The Season in a Spoon: Greek Spoon Sweets and a Recipe for Pear Preserves

Pass by a friend’s or a neighbor’s house in rural Greece and it’s unlikely you won’t be invited in to sip a cup of coffee or a bit of mastiha, or both.

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Along with the cups, saucers and glasses will inevitably arrive spoonfuls of glyka tou koutaliou, or spoon sweets. Served as a gesture of hospitality throughout Greece, spoon sweets are delicious, syrupy preserves made from almost any fruit or nut imaginable. The custom of serving them to guests is so engrained in Greek culture that sometimes even shop owners will keep them on hand to offer to passers-by who stop in for business or, also likely, a visit.

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Seasonal cooking is the backbone of Greek cuisine, and spoon sweets and other preserves are no exception. Thus, the spectrum of them follows the seasons. In autumn, they’re made with apples and quince. In winter, from lemons and lemon rind, bergamot, grapefruits and grapefruit rind, oranges and orange rind. Come spring, there are apricots, strawberries, and green, unripe figs. In summer, they’re made with cherries, plums, grapes, even tomatoes, eggplants, and watermelon rind. Nuts and flowers also make an appearance in the spoon sweet repertoire, rose petal sweets among the most prized of them.

In the mountains above the village we call home part of each year, pear trees grow in the most surprising of places: in meadows quiet but for the occasional tinkle of a goat’s bell, beside crumbling stone cottages, threshing circles and windmills long abandoned. Although these pear trees, planted by whom we cannot know, seem forgotten, it’s unlikely their fruit will go unharvested. Most of the Greeks I know are extraordinarily resourceful and will not let good food go to waste. Moreover, perhaps because the memory of famine is a part of the culture’s collective memory, there is a certain ethic against wasting food. If it’s there, ripe, and belongs to no one, it’s simply wrong not to put it to use.

One day this summer Vincenzo and I made a visit to the mountain village of Peleta to learn about a traditional dish called patsas, or hangover soup (story and recipe to come). Our host Vangelia had just made a batch of pear preserves, which she served to us before we got to work, with tiny cups of Greek coffee and glasses of ice-cold water. These preserves aren’t exactly spoon sweets as the pear, usually is cooked in its entirety, doesn’t fit on a spoon, but the idea is the same and the results are just as delicious.

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Vangelia’s Pear Preserves

Ingredients:
1 kilogram of pears (small, firm fruit is ideal)
1 kilogram of sugar
3 cups of water, or enough to cover the pears
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 lemon, in strips
A handful of whole cloves

Method:
If the pears are small, you may leave them whole. If not, cut them lengthwise in half or in quarters. If you do halve or quarter them, be sure to also core them. Whole pears can be left uncored.

Peel the pears and, if necessary, cut them. Stud each of the pears with a whole clove and place them in a deep stockpot. Add the water and bring it to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the sugar and the zest of one lemon. Boil for an additional 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and allow the pears to sit in the cooking liquid overnight.

The next day, add the juice of 1 lemon to the pears and simmer uncovered over low heat for about 2 hours or until the juices begin to thicken. (From time to time you will need to skim the foam from the top of the syrup.)

When the juices have thickened to a syrupy consistency, remove the pan from the heat. Allow the preserves to cool before serving. Preserved pears are delicious over yogurt (our favorite is unsweetened, Greek-style yogurt) or ice cream. The preserves can be canned or kept for up to two weeks in the refrigerator…if they last that long.

Our friend, Tassia, enjoys Vangelia's pear preserves. Photo by Vincenzo Spione.

Our friend, Tassia, enjoys Vangelia’s pear preserves. All photos by Vincenzo.

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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.

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog!

Those of you who know me know that I spend about half of every year in Greece, in a village of 300 souls, more or less, on the rugged and remote southeastern Peloponnese Peninsula. When in Greece, I spend much of my time exploring the region’s traditional foodways—first as a passion, but also (to my great fortune) as a vocation. As I talk with people here and watch them—baking bread, curing olives, making cheese—I am constantly learning. This blog is where I hope to share notes and impressions from my gleanings, along with recipes and photos. (On that note, the header photos you will see here were taken by my friend and colleague, the very talented Dimitris Maniatis. It’s my pleasure to share his work.)

Craggy, pine-clad mountains, fertile plains and 856 miles of coastline make up Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula, a land that supports an exceptional culinary and agricultural diversity. From the olive groves that stretch from the sea’s edge to the gardens that fill every nook and cranny of each village, food is at the heart and soul of this place. For many here in the rural Peloponnese—and indeed throughout rural Greece—the seasons are still marked 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 December, 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, and fish fresh from the sea.

Through this blog, I hope to tell the story of a region where everyday food profoundly connects people with the land, with the past, and with each other. Again, welcome and thanks for joining me on the journey!