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Wednesday 27 May 2015

Austerity cuisine: Life of Pie

My proofreading and translation work often takes me through culinary journeys - here is what I've been working on for a little while now.

The culinary concept of πίτα (PI-ta = 'pie') is an ancient one, and there is no culture in the world that does not have some kind of pie in its culinary repertoire: some kind of filling stuck together or enclosed in a flour-and-water mixture which can be as dry as pastry, or as sludgy as batter. Pie fascinates us because an uncut pie is mysterious, as it does not reveal its contents, so that we have only its aroma to estimate its inner secrets. Like bread, pie is a portable meal, with the added luxury - unlike that of bread - of being a complete meal that does not need assembly. Pie is also one of the most creative culinary offerings of the primitive kitchen. The basic rule in making pie is that there are no rules, hence the pie each person creates can be as original as s/he wants it to be. It is this basic rule that makes the Greek pita so versatile, and so important in culinary history: pie can be as rich - or as poor - as you can afford to make it. And for this reason, pie embodies all the facets of austerity, as it makes use of anything and everything: unlike soup which is an equally austere meal, pie can be carried anywhere and everywhere, so that it can be eaten by the very poorest people working far away from their homes.

The oldest forms of Greek pita may contain just flour and water, with some honey and nuts sprinkled over them, as in saragli from Northern Greece, and xerotigana from Crete:
"The ancient history of the pie in Thrace starts from the sludge created by the mixing of water and flour, i.e. the milled grain. This trophic symbol is to this day in Thrace still called ‘genima’ (birth). This sludge, which was baked in the shields of the warriors of antiquity and in Thrace still continues to be baked on a heated stone or iron surface, to be offered as a ritualistic dish, then became a round dough that is flattened and baked on flat stones. The various ‘palakountia’ and the ‘koptoplakountio’ of the Byzantines, with a pastry sheet on the top and bottom, and a filling of hazelnuts, almonds and honey in between, or the ‘tetyromenoi plakountes', are the first forms of pie, and they are the memories that keep the taste of the spiral-shaped or ‘curly’ pies of Thrace." (cf. Angeliki Giannakidou, Thracian pita)
Most pita ingredients originate from small-scale cultivations of garden vegetables, eggs and milk. Meat pies (kreatopita) have always been considered an extravagance - even today, a meat pita in Greece is usually made for Easter or a special occasion:
"The animals needed to produce the dairy products, usually chicken, sheep and goats, were reared in the household for the purposes of consumption, and it was almost unthinkable that a household would not produce whatever was required in order to feed its members." (cf Maria Fakiola, Corfiot pita)
But producing so much food for the daily needs of the - often large, in past times - family household was very hard work and on a very regular basis, the food supply would be supplemented by nature's offerings, hence the abundance of wild greens in the Greek pita which are used to make hortopita:
"The greens used vary depending on what thrives in every area, and it mainly constituted sorrel, kafkalithres, fennel, sowthistle, chard, galatsides, poppies, myronia, and nettles. These pies are primarily called ‘hortopites’ (Imvros, Molyvos in Lesvos, Chania in Crete, Mykonos and Evia), or ‘lachanopites’ (cabbage pies), ‘marathopites’ (fennel pies) and ‘tsouknidopites’ (nettle pies) according to the filling, while they are referred to as ‘gemostopites’ in Karkinagri of Ikaria." (cf Ourania Rapti, Aegean pita)
Given the nature of the Greek pita - a frugal meal that can be made from virtually anything - pita epitomises austerity:
"... as the economic and cultural activity of a society is heavily influenced by the natural environment, it is only natural that primary ingredients for food meet the circumstances which they define." (cf Eleni Bintsi, Vlach pita)
Yet, despite its economical basis, pita can be dressed up for any occasion. It can take on religious significance and be prepared ritualistically, as in the fanouropita, made in honour of St Fanourios, finder of lost things:
"Fanouropita ... is made with seven ingredients: oil, flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, water. ... From oral accounts we also know that fanouropita can be made with seven or nine ingredients (oil, flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, water, dried fruit, and orange)." (cf Rodoula Stathakis-Koumaris and Chrysafa Tsonou, Gaslaxidi pita) 
Where a paucity of basic ingredients was experienced, both the sweet and savoury could be combined; with the addition of rice and using an intricate manner of rolling the pastry, a 'richer' offering could be produced, as in the case of bubari:
"... bubari is a sweet Lenten pie with a spinach base ... Bubari is a very oily pie, since, in Megara, there has always been an abundant production of olive oil (an ancient variety from Central Greece, local subspecies of ‘Megaritiki’ of Olea europaea  var. Media oblonga, both an oil and table olive). The spinach was grown in local orchards and home vegetable gardens, and the (seeded) raisins used came from a local grape variety with small berries that locals dried in their homes. Traditionally, they did not purchase any of the basic materials, since every family produced its own products, even the flour. In order to both provide a main meal (for lunch) and also prepare enough pie in an economical way for the needs of the family, sometimes rice was added. The most common form of the pie is ‘bubari’, ie rolls in the shape of candy." (cf Maria Kalozoumi, Megara pita)
In line with the concept of austerity, nothing was wasted. Even an ingredient regarded as 'useless', like the unused squash that was left over from the previous autumn and had made it through to the spring, would be treated like royalty, and a special feastday would be assigned to use it all up, as in the kolokithopita (pumpkin pie):
"Kolokithopita in the Messinian town of Thouria is prepared by housewives and consumed only during the first Saturday of Lent, on the feast of Sts. Theodore... The main basis for the preparation is dry yellow squash (pumpkin)." (cf Elli Prasinou-Favvata, Messinia pita)
These days, I myself rarely make a galaktoboureko without adding pumpkin: pumpkin bougatsa and pumpkin galaktoboureko are now standard dishes in our house when I have pumpkin.

