About theshepherdandtheolivetree

I’m a mother, a writer, and an enthusiastic gardener, forager, and cook. With my two children, Jasper and Sylvie, I live in two rural communities on opposite sides of the Atlantic: one at the edge of the mountains in southeastern Montana, the other where the mountains meet the sea on the southern Peloponnese Peninsula in Greece. As a writer, I try to stick to subjects that center around food, but like most freelancers, my stories hit on a wide variety of subjects, from travel to rodeo, yoga to an interview in long-form of the New Jersey-born kirtan wallah, Krishna Das. My work can be found in The Boston Globe’s Travel section, The Art of Eating and Afar. I have also written for Saveur, Culture, the Utne Reader, The Sun Magazine, Natural Home and Garden, Yoga, Yoga Journal and for Slow Food’s online news service, Sloweb. To reach me, email poulithra AT gmail DOT com

Roadside Cherries and the Sweetness of Strangers

A few weeks ago, the children and I drove into the mountains beyond Leonidion to visit two of our favorite places: a beautiful monastery that clings to a cliffside in an act defiant of any logic of gravity and, beyond and above it, the village of Kosmas.

At Elona Monastery, we explored the structure’s multilevels, built like balconies against the cliff.

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We took photos of the view toward Leonidion. Inside the hushed church, which holds a famous 700-year-old icon of the Virgin Mary, we lit candles for our loved ones. At the invitation of a resident monk, we refreshed ourselves with spring water and loukoumia (also known as Turkish delight) flavored with rosewater. As we passed a group of nuns sitting in the shade, they welcomed us and blessed the children.

And so it was with a good feeling that we drove on to the village of Kosmas.

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Situated above a chestnut forest at about 1,150 meters (3,772 feet), Kosmas is a thriving community of 500 or so souls with cafés, shops and a ceramics studio encircling a proud church and plateia, or square, all shaded by enormous plane trees. During the warm days of summer, people gather at outdoor tables in the shade of those trees to drink a coffee or an aperitivo, to play tavli and often to eat one of the delicious pastries the village is known for—baklava, galaktoboureiko and melomakarona.

The square was our destination that day, but as we entered the outskirts of the village, the children noticed a large cherry tree at the edge of a garden on the side of the road. OK, there was a house there too, tucked at the other end of the garden, quite far from the tree, but it was silent and shut. Maybe the owners are out of town, I thought to myself. What would it hurt for the children to pick a few cherries?

“Go ahead,” I said.

And so the kids tumbled out of the car and began to pick a taste. Just as Sylvie popped the first cherry in her mouth, I saw the door to the house open from within. A white-haired lady peeked out and upon spying the children at her tree came running up the driveway, yelling at the top of her voice.

Terrified, the children clutched the cherries they had managed to pick and ran toward the car where I sat taking photos of the view.

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To be honest, my heart was pounding, too. I wasn’t sure what to say or do. Yes, I’d assumed the house empty, but still, the children had clearly trespassed and taken the cherries without permission, or without the proper permission.

And then her voice filtered through the nervous chatter of my thoughts and I realized what she was yelling: “Children! Children! Wait! Let me help you!”

I began to laugh. Perplexed, the children stopped running and looked at me questioningly. “Come on,” I said, getting out of the car. “She’s offering to help you pick cherries.”

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We never made it to the square that day. Instead we spent the afternoon at the home of Panayiota and Diamantis harvesting cherries and drinking coffee and homemade visináda or cherry juice and, later, for the adults, a bit of tsipouro. We talked about our families, our joys and our sorrows. They told me about their lives and I told them about ours. I learned that Diamantis has Alzheimer’s, but that it’s in the early stages yet and indeed I saw no sign of it. He joked with his wife, with me and with the children and laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks.

Just before we left, Panayiota put a spoonful of honey into each of our mouths. As she plopped the golden elixir onto our tongues, she said to each of us, “To sweeten your life.” It was at that moment that I resolved to return one day soon…to somehow return the sweetness.

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βυσσινάδα/Visináda

A popular summertime drink here in Greece, visináda is made with the juice from cherries—usually sour—a bit of water, and sugar or honey. The combination is cooked and then mashed and then cooked again until it has become a deep red syrup. You may use any variety of cherry, but as the different varieties also differ in flavor, you will need to adjust the sweetener to taste.

Ingredients
Sour cherries
Honey or granulated sugar to taste
Approximately 2 teaspoons lemon juice

Thoroughly rinse the cherries and place them in a heavy pot with just enough water to make them bob. Bring to a slow boil. Remove from the heat and mash with a potato masher or a spoon. Return the pot to the stovetop and bring the mixture back to a boil. Remove from the heat and cool slightly.

Place a colander lined with a layer or two of cheesecloth upon the pot. Pour the mashed berries into the colander. To the juice in the pot, you will now add the lemon juice and either honey or sugar to taste. Bring to a boil. When the honey or sugar has dissolved, simmer for an additional 5 minutes.

Pour the syrup into sterilized jars and, when the jars have cooled, place them in the refrigerator. The syrup can be kept refrigerated for up to three months.

Serve visináda in a tall glass with ice, 1 part syrup mixed with 3-4 parts cold water. (It is delicious mixed with sparkling water, too.) Undiluted, visináda is a wonderful topping for ice cream and can be used to make a refreshing summer cocktail.

Cheese-stuffed peppers / Πιπεριές με τυρί

All photographs by Vincenzo Spione.

All photographs by Vincenzo Spione.

 

 

A few days ago, our friend Spiros, a local farmer, invited Vincenzo to harvest vegetables at his farm.

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Our friend Spiros.

I expected Vincenzo to return home with a grocery bag full of produce. (Spiros, like many here, is extraordinarily generous.) Instead he returned with a very large crate brimming with enough vegetables to feed us for a couple of weeks or longer. Among the goodies–so carefully packed by Spiros between layers of newspaper–were potatoes, dark red tomatoes, eggplants (our local heirloom variety) and, I was thrilled to see, the long, tapered, light green peppers our neighbors cook up in a number of delicious ways.

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They grill them. They fry them. They bake them and they broil them. They stuff them with cheese or with an aromatic mixture of rice, chopped vegetables, herbs and sometimes ground meat and then broil or bake them in the oven or, if you’re lucky, in an outdoor wood-fired oven, which imparts the dish with a delicious smoky flavor.

