashion. It is flexible. Urban cuisine can create tradition however this tradition is receptive to changes, influences and interpretations.
Ultimately I believe that “traditional” Greek cuisine is an evolving hybrid. It has the hallmarks of travels, trade, agricultural development, immigrations, inventions, cultural contacts, religion, politics, memories, history; past and present have always coexisted, the future is out there. What a solemn feeling if we would see the few stones where our daily cooking could stood without them! After all, culinary heritage combines conservation and innovation. And even if lifestyle changes, it can be an important source for re-creation of gastronomic knowledge and practices.
And here is the likely source of moussaka!
“Cut fat meat small. Slice the tail thin and chop up small. Take onions and eggplant, peel, half-boil, and also cut up small: these may, however, be peeled and cut up into the meat- pot, and not be boiled separately. Make a layer of the tail at the bottom of the pan, then put on top of it a layer of meat: drop in fine-ground seasonings, dry coriander, cumin, caraway, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. On top of the meat put a layer of eggplant and onion: repeat, until only about four or five fingers’ space remain in the pot. Sprinkle over each layer the ground seasonings as required. Mix best vinegar with a little water and a trifle of saffron, and add to the pan so as to lie to a depth of two or three fingers on top of the meat and other ingredients. Leave to settle over the fire: then remove.”