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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Of syrup, silk and star-crossed lovers.

When we are in Greece, we are drawn to the sea. But the mountains, too, pull us into their fold: to hike the ancient paths that wind from village to village, to spend long evenings under the stars at our favorite mountain tavernas, to collect oregano and to gather horta, the wild greens that have sustained Greeks for centuries. Thus, once or twice a week, I find myself navigating the steep road that climbs from Poulithra to the high country above. Over the years it has become a ritual of sorts to stop just after the road makes its final hairpin turn, leaving the view of the village and the sea behind as it begins its journey across the mountain plateau. Once there, I steer my car onto a grassy spot in the shade of an enormous tree, get out, stretch my legs and take in the view below: the village, like a white river tumbling down the mountainside to the sea, the islands of Spetses and Hydra suspended among the layers of blue.

For years, so taken was I by the land and seascape below that it didn’t occur to me to look up at the canopy of that generous tree. Indeed, it took the combined forces of my young daughter and my mother to inspire me to do so. We had stopped on our way home from a visit to dear friends in Kyparissi, the next village down the coast from Poulithra. As we were taking in the view and drinking a bit of water, my daughter, then 7 or 8, said, “Look, Mom, blackberries.” My mother, who grew up in Ohio and spent many hours beside her own grandmother cooking, gardening, and gathering wild foods, said, “No, Sylvie. Not blackberries. Mulberries. Edible and quite delicious.”

And so, since that day, each summer we have gone to that beautiful spot above the sea to gather mulberries.

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Mulberries are widespread in Greece and indeed throughout the temperate world. According to Wikipedia, there are 10-16 species of the genus Morus, deciduous trees commonly known as mulberries. I’ve noticed two species in our region:  Morus alba (white mulberry) and Morus nigra (black mulberry). Our tree with a view is the black mulberry. Its fruit is a gorgeous deep purple color, indeed it is almost black, and extremely juicy.

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From the Satires of Horace we know that the Romans ate mulberries at their feasts: “That man shall spend his summers healthy who shall finish his dinners with mulberries black with ripeness, which he shall have gathered from the tree before the sun becomes violent.” But I’ve found no such evidence of their use here, ancient or otherwise. When I’ve asked my neighbors for recipes or memories of their use, most have shrugged their shoulders, a few suggesting that mulberries may have been used to make a “poto” (drink) or marmalade.

Although the berries’ use in Greek cookery is clearly minimal, the mulberry tree, specifically Morus alba, did play a relatively brief but important role in Greek economics and culture, but its role was not culinary. Indeed, the tree was introduced to Greece from Asia to establish sericulture, or silk production.

For more than two thousand years the Chinese kept the secret of silk to themselves, guarding the details of its production carefully. Although the fabric was a coveted luxury item in the West, people here knew little about the techniques used to produce it. For example, in 70 BC the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History, “Silk is obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water…” But siga, siga, as we say in Greek (slowly, slowly), the secrets of silk production eventually spread and rulers and early-day entrepreneurs endeavored to bring the industry west. One such ruler was the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great who, according to the historian Procopius, in the 5th century AD sent two monks as Christian missionaries to China. Their orders? To smuggle silkworm eggs and the seeds of the mulberry tree home, hidden in hollowed-out walking sticks. Whether due to the monks’ efforts or not, around the 5th century AD the practice of sericulture began in the Mediterranean, including in Greece where it eventually flourished. Here on the Peloponnese Peninsula the Byzantine town of Mystras became a center for silk production. In fact, during the Middle Ages, the Peloponnesos was known as Morea (Μωριάς or Morias) from the Greek word for the tree Μουριά, Μouria, or mulberry.

If you live in North America and wish to gather mulberries, look for Morus rubra, the red mulberry, or Morus alba, the white mulberry of sericulture fame. Red mulberry trees have reddish-brown bark and reach a height of about sixty-five feet. As my friend the forager and author Hank Shaw writes, they’re easy to recognize as they’re “the only thing in North America that looks like a blackberry tree.” (My daughter would agree.) The white mulberry reaches about forty feet, has rough, gray bark and, of course, white berries. Depending on the species and their hybrids, ripe mulberries come in different colors: white, pink, red, and that gorgeous nearly-black shade of deep purple. You can eat all of them; there are no poisonous look-alikes.

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How did black mulberries get their gorgeous color? The answer lies in the Ovidian love story, “Pyramus and Thisbe.” The plot will seem familiar: Two young lovers–Pyramus, “the most handsome of young men,” and Thisbe, “the fairest beauty of the East.” Their parents, feuding, have forbidden them to meet, and so the youths whisper to each other through a crack in the wall of their adjoining houses. When they can no longer stand their separation, they agree to meet in the shade of a certain mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives, but she encounters a lioness bloodied and fresh from a kill. She flees, leaving her veils behind. Pyramus arrives, sees the same bloodied lion and the veils and assumes that she has killed Thisbe. Bereft, he falls upon his sword to join his love in the afterlife. As he falls, his blood splashes upon the white mulberries and stains them. Thisbe returns. Finding Pyramus slain by his own hand, she takes his dagger and dispatches her own life. The gods, hearing Thisbe’s lament, change the berries’ color to honor the youths’ forbidden love.

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Blood-stained or no, mulberries are high in Vitamin C and resveratrol, one of the heart-healthy substances present in red wine. They also contain iron, postassium and Vitamin K.

