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

Butter: The shepherds’ fat of choice (and a recipe for Tiropita, a savory cheese pie)

Photo credit: Alise Sjostrom

One of many dishes made in the village using touloumotiri, the cheese I described in my past two blog posts, is tiropita, or cheese pie. Since touloumotiri is difficult to find outside of Greece (and, indeed, authentic touloumotiri is difficult to find within Greece), feta makes for a good substitute. There are many varieties of pites (pies) in Greece, both savory and sweet, and many recipes for tiropites made with many different types of cheese. This recipe calls for several cheeses: feta as its base, ricotta or, preferably, the Greek cheese, anthotiro, and parmesan or kefalograviera to add sharpness and depth.

To make this pita, you may use store-bought phyllo dough. For a more rustic pie, try making your own phyllo. (This recipe, from an article I wrote for the magazine, AFAR, is delicious.)

The use of the other fat in this recipe—butter—may come as a surprise for anyone familiar with Greek cookery, for isn’t olive oil the predominant fat used in healthy Mediterranean cooking? Yes and no. Most of my neighbors in coastal Poulithra, where olive trees grow prolifically, use olive oil in their pies. But the shepherd families in the mountain villages above us use quite a lot of butter in their cooking because, for them, butter is more common than olive oil. Olive trees don’t generally grow well at high altitude and, of course, shepherds have access to quite a lot of milk, so butter tends to be one of their fats of choice. The cheesemaker I wrote about last week, Thomae, makes butter nearly every day using milk from her flocks of goats and sheep.

And so, a recipe for Tiropita:

Ingredients:

  • 1 (1 lb) package frozen phyllo dough or your own, handmade dough
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1⁄3 cup milk
  • 6 eggs
  • ¾ lb feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 cup grated parmesan or kefalograviera cheese
  • 2 cups ricotta (or anthotiro)
  • 8 ounces butter, melted

Directions:

  1. Thaw phyllo dough completely. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Melt the 6 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan.
  3. Whisk in the flour and cook slightly (1-2 minutes).
  4. Slowly whisk in the milk. Over medium heat, whisk constantly, until sauce thickens. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  5. Whisk the eggs into the sauce one at a time and stir in the cheeses.
  6. Grease a 13 by 9 inch baking dish.
  7. One sheet at a time, layer 6 sheets of phyllo dough in the baking dish and brush the top layer generously with butter.
  8. Add 1/2 of cheese filling.
  9. Layer 3 more sheets of phyllo (brushing each one with butter) and then top with remaining cheese filling.
  10. Finally, layer 6 sheets of phyllo on top (brushing each one with butter) and fold the edges decoratively.
  11. Brush the top with remaining butter.
  12. Score the pie’s top carefully with the point of a sharp knife, just cutting through the pastry into the size of pieces you will want to serve. (Only cut through the top layers of pastry; do not cut all the way down to the bottom layer.)
  13. Bake for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until golden brown. Let cool to room temperature.

A visit to Thomae’s and my search for an ancient cheese

Thomae in her cheese room.

Tucked into an outbuilding on her farm outside the shepherd’s village of Vaskina, Thomae Kattei’s tiny cheese room is impeccably clean. Its walls are dark, blackened by nearly a century of woodsmoke. Permeated by the earthy smell of goat’s and sheep’s milk, it is a comforting place to be. As Thomae slowly stirs milk in an enormous copper kettle over a single propane burner on the floor, she lists off the dairy products she makes each milking season: yogurt and butter nearly every day, a winter’s supply of trahana (a dried blend of cracked wheat and sheep’s milk). For special occasions she makes kefalotiri — a hard, aged cheese used for grating or to make the popular appetizer saganaki, or pan-seared cheese. She crafts a whey cheese called mizithra, and she makes a cheese she calls touloumotiri.

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I am here today for the touloumotiri. The cheese shepherds tuck into their bags for long days of roaming the hillsides with their flocks, it is the cheese I taste most often in the dishes made by my neighbors and friends, and it has become a bit of an obsession of mine. A mystery, a grail of sorts, if you will.