Last night we got busy making plans for each vegetable. With the eggplants, we will make papoutsakia, or “little slippers,” and melitzanasalata, or eggplant salad. The potatoes, I knew immediately, we would fry, as fried potatoes sprinkled with salt and oregano is, hands-down, Vincenzo’s favorite dish. The tomatoes we will use in fresh salads, of course, and for a couple of Italian pasta sauces. As for the peppers, it was a bit of a dilemma, albeit a delicious one, for we love the variety of methods used to cook them here. In the end, we decided to make piperies me tiri (πιπεριές με τυρί), or cheese-stuffed peppers.

A simple dish, piperies me tiri can be made in a variety of manners. After they have been stuffed, the peppers can be baked, broiled, grilled or even fried. Last night the weather was cool and so we decided to bake them in our indoor oven. Having been schooled by my mother in the practice of roasting peppers over a flame on our gas stove, I was a bit concerned that baking the peppers would not sufficiently enhance their sweet and smoky flavors. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised.

As with many of the recipes on this blog, the ingredients can be played with to suit your tastes. For the stuffing, we used feta cheese, a bit of olive oil and parsley. Some cooks use other cheeses, such as kefalotiri or touloumotiri. Others add oregano or a hot pepper finely chopped. Some add a splash of lemon juice or a pinch of lemon zest to the mixture.

In Greece, this dish is commonly served as a meze (small, savory plates of food enjoyed in the company of friends or family), but it is hearty enough to be served as a main course with a side of salad and, of course, bread to mop up the delicious juices.

Cheese-Stuffed Peppers

The Ingredients
10 or so long green peppers (Fresno or Anaheim peppers can be substituted. In Greece, try sweet Florina peppers, if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.)
400 grams (a generous 1.5 cups) of feta cheese
A splash of olive oil for the filling plus enough to coat the pan and drizzle over the peppers before they’re baked
A handful of chopped parsley
Sea salt and ground pepper to taste

The Method
Preheat oven to 200°C (390°F).

Remove the caps from the tops of the peppers and gently remove the seeds.

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In a bowl, add the feta cheese, olive oil, parsley, salt, and pepper.

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Mash and mix until combined.

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Using a small spoon, stuff the cheese mixture into the peppers to within a centimeter (approximately 1/2 inch) from the top. Place the cap back on the pepper, using it as a stopper to prevent the cheese from oozing out as it bakes.

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Coat a roasting pan with olive oil and place the peppers side by side in the pan. Drizzle the peppers with oil.

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Bake until they have softened and browned, approximately 30-40 minutes.

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Enjoy with a glass of classic retsina or your favorite spirit.

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Coming soon: Adventures in wood-fired cooking:

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A Taste of the Sea: Marinated Anchovies

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All photographs by Vincenzo Spione.

Here on the southeastern Peloponnesos, the hot days of summer have begun. In the village, we walk along the streets’ shaded sides or gather in the shadows of trees and buildings to visit over tiny cups of Greek coffee, a cold beer or an icy frappe. During the heat of mid-afternoon, the streets clear and become quiet and still but for the thrum of the cicadas. People wake early, work hard and then rest during the hottest hours of the day, returning to the task at hand when the heat begins to ease.

As we tune our daily routines and rhythms to accommodate the heat, I find myself craving the freshest and simplest of foods: salads of tomatoes and onions; salads of eggplant and garlic; horta vlita, or amaranth, which grows profusely in gardens this time of year and is boiled and then served cool with a healthy splash of olive oil, a bit of salt and some lemon.

At the top of my list of favorite summertime foods is the marinated anchovy or, in Greek, gavros marinatos (γαύρος μαρινάτος). I’m not referring to the tinned anchovies one can buy in the supermarket, the kind that pack a fishy, salty, pungent (and to me, delicious) punch. I’m talking about fresh anchovies that are cured quickly and either eaten on the spot or saved, packed in oil, for future consumption. Compared to their tinned brethren, marinated anchovies taste of the sea, yes, but it’s a delicate flavor, one that is balanced with the flavors of the ingredients used to cure and finish the fish. Fresh anchovies are satisfying and refreshing. They’re a wonderful addition to lunch or dinner, but they can also stand alone as a meze and are delicious with a glass of wine or ouzo.

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As it turns out, the little fish are good for you, too. Like sardines, herring and salmon, anchovies are classified as “oily fish,” which simply means that their tissue contains oil. (No reason for alarm; I mean, the good, nutritional kind of oil.) Oily fish are rich in vitamins A and D as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital to heart health and to the growth and development of the brain and nervous system.

Anchovies shoal in profusion across the world’s temperate waters and are rare in very cold or very warm seas. When we are snorkeling in the quiet bays along the shoreline here, we often see them swimming in silvery schools two or three meters beneath the surface. The species we encounter in Greece is the European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) and although they thrive in the waters of the Aegean (who wouldn’t?), their range includes the Atlantic coast of Europe all the way up to southern Norway.

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Like the bulb of the wild tassel hyacinth and the sea urchin, anchovies were considered by the ancient Greeks and Romans to have amatory powers, particularly if eaten uncured and uncooked. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that anchovies are the primary ingredient in pasta alla puttanesca or the “prostitute’s pasta.”) In ancient Greece and Rome, the anchovy was the main ingredient in the highly nutritious fermented fish sauce known as garos (or the Latinized, garum), which was produced in industrial quantities and served as a lucrative trade item. Since ancient times, the Greeks and, indeed, people from throughout the Mediterranean, have cured a variety of foods, such as capers, olives and fish, by salting, drying or pickling them, or by using a combination of those methods. Today, they still do.

This summer, marinated anchovies have become a bit of an obsession of mine, and every time we’ve eaten out, I’ve ordered them, but until recently, I only ate them while dining out. Lately, though, Vincenzo and I began to grow curious about making them at home and so we asked various friends just how to do it, beginning with our local fishmonger, Spiros.

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What we found was a variety of approaches, all involving salt and acid (vinegar for some, lemon for others and the two together for still others). Factors that varied from person to person included the amount of salt used and the time they allowed the fish to cure. It seems everyone we spoke to cures their anchovies overnight or longer. Vincenzo, however, who is Italian, has fond memories of eating the fish just a few hours after they were caught. The recipe his mother used was with much less salt than our neighbors use here, the quick curing dependent primarily on vinegar and lemon.

Here is a very basic recipe from Spiros. It’s the approach we wound up trying in the end and the results were absolutely delicious. Of course, it can be adapted to include other herbs and spices, such as peppercorns, oregano and red pepper flakes.

