Cooks and their Recipes
Traditional Lemian FoodsWheat has always been an important crop in Lemnos, the tiered hillsides and many ruined windmills testify to this industry. Lemnos became an important granary for the Athens and in later times much wheat was sent from the island to Constantinople. Lemnos has also long produced thyme honey, plus an ewe’s milk cheese, known in Greece as kalathaki, meaning ‘small basket’ as it is formed in a small wicker basket. There is also the wine that Homer referred to when he wrote about Agamemnon reprimanding his soldiers for their laziness and wine drinking, ‘Once while in Lemnos…drinking wine in overflowing glasses.’
While in Lemnos, we make a special effort to buy local cheeses, wine and honey, all foods we can’t easily buy back in Melbourne. I could wax lyrical about the meli, the thyme honey that comes from the beehives up on the hills near the island villages. This is one of the greatest pleasures for Takis and me that we are able to prepare and sample some of the same meals that Lemnians have enjoyed for generations.
The wine produced in Lemnos is now well known throughout Greece and is even sold overseas. It was well known to the ancients. Homer refers to Lemnian wine twice in the Iliad. The first time is when King Agamemnon chastises his men: ‘What has happened to your boasting that we were the best,/ As you used to say once while in Lemnos – big empty words – told/ with abundance of beef from horn bearing oxen on the table in front of you/ and while drinking sweet wine in overflowing glasses...’
The next time the poem also mentions Queen Hypsipyle and Jason: ‘And they had wine from Lemnos carried by/ numerous ships and sent by Evino,/ King Jason’s son born to him by Queen Hypsipyle.’
Today a white wine is made from Moscato Alexandrias, a variety of grape brought back by Greeks from Alexandria. This is one example of how the Alexandrian Diaspora benefited the island. (However, another plant imported from Egypt, cotton, was a disaster.) The white wine produced on the island, as mention earlier, is interestingly named after the ‘holy earth’, Lemian Yea. There’s also a red wine called Kalambaki. The more famous Greek liquor, ouzo, is made out of the skins of the grapes after the wine is taken and is flavoured with aniseed. Many local farmers make their own wine and ouzo.
Nearly every day Takis drove down to the bakery to buy us a couple of loaves from the bakery, which we ate while still warm for breakfast. We loved having fresh bread some days, but what was left we sliced and froze to be used the next day.
In the past the Lemnian women baked once a week in the traditional wood-fired ovens. As Ourania wrote, ‘By tradition, they made their own live yeast from the holy water and basil plant the parish priest handed out on the 14th September, when the Orthodox Church honours The Holy Cross.’
The baked bread had to last for a week; to ensure this the women placed the loaves on a long plank called a Kania, suspended by a rope from the beams of the ceiling, ‘thus keeping bread out of the reach of both mice and hungry children!’
Pitta (Pastry), and Zymarika (Pasta)
There was once extensive cultivation of wheat on the island, mostly in the valleys but also up on terraced hillsides so steep that only cattle-drawn ploughs could work them. Production today is mechanized and occurs only in the valleys. The old windmills are now abandoned; however, you can still buy Lemnian flour in the island’s supermarkets - a hard, yellowish, wheat flour that makes great pancakes. Because of the abundance of flour down the centuries, though most of the recipes developed were very simple, the island women found a variety of ways to make pastas and pastries.
The most common pastry used in Greek cookery is phyllo, made out of flour, oil, water and salt rolled out into tissue-thin sheets. Tyropittas are cheese pastries, and spanakopittas are spinach and cheese pastries. Today Takis and I tend to use shop-bought frozen Phyllo or short crust pastry for these savoury pies, and we elaborate on the simple fillings, using leeks with the spinach and at least three cheeses in our tyropittas.
Phyllo is also used for Glyko (Sweets). Baklava is a well-known Greek sweet made out of layers of Phyllo and walnuts and syrup. Another pastry that I love (and the sweet Takis had made to tempt me into this project) is galaktoboureko (custard tart). This is like the custard tart made in many countries but in Greece it is made with Phyllo and the final confection is covered with syrup. Bougatsa is yet another variation of the custard tart, but simpler, with less custard and no syrup. Bougatsa is the sweet we regularly buy when we go to the Agora to have our morning coffee.
While these pies and sweets are found all over Greece, it is the ways in which pasta is made that are unique to the island. Flomaria is a soft type of spaghetti made with Lemnian wheat, sheep’s milk and eggs. Trahanos is made with sour milk, and is used in soups. Both are sold in the island’s supermarkets.
A soft white cheese is made out of ewe or goat’s milk, just as it was centuries ago. It is still formed in small basket shapes. Originally the curds were placed in small round baskets made of reeds to drain, and this is why the cheese is known as kalathaki (Little baskets). There are a number of varieties of this cheese. One, called melihloro, is harder and saltier and is grated over spaghetti.
One year my English cousin was visiting us and Vetta invited the two of us to go with her to see her old home in the hills behind our house. It was a mild September day and a beautiful walk through the hills, though they were still dry, as the rains had not yet come. We walked to a little stone hut high on a hillside, where Vetta, her two sisters and brother had been raised. Nowadays the sheep only uses the structure, but then her mother grew flowers and basil in the small forecourt.
Behind the hut was another structure that I was very interested in, as there were three little pigs housed there. Every week I had to save any stale bread for Vetta, and she then passed this on, with any vegetable peelings, to her brother to feed to his pigs. It was fun to see these happy and inquisitive porkers, though a bit worrying to know that they were being fattened up for New Year chops.