To make touloumotiri, Thomae uses equal parts sheep’s and goat’s milk. Other cheesemakers use different ratios, or all one kind of milk or the other. Between the kind of milk used, the temperature to which it is heated, and the animals’ forage, the texture and flavor of touloumotiri varies widely from producer to producer, from region to region.When it is fresh, it is soft and moist and is used in salads, stews, and pites, or pies. Over time, the cheese dries and hardens, its flavor sharpens considerably, and it is grated over pasta and other dishes.

The root of the name, touloumitiri, is this: Since the days of Homer—and likely before—shepherds have been society’s principal cheesemakers. In Vaskina and throughout rural Greece, they still are, migrating with their flocks from lower-altitude grazing lands in winter to mountain pastures in summer, following ancient migratory trails called monopatia. Until the use of wooden barrels became common in the second half of the 19th century, shepherds poured milk from their flocks into the tanned and heavily salted skins of sheep or goats. There the milk turned itself into cheese and the cheese ripened inside the skin. Thus touloumotiri, from touloumi, modern vernacular Greek for the skin of the animal, and tiri, which means “cheese.” Many cheesemakers throughout Greece produce a cheese they call touloumotiri, but few use animal skins.

And neither does Thomae. When I ask her about storing the cheese in a goat’s or sheep’s skin instead of barrels, she laughs: “The touloumi left when electricity came to Vaskina.” That was only 15 years ago.

Since first meeting Thomae, I’ve become overwhelmingly 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? I knew that at least one producer on the Peloponnese still crafted his cheese that way, and I suspected others did too, but finding those people was proving to be difficult. I had learned through my godmother that a shop on her island carried touloumotiri in the touloumi. When she asked the shopkeeper about the cheese, he replied that its producer lived “somewhere above Monemvasia.” When I called him for more details, he said that the cheesemaker lived “somewhere outside of Sparti.” After that, I tried to ignore the question of the touloumi, but every time I sat down to eat a salad or a pita, there it was, staring me in the face. I had to find touloumotiri in its native habitat, the touloumi.

Why all the fuss over cheese? In the process of my searching for touloumotiri in the touloumi, in the process of hearing people’s memories and stories of eating the cheese from the skin, of the foods they ate with it, of the occasions and meals that included it, and of the cheesemakers who crafted it, touloumotiri has gradually become a symbol of what I love about this region and the people who live here. It’s become a symbol of tradition, a symbol of a place where food is time-honored, steeped in history, myth and ritual, a place where food is still sacred and still absolutely central to people’s lives.

My search for touloumotiri in the touloumi has altered, subtly, my perspective when I am in Greece. When I see balls of mizithra–often made from the whey of touloumotiri—hanging in bright mesh bags under the rafters of some veranda, I peer over the whitewashed wall to see whether there is any sign of mizithra’s mother cheese. When I wander the streets of a village or city for the first time, I visit the cheese and butcher shops to see whether there is a tanned leather bag hanging from the ceiling or slumped upon the floor.

On that day in Vaskina, after Thomae left the cheese she was making to drain, we sat down in her one-room house (where she raised 10 children) over over diples (sweet ouzo-spiked fritters) and tiny cups of Greek coffee, and I asked her again about touloumotiri in the touloumi. She laughed at my persistence. “You must know of someone who still uses the skin,” I said. While she had an idea or two, she said, of some trelos (“crazy”) who might, she couldn’t be certain. A cousin, for example, a shepherd near the Laconian village of Kremasti, may still use the touloumi, but he was a confirmed bachelor and only had a cell phone, and, because he spent most of his time in the mountain meadows well beyond his village, his cell phone usually didn’t work, she explained. In the end, Thomae sent me on my way with a short list of names, a kiss on each cheek, and a hefty hunk of cheese.