When we think of the Greek pita, we usually think of pastry, thick or thin, wrapped round a tasty filling. But making filo pastry is not an easy task, and certainly not an everyday one, so that, and in many cases, there was not enough time to make the filo pastry for a pita, which, in contrast to the pastry, had to be made with some urgency, in order to feed the family and guests. Thus, in many cases, we see recipes for self-crusting pita:
"The Peloponnesian mountainous hinterland is a place with a long tradition in sheep and goat breeding, both transitional and permanent. In the mountainous area of Olympia, namely in a small village just outside Andritsena, the Alifeira (Rogkozio), I tried two milk-based pies. Both summarize the most characteristic element of the food traditions of Morea - and in general, of Greece: austerity. This was manifested in the korkofigki, made during the period when lambs and goats are born, at the beginning of winter; and galopita, prepared with special care, mainly on Holy Saturday, to be eaten as a dessert at the festive table on Easter Sunday. Its flavor reminds one of galaktoboureko (Greek custard pie), but without containing pastry or syrup. (cf Yiannis N. Drinis, Peloponnesian pita)
"The types of pie are many and various: pies with home-made pastry, the leading role played by the hortopita (with wild greens collected from the region and spinach), as well as cheese pie, spiral pie known as ‘strifti’ (with cheese and sugar), milk pie and porridge pies such as mamaligka and bambanetsa. The name mamaligka is known in the Balkans and refers to a sludgy porridge mixture made with cornmeal. Mamaligka is a custom of Fthiotida, made with a kind of porridge originating from wheat flour to which cheese and zucchini or pumpkin are added. It is not covered with pastry, but egg is brushed over it, mixed with oil and sugar. It is thin, so as to cook quickly, and it is always cooked till the top is crusty." (cf Fotini Tsonou, Lamia pita)
The pies described above remind me of zimaropita, which a friend taught me how to make.

