Hania has recently become overpopulated, not so much by people, but by cars. Everyone seems to be driving very big, very new and very expensive cars. They are congesting the town, and giving it a tacky appearance. Unfortunately, people drive recklessly and expect to be able to stop anywhere they want; they double-park their jeeps and sports cars wherever they feel like, with complete disregard for other road users, whether drivers or pedestrians. Hania has become a nightmare town filled with spoilt brats. This is why I don't come into town on a regular basis. I have developed a kind of haniaphobia. Whenever I need to come into the city, I make sure that I have collected as many errands as I can possibly get through in one day, park my car as far away from the centre as possible, and walk into town. Walking into Hania is mentally safer than driving into it.
Since I do a lot of walking whenever I am in Hania, running around from one side to the other, I get a chance to pass many kinds of food stores, and I am surprised to see more and more opening up all the time, mainly fast food outlets, selling pies and sandwiches, hot and cold drinks, and souvlakia. Hania has become a global village. Pretty soon it will lose its distinctness with all the steel and metal buildings that are constantly being erected. Even the Greek version of McDonalds, Goody's, recently underwent extensive renovations on a main street. None of these kinds of food outlets whet my appetite. I have no desire to buy anything from them. I'm still looking for a food shop that sells something I want to eat. I know I sound hard to please, but with the plethora of permanent non-Greek residents, ex-pat Brits and Germans, there are bound to be many people who are sick of souvlaki and tiropita, traditional tavernas and tourist-trap restaurants doling out the same meals; I'm sure there are others like me, dying for some Asian cuisine.
The only food I'm really tempted by when I'm in town is spanakopita. Like the Asians who eat rice everyday, or the Italians who eat pasta daily, I could eat spinach pie every single day of the week. The pastry shops, fast food outlets and bakeries all sell their own version of it: rounds of puff pastry, spirals of filo (phyllo), oblong crusty pastry shapes, small squares, sprinkled with sesame, little half moons - the last two are called kalitsounia due to their shape and size), I could eat them all, even if they are not displayed appealingly; pies and pastries are usually kept in a murky looking display cabinet kept at street level. Hardly what this king of Greek pies deserves. I make spanakopita and kalitsounia all year round, not necessarily with spinach; my pies use all manner of edible greens grown in Crete; silverbeet is a good substitute for spinach. For greens, we need look no further than our own town. In the summer, there is a smaller range of available greens that can be used in pies (I use amaranth - vlita - mint and courgette) but in the winter, the possibilities are endless; spinach is just one of the zillions of sweet edible greens that grow in most fields of the region. Greens are so healthy and taste so good in pies that it astounds me to see people on the street gorging on cholesterol-filled fatty cheese pies, rolls and kebabs.
I make dozens of these pies - small and large - for my family. You probably think I spend all my time in the kitchen, but that's not true at all. No one these days - not even in this little Mediterranean summer resort town - has the luxury to spend lots of time in the kitchen. Most people do the same kinds of things that I do: take care of the children, work outside the home, do the shopping, pay bills, help children with their homework, take them to art classes, chess club and whatever else. But we still have to eat, and we can't eat out regularly. It's simply too expensive and very bad for your health. So I make the pies in huge batches, freeze them, and cook them on a weekly basis. I make enough to last me two months.
I'm really lucky to have a garden which offers us some of the horta I put into my pies, and I also have relatives who grow various seasonal greens in abundance in their gardens and fields. Just recently, I came home from work at 10.30pm to find my kitchen bench stacked high with fresh spinach from my uncles' house in Galatas, a neighbouring village to our home. My husband had visited them and dug it up from their garden.
Spinach (like all greens) is a leafy low-lying crop, which is cut from the root, meaning that it will be caked in mud. Thankfully, he cleaned it for me, so this has halved the time I will be spending in the kitchen making pies. After washing off all the silt, soil and mud, he spread it on an old towel to dry, perfect for me because I could start making the pies the very next day. Leafy vegetables are full of moisture - not good for pie making. When the weather is good, I dry leafy pie ingredients on the clothesline; the drier they are, the less likely your pie crust will go soggy or break open. I had picked some spinach recently from our own garden, but it was very small. My mother-in-law does not use any chemical fertilisers, so it only grows to a third of the height as my uncles' spinach! Vlita (amaranth) replaces spinach in the summer; vlita is never grown in winter, not even under greenhouse conditions.