Today, as in the past, farmers keep their pigs for a year and traditionally slaughter them the day after Christmas, a timing that enables the family to feast on fresh steaks during their New Year celebrations. Every part of the pig is prepared for later consumption. The meat is salted and fried in its own fat, then preserved in big earthenware pots and is called kavurmas. The fat is cut into small strips and preserved in the same way. The intestines are filled with minced meat to make sausages. In the past even the bones were salted and later used in stews, with pulses, potatoes and vegetables, the head was used to make pork jelly. In the past even the skin was dried to make the farmer’s shoes.
Takis’s Savoury Greek Dishes
Nose, nose, jolly red nose,
And who gave thee this jolly red nose?
Nutmegs and ginger, cinnamon and cloves,
And they gave me this jolly red nose.
Beaumont and Fletcher
Takis and a neighbour making pasta
Traditional dishes in Greece tend to emphasise a national pride in a particular herb for a particular dish. You will be told, emphatically, ‘This is how such-and-such should be cooked.’
But then, there are other cooks less nationalistically minded, who are willing to experiment, perhaps using herbs as they are used in other countries. This last group includes Takis and me. We have a European bias but we also love the Asian foods we’ve eaten in Australia and Singapore. I often tease Takis that he has an extraordinary nose, as he is able to pinpoint exactly the flavouring in a dish. And Takis and I after a meal often try to analyse the tastes of whatever we have eaten, to ascertain whether we would change anything next time.
Pork and Celary Avgolemono
salt and pepper
half a cup of olive oil
1 leek sliced in small rings
1 onion finely chopped
1 cup white dry wine
1 whole bunch of celery cut (stems and leaves) into 4 inch lengths
1 teaspoon cornflower
juice of 2 lemons
Fry the meat in oil in a heavy bottomed casserole, a few at a time (to keep the casserole temperature high)when the juices are sealed (brown the meat) remove and set aside.
In the same casserole fry the the onions and leek ( in the left oil) till soft.
Add the wine and cook until the wine is reduced to half.
Return the meat and add 2 glasses of water, add salt and pepper, cover and simmer for 40 minutes.
Add the celery and continue cooking a further 15 minutes.
In separate bowl beat the eggs with the cornflower.
Take a cup of warm cooking juice out of the casserole and gently incorporate into the egg mixture whilst stirring constantly, add the lemon juice.
Pour the mixture into the casserole and stir uniformly to spread around.
Increase the heat until the sauce is thickened, do not boil.
Plain rice goes very well with this meal.
Koula, A Geek Queen of Cakes
Koula on her home island of Rhodes
Koola is a classic beauty. Still in old age her long grey hair was caught up in a neat chigon. She has many friends, and daily chatters to them by phone, checking up on their and their relative’s health. While staying with us, George and Koola would sit on the terrace listening to the Greek new broadcasts, and when she received one of her many return phone calls he would quietly play with his komboloi.
Koola is also excellent cook, having added to her knowledge of Greek from her life in Alexandria and stays in France. She makes wonderful baklava, sweet loukoumades, divine galatabouriko, and all sorts of gateaux and ice-cream dishes. I was always happy to hand over the daily meals to her, while I concentrated on harvesting and preserving.
Though it may be friendly sparring at first, Koola often challenges Takis, as to who can cook the best pastichio or mousaka. This can sometimes get him stirred up enough to compete at the next meal with another masterpiece. And, interestingly, when it come to washing up both rush to take over, believing that each can also do that job better than the other. But again this does not worry me, as it is another time when I’m not averse to handing over the kitchen to others!
Meanwhile George, who sits most of the day on the terrace, listening to his radio and playing with his Komboli, promots his wife’s cooking at every opportunity. He looks with great suspicion at anything he is not familiar with, like Takis’ Thai Chickeni, or my Bread and Butter Pudding!
Fanouropita (A Traditional Cake)
Here’s a story that involves Lost and Found, a Saint, a Sinner and a Cake. Say you’ve lost something or someone. Who are you going to call? Did you know there’s a traditional Greek Cake For Lost Things called Fanouropita?
It’s dedicated to Saint Fanourios who is the one you call upon for help when you need to find something. This cake is traditionally made on the eve of Saint Fanourios’ Name Day every year, on August 27. The cake is brought to the church of Saint Fanourios where the priest blesses it during a special ceremony. Afterwards, the cake is cut and everyone shares.
It seems that the saint’s mother was a mean so-and-so and did not share easily, but the saint did, and said that other’s should bake the cake, and share it, while asking for God’s forgiveness for his mother’s sins.
This cake is suitable for those fasting for Lent in preparation for Easter due to the recipe having no eggs, milk or butter. Also note that traditionally the cake is made with only 7 ingredients. But it can be made anytime something is lost. This year a neighbour came to our door with a plate with several pieces of a Fanouropita. The problem? They had just lost her husbands wallet! Next time I saw her, thanks to St. Fanourios, they had found it!
7 Ingredients - Serves 8
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1¼ cups fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup sugar
3 cups self-raising flour
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1 teaspoon baking powder
(100 grams of icing sugar for dusting - optional)
Preheat the oven to 160°C.
Place the olive oil, orange juice, cinnamon and sugar in a bowl and mix well with a wooden spoon until the sugar dissolves a little.
Add the flour slowly while continuing to mix well. Then add the walnuts, followed by the baking powder. Continue stirring until the mixture is well combined.
Turn the cake mix out onto a round baking tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake in the oven for 15 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 130°C and bake for 30 minutes or until cooked. The cake is cooked when a knife inserted into the centre emerges moist but with no mixture sticking to it.
I left my recipe book with Koula’s recipes in Lemnos, so this one is with thanks to the following site.