Often, pita is made with the poorest of ingredients - wild greens, foraged from the countryside, a sign in older times that one did not have enough food of one's own for the nutritional needs of one's family.  Identifying greens in the countryside is almost a dying art, but now with the crisis, it has had a revival. Wild greens make the most aromatic, the most redolent, and the most highly prized pita:
"Most pies in the Cyclades are made in the spring, since the nature of the area in the spring generously offers a wide variety of wild and domesticated leafy greens. (cf Nikoleta Delatola Foskolou, Cycladic pita)
Where wood is scarce, as in the Cycladic islands, pita is not baked, but fried in individual portion-size pieces, which requires less cooking time:
"The ‘seskoulopita’ or ‘seskoulopitaki’, a sweet pie, is made in Tinos at Christmas. Seskoulopitaki is based on chard, but also contains walnuts and raisins. It is flavored with ground cinnamon and cloves, and chopped mandarin, and is sweetened with molasses and a little sugar. The filling is wrapped in handmade pastry kneaded with orange juice, egg and oil. If the recipe is made as a larger pie, it is usually baked in the oven, whereas when individual serving-sized seskoulopitakia are made, they are fried, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar." (cf Nikoleta Delatola Foskolou, Cycladic pita)
These smaller pies require a lot of work, which is often done collectively:
"Such a task becomes monumental because the preparation of these desserts is time-consuming; since most women on the island have to prepare several dishes for the festive Easter table, they tend to make them in groups to help each other. Hence, they go together in groups of 2-3, maybe more, depending on the number of pies they have to make. Every woman assumes a role, depending on her skills. Some deal with the rolling out of the pastry, others with the preparation of the filling, another with the "pinching" of the pastry into a thin pleat." (cf Nikoleta Delatola Foskolou, Cycladic pita)
Small pita, and self-crusting pita, are the traditional pita offerings from the island of Crete, and they are all fried in olive oil which is found in abundance all over the island:
"With a focus on the local ingredients and cooking methods, the most widespread pies in the countryside and the urban centres of Crete are the pies cooked in a pan, like the ‘hortopites’ (wild greens), marathopites (dominated by fennel), cheese pies (sour, sweet or savoury with mint), ‘nerates mizithropites’ (the dough is fried while still wet), ‘sarikopites’, ‘agn(i)opites’,  ‘kreatotourtes’ (meat pies), the pies of Sfakia, etc. A second category is the baked pies, like ‘tzoulamas’ (dominated by rice), ‘mizithrompoureko’, the light pies that remind one of cake, with the most popular one being raisin pie, etc." (cf Angeliki Baltatzi, Cretan pita)
My favorite kind of pastry pita is one that uses filo pastry in between the filling. It is a favorite all over mainland Greece:
"In Zagori, pies with pastry contain 5-6 thin sheets. Two-three are laid on the baking sheet and brushed with a little oil, one is tucked between the ‘anademi’ (filling), baked dry in the oven to hold the excess liquids, and another two to cover the pie." (cf Calliope Stara, Zagori pita)
This is the kind of pita that I make the most often for my household. These days, we rarely cook pita in the electric oven - the austerity lifestyle forced on us bought back the wood-fired heater into our home and our one comes with an oven compartment. I also make pita in the cooler seasons - heating up the home in summer is unthinkable!

