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.
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.
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.
Vangelia’s Pear Preserves
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
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.