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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