We often think of pita as mainly a gender-oriented task, a woman's job. The solitary life of the Aegean fishermen proves this not to be the case. Their fish pie was probably fresher than the pita their wives served them when they came back home:
"The ‘atherinopita’ (smelt pie) of Kimolos is a dish that is found in several islands of the Cyclades... It started as a recipe made by fishermen who, when they got a good catch, held onto a part of it to make this ‘instant’ pie. The fish mainly used for the preparation of the pie is mostly the thin grey-blue 'sea spray’, called ‘atherina’ (Atherina hepsetus). Its length varies between 8 and 15 cm. They also prepared the same pie to take with them when they went out fishing. They would often make it in their boat. It's a pie that is very simple, easy and quick to make, with small fish, flour and onion, which, as they are mixed together and fried over a hot fire with plenty of olive oil, form a kind of pie." (cf Nikoleta Delatola Foskolou, Cycladic pita)
The importance of having the appropriate pie-making skills is also exemplified in the many proverbs and sayings that abound in the regional dialects of Greece:
«πίτα έχεις; έννοια έχεις» "You got pie? You have passion" meaning the daily care and constant attention needed for the preparation of a meal,
«πότε πίτα και φλασκί, πότε πίτα μοναχή» "Sometimes pie and flask, sometimes pie alone" concerning the adequacy or otherwise of provisions (sometimes, we have wine to drink with our pie, but other times, we will have just the pie),
«πίτα ’κεί που μέλλεσαι και όχι εκεί που ψένεσαι» "Pie for where you will go, and not where you want to go" when something ends up at another recipient other than the one it was intended for,
«όπου πεινά, πίτες θωρεί, κι όπου διψά, πηγάδια» "Whenever hungry, he sees pies, and whenever thirsty, wells", 
«από πίτα που δεν τρως, τι σε μέλλει κι αν καεί;»"Of the pie that you will not eat, why do you care if it burns?", 
«πόσες βουκιές είν’ η πίτα; κατά το δαγκανιάρη» "How many mouthfuls is that pie? It depends on the biter" in reference to the truth or the result of a project),
«ο καθείς την πίτα του για αφεντιά την έχει» "Each one to his own pie", with the a similar meaning to the 'an Englishman's home is his castle', 
«η πίτα που θα μ’ ευφράνει αφ’ το φούρνο φαίνεται» "The pie that I will indulge in can be seen from the oven", meaning that we usually know how something will turn out,
«ζεστή είναι η πίτα νόστιμη» "The pie is delicious when it’s warm" for the importance of timely action. (cf Ourania Rapti, Aegean pita)
Indeed, where would be without pita? 

I have not included any photos in this post, but if you would like to look up some of the recipes mentioned, many are given in my blog. Choose the underlined words in the above text, paste them in the search box on the top left-hand side, and you will find photos and recipes of similar pies as those being discussed here. Click here for a set of photos showing the many different kinds of pita I make

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Monday 11 May 2015

Lovely view

Last Sunday saw me driving to Rethimno where I took a walk through the old town, before picking up my daughter from her basketball meet. There were a lot of tourists walking in the same places where I went. Here are some of my photos.

The tourist: Beautiful view! 
Me: Where's that sewer smell coming from? 

The tourist: A lovely quiet taverna overlooking the sea!
Me: How legal is the location of that restaurant?

The tourist: Graffiti! Ugh!
Me: Hm. I do indeed smell a rat. 

The tourist: This is so romantic!
Me: This is bound to be over-priced.

The tourist: So close to the water's edge! 
Me: Too close to the water's edge.

The tourist: Looks so fresh!
Me: How long has it been sitting there?

The tourist: The perfect spot!
Me: Paying for the view.

The tourist: Souvenirs!
Me: Kitsch.

The tourist: Nice vintage stuff!
Me: No price tags, ie I probably can't afford it.

The tourist: That sounds cheap!
Me: The dolmadakia are probably canned.

The tourist: Coffee in the shade...
Me: ... right next to the roar of the roadside.

The tourist: Oh... can't they replace it?
Me: The most perfectly designed flag ever. It will never need replacing.   

Greece can be lovely to look at, but these days, it is very challenging living here.

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Friday 8 May 2015


About mid-March, I decided that it really was about time I started using my fabric stashes, mainly made up of cheap remnants and used clothing whose fabric I liked. A number of items could not be used for The Greek Collection, as they did not feel very Greek to me, even though most of my fabric stash has been collected here. This past winter, I started making things out of my fabric collection, with the internet as my guide, and I still can't believe how fast I am - in just 8 weeks' time, I have made 3 large quilts, and completed a number of smaller patchwork projects in between, recycling and upcycling various items lying around the house.