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Marinated Anchovies / Γαύρος Mαρινάτος

Ingredients:

IMG_acc3-6037-1-1500 grams (approximately 1 pound) of very fresh anchovies

Course sea salt

The juice of one lemon combined with enough red wine vinegar to cover the fish

4-6 garlic cloves, cut into very thin slivers

A generous handful of parsley

Olive oil

Cleaning the fish:

Fresh anchovies deteriorate quickly, thus it’s important to clean them as soon as possible. Begin by washing the anchovies under cold water.

Pinch the head with your thumb and forefinger and remove it.

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Gut the fish by running your thumb along its belly cavity. Open the filet gently, trying to keep the fish intact—like a butterfly—rather than dividing it in half. Carefully remove the spine.

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Once again, using a colander, give the anchovies a little rinse in cold water. Place them on a plate for preparation.

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Curing the fish:

In a nonreactive dish (glass, ceramic or plastic), sprinkle a pinch or two of salt. Then, stack the fish in layers, sprinkling salt between each layer.

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Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, thoroughly rinse the fish. Wash and dry your container and return the anchovies in layers to it. Mix the vinegar with the juice of the lemon. Add enough of the mixture to cover the fish.

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Cover the dish and return it to the refrigerator, allowing the anchovies to cure from 6 to 12 hours, or until they have turned white.

Once again, using a colander, rinse the fish. This time, pat them with a clean towel, trying to remove as much of the water as possible. Wash and dry the container and pour a bit of olive oil in the bottom (about 1-2 tablespoons) adding a scant handful of garlic and chopped parsley to the oil.

Proceed to layer the fish in the container again, this time topping each layer with a scant handful of garlic and parsley. Pour a generous amount of olive oil into the dish—enough to cover the fish.

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Cover the dish and return it to the refrigerator for 3 hours or longer. At this point, the marinated anchovies are ready for your enjoyment.

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Serve with a glass of wine or ouzo and, of course, in Greece watch out for the presence of hungry cats!

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Fava: A recipe for the Great Fast

With Clean Monday or Καθαρή Δευτέρα, this week began the seven-week season of the Great Fast in Greece during which the devout 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.)

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A bowl of deliciousness: fava at our favorite taverna, Myrtoan, in Poulithra. Photo by Vincenzo Spione.

One of my favorite fasting-friendly dishes is called fava, a misleading name as the dish is not made with fava beans but with yellow split peas. One of the world’s earliest cultivated food crops, split peas have been a staple in Greece since antiquity. And for good reason: They are small but nutritionally mighty, full of B vitamins, protein, isoflavones, soluble fiber and virtually no fat. Split peas are good for the heart, the digestive system and for preventing a slew of diseases, from diabetes to cancer. A variety of the pod fruit, Pisum sativum, or field pea, yellow split peas are part of the legume family.

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. 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.

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.

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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!)

Stifado, a rustic Greek stew for a cold winter’s day

Last week, during a rare break in the rain that has been falling nearly nonstop in Leonidion since late autumn, we took to the road to visit friends who live in Kyparissi, a seaside village down the coast from us. As the proverbial crow flies, the distance between our home and theirs is short, but the drive is long, following a road that snakes precipitously up and over the mountains that divide our communities, passing tiny mountain villages and hilltops crowned with crumbling windmills, past generations-old vineyards where the families that live here grow the grapes for their homemade wine, through flocks of goats and sheep, their bells clanging as they walk past our car, gazing in at us with curiosity.

Curious.

The journey ends with a thin ribbon of potholed road that zig-zags down a cliffside that plunges to the sea. The drive is at times thrilling, always beautiful and, for me, beloved, in part because of the good friends who wait at the road’s end, but also because of the views the trip provides of the traditional ways of life our mountain neighbors lead.

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On the road to Kyparissi, we pass through Pelleta, a quiet but still-thriving mountain community. By Dina Vitzileou. (For more of Dina’s wonderful photos, visit poulithragr.blogspot.com)

Before we left Leonidion, our friends sent me a shopping list, for Kyparissi is not only distant from our own door. It is remote from everywhere, accessible only by boat or that skinny, pot-holed road.

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The descent to Kyparissi.

To do most of their errands, Kyparissiots must wind their way up and out of the village and then drive south to their main town of Molai, 45 minutes away. There is no operating gas station in Kyparissi. No pharmacy and no bank. Not even an ATM. And so we carried cash, medicine, vegetables, and, last but not least, rabbit, to the village, for our friends planned to make stifado, a deliciously intense and rich rabbit stew, for us for lunch the following day.

Wallace's stifado. He serves it on potatoes. Some use hilopites (akin to orzo). Others make it brothier and add no starch to the bowl, serving it instead with a hunk of bread on the side.

Wallace’s stifado. He serves it on potatoes. Some use hilopites (akin to orzo). Others make it brothier and add no starch to the bowl, serving it instead with a hunk of bread on the side.

Like many Greek dishes, stifado’s ingredients vary from family to family, season to season, and region to region. In part, this variety is due to what’s readily available to put in the stew. In the mountains of the Peloponnesos, for example, you’re unlikely to find a stifado made with octopus. You will, however, find it made with goat, rabbit or, on special occasions, wild hare. For octopus stifado, look to the islands and to fishing communities along the coastlines. In regions where wild mushrooms grow, you may find them serving as the stew’s “meat.” One recipe, from Crete, calls for snails. Another calls for tripe. Some cooks add such warming spices as cinnamon, allspice and cloves along with walnuts and currants. Others prefer the simplicity of the stew’s essential ingredients: onions (usually pearl onions or shallots), tomatoes and sometimes garlic. This endless variety on the stifado theme also provides a window into the region’s history. The use of exotic spices, such as cinnamon and cloves? These point east, to the Orient, which makes sense when we recall that the Turks occupied most of Greece for 400 years.

The name “stifado” has its origins in the Italian “stufato,” which simply means “stewed.” Like English “stew” and French “estouffade,” the Italian word “stufato” is a descendant of the Latin word “extufare,” which means, “to heat in steam.”  Again, stifado’s name reveals the region’s history. Its Italian etymological roots are likely due to the Venetians’ rule of Greek territory during the Middle Ages.

Venetian map of Isola di Corfu : posseduta dalla Serenissima Republica di Venetia ("owned b the Republic of Venice"). . Circa 1690.

Venetian map of  the Ionian island of Corfu. “Posseduta dalla Serenissima Republica di Venetia” (“owned by the Republic of Venice”). Circa 1690.

