An ancient Greek poet, fasting foods, and a recipe from Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed

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Hesiod and the muses dancing on Mount Helicon (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

fools all! who never learned
how much better than the whole the half is,
nor how much good there is
in living on mallow and asphodel.
-Hesiod

When last I posted, I promised that next I would explore a bit of the history and use in Greece of the yellow split pea, the mighty little legume that serves as the base for Fava, a delicious vegetarian dish common on the Lenten table. I will get to that, but last night I stumbled upon the above quote, from the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, while thumbing through Patience Gray’s classic tome, Honey from a Weed,  and, well, my intent became a bit muddied.

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In Honey, a wild and sensuous memoir-cookbook, Gray describes living on the Greek island of Naxos as well as in Tuscany, Catalonia and Apulia in the 1960s. She had abandoned her native England to join her lover, the Belgian sculptor Norman Mommens, whose appetite for marble led the couple to follow a vein of it through the Mediterranean. There the two lived simply but beautifully off the foods Gray cultivated and foraged while Mommens quarried and sculpted his beloved stone.

“Good cooking,” Gray wrote, “is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons…Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.”

Hauling her own water, coaxing what crops she could from the stony earth, and preparing local dishes, Gray came to understand the cooking of these places as she never would have from afar.

On Hesiod’s quote, Gray said: “If you are poor and proud enough the half can be made to seem far better than the whole. And if you live among Greeks for long it is pride you are chiefly up against. Poverty at all times stared one in the face. It was a way of life diametrically opposed to the wishful thinking that a consumer society inspires…Each household (in Greece) was more or less self-sufficient, their purchases being limited to paraffin for lamps and cooking, salt, sugar, soap, tobacco, flour, rice, spaghetti, coffee, and during fasting times compulsory tarama and slabs of halva.”

Gray, of course, was writing in the 1960s and even then in the past-tense about Greece, but I find her descriptions to be relevant today. Visit an average house in the village we call home part of each year (or on the island of Spetses, where I spent part of my childhood, or likely throughout much of rural Greece) and you’ll find that the list of provisions she describes still applies. Add to it a television, usually small and boxy, circa 1990-something, perhaps some sweets, and you’ve just about got it.
ImageBut to bring the discussion around again to fasting and, yes, yellow split peas…

Yellow split peas are a variety of the pod fruit, Pisum sativum, or field pea, and are part of the legume family. One of the world’s earliest cultivated food crops, split peas have been a staple in Greece since antiquity. (The field pea still grows wild in Iran, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.)

In Siren Feasts, an excellent history of food and gastronomy in Greece, Andrew Dalby writes that split peas were cultivated in Greece as early as 6,000 BC. I’ve also read that vendors sold bowls of split pea soup from large, steaming vats on the stone-paved streets of ancient Athens. The soup is even mentioned by the playwright Aristophanes in “The Birds” written in 414 BC. Today, the legume is still παντού (everywhere) in Greece, making frequent appearances on tables in tavernas and homes throughout the country, particularly during fasting times.

Split peas are small but nutritionally mighty, chock full of B vitamins, protein, isoflavones, soluble fiber and virtually no fat. They’re good for the heart, the digestive system and for preventing a slew of diseases, from diabetes to cancer.

Although split peas are grown throughout much of Greece, the island of Santorini is perhaps most famous for their cultivation. Nourished by the island’s rich volcanic soils and naturally sun-dried, the yellow split peas of Santorini were included on the European Union’s list of “Protected Designation of Origin” foods because of their unique flavor and history.

Shortly after commenting on Hesiod’s quote in Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray gives a recipe for another common and nutritious fasting dish, Fasolakia. I’ve already posted one recipe for Fasolakia here, but Gray’s is different. For one thing, it’s made with fresh white haricot beans. For another, it comes with no small amount of commentary and local color. In Ms. Gray’s words, the recipe…

Fasolakia
“When there was a crop of fresh haricot beans Angelos (Gray’s neighbor and friend) sent his daughter Kalliope armed with a large saucepan, 2 kilos (4 ½ pounds) of fat white beans, some fresh tomatoes, a few large onions, two big potatoes, parsley, celery fronds and basil, with instructions to give me a perfect example of how to cook them. There was only one way of doing this. Kalliope was 16, very correctly brought up, and made me feel that piety in culinary matters was a specific for preserving life.

The beans were immersed in cold spring water in the enormous pot. Those that floated to the surface were discarded. She lit the outdoor fire in the little courtyard, boiled up the beans with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. After cooking vigorously for twenty minutes the water was poured through a colander onto the path outside and the beans were rinsed in cold water.

She then covered the bottom of the pot copiously with olive oil, chopped up celery and parsley and put them in. She put the pot on a steady fire and proceeded to add the beans, the onions cut in rounds, the potatoes peeled and diced, the tomatoes peeled and cut up, the branch of basil, some sea salt and enough water to cover them. This done, she put on the lid, put more wood on the fire and we went down to the beach. An hour later the fire had expired, the fresh beans were tender, white, delicious and just immersed in a fragrant sauce.