The arts of quilting and patchwork are not at all well known in modern-day Crete, although there are now quilting groups all over the country (mostly headed by non-Greeks!). Since I've never quilted before, I didn't expect my fabric projects to go so well and get finished so quickly. We usually procrastinate over such tasks. In the past, all I did was small patchwork projects, without any quilting. I've now discovered that quilting using a simple made-for-home-use sewing machine is not at all easy because it involves pushing very thick (and often wide) fabric through a limited amount of space between the machine motor and the needle. This made my arms and back ache. But it was worth it!

My first project was a small mat, as a way to get back into patchwork, after a long break from it. I had made a patchwork armchair cover many years ago, using cheap fabric remnants bought in Athens back in the drachma days from a store that sold sheet and curtain fabric. (Such stores are long gone now.) The cover was all hand-stitched. It had gotten rather tired looking, and was eventually replaced by a store-bought cover. But I didn't want to discard my old patchwork given the amount of time I had put into making it. So I cut a piece and used it as backing material for a quick patchwork denim mat, made from my kids' old jeans. The light padding all came from remnants I had picked up from a mattress maker in Hania when we bought new mattresses for our kids' beds. This whole project took me just one afternoon, thanks to the sewing machine stitching.
Cost: just the electricity I needed to machine-sew it.

I decided to get craftier and tried a more advanced patchwork pattern, again using fabric remnants. I made another small mat for the bathroom based on a design called 'fake cathedral windows', as it is known among patchwork circles. More old denim was recycled, and the 'windows' were made using fabric scraps that were very small and practically useless and would otherwise have been thrown out. Again, the cost was virtually zilch.

My children had been watching me working on my patchwork projects throughout the winter, and they liked the idea of a quilt of their own, made by their mother. They have never had a quilt, mainly because my own mother left me a lot of blankets (we use what we have!). Quilts feel almost like a luxury to us. Having never quilted before, I decided to do a sample quilt using plain fabric which was not patchworked. The first quilt I made was for my son. The whole family loved it!

The designer fabric is called Tournament by Jane Churchill, acquired at a garage sale in Brockley, London, on a balmy September day as I walked through the area last year. My son is a fencer, so I immediately imagined these knights gracing his bedroom in some way. The red fabric has a medieval look to it - it was bought at a fabric store in Athens (more drachma days) and I used to use it as a sofa cover while I lived in Athens. The blue-white floral fabric used for the binding came from an upholstery remnants store in Hania.
Cost: designer fabric - £5; red fabric 1000 drachma; binding €1.50; €20 euro for the batting, from a local mattress maker. 

Before moving to Greece, I had bought a cheap king size quilt made of Indian cotton at a Wellington shop called Narnia. (I don't know if it's still trading - it was one of my favorite stores.) I have been using this quilt since I bought it, but it's now feeling rather old and needs repairing/replacing. During our New Zealand holiday 11 years ago, I bought some NZ-based fabric designs which were found in the remnants stash at the well-known Nancy's Embroidery store. I remember Nancy from her time in James Smiths (mention of this name does age me - James Smiths closed just before I left NZ). I embarked on a rather ambitious project using the 'disappearing nine-patch' patchwork technique. I needed 25 square blocks for the finished quilt top.
 Close ups of the main fabric used in the NZ based quilt. I didn't let any material go wasted by making squares from off cuts. 
Since the NZ designs were not enough to make a king size quilt, I bought some more fabric which had a NZ look to it from ebay sellers, eg shells, pebbles, (green coloured) sea, among others. I also cut up a NZ tea towel with a map of NZ on it. The sashing and binding were made using remnants from the local upholstery store, some cheap fabric bought in Athens during the drachma days, a used clothing item from the street market in Hania, and a batik design gifted to me by an Indonesian student while I was studying in NZ. The mattress maker sold me some more ready-lined padding, which meant that I didn't have to do most of the quilting myself. This was a very big project, so that was quite helpful. Most quilters leave the quilting part to professionals who use long-arm sewing machines, while others have computerised machines which are programmed to create intricate designs. (Maybe my next model!)
Cost: 3 metres of ready to use wadding - €35; NZ fabric designs from NZ - approx. NZ$22; ebay fabrics - £20; remnants/used clothing - approx. €10, plus a thousand (or so) drachma; the batik was bought in Indonesian rupiah. This really was quite an international project. 