No matter which ingredients you choose, with its rich, intense flavors, stifado is the perfect antidote to a cold winter’s day. This recipe, from the inimitable Diane Kochilas, is one of my favorites. But remember, you can play with the ingredients. Squeamish about rabbit? Use beef or chicken. If you’d prefer to avoid the sweetness of exotic spices and fruit, omit the allspice, cloves and orange. If you like garlic, add it.

When it’s done, serve your stifado with red wine and warm crusty bread. The combination–universally appreciated, in my opinion–will warm your day.

Κουνέλι-Στιφάδο or Rabbit Stew

INGREDIENTS
One 3-pound rabbit, cut into serving pieces

For the marinade
2 cups red wine (if possible, use the delicious, slightly sweet Greek wine, Mavrodaphne)
2 bay leaves
6 to 10 allspice berries, to taste
1 cinnamon stick

For the stew
1 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 pounds small onions, pearl or shallots, peeled
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 orange, washed and cut into 8 wedges
2 cups red wine
1 cup chopped tomatoes (peeled fresh or canned)
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick

Wash the rabbit and pat dry. Place in a large bowl with the wine and spices. Marinate overnight, covered, in the refrigerator, turning several times.

In a heavy stew pot, heat 1/2 of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and reduce the heat to very low. Cook until lightly browned and translucent, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the rabbit from the marinade, pat dry, and dredge lightly in flour, tapping off any excess. Discard the marinade. Remove the onions from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil to the pot and heat over a medium-high flame. Place the rabbit pieces in the pot and sear to brown on all sides. Place the orange wedges over the rabbit. Pour in the wine and tomatoes and add the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, and salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer the rabbit until tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly, and serve.

"Welcome to beautiful Kyparissi."

“Welcome to beautiful Kyparissi.”

Rainy days in Leonidio and a salad for the citrus season

We arrived home, our Greek home, that is, a week ago today. When we left Leonidio last August, the landscape was parched and brown after months of that glorious Greek sun pouring (and sometimes beating) down on it. Today, after months of nearly nonstop rain, the land is a profusion of bright green clover and grasses.

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Mist clings to the mountains above our house. The gorge that divides the village–usually dry or occasionally host to runoff, torrential and temporary–is now a bonafide river.

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The river now runs through Leonidion.

Our olive-growing friends are grateful for the rain. Other friends who grow their food for sustenance or sale have mixed reviews: it is difficult to plant lettuces and other delicate winter crops in soil that is drenched with water.

Nonetheless, the produce market down the road is chock full of beautiful cool-weather fare: lettuces, curly endive and spinach, broccoli and cabbage, fennel root and of course, horta, the domestic and wild greens that are a mainstay in Greek cookery. Most of the olive trees are bare, the season to harvest just behind us, but the citrus trees are heavy with oranges, mandarins and lemons.

Yesterday, Manolis, a friend from the village, dropped by with a box of assorted citrus from his trees. A handsome and charismatic man with a thick thatch of white hair, he promised his oranges would taste better than any others from the village. And, indeed, they are delicious. He also brought three heads of lettuce from his garden (also succulent and flavorful) and olive wood for our newly-installed wood stove. All were gifts. This kind of generosity is commonplace here. The day before, for example, while doing errands downtown, we returned to our car to find a bag of mandarins left anonymously on the passenger seat. Okay, to a certain degree citrus season here is akin to zucchini season back in Montana, but still, it is not unusual to find gifts from friends’ kitchens and fields left beside the front door or inside, on the kitchen table.

So now that we are swimming in oranges, what to do with all of them? Of course we will juice many, but we’ll also use some for a favorite salad of mine, which uses orange as its main ingredient. Vincenzo, my partner, first made it for me last year when we were faced with the same delicious dilemma. He calls it “Insalata di Arance,” which in Italian means, simply, “Salad of Orange.” Salty rather than sweet, the salad is typical fare in Sicily, his birthplace, and is traditionally served at the beginning or end of a meal. Vincenzo’s version is the salad in its most basic form made with chunks of orange (blood orange is his favorite), olive oil and salt. There is no need for vinegar, he says (and I agree), because the juice from the orange gives the salad a sufficient tartness.

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Photo by Vincenzo Spione.

The salad is also common in Spain, but many variations of it exist throughout the Mediterranean. Common additions include fennel bulb, onion, and olives. Some cooks add pomegranate seeds, others anchovies. Really, you can use your imagination and dream up all kinds of combinations, but in my opinion it is best kept simple in order to allow the main flavors–of orange, of olive oil (fresh and fruity this time of year) and of salt (and pepper if you want it)–to shine.

To make Vincenzo’s Insalata di Arance, simply peel and chop one orange per person and toss it with generous servings of olive oil and sea salt. Vincenzo says the secret is to not  skimp on either the oil or the salt as a sufficient amount of each enhances the flavor of the salad and distinguishes it from a typical “fruit salad.” Experiment and you will get it right.

Insalata di Arance

Insalata di Arance. By Vincenzo Spione.

For those who prefer a little more direction, here is a recipe from Ed Behr, the editor and publisher of The Art of Eating, a fine magazine that explores food and wine, their flavors and stories, with passion and precision. The recipe is from Ed’s book, The Art of Eating Cookbook: Essential Recipes from the First Twenty-Five Years.

INSALATA DI ARANCE
Orange Salad

4 large oranges (or enough smaller ones to serve four people)
1/3 cup (80 ml) excellent, fresh-tasting olive oil
Salt and black pepper
Black olives (optional)
Thin slices of bulb fennel (optional)
Thin slices of onion (optional)

Peel the oranges using a very sharp knife so as to cut cleanly and avoid pressing out juice. (Ed says a 10-inch or a 25-cm chef’s knife is efficient; I prefer using a sharp paring knife). First cut a disc from the top and bottom of each fruit to reveal a flat circle of flesh; then, following the arc of the fruit, cut wide strips from top to bottom, each time cutting down to the flesh. Afterward, trim any remaining white pith. Slice the peeled oranges crosswise into rounds about 1/4 inch thick (a generous 1/2 cm). Remove any seeds. Vigorously stir together the oil, a good pinch of salt and finely ground pepper, and pour this dressing over the orange slices. Allow the salt to dissolve for about 15 minutes before serving. Optionally, add any combination of the olives, fennel and onion. Serves four.

Καλή όρεξη! (Or, as Vincenzo would say, buon appetito!) And thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.

Kakavia: Traditional Greek fisherman’s soup

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Fishermen’s boats at rest in the harbor of Plaka.