Despite my leads from Thomae, I still haven’t found a cheesemaker who crafts touloumitiri in the touloumi. When I return to Greece this spring, I’ll continue my wanderings in search of the cheese of the skin.

I can almost taste it.

Thomae and her neighbors. Photo by Dimitris Maniatis (diemphoto.com).

In the mountains of the Peloponnese, a cheesemaker crafts her own version of economic stability.

In the mountains above Poulithra, wild oregano and thyme grow prolifically around remnants of once-thriving agrarian communities: threshing circles made of stone, terraced hillsides bolstered by crumbling rock walls, orchards of almond and chestnut trees, an occasional hilltop windmill. Among these communities is Vaskina. Once a thriving shepherds’ village known for its production of traditional mountain cheeses, today Vaskina is home to a dozen or so people, most of them elderly. Its square, set on a hill, enclosed by a few houses, a taverna and a church, looks down upon the village with its shuttered farmsteads and a dairy, now closed, its slate roof sagging heavily.

Like many of the mountain villages of Greece, Vaskina’s population plummeted in the past 20 years, its villagers leaving for opportunity in towns and cities along the coast, in Piraeus or Athens, or venturing even farther, to northern Europe, Australia and the United States. Some return to Vaskina faithfully, usually in summer when the harsh winter winds have stilled and the mountain meadows are filled with flowers; others return only in their dreams.

Those villagers who do remain hold fast to their traditions, speaking their native dialect, Tsakonian, derived from ancient Doric, maintaining the shepherd’s way of life, and crafting rich, earthy cheeses from the milk of their goats and sheep. One of these shepherd-cheesemakers is Thomae Kattei.

Thomae, with greens from her garden.

Nearly 70 and descended from a long line of shepherd-cheesemakers, Thomae is almost always smiling and quick to laugh. Usually dressed in a handmade shift with wool knee-highs and a bright calico apron, the small, dark-haired woman could have easily stepped from the pages of a mid-20th century story in National Geographic on Greece.

Every morning for fifty-some years, Thomae and her husband Theodoros have risen before sunrise to milk their ewes and does. Theodoros then leads the herd into the mountains to feed on wild grasses and herbs, and Thomae proceeds with her day according to the season: tending a prolific vegetable garden, making wine, keeping chickens for eggs and meat, baking bread and paximadia in her outdoor wood-fired oven using flour from the grain she grows, occasionally slaughtering a lamb or goat for a special meal.

In addition to all of this, every morning during the milking season—from early November until late spring—Thomae makes yogurt, trahana, butter and cheese. Some of the cheese she keeps for her family’s consumption; the rest she sells to people like me who think nothing of making the hour-long drive to her house to buy it, in part because the cheese tastes so good, but also because the warmth of her hospitality and kitchen are so fine.

And, because a trip to Thomae’s is an experience; it’s a trip back in time; it’s a sensory delight. And, in my eyes, it’s a lesson in sustainability. Thomae’s life and her farm, where electricity is a relative newcomer and cell phone service does not exist, is as removed as possible from the rest of the modern-day country with its dazzling tourist destinations and its economic woes. Every time I visit Thomae, her kitchen table is filled with seasonal culinary projects: berries to be made into preserves; wild greens, herbs or chamomile foraged from nearby meadows; walnuts and almonds from the trees in her yard; grapes from the arbor that shades her front stoop. Apart from the bag of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter, there is not a sign of packaged food to be seen in Thomae’s house.

Thomae is not a “locavore” bucking the trend of corporate, global foodways; she is one of thousands of people in the region who live this way, and always have. Likewise, eating locally isn’t a movement to be embraced here; it’s a way of life that was never left behind. Policy makers, travel writers and others describe the economy of this remote region of Greece as “peasant-based.” I prefer to call it “human-scale,” “rooted” and “durable,” for it is this very way of living—one that is based in tradition, one that is modest in scale, but rich in flavor and experience, one that is handmade, one that is truly local—that has allowed Thomae and our neighbors a certain sense of security and well-being, even as the country is starved by austerity, even as it teeters on the brink of default.

