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.

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

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

Curious.

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

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

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

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The descent to Kyparissi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Κουνέλι-Στιφάδο or Rabbit Stew

INGREDIENTS
One 3-pound rabbit, cut into serving pieces

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

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

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

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

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

"Welcome to beautiful Kyparissi."

“Welcome to beautiful Kyparissi.”

Rainy days in Leonidio and a salad for the citrus season

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

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

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The river now runs through Leonidion.

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Vincenzo.

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

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

Insalata di Arance

Insalata di Arance. By Vincenzo.

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

INSALATA DI ARANCE
Orange Salad

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

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

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

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!