As a child living on the island of Spetses, I would sometimes wake before dawn to look out my bedroom window and see the twinkling of lanterns bobbing their way down the island’s narrow streets and paths—fishermen walking to their boats in the still-dark night. Today in our region and throughout Greece, fishermen still rise before the sun to gather the nets they set the evening before. For most of these men (and, in some cases, women), times are hard. The work is arduous and, because the region’s waters have been fished heavily by industrial fleets, it rarely yields a good catch. Still, there are days of heavy nets, and those are the days these men and women fish and live for.

One of my favorite ways to prepare the day’s catch is in a soup called Kakavia, or fisherman’s soup. The recipe varies widely from family to family, region to region. It can be made using a variety of white fish, including red snapper, cod, and halibut. In some regions, shellfish is added (deliciously). Here’s a simple version, taught to me by a good friend in the village.

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Kakavia with paximadia. Used with permission from the webmaster of jamieoliver.com.

Fisherman’s Soup

For the broth:
1 whole or several small fish, approximately 3 pounds, cleaned and scaled
1 medium onion, cut in half
1 carrot, cut into chunks
2-3 stalks of celery, cut into chunks
Salt to taste

For the soup:
½ cup olive oil
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup chopped onion
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 fresh lemons

Begin with the broth:

  • In a large soup pot, add 8 cups of water, the vegetables and salt.
  • Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
  • Add the fish, whole, to the simmering broth.
  • Simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until the fish is cooked through.
  • Remove the fish onto a plate and strain the broth into a large bowl. Save the strained vegetables.

Then make the soup:

  1. Using the same soup pot, heat the olive oil and add the vegetables you prepared for the soup. Saute until the vegetables are translucent.
  2. Add the reserved stock and simmer until the potatoes are cooked through.
  3. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Next, the fish:

  1. Remove the bones and skin from the fish.
  2. Arrange the fish on a platter with the vegetables you saved from the broth.
  3. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with the platter of fish and vegetables.
  4. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to each bowl of soup.

While it is traditional to serve the fish alongside the soup, it may also be added to the soup. Either way, this simple dish is a delicious way to warm a chilly winter day. (And we all need that these days, don’t we?) Καλή όρεξη!

Paximadia: An ancient bread for the new year

For many, the new year is an opportunity for renewal, perhaps even change. For me, it has also become a contemplative time, one of paring down, of simplicity and quiet. At this time of year, without really thinking about it, I find myself leaving my cell phone off when I wake in the mornings. I choose silence over the sounds of NPR (and while in Greece, my favorite station, Δεύτερο Πρόγραμμα). This morning, I left the house lights off and made our first cups of coffee by the hushed glow of candlelight.

I also find I crave the simplest of foods. One such food is traditional paximadia, or barley rusks, a staple in Greece since antiquity.

Paximadia make for good Lenten fare. Photo by Dimitris Maniatis (diemphoto.com).

Paximadia. Photo by Dimitris Maniatis (diemphoto.com).

Twice-baked to ensure a long shelf life, paximadia (the singular is paximadi) are hard and dry until softened with a little water, wine or oil. They are rustic, yes, but delicious, with an earthy tang of barley, one that pairs beautifully with the foods we eat with the rusks. Although the paximadi went out of style for a time in Greece in favor of lighter, softer breads, in our region, the southeastern Peloponnesos, where some still grow and mill their own grains and where most still follow generations-old cooking traditions, paximadia remained a staple food.

Thomae, by her garden.

Thomae Kattei grows almost all of the food she and her family eat, including the grains she uses to make her breads and paximadia.

Thomae wields her scythe.

Thomae Kattei wields her scythe.

A threshing circle on the footpath to the mountain village of Kosmas.

A threshing circle on the footpath to the mountain village of Kosmas.

Because they are easily portable, paximadia were often baked in preparation for journeys short and long. They were also (and still are in our region) typically found in the shepherd’s trovas, or shoulderbag. Friends of mine keep them stashed in the trunks of their cars for roadside picnics or for sustenance whilst gathering wild greens. We eat them in place of bread with salad, soup or stew, or as a snack with a little touloumotiri (the mother of feta cheese), a sliced tomato, a handful of olives, and a bit of wine.

In her paper for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking, the historian and author Aglaia Kremezi writes, “Many believe that the word paximadi comes from Paxamus, a cook and author who had probably lived in Rome the first century AD. As food historian Andrew Dalby points out, from this Greek word came the Arabic bashmat or baqsimat, the Turkish beksemad, the Serbo Croatian peksimet, the Romanian pesmet, and the Venetian pasimata.” Aglaia later adds that, “barley, cultivated in the Mediterranean from the beginnings of civilization, was for many centuries the basic food of the regional populations. It was roasted so that some of its husk could be rubbed off, then ground and mixed with water, spices, and maybe honey, to be made into gruel, or it was kneaded with water, shaped into cakes and then baked. The barley cakes were called maza, and according to the laws of Solon, maza was the everyday food of Athenians in classical times, while the more refined breads made of wheat or a combination of barley and wheat could only be baked on festive days.”

Today, paximadia are experiencing a resurgence throughout Greece and come in all shapes, flavors and sizes. “Dark” paximadia are made entirely with barley. Some bakers craft a lighter version using a combination of barley and wheat flours. Others use rye or chick pea flour. Some paximadia are sweet and crumbly, others are savory. Some are flavored with orange or lemon, others with anise, sesame, even chocolate; still others are seasoned with sea salt and herbs.

Paximadia

Sweet paximadia rolled in sesame seeds.

No matter the combination, in our village, paximadia are commonly baked along with bread and pites (pies, both savory and sweet) in our neighbors’ outdoor, wood-fired ovens. On those days, the air fills with an intoxicating mix of scents: olive wood burning, wild greens and touloumotiri melding within layers of handmade pita dough, bread dough rising and baking, and the scent of paximadia.

How does one eat traditional barley rusks? As one would eat bread with lunch or dinner or as a snack with a hunk of cheese, a sliced tomato and a bit of wine. One of my favorite uses of paximadia is in a salad called dakos (the Cretan word for paximadi). To make dakos salad, dampen a rusk in water or wine, break it into bite-sized chunks, and place the chunks on a plate. Onto the paximadi, heap chopped tomatoes, red onions and feta. Top the lot with olive oil, capers and olives, perhaps even some chopped garlic and most definitely sea salt, pepper and oregano. So delicious…thinking of it now makes my mouth water.