The quantity, however, was so copious that at evening I took some to our neighbour who lived in a walled fruit garden across the onion fields, the old Erynni, who, brought up with prejudice and believing them to be cooked by me and foreign in consequence, later threw them to the pig.”

With that, I wish you Καλό Σαββατοκύριακο (happy weekend) and καλή όρεξη (good appetite)! And, as ever, ευχαριστώ (thank you) for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.

Fava: Greek Yellow Split Pea Puree

Fava (a bit confusing, I know—there aren’t any fava beans in this) makes a great side dish or appetizer and is a common addition to the Lenten table. You can also serve it as a dip. Fava is one of the few dishes my 90-year-old friend Panagiota will allow me to cook for her. She doesn’t make it herself anymore, for some reason, but when I bring her some, she says it reminds her of the old days and she eats a plateful with relish. There are many ways to prepare and serve this dish, including by “marrying” the peas with sauteed onions and tomatoes. I prefer it sketo, or straight, and simple.

Fava
1 cup dried yellow split peas, picked over, rinsed and drained
5 or more cups water, as needed
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Toppings
Olive oil
Lemon
Chopped red onions
Chopped garlic
Capers

Place the rinsed and drained peas in a large pot and cover with several inches of cold water. Bring to a boil on the stove top, and then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, skimming if necessary. As the peas cook, add water as needed to keep the peas covered. When the peas are completely disintegrated, remove from the heat.

Drain the cooked peas, reserving the cooking liquid. Mash the peas with a fork or blend in a food processor. Add olive oil (and a little of the cooking liquid if you prefer a thinner consistency), mashing or blending until the fava is smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, place the fava in a bowl, drizzle it with olive olive oil and top with any combination of the toppings above.

Kαλή όρεξη! (Good appetite!)

Mid-morning scents, olive oil stews, and a recipe from the Greek Lenten table

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For my neighbors in Poulithra, the Μεσημεριανό, or midday meal, is the most important repast of the day. And from my apartment, tucked into a quiet side-street halfway between the sea and the village’s crest, I can often smell the beginnings of that meal. By about 10 or 11 in the morning, the intoxicating aromas of lunch being cooked in kitchens and outdoor ovens around the neighborhood begin to waft through my open window: garlic and onions simmering in rich, green olive oil, savory pites, or pies, made with wild greens, herbs and handmade cheeses, meat or seafood stewing in an aromatic sauce of tomatoes, garlic, cinnamon and allspice.

This time of year, when many of the villagers are fasting, the heady aroma of garlic and onions cooking in olive oil prevails. Although the combination serves as the base for many Mediterranean dishes,  when I smell that mouth-watering, mid-morning scent during the “Great Fast” before Easter, I tend to assume that my neighbors are making one of the most common dishes from the Greek Lenten repertoire—lathera—and usually I am right.

Not unlike the words “stew” or “soup” in English, lathera is the name of a category of simple, one-pot dishes made with fresh vegetables and pulses and lots of olive oil. Translated into English, lathera means “oily” or “oiled,” but I find the translation to be a bit misleading, if not off-putting. Lathera aren’t greasy at all. Instead, they are aromatic and rich, with a complexity of flavors that results from stewing the freshest of garlic, onions, vegetables and herbs in the freshest of olive oil. Olive oil is used both as the base of lathera—for example, to saute onions and garlic—and again at the end, when uncooked oil is poured over the dish to add additional flavor, nutrients and depth. The result is delicious and between the oil, which is rich in antioxidants and healthy monounsaturated fats, and the vegetables and pulses, very nutritious.

There are many variations on the lathera theme. One may include chickpeas stewed with onions and garlic while another might be made of of white beans stewed with tomatoes, wild greens and aromatics. Another is a sort of casserole of spinach and rice. The common thread among them all, of course, is lathi or olive oil. This lathera recipe is a common lunchtime dish in Poulithra during the fasting season and during a time of year when body still yearns for a bit of hardy fare, provided in this case by the potatoes.

Potatoes Stewed in Olive Oil (Patates Lathera)

1/2 – 3/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 pounds new potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 medium onions, finely chopped
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dry red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups finely chopped or grated fresh or canned tomatoes
Salt and coarsely ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a deep skillet, saute the onions until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and chili pepper flakes, stir. Add the potatoes and stir until all of the contents are coated in oil. Add the wine, the oregano and tomatoes and stir. Cover and simmer until the sauce is thick and the potatoes are tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, adding a little water if needed. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and drizzle with olive oil, to taste. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve either hot or at room temperature.

While my friends in the village tend not to add olives to this stew (or any stove-top dish, for that matter), I find they’re a delicious addition. If you care to do so, add about a cup of them, pitted. Since olives are salty, however, you may want to adjust the amount of salt you add.

Serves 2-4.