This week, as riots spread across Athens, as buildings burn (according to the news, at least ten are ablaze as I type these words), as policymakers debate even harsher austerity measures, I will place my focus on Thomae and her farm. Next time, a post about Thomae’s touloumitiri, the cheese that’s been my obsession for nearly two years now, and some recipes. Until then, a few images from Thomae’s corner of the world:

Making cheese. Photo by Dimitris Maniatis.

The road to Vaskina.

Icons. At Thomae's.

A threshing circle.

Vaskina’s dairy. Overgrown, long closed.

Yesterday’s Storm

This morning, I was planning to write a post about Thomae Kattei, an extraordinary woman and a cheesemaker I met while writing an article for Culture magazine about traditional cheesemaking in our region. Since I made my first visit to her mountain farm near the shepherd village of Vaskina in the winter of 2010, Thomae has become if not a friend then certainly a mentor and a great source of information and stories about the traditional foodways of the Peloponnese.

But today I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on the subject of cheese (or much of anything). Not sure if it’s the second cup of extra-strong French-pressed coffee I’m drinking, a little bit of worry about Jasper, my son, who is home sick with the flu for the second time in two weeks, or news of yesterday’s severe weather in southern Greece…more than likely, it’s a combination of all of these things.

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The harbor at Plaka. February 6th, 2012. (From Leonidio.gr.)

The children and I are in Montana now, so we missed the storm, but the photos and reports from friends are impressive. Yesterday, severe weather swept through much of Greece, including our region of the Peloponnese, causing flooding and mud slides in the mountains and knocking down trees and damaging piers and harbors up and down the coast.

Also at Plaka.

There’s something about a storm at sea that I find incredibly exhilarating and, depending on the circumstances, occasionally frightening. Yesterday’s storm, I’m told, was some of both.

I’m not sure there’s a much better reminder of the power of nature than a storm at sea. OK, tornadoes are sound reminders, yes, as are avalanches, blizzards, but there’s something about the heaving grey waters, the winds whipping from all directions, the waves, the spray…I love standing at the edge of the water’s highpoint and feeling all of these forces at work together. It’s an orchestration of sorts. A wild and beautiful and, occasionally, frightening concert of the elements at their wildest.

The ferry dock, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

The dock on Spetses. Where we sit to wait for the ferry or, especially in summer, people-watch. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

Today, in lieu of recipes or tales about our region’s foodways, I’ll post a few photos of yesterday’s storm.

The waterfront on the way to the Old Harbor, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

The images from Plaka, the harbor for the town of Leonidio, which is the county seat for our district, are from an excellent website offering news and images from the area. The rest, from Spetses, the island that sits across the water from us and where Mom and I lived off and on in the 1970s and 80s, are by Mixalis Kokorakis. (Thanks, Mark Beer, for the links!)

Between the Dapia and the Old Harbor, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

I’ll return to write about Thomae and her delicious cheese soon. In the meantime, batten down the hatches and enjoy winter’s tumult, and her wonders, wherever you may be.

After the storm. The Plaka pier.

One last recipe for paximadia (for this month, at least!)

Yet another recipe for paximadia? Yes, because in Greece the variety of these twice-baked sweet and savory rusks and biscuits is dizzying and I wish to provide you with a few of my favorites from the lot. I promise, I’ll take a break from the subject after today. (But I won’t promise that I won’t return to it again!)

This recipe from Diane Kochilas‘ excellent The Glorious Foods of Greece produces a paximadi (singular for paximadia) somewhere in between the two paximadia recipes I’ve posted so far: one for a basic barley rusk made with a yeasted dough, the other for a sweetened rusk (or, more appropriately, biscuit or cookie) made with a quick dough. Diane’s recipe calls for a yeasted dough, one that is sweeter than the basic barley rusk and is spiced up nicely with cinnamon, cloves, brandy and quite a lot of citrus.