Two years ago (in early January, no less), I posted a recipe for traditional barley paximadia. Then, at some point last year the post vanished, inexplicably, from my website. (Again, I send thanks to those of you who alerted me it was missing!) While I did eventually manage to find and restore the post, being rather limited in technical savvy I’m not sure any of you received notice that it had returned. In case not, and in the spirit of the renewal and simplicity of the new year, I will post it again today. It is my spin on a recipe I found in the Greek cookery tome, Vefa’s Kitchen or Η κουζίνα της Βέφας, by Vefa Alexiadou. It is basic and can be played with a bit by changing the ratio of barley to wheat flour or adding seasonings, such as anise seed, oregano or thyme.

Καλή χρονιά με υγεία και χαρά! Happy New Year to you and, as always, thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.

Handmade paximadia, or twice-baked barley rusks.

Traditional barley paximadia.

Traditional Barley Rusks or Paximadia

  1. 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
  2. 2 tbsp dried yeast
  3. 2-3 cups lukewarm water
  4. 6 cups barley flour
  5. 1 tbsp sea salt
  6. 4 tbsp honey
  7. ½ cup olive oil plus enough oil for oiling pan

Combine the all-purpose flour and yeast in a bowl and add enough lukewarm water to make a thick batter. Allow this to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

Into a large bowl, sift together the barley flour and salt. Make a well in the center. In a cup or a bowl, mix the honey with a little of the remaining lukewarm water and pour into the well, adding the olive oil and the yeast mixture.

Incorporate the dry ingredients, adding enough of the remaining lukewarm water to form a soft, sticky dough. Knead until the dough comes away from the side of the bowl and is smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size. Meanwhile, grease 2 or 3 large cookie sheets with olive oil.

When the dough has risen sufficiently, punch it down and knead it for 6-7 minutes on a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into 16-20 pieces. Shape these as you would a bagel by rolling each piece into a rope about 10 inches long and joining the ends together, overlapping them slightly.

Place the rings, spaced well apart, on the cookie sheets. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

After the rings have risen, use a sharp knife to score a line horizontally around them so they can later be easily divided in half. Bake for 1 hour.

Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut the rings in half horizontally along the scored lines. Place the oven on its lowest setting and bake the split rings for 2-3 hours to dry out completely.

Let cool and store in airtight containers. Stored this way, your paximadia will keep for up to 6 months.

Makes 16-20 rusks

To soften barley rusks, hold them briefly under running tap water until dampened, but far from soggy. Καλή όρεξη!

Chios.Dimitris

The Path to an Ancient Cheese

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We began our trek up the mountainside at a quarter to six in the morning, the sun rising over the Myrtoan Sea, the cicadas just beginning their song. It was late July on the southeastern Peloponnesos and, despite the early hour, it was already hot. We were on our way to a story. One about cheese, ostensibly, but also about a family whose lives remain inextricably linked to the land, to the rhythm of the seasons, and to an ancient past.

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Cheesemaker’s tools.

In the days of Homer, shepherds were society’s principal cheesemakers and on the rural Peloponnese Peninsula, they still are. In ancient times, shepherds poured milk from their flocks into the tanned and heavily salted skins of sheep or goats. There the milk turned itself into cheese, the cheese ripened, and the shepherds stored and transported it, conveniently packaged in and protected by the skin. While the process of making the cheese evolved, the name–touloumotiri, from touloumi, modern vernacular Greek for the skin of the animal, and tiri, which means “cheese”–stuck. Until a few decades ago, it was easy to find touloumotiri in the touloumi throughout our region of Greece. One could purchase it directly from the cheesemaker or at the butcher’s or corner market. Today, many cheesemakers produce a cheese they call touloumotiri, but few use animal skins. Or, as one friend says, few make touloumitiri.

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A touloumi awaiting use.

With my dear friend James Foot, a fellow Grecophile and a longtime resident of the Peloponnesos, and Gareth, a friend of James’ from Scotland, I was on my way to a remote mountain settlement to visit the Hiotis family. Like most Greek shepherd-cheesemakers, Dimitris and Yianoula Hiotis, along with their son Andreas, craft touloumotiri. Unlike most, they store and age it in the touloumi. Our guide that early morning was our friend and Dimitris’ first-cousin, Eleni. Those of you who have kept up with this blog know that I have a bit of an obsession with toulomotiri. After several years of searching for the real thing, I was–thanks to Eleni and James–on my way to watch it being made.

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Our friend and guide, Eleni.

Why all the fuss over cheese? After writing an article for the American food magazine, Culture, about Thomae Kattei, a cheesemaker who produces barrel-aged touloumitiri on her farm outside of the Arcadian village of Vaskina, I became curious about those few producers who still use the touloumi. Why do they? How do they do it? And what does the cheese taste like? In the process of talking to cheesemakers, shepherds, shopkeepers, and others, I heard again and again about authentic touloumotiri’s outstanding flavor, about the blue mold that would form between the cheese and the skin, which the cheesemaker or shopkeeper would, from time to time, knead into the cheese. “Touloumotiri had the skin terroirs,” joked one friend, Sotiris Kitrilakis, who grew up in Athens in the 1940s. “It was delicious.”

Above all, though, in the process of searching for authentic touloumotiri, of hearing people’s memories of eating the cheese from the skin, of the foods they ate with it, of the artisans who made it, touloumotiri, to me, gradually became a symbol of the traditional ways and cultural vitality of a place I love, and a bigger story emerged.

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Aristaeus, mythological inventor of cheese.

It seems fitting that in Greek mythology, Aristaeus, a god raised on nectar and ambrosia, schooled by myrtle-nymphs in the arts of taming wild bees and coaxing the wild oleaster into producing olives, should also be credited with the invention of cheese. Although archaeological evidence disputes this, suggesting the first cheeses were made in the Middle East or Central Asia, it is easy mythology to swallow in the southeastern Peloponnesian region I call home part of each year: a place so fertile, so abundant, it is dizzying; one where small-scale subsistence farming is not the exception, but the rule.  Here, olive groves stretch from the sea until the landscape becomes too steep for cultivation. Squash vines wind their way around the trunks of orange, lemon and fig trees. Winter greens grow in profusion. Honey bees and clumsy, doting bumble bees browse spring heather, arbutus and pine. Throughout the long, hot summer days that stretch through September, wild oregano and thyme release their scent into the dusty afternoon air.