P.S. Lest all this talk of the mid-day feast (often followed by the mid-day nap) suggests that Greeks are in any way lazy, consider this: In Greece, the work day traditionally begins early in the morning. Shops and other businesses typically open at 7 or 8 am and while they close at 2:00 for the midday break, many reopen at 5:30 in the afternoon until about 9. My fishermen friends rise at 4:00 to bring in their nets, returning to the village to sell their catch in late morning and then going back to sea in the late afternoon or early evening to start the process all over again…

“The graces that come through fasting are countless….” (Or one woman’s fast is another’s feast, plus a recipe for Fasolada)

Gifts from the neighbors. Photo by Jim and Sylvia Rostron.

In the village I call home part of each year, being a single, foreign mother of two children attracts a certain curiosity. It also, beautifully and perhaps surprisingly, attracts food. In our early days in the village, the children and I would return home from swimming or school or a trip to the nearby town of Leonidio, where we do most of our shopping, to find a plastic bag or two hanging from our doorknob stuffed with oranges or lemons picked that morning or, on truly fortunate days, tender young artichokes. It took only a month or two for our neighbors to dismiss all formalities and begin leaving their offerings inside our apartment on the kitchen table. This is when the eating got good. Bread fresh from a wood-fired oven, handmade hortopita, cake sweetened with honey, a plate full of papoutsakia or “little shoes” (eggplants stuffed with a clove-spiked mixture of lamb, tomatoes and onions and topped with bechamel). Around the various holidays the food only grow more elaborate. But it is during the Greek Orthodox fasting periods that we most enjoyed the generosity of our neighbors.

On the Greek Orthodox liturgical calendar, fasting is not limited to Lent. Indeed, the devout fast approximately 180 days a year. This includes four major fasting periods: the last two weeks of June, the first two weeks of August, the 40-day Nativity fast, observed from November 15th until December 24th, and the Great Lent, which begins seven weeks before Easter. Throughout the year, fasting is practiced every Wednesday and Friday (except for during certain, special “fast-free” periods) and there are other (sometimes colorfully named) fasting days scattered across the calendar, such as the Beheading of the Forerunner on August 29th and the the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th.

During these times, those who choose to fast eat nothing that contains or is derived from any creature through which blood flows. This means no meat, fish, dairy or eggs, and this includes sweets and pastries made with eggs or butter. (Shellfish, octopus and squid are fine as they are said to have no blood.) On some days, even the use of olive oil, arguably the foundation of the Greek diet, is forbidden.

Paximadia, or twice-baked barley rusks, make for delicious Lenten fare.

Paximadia, or twice-baked barley rusks, make for delicious Lenten fare.

One might look at the prospect of fasting with disdain, and some do. But for others, fasting periods are veritable feasting times. They are days filled with a diversity of simple but flavorful dishes. This especially true during the fasting periods before Christmas and Easter when Greek kitchen gardens are a riot of delicious greens, tender young artichokes and other winter and spring vegetables. This, too, is when the wild edibles are at their peak. From November through March or April, horta, wild onions, even asparagus grow prolifically on the terraced hillsides and mountain meadows above the village.

Horta or wild, edible greens.

Horta or wild, edible greens.

My friend Sotiris Kitrilakis, a food historian and the founder in the United States of Peloponnese Foods, grew up in Athens in the 1940s and remembers fasting with a certain fondness: “Contrary to the general perception of Lent as a time of sensory deprivation and the accompanying hardship that leads to godliness, my memories are very different. I remember anticipating Lent with pleasure because it was a time when some of my favorite goodies became available. I always liked pickled things, so the appearance at the table of volvoi (pickled wild hyacinth bulbs), all kinds of olives, peppers, and other pickled vegetables, taramasalata (a purée of fish roe, lemon and olive oil), halva and smoked fish was a feast of the senses. And all of this started with a bang on Clean Monday. What could be more enjoyable than flying your kite and then sitting down to a lovely country picnic including lovely yialandji dolmas (meatless stuffed grape leaves). This attitude may have done permanent damage to my soul, but I do confess that I’m once again looking forward to Lent and the pleasure of it.”

There are many wonderful Lenten recipes available online, and I will provide some of my favorites here over the coming weeks to add to the mix. In addition to my suggestions, I recommend visiting Diane Kochilas’ excellent website and the delightful Kalofagas by Peter Minakis. Until next time, Καλό Μήνα! (Greek for “Good Month!”) And a recipe for Fasolada, or bean soup:

Fasolada
A  staple in the Greek household during Lent, Fasolada is one of my favorite dishes any time of year:

  • 1 pound of white navy beans
  • 2/3 c. up olive oil
  • 3 large onions, peeled and chopped
  • 4 good-sized carrots
  • 3 stalks of celery
  • 6 cups water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Soak the beans overnight. Rinse and drain them. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat and saute the onions, carrots and celery until softened. Add the beans and water. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and allow the beans simmer, skimming the foam off the top, for about two hours. Cook until the beans are very tender. Just before serving, add the salt and pepper. Enjoy.

P.S. The quotation I included as part of the title of today’s blog post is from Saint Nikolai of Zicha.

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