Rusks like these are commonly baked along with bread and pites (savory, sometimes sweet pies) in the outdoor, wood-fired ovens of my friends and neighbors in the village the children and I call home part of each year. On those days, the air fills with an intoxicating mix of scents: olive wood burning, wild greens and touloumotiri (the mother of feta) melding within the layers of handmade pita dough, bread dough rising and baking, and the spice of these delicious paximadia.

Diane advises eating these with a little cheese and coffee. Yum. I concur.

Rusks with Raisins and Spices

  • 3 pounds bread flour (about 12 cups), or more if necessary
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 heaping teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 envelope dry yeast
  • 2 cups warm water, or more if necessary
  • 1 ½ cups olive oil
  • 1 cup strained fresh orange juice (I often add the grated zest from the orange)
  • ½ cup brandy
  • Juice and grated zest of 1 large lemon
  • 4 cups golden raisins
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Mix the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves together in a large bowl and sprinkle with the yeast. Make a well in the center. Add the warm water, olive oil, orange juice, brandy and lemon juice. Using a wooden spoon, fork, or your hand, work the flour into the liquid from the periphery of the well inward, until most of it has been incorporated. Knead in the bowl until smooth, adding more flour or water if necessary to make a pliant but silky dough. Add the lemon zest (and orange zest, if you’ve chosen to use it), raisins and walnuts and knead into the already formed dough until they are distributed evenly. Form into a large ball, place in an oiled bowl, cover, and set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free place for 2-3 hours, until doubled.

Divide the dough into 4 equal balls and shape each into a loaf about 4 inches wide. Oil 2 baking sheets and place 2 loaves on each. Cover and let rise for another hour or two, unttil nearly doubled in bulk. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Using a pastry cutter, score the loaves into 1-inch-thick slices, being careful not to cut all the way down to the bottom of the loaf; the pieces shouldn’t separate. Bake until golden, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly on racks.

Turn the oven temperature down tot he lowest setting. Cover the baking sheets with parchment paper and place the slices on the paper. Place in the oven and bake until the paximadia are completely dry and rock-hard, 3 to 12 hours, depending on your oven. Turn during the baking so both sides get some color. Remove from the oven, let cool, and store, either in cookie tins or in lint-free cotton sacks in a cool, dry place.

Makes about 3 dozen paximadia.

To soften these rusks, hold them briefly under running tap water.

Sweetened paximadia with aniseseed and walnuts

ImageUnless it’s mid-afternoon at high summer, when the heat of the day sends nearly everyone to the cool shelter of their homes, it is unusual to walk through the village and not receive an invitation to sip a cup of coffee, right there and then. No plan or date required. Even during this time of economic crisis, spontaneity and open-heartedness are at the essence of life in rural Greece. If you’re in the mood to visit, you do. If you’re not, “Telos pando,” it will happen another time.

Whether sipping coffee or something stronger, such as ouzo or wine, Greeks tend not to drink without something to nibble on (or eat without something to drink). Thus, a plate of goodies will invariably appear alongside those tiny cups of Greek coffee. Often the goodies are various types of paximadia, the twice-baked rusks (or, in this case, cookies) I’ve been blogging about for the past two weeks.

Traditional paximadia are usually made with barley flour and, because they are so hard, require softening in water or wine before eating. But today the word paximadia is used to describe to a dizzying variety of rusks and cookies, from the traditional barley rusk often used as a base in Dakos to the slightly sweet cookies my neighbors serve with coffee.

Here is a recipe for one take on the latter type of paximadia. Made with a quick dough, it is adapted from a recipe given to me by my friend, the powerhouse home cook, Diamando Xerakia, who refuses to feed her family or friends anything that isn’t made, grown or gathered by her own hands. Tomorrow I will post a recipe for another sweetened paximadia, made with a yeasted rather than a quick dough. From Diane Kochilas’ extraordinary tour de force of regional Greek cuisine, The Glorious Foods of Greece, it is spiked deliciously with cinnamon, cloves, brandy and lots  of citrus.