Food is at the heart and soul of this place, and the passage of time is measured and marked less by clocks and calendars than by what’s available to harvest or gather: walnuts, figs and almonds in the fall, as well as grapes that are transformed by hand into wine; olives in November, yielding kilos of rich, green oil; wild greens to forage from mountain meadows throughout winter; and, all year long, bread from local wheat baked in wood-fired outdoor ovens, meat, milk and cheese from the flocks of goats and sheep that roam the hillsides, fish fresh from the sea.

Here, the past doesn’t just live on in books and museums. It is a part of the present.

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Cheesemaker Thomae Kattei on her farm outside the mountain village of Vaskina.

In this region, some shepherds still follow another ancient practice: migrating with their flocks each spring from lower-altitude grazing lands to mountain pastures and settlements, following centuries-old trails called monopatia. They stay in the high-country until mid to late October, allowing their goats and sheep to graze on the still-green grasses, living in primitive stone huts called kalivia, and crafting cheese and other dairy products. On that hot July morning, my friends and I were following one of those ancient paths, on our way from the seaside village of Kyparissi to the settlement to which the Hiotis family migrates each spring. Called Babbala, it is accessible only by footpath. Once upon a time, Babbala was a summer home for dozens of Kyparissi families. Today, the Hiotis family is the settlement’s only residents.

After a two-hour climb, we found ourselves at an enormous wooden gate. “Welcome to Babbala,” Eleni said, swinging the gate open.

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James and Eleni.

Making our way through a narrow corridor that wound between immense limestone outcroppings, we entered the settlement. In the shade of carob, mulberry and plane trees, stone kalivia were scattered across a meadow crisscrossed by cobblestone walls which once enclosed vineyards and gardens. At the top of a gentle slope stood a small white church.

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A Babbala kalivi.

A Babbala kalivi.

When we arrived at the Hiotis’ kalivi, we were greeted with shouts and warm handshakes. “Thank you for having us today,” I said. “Thank you for your company,” Dimitris laughed, “we’re not much used to it here.” While we had come to watch the family make touloumitiri, this is Greece, where hospitality and food go hand-in-hand, thus first we had to drink and eat something. Settling in the Hiotis’ small kitchen, we sipped cups of strong Greek coffee, ate koulourakia (traditional Greek biscuits), and discussed the economic crisis, cheesemaking and the family’s life on the plateau.

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Andreas and Yianoula Hiotis.

After our break, we made our way to another stone building where the family crafts cheese. There we found Andreas already at work stirring goat’s milk in an immense kettle perched above a wood fire on the dirt floor. Testing the temperature of the milk with the touch of a finger, Yianoula added rennet, made from the stomach of a kid the family had recently slaughtered. After the milk set, Dimitris cut the curd into a cross-hatch pattern, which Yianoula then lifted and stirred, eventually scooping into cheesecloth to drain.

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A raw-milk cheese, touloumotiri is traditionally made with goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, or a combination of the two. The texture and flavor of touloumotiri can vary widely from producer to producer based upon the type of milk, the temperatures during the cheese production, and the animals’ forage. The cheese also changes as it ages. When it is fresh, it is soft and moist with an earthy, pungent flavor. Over time, it hardens and its flavor sharpens. When touloumotiri is aged in the touloumi, that blue mold I mentioned earlier forms within the skin, which is periodically kneaded into the cheese. The mold gives it a pungent and peppery flavor. Because salt is used as a preservative, there is a saltiness that accentuates the sharpness of the cheese.

While the cheese drained, we took yet another break, this time to eat a lunch of pasta with a savory red sauce topped with grated toulomotiri, a salad of the Hiotis’ garden-grown tomatoes and cucumbers dressed with the family’s olive oil (hauled to the settlement in springtime on the back of a sure-footed mule), and a rustic loaf of sourdough bread served with a delicious cultured butter spread.

After lunch, the moment I had been waiting for arrived: It was time to prepare the touloumi to hold the tiri. To soften the skin (from a goat Dimitris had slaughtered in the springtime), Yianoula had soaked it in water all morning and then hung it from the clothesline to dry. There was a hole in each end where the head and anus had been and the legs were tightly knotted shut. The hooves had been removed.  Taking the touloumi from the line, Dimitris found a shady spot in the garden in which to commence his work. Using a large pair of shears, he trimmed the goat hair to approximately a quarter-inch long. (I was surprised to learn that, in the end, he would turn the goatskin hide-side-out, storing the cheese within the side with hair.) When he was done, he tied one end of the touloumi shut with a long strand of twine. Into the other end he blew, inflating the skin like a balloon, which he carefully inspected for holes. Then, he and Yianoula worked together to wash the skin again and again until the hair was gleaming. Once again, Dimitris inflated it, hanging it like a balloon from the clothesline to dry. In a while, it was my turn to help, turning the skin inside-out so that the hair side was within and the skin side out. Finally, we commenced to stuffing it with the cheese made that day and for several days preceding our visit. Once the vessel was full, Dimitris cinched the top shut and carried it to yet another stone outbuilding where he hung it from a rafter beside bunches of wild oregano Andreas had gathered from nearby meadows. There the cheese would age for three to six months.

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Dimitri prepares the touloumi.

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Knotting it shut.

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The inflated goatskin.

After a day shared, our group was no longer strangers, but friends, and so we lingered as long as possible in the Hiotis family’s company. When the sun began to set and it was clearly time to leave, Dimitris and Yianoula made certain we did not return home empty handed. Laden with gifts–bundles of oregano, a jar of that delicious cultured butter and, of course, touloumitiri—we wandered down the mountainside in the golden light of evening, bees browsing the purple blossoms of thyme, goat bells ringing in the distance.

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Eleni and Gareth, winding their way home through Babbala’s limestone outcroppings.

Eating the Sea

In winter and early spring, we go to the mountains to gather wild edibles: horta, asparagus and the bulb of the wild tassel hyacinth. But during the hot days of summer, our foraging instincts take us to the sea. There we don our snorkels and masks to stalk a creature that clings to the rocky sea floor. Spiny and globular like a maritime hedgehog, it is the ubiquitous–and delicious–sea urchin.