If, like my daughter, you prefer to eat the berries fresh from the tree, preferably whilst in the tree, there’s no need for a recipe. But there are many ways to cook them. This year I made a delicious mulberry syrup for ice cream and pancakes. From pies to marmalade, you can do anything with mulberries that you do with any other berry, and they dry and freeze well. Since they don’t have the acidity of other fruits, I suggest using lemon or lime juice to enhance their flavor.

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Recipe for a simple syrup

  1. Rinse and sort the berries. Feel free to leave the stems intact.
  2. In a heavy pot, add equal parts mulberries to water (i.e. 1 cup of mulberries to 1 cup of water). Bring the berries to a boil.
  3. Remove the berries from the stove and, using a fork or potato masher, smash them.
  4. Allow the berry mixture to continue cooking on a medium flame for 20 minutes or more.
  5. Using cheescloth (or a lightweight kitchen towel) suspended over a bowl, allow the berries to drain overnight. (You may need to wring out any remaining juice the next day.)
  6. Return the juice to a pot and add sugar to taste. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  It takes about an hour for the syrup to thicken. Stir occasionally so that it doesn’t stick or burn on the bottom.
  7. Test the thickness of the syrup with a spoon. If the syrup is too thin, it will slide off immediately.  If it is ready, it will coat your spoon and slowly slip off.

Delicious on ice cream, pancakes and yogurt. Καλή όρεξη!

 

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Starting Fresh.

With my dear friend of many years, James Foot, guided by our friend Eleni, I hiked last summer to the tiny mountain settlement of Babbala to meet a family of traditional cheesemakers. Notes from this journey to come.

With my dear friend of many years, James Foot, guided by our friend Eleni, I hiked last summer to the tiny mountain settlement of Babbala to meet a family of traditional cheesemakers. Notes from this journey to come.

Nearly a year has passed since my last post here at The Shepherd and the Olive Tree. For me, the length of time is difficult to believe and to reconcile. This blog is my passion. Moreover, it is a source of information for my readers and others in search of recipes and insight from this traditional society I call home as much of each year as possible. I am truly sorry for the long pause.

The question I’ve struggled with when contemplating my first post in so many months is this: how do I explain my long absence without going into the personal details of my family’s lives, material not meant, really, for a blog about the foodways of the southeastern Peloponnese Peninsula? Yet, without sharing some information, how do I tell you, my dear readers, why I disappeared for so long? No easy answer has come to me, so I will try for a balance between the two.

During these months I have been absorbed by other matters: in the beginning, a new love and eventually, siga siga, as we say in Greece (slowly, slowly), helping my children adapt to his presence in our lives. More time and transcontinental travel ensued (he is an Italian with a love for this region that matches my own) and what came next was a shock for all of us: a major medical emergency, truly a life-or-death moment, for my new partner while he was visiting us in the United States. This was followed by an hours-long emergency open-chest surgery and a very long recovery.

He is well now. The children are content. And we are settled into our “other” life in Greece for the duration of the summer. And now it is up to me to resurrect this–my blog–as well as my freelance work, both which sat neglected for the past year as I attended to the well-being of my children and my significant other.

But, as I’ve said, this blog is my passion and, even during the thick of things, not many days in a row passed without it entering my mind. To that end, I have dreamt of stories and recipes to share with you and, between these events I’ve described, have even collected a few, which I will share with you, siga, siga, now that life has resumed a sweet predictability and routine. (Or so we hope!)

For those of you who do return to read my missives and musings, I thank you. Καλό καλοκαίρι, or happy summer! May you all be well.

Eating Flowers, Part Three: Capers Preserved in Vinegar

What to do with these fresh-picked capers?

Since my first post on capers, several people have written with details on their own approaches to preserving the unopened flower of the Capparis Spinosa. I’m amazed by the diversity of methods, the subtle variations within the three caper-preserving themes: salt-curing, sun-drying and preserving in a brine.

After taste-testing two batches of capers preserved by my mother—one salt-cured, the other in a brine of salt, water and vinegar—I’ve decided that my favorite flavor comes from the salt-cured caper, hands down. The capers she preserved in water, salt and vinegar, while delicious, also tasted distinctly like…vinegar. The salt-cured capers allowed for the full flavor of the caper bud to flourish.

I thought perhaps I was alone in my caper preferences until yesterday when I discovered a link on Facebook to this to-the-point piece on capers by the esteemed Ed Behr, the editor of the beautiful and also esteemed food journal, The Art of Eating. (On an entirely different note, I’m honored to say that I have a story in the current edition of the magazine…my first!) On capers, Ed, as usual, is forthright with his opinion. (The article’s title is, “Capers in Dry Salt Are Better.”) Also as usual, his writing is chock full of interesting information and insight culled from years of travel, tasting, researching and writing about food. You can trust Ed to know his stuff.

But whether or not capers preserved in salt are truly better is, in my opinion, up to the taster. Since diversity is indeed the spice of life, I’ll post a last method for preserving capers, one that includes vinegar, lots. Have at it.

Pickled Capers
Pack your fresh, washed capers into sterile jars. Bring a small pan of white wine vinegar to boil (measure enough vinegar to fill your jar) with a pinch of salt and a bay leaf. Pour the boiling vinegar over the capers, filling to the rim. Close the lid tight. For a good seal, turn the jar upside down for twenty minutes. Store in a cool, dark place for about two months before opening.

Καλή όρεξη! And, as ever, thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.