Diamando’s Paximadia

  • 8 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 ¾ cups sugar
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 5 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • ½ tsp ground aniseed
  • 2 ½ cups chopped walnuts
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tbsp water
  • ¼ cup sesame seeds, or more to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the center, add the sugar, oil, eggs, vanilla, walnuts and aniseed and work into a smooth dough.

Divide the dough into two balls and then shape into loaves. Place the loaves on an oiled baking sheet, or on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush with the beaten egg yolk, sprinkle both sides with sesame seeds and bake for 30 minutes.

Allow to cool and then cut into slices. Return the slices to the oven and bake for 15 minutes until the paximadia begin to color. Allow to cool completely. Kept in an airtight container, these paximadia will keep for up to one month.

Paximadia: the humble rusk that stood the test of time

In my post two days ago about the history of transhumance in my region of the Peloponnese, I promised a series of recipes for paximadia, the twice-baked rusks that have been a staple in Greece since antiquity. Historically made with barley flour, paximadia are still a staple food for my friends and neighbors in the village. While most women I know do add a little wheat flour to lighten the flavor and texture of their paximadia, they still use barley as a base. Twice-baked to ensure a long shelf life, paximadia are hard as rocks and must be softened in a bit of water or wine before eating.

How does one eat traditional barley rusks? While they serve as a tasty substitute for bread to eat with lunch, dinner or as a snack with a hunk of cheese, a sliced tomato and a bit of wine, my favorite way to eat paximadia is in a bread salad from Crete called Dakos. To make Dakos, dampen a rusk in water or wine, break it into bite-sized chunks, and place the chunks on a plate. Onto the paximadia, 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 and you have Dakos. So delicious…thinking of it now makes my mouth water!

My friend, the cookbook author and food and travel writer Diana Farr Louis, wrote a fine essay on the subject of paximadia for the magazine, “The Art of Eating.” In a comment on my post of two days ago, Diana mentions that she sometimes prefers paximadia to fresh-baked bread. I believe several of my neighbors in Poulithra would agree.

I should note that the term paximadia is also used to describe the sweet biscuits flavored with cinnamon, anise seed, orange, lemon, even ouzo that are often served with coffee in many a Greek household. I will post recipes for a few of those delicious little morsels later this week.

This is my spin on a recipe for barley rusks 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 adding seasonings, such as anise seed, oregano or thyme.

Traditional Barley Rusks or Paximadia

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

2 tbsp dried yeast

2-3 cups lukewarm water

6 cups barley flour

1 tbsp sea salt

4 tbsp honey

½ cup olive oil

Olive oil for greasing 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. Eat whole, as you would bread, or use as a base in Dakos.

Ancient pathways and paximadia

A footpath, or monopati, in the mountains of the southeastern Peloponnese Peninsula.

When I am in Poulithra, not many days in a row pass before friends and I are drawn to make the 20-minute (or so) drive into the mountains above the village. In winter and early spring, we go to forage for wild edibles–greens, mostly, but also  wild asparagus and onions–or to spend long evenings by the warmth of a fireplace or woodstove in one of our favorite mountain tavernas. In summer, we go to check the grapes (nearly every family in the village has a small vineyard up-country), to search for mountain oregano, or—again—to eat, usually under the stars in the courtyard of a taverna or at a friend’s summer cottage.