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Urchins off of Spetses, by Neil Campion, spetsesphotography.com

Yesterday my children and I went foraging for sea urchins in a tiny bay just south of here. Jasper and Sylvie still refuse to eat the creatures, but will enthusiastically help to gather them. As a child about my daughter’s age, I did both the gathering and the eating, and with enthusiasm. My love for the invertebrate began one hot summer day in 1977 on Spetses, the Saronic Gulf island my mother and I called home off and on for many years. As we often did then, we had assembled with friends for a late afternoon picnic on an isolated beach on the island’s far side. Out of the blue, one of our company, Adonis, handed me a garden glove. Wearing its mate, he dove into the water. Curious, I put on my snorkel and mask–and the glove–and swam after him, crossing to a promontory where, beneath the water’s surface, the rocks were covered with sea urchins. At first glance, the creatures appeared to be black, and some were, but a closer look revealed that many were dark shades of various colors–purple, blue, green, red, and brown.

I watched as Adonis floated in the water eyeing the display beneath us. And then he dove. To my amazement, he began to pluck the urchins discriminately from the rocks, depositing them into a zipper-topped tote bag he had looped around his arm. After a little while, he surfaced and gave me instructions: I was to help, I was only to remove those urchins with debris attached to their needles–rocks, bits of seaweed, tiny crustaceans–and I was to avoid the black ones.

Together we moved through the water, modern-day hunter-gatherers, for we would eat these beautiful creatures whose gently waving needles had inflicted such pain in my foot as I’d climbed onto the cement pier at the town beach just a few days before. But this was not revenge. Adonis promised me, the urchins tasted divine.

And they did. Once we’d harvested enough for each person to eat a few, we returned to our picnic spot. There, Adonis chose a dark blue urchin from our harvest and, using a fork, carved a circle around its underside. Lifting the resulting lid, he revealed a tiny pool filled with sea water and partially-digested seaweed. This he poured into the sea and then he presented his prize–its spines still waving–to me.

I was to scoop out the bright orange stuff within and eat it, he instructed.

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At first, I balked. We had just moved to Greece. My ten-year-old palate, which favored Kraft macaroni and cheese, steak, artichokes and chocolate, hadn’t exactly broadened yet. “Ela, poulaki mou.” (Come on, my little bird.) “Just try it,” he coaxed. I loved Adonis, and so I resolved to do my best. Using my index finger to scrape out the innards, I closed my eyes and plopped it into my mouth. Salty and pungent, creamy and sweet. The flavors were incredible, like eating the sea–my favorite habitat then and now.

I’ve been hooked ever since.

Today I endeavor to share this joy with my children. If not the eating, then the gathering because in this sea with its clear, clean waters, its silky layers of turquoise and blue, its dwindling but beautiful sea life, the gathering of them is a joy. Just as it is a joy to watch my children as they help to gather, swimming confidently (their snorkels and masks now extensions of their anatomies), crossing the deepest part of the bay (my daughter holding my hand as we swim because, yes, it is very deep–so deep one can only see blue, not the sea floor), approaching the spiny creatures on their rocky home, a precipice that drops to the bottom of the bay, and confidently plucking them, like spiny flowers, from the rocks with their little gloved hands.

Sea urchins are not only tasty, they’re interesting. I had no idea, for example, that they have teeth–five of them, which they use to feed and to bore hiding places into rocks along the shoreline. In addition to its spines and teeth, the urchin has tiny adhesive tube feet, which it uses to grip the rocky surfaces of the shoreline and sea floor and to pick up seaweed, small rocks, and bits of shell. The urchin is a cousin, of sorts, to the starfish and the sand dollar as they are all members of the echinoderm phylum.

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There are about 700 different species of sea urchins around the world. Here in Greece, the most common are Paracentrotus lividus and Arbacia lixula. What are we eating when we eat sea urchin? Not the roe, as Adonis politely suggested, but the reproductive organs, or gonads, also referred to as “corals.”

Greeks and their neighbors around the Mediterranean have enjoyed sea urchins for millennia. Aristotle described them more than 2,000 years ago, and the Greek scholar, Athenaeus, mentioned them in his fifteen-book work, The Deipnosophistaeor The Banquet of the Learned, in which the protagonist, Ulpian, is the host of a long, leisurely supper throughout which literary and historical conversations course. The ancient Greek poet Archippus discussed sea urchins in his play, Fishes, in which he satirized the Athenian epicures’ fondness for fish, and he included this recipe as a sauce to top the corals:

  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 3 tbsp vinegar
  • 1 tbsp mint
  • 1 tbsp parsley

Dissolve the honey into the vinegar. Chop the mint and parsley and mix with the honey and vinegar.

In Italy, I have eaten pasta tossed with a pesto-like sauce made with ricci. Here in Greece, sea urchins are known as ahinos (Αχινός) and are a permissible indulgence during the Lenten fast. In addition to being eaten on the spot, urchins are often served in a dish called ahinosalata, a meze of olive oil, lemon juice and sea-urchin.

The creatures’ innards are considered a delicacy in other parts of the world, too. They’re especially popular in Japan, where they are known as uni. Alaska Natives call orange stuff uutuk and eat it with gusto.

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Salvador Dali’s “Young and Adult Sea Urchin” 

This morning I read that the Catalan painter, Salvador Dali, had a great fondness for sea urchins. To artists seeking inspiration, he advised that they gather three dozen urchins on one of the two days preceding a full moon. This, he wrote in his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, is when they are at the peak of their “sedative and narcotic virtues.” After eating the 36 urchins for lunch, he recommended, take a deep nap. Wake in the late afternoon and sit in front of a blank canvas until the sun sets and it’s too dark to see.

To open fresh sea urchins, my significant other, Vincenzo, carries in his boat a handy gadget from Italy, which neatly slices off the bottom.

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After that, we rinse them in the sea, removing the sea water and debris within (although some prefer to slurp this concoction like a shot), and then we eat them on the spot.

If you’re preparing sea urchins from scratch, take a look at this blog for a beautifully illustrated guide to cleaning the creatures. Urchins can be bought whole at some fresh seafood vendors and farmers markets around the world. Sea urchin “roe” can be purchased from specialty food shops. (For those of you in North America, this guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s terrific Seafood Watch program will point you to the most sustainable sources for sea urchins.)

How to Eat a Sea Urchin

  1. Don your garden gloves.
  2. Using a stout pair of scissors, cut into the mouth on the sea urchin’s bottom and then continue to cut around the shell until you can remove the resulting lid.
  3. Pour out (or drink) the insides.
  4. Attached to the shell’s top side will be five symmetrical strips of bright orange roe. Using a spoon, a knife, or a finger, scoop the roe from within and eat it raw. Some add a drop or two of lemon juice and olive oil. Others prefer their urchin straight.

Pairs beautifully with ouzo or, if you’re feeling especially indulgent, champagne.

Καλή όρεξη!

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