The reverse side of the quilts did not need any fabric, thanks to the mattress maker. I took my quilt tops to him so that he could measure them and advise me on what I can use to pad them. In Hania, we have quite a few mattress makers, thanks to the tourist industry. A quick check on ebay confirmed that I would have paid roughly the same price for this wadding. (I'm not sure about how the quality compares - what I bought seems quite good).
The reverse side of the two quilts looks like this - the white cotton fabric was already sewn onto the wadding and I simply quilted the top side onto the ready-lined fabric.

My latest quilt project was for my daughter. It was made using fabrics I had bought on a whim while visiting Brighton on New Year's Day, walking through the Lanes (a bit like Hania's old town), where my eye caught a glimpse of some nifty floral fabric made into pyjamas which were displayed on clothes hangers. I decided to check out the store just because I liked the fabric, which turned out to be none other than a Cath Kidston fabric designer outlet. Rather overpriced of course (8 fat quarters for 25 pounds/30 euro), but I couldn't help myself.
On returning home, I decided that the fabrics looked a little too kitsch for my tastes. but my daughter loved them. I've used some of the CKs in my daughter's quilt - she chose the 'raggedy quilt' design. The CK fabrics were not enough for the quilt, so I had to add fabric obtained from all sorts of places: some skirts my daughter had grown out of, clothes bought from local second hand stores, 'old ladies' dresses (we call them 'robes') bought at the laiki, some fabric remnants that I had since my NZ days (off cuts from a dollmaker), as well as some cheap fabrics from my local suppliers. Some of the fabric that went into this quilt is over forty years old. With the use of so many different fabrics which can be traced to the very beginnings of my interest in patchwork, this quilt quite unexpectedly became a memory quilt.
Although the raggedy quilt design looked rather easy, it proved quite a challenge. It requires a lot of cutting and sewing, and trimming of threads. It becomes quite a heavy quilt to work with piece by piece, and gives you sore arms and backache. But I guess the end result was well worth it. I bound the quilt with fabric from a pink linen skirt in my wardrobe, last worn a decade ago.
When I buy clothes for patchwork, I always buy XL sizes and never pay more than 1-3 euro per item, at the street market and second hand stores (sometimes, the clothes are new, from previous seasons or store clearances). Upholstery remnants sell for all sorts of prices, but again, I go for the larger pieces, selling at 1.50-3.50 euros a piece. The bonus of the raggedy quilt design is that the padding for it could all be made from off-cuts from the mattress maker, so I didn't need to buy any. When I bought the padding for the other quilts, I was allowed to take all the off cuts that I could carry which were strewn around the workshop. Everything on the floor in the photo below went into the boot of my car.

Cost: second-hand clothes - 10 euro; upholstery remnants - 10 euro; Cath Kidston fabrics - 20 pounds; padding - free. 

During a recent window-shopping experience, I checked out the prices of  store-bought quilts. At the supermarket, you can get a simple king size quilt for 35-40€; similar prices can be found in the home stores. These quilts are padded, with one fabric on one side, another on the other side, simple binding and an elaborate machine-sewn design.  I can quite easily keep my quilt costs very low, but the real cost of home quilting is not based on the cost of the fabrics alone. Thank goodness for the invention of the sewing machine, which means that I can sew as fast as I can collect fabric that I like to work with. There are more quilt projects scheduled for the summer when I can work outdoors. These quilts will all be specially designed with certain people in mind. Watch this space.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.