During these trips, we rarely pass Amygdalia, a tiny mountain village eight miles from Poulithra, without stopping. Comprised of humble stone cottages, a school (now closed), two churches, a restaurant and a coffeeshop (both open only in summer or on occasional weekends), Amygdalia is the village to which the residents of Poulithra have historically migrated each spring. There, they spend the hottest months of the year and, as in Poulithra, live off nature’s plenty, cultivating grapes for wine, growing summer gardens, pasturing their goats and sheep, and tending bees as well as pears, figs, walnuts and the almonds after which the village is named. “If you live in Poulithra, you live in Amygdalia,” says my friend Lakis, who was born in Poulithra and, like most denizens of the village, shares–with his family–a house and a small vineyard in Amygdalia. “They’re basically the same place.” Today, despite the money to be made catering to summer visitors to coastal Poulithra, some villagers still make their annual migration to Amygdalia; others shuttle back and forth between the two villages, maintaining their lives and work in Poulithra, but drawn to the mountains anyway–by family, by tradition, and by the culinary riches of their gardens and fields.

This migration my friends and neighbors engage in has a technical name. It’s “transhumance”—from the Latin trans for “across” and humus for “earth”—and it is defined as “the seasonal movement of people and their livestock from fixed summer and winter pastures, typically to lowlands in winter and highlands in summer.” For centuries, transhumance was a way of life throughout much of rural Greece (indeed, it’s occurred throughout the inhabited world, according to Wikipedia) and centuries-old stone-paved footpaths, called monopatia in Greek, snake through the Greek countryside to prove it. These monopatia form an ancient network of sorts, one that linked the people and villages of each region well before the advent of the car, the phone and the Internet. Merchants traveled them to sell their wares from village to village, a father might walk a path from his community to the next to check out a potential husband for his daughter, a woman to visit her sister, and so on. And for hundreds of years the residents of Poulithra walked the steep path to Amygdalia every spring, carrying their possessions on their backs or on horse or muleback, usually with a herd of goats and sheep trailing behind them. At 55 years old, Lakis recalls making trek as a child and as a young man. “It took the better part of a day for my family and I to move from one village to the other. But as I got older, sometimes I’d walk down to Poulithra to fish and return to Amygdalia by evening with my catch,” he told me. “We walked everywhere, all the time, then. It was just the way things were.”

This flow of people and animals from Poulithra to Amygdalia and back again was so engrained in the culture that it carried with it the village priest and the school teacher. The latter would pack up the Poulithra school in spring and walk to Amygdalia, where he would set up shop to complete the academic year and, come September, begin the next, only to pack up again in October to return to Poulithra. Most of my peers in Poulithra attended school in both communities.

The trek between Poulithra and Amygdalia was long and steep (the footpath connecting the two villages ran about 13 kilometers). For Lakis and his family, typical trailside sustenance included olives, cheese, and his mother’s paximadia, twice-baked rusks made with a combination of barley and wheat flour.

Traditional paximadia are hard and dry and, because they are easily portable, were baked in preparation for those twice-yearly journeys. They were also (and still are) often found in the shepherd’s trovas, or shoulderbag (and, more commonly today, stashed for roadside picnics in the trunk of many a Greek’s car). This kind of paximadia we re-hydrate with a little water, wine or oil before eating 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.

Greeks have eaten paximadia since antiquity. Today, the rusks are experiencing a resurgence of sorts and come in all shapes, flavors and sizes. Some are made with barley, others with ground chick pea, rye or wheat, or a combination of those flours. Some 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.

This weekend I will post a recipe for paximadia similar to the rusks my neighbors in Poulithra baked for their seasonal treks into and out of the mountains, and I will take a brief but delicious departure from all things Peloponnesian to post a recipe for a scrumptious bread salad from the island of Crete called Dakos, in which paximadia is an ingredient. In the days to follow, we will explore other variations on the paximadia theme.

Feasting for good fortune: Greece’s good luck cake

In many places around the world, special foods are believed to bring good luck to the coming year. In Greece that food is Vasilópita, or Saint Vasilio’s, or Basil’s, pie. More a cake or bread than a pie, Vasilópita is the centerpiece of the New Year’s table throughout Greece and indeed much of eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Within the Vasilópita is hidden a coin. At midnight, the sign of the cross is etched with a knife onto the cake’s surface and then it is cut and served from eldest to youngest. (Often the first slice is set aside for St. Basil.) The cutting of the Vasilópita is said to bless the house; the receiver of the coin hidden within is not only that much richer, but also destined to have good fortune in the New Year.

