In Greece and Cyprus, eating with friends and relatives is a big thing. Food is considered a blessing, and it’s symbolic when shared. Being able to offer food and witness the enjoyment it gives others is the reward that forms part of the blessing!
In the Greek tradition, even if the only thing you have in the house is plain rusks, you’ll share them with your guests – or even with unknown passers-by who may drop in because of a sudden rain storm.
This actually happened to us when my children and I were caught out in a storm while on a daytrip in a remote area of Cyprus. An old lady poked her head out of her front door and seeing us running by and drenched, she motioned for us to enter her home. Inside, it was like time had stood still. Her mud-brick house was bare: there was just one room, with her small bed in a corner, a wooden table and two chairs, and a ‘mangali’ holding burning coals, which I remember was our only source of heating while I was growing up.
The old woman went into her kitchen to make us some tea, and I followed to help. The little room, swept clean, had a brick fireplace in the corner and bare cupboards – she explained that she gave her food order to the bus driver who passed through the village once a week. She had some dried sage hanging off a nail on the wall, which she used to make spatzia (wild sage) tea for us. This, she served with rusks. The memory of those rusks dipped in mountain spatzia tea is the essence of hospitality.
Hospitality – or sharing food, or finding ways to give food in order to justify the blessing of having it – is ingrained in our tradition to the extent that it is impossible to avoid mixing and sharing food with friends, relatives and strangers.
Flavours and smells
As life goes on it gets enriched with yet more memories that include food flavours, cooking and smells.
As we move into the next generation, though, we find that like our mothers and grandmothers before us, we have more memories of smells, more memories of food sharing, more memories of flavours than the younger generation. The faster pace of life and its demands forces them to satisfy their hunger with fast food options. Fewer and fewer young people can tell stories of smells and flavours that are lingering in households, neighbourhoods and villages.
But although times have changed, there is still a move towards reviving these smells and flavours so they are not just a thing of times past, lived and forgotten.
Our children want their children to grow up with memories from childhood that include food flavours and food smells.
This is why each and every one of the recipes we bring to you has this feeling of the blessing of food, connected with our culture, our traditions, our people, the love of sharing, and the smells and flavours that are shared too.
The memory of yoghurt
To us and to our parents and grandparents, yoghurt, for example, has left a memory. Was it the home made yoghurt that our mums made from milk given to them from a passing shepherd? Or was it from the yoghurt man that used to go around neighbourhoods selling spoonfulls of yoghurt from a big clay pot? The flavour of the thick crust on the top of that yoghurt has no comparison.
In fact, yoghurt was such a treat that it formed a special memory for my father. A story he was fond of repeating to his grandchildren was that when he was a youngster they used to eat plain pourgouri (bulgar wheat) six days a week, but on the seventh day they’d eat it with yoghurt. He described it as such a luxury, such a scarce treat, that his grandchildren gained a new appreciation for the simple yoghurt they were given to eat.
For me the importance and pleasures of yoghurt stretched further than eating it with pourgouri.
What sticks in my memory is the yoghurt vendor in Athens, in Omonoia Square. This central square was known for its crowds, day and night, as Greeks would gather there and philosophise endlessly about politics, football or any topic they could think of. The square was also famed for its humble yoghurt shop, which was always packed and which served only one speciality: a plateful of the most delicious yoghurt with honey.
And this is how, for me, yoghurt ended up as one of my life’s food memories.
Take a look at this easy recipe for making yoghurt at home. All you need is milk, a teapot and a blanket…!