Spinach will form the basis of my hortopites, but a lot of other greens will be added. Today, I decided to use a bag of wild greens picked in the very verdant village of Stilos about half an hour out of the main town, which I had bought on a recent trip into the centre, from a fresh produce shop close to the chess club my children go to. I wonder what the health departments of various EU governments would say about the contents of this bag: it looks as if it contains useless weeds, and at 6 euro a kilo, they certainly aren't cheap. The sad thing about the contents of this bag of goodness is that it contains things that most people don't know the name of, not even the everyday common name, let alone the scientific one. The good thing about it is that most of the greens are aromatic, so when you chop them up, they will scent your hands and kitchen with a very alluring perfume. Here's what I found in the bag:
All these herbs reminded of other more common ones; one looked like parsley, another celery, another like coriander, but they are all local herbs with local names. They exuded different levels of pungent aromas. My next investment will be a book about herbs. The only one I recognised for sure was fennel. They were sold free of grit and soil residues. When yiayia comes out of hospital, I must ask her to tell me the names of these mysterious herbs, otherwise, knowledge of them may die away with her. If you can't get hold of wild herbs and greens, you can use finely chopped up mint, parsley, fennel, dill and oregano, what I used to use until I discovered the wild ones.
Cutting up all the spinach and herbs is going to take about an hour.I will spend it therapeutically, ruminating on the past week's events, wondering if I've really aged since my last (recent) birthday, nostalgisising about New Zealand and how my mother used to prepare these pies there using shop-bought flaky pastry, which I haven't eaten in years. It looks nothing like the pastry I use to make these pies; the New Zealand variety was buttery yellow, while the one I buy in Hania is floury off-white. It goes crispy when cooked rather than puffy. Mum used to make her own pastry for fried kalitsounia, as there was no readily available substitute in the supermarkets. I use the same variety for both baking and frying.
Once all the ingredients that need chopping are done, grate 1-2 large onions, sprinkle some salt, pepper and oregano in the mixture, and pile on the cheeses. How much cheese, you ask? Don't ask; add as much as you have in the house, as much or as little as you want to add, grated yellow cheese, white curd cheese (mizithra), any cheese that takes your fancy. I always use the local mizithra with some grated Irish regato. It's what we usually buy and always have available. These pies are a convenience food for us; I rarely change my recipe. By the way, my mother made her own curd cheese, a tradition that has gone with the wind, with the availability of mass-production cheese making methods. She used a rennet in liquid form, which was used to make junket, something I doubt anyone will be using these days. Finally, don't forget to add some semolina if you are worried that the spinach was too damp, or the curd cheese not dry enough, or you are simply a nervous cook like myself, and want a fool-proof way to make a pie without the filling spilling out during the cooking process. I remember a cookery teacher recommended adding a fistful of rice to spinach pie filling to decrease the moisture (semolina blends into the mixture better).
Now for the messy part: get your hands stuck into it. Take off your rings, take the phone off the hook, and want the children that you can't come to the toilet with them for the next 20 minutes. Mix everything so that it is well blended, and looks like a crumbly green and white mixture. Once you've got that done, taste it. Yes, taste it, and try not to eat it before you start filling the pies. This stuff makes a fantastic sandwich spread.
You'll be free wheeling to the end now. Oil some baking pans (I used four small roasting tins - my oven could fit two of them side-by-side), spread out your pastry (I buy the same traditionally made pastry that I use in tiropitakia), and start filling the tins. If you use thin filo pastry sheets, they will need to be brushed with oil or butter in between each layer of pastry. The pastry I use is thicker than the usual filo pastry, and comes in large square sheets, each half sheet fitting onto the bottom of the oiled tin. To find out what fuss and bother it is to make filo pastry, check out kalofagas. He made a spanakopita with his own filo pastry on the same day as I did - great minds think alike.
I lay the first half on the bottom, fill the tin with mixture, and then fold the remaining pastry over the top, without cutting the pastry. A perfect fit for these small tins (they yield about 6 large pieces of pita each). Don't fit too much mixture into the tin, as it will be difficult to hold it together once you cook and serve it. You don't need to get your hands dirty pressing the mixture down into the tin, either; you can do that by pressing down on the second half of the pastry sheet once you've folded it over onto the top. At this stage, you can freeze the pies, but since you've gotten do far, why not go the whole hog by brushing them with beaten egg and sprinkling sesame seed on the top? When the time comes to cook them, you'll just barge into the house, throw a tin into the oven, have a shower (or bathe the kids), and the pie will simply cook by itself, and be ready when you are. Some people are against freezing egg, but I'm obviously not one of those.
Once you've finished, treat yourself to a piece of sourdough bread, or maybe a toasted pita bread, spread with some of the mixture - you're bound to either run out of pastry or run out of mixture when making these pies - some olives and a glass of wine. You'll be pooped by the end of it. I made four pies - each yielding six large squares (or 12 smaller servings) - with this mixture, trimming only the shorter sides of the pastry, because I intend to make kalitsounia or tiropitakia with it, and it seems a waste to throw it away (5 sheets - 1 kilo - for 7 euro), or let it cook without filling, being piled up on the rest of the pie. At least I won't have to go into Hania that often to buy the pastry all over again, and have to watch out for the maniacs blocking the narrow roads with their utes.
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MORE PASTRY RECIPES:
Kalitsounia in the oven