The type of dough used to make Vasilópita varies widely from region to region and household to household. In some places it is a yeast dough made with little to no sugar; in others it is a quick bread and is quite sweet. In some regions, pumpkin is an ingredient. In others, yogurt. Some recipes call for mastic.

My friend Patra makes a delicious Vasilópita. It is sweet, and with good reason: She says the sugar she adds symbolizes the hope that the New Year will be filled with sweetness and joy.

Καλή χρονιά or Happy New Year to you! May 2012 be filled with both sweetness and joy…and much good fortune.

Vasilópita

Dough:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 ½ cups sugar
  • 7 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup almonds, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 3 cups flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk

Topping:

  • 1/2 cup slivered, blanched almonds
  • 2-3 tablespoon sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12” round baking pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add extracts, crushed almonds, and orange zest.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Alternating with the milk, gradually incorporate the flour mixture into the batter.

Spread batter into pan and tuck a coin (thinly wrapped in aluminum foil) into the batter until it is completely covered. Sprinkle with sugar and decorate with blanched almonds.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes until it is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (If it browns too quickly, cover with aluminum foil.) Cool on a rack before removing from the pan.

Melomakarona (honey-infused, citrus-scented spice cookies)

With Christmas just around the corner, tomorrow will be our cookie-baking day. Among the batches will be Melomakarona, the honey-infused spice cookies that are traditionally enjoyed throughout Greece during Christmas and New Year’s. Subtly perfumed with orange and lemon, they are utterly delicious. And since they are made with olive oil rather than butter, they are among the healthier of the season’s sweets. Unlike many holiday cookies that grow dry and crumbly after a few days, Melomakarona get better with time.

This recipe comes from Aglaia Kremezi, the author of many books on Greek and Mediterranean cuisine and a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. With her husband Costa, Aglaia also runs a cooking school on the Cycladic island of Kea. Her website, which is chock full of recipes, interesting articles and lovely images from Kea, can be found here.

Melomakarona

1 1/4 cups olive oil
1/3 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
3–4 cups all-purpose flour
21/2 teaspoons baking powder
11/2 cups fine semolina
1/2 cup brandy
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

FILLING (optional) or COATING for the cookies
2 cups finely chopped walnuts or 1 cup, for sprinkling
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon or 2 teaspoons, for sprinkling

SYRUP
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
11/2 cups water

In a large bowl, beat the oil and sugar with an electric mixer until blended. Beat in the orange zest and juice. In a medium bowl, combine 2 cups of the flour and the baking powder. Gradually beat the flour mixture into the oil mixture. Beat in the semolina, brandy, lemon zest, cloves and cinnamon.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding 1 cup or more flour as necessary to obtain a smooth, soft, oily dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 20-30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Make the filling, if you are using it, by combining in a medium bowl, the walnuts and cinnamon.

Take pieces of dough the size of a small egg and roll with your hands into ovals, about 2 1/2 inches long. If you are stuffing them, push three fingers into the bottom of each cookie to make an opening, and stuff with 1 teaspoon of the filling; reserve the remaining filling. Press the dough to close the opening. Slightly flatten each cookie and if you like, make an indentation on the top with the tines of a fork. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets about 1 inch apart.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until they just start to color.

Meanwhile, make the syrup: In a medium saucepan, simmer the sugar, honey and water for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Place the hot cookies in a large dish or baking pan that holds them snuggly, and pour the syrup over them. Let stand for 15 minutes. Turn the cookies to moisten the other sides and let stand until the cookies have absorbed all the syrup. Place the remaining filling, the chopped nuts and cinnamon, on a plate and roll each cookie in it to coat on all sides.

Place the cookies in an airtight container, with parchment or waxed paper between each layer. Let stand for at least 1 day before serving. Store for up to 1 month.

Makes about 40 cookies.