Thursday, 13 March 2008

Fennel pies - marathopites (Μαραθόπιτες)

Fennel pies (μαραθόπιτες - marathopites, μαραθόπιτα in the singular) are probably special to the region of Crete where I live, Hania. If you visit the village of Fournes Chania (on your way to Omalos, and the Samaria Gorge), you can eat at the Bouganvilia, a local restaurant that serves these pies. I always associate fennel pie with Fournes, because this is the first restaurant my husband took me out to when we first met. It doesn't surprise me that the the Bouganvilia makes so many of these, because fennel bushes abound in the orange and olive fields in the area. I also find that the best fennel pie makers are from areas of Hania that are close to low-lying fields, not seaside or mountainous villages, which says something about the origins of fennel pies.

Why fennel (the leaves of the Greek fennel bush, that is, not the fennel bulb, also known as finocchio) was chosen to make this pie stumps me; fennel has a very strong taste that can overpower any meal that contains this highly aromatic herb. You either like it, or you don't like it when you have to face it on its own. Although fennel pies are not made solely with fennel greens, the leafy plant makes up 50% of the wild greens included in it. Fennel pies are made from the most basic ingredients - wild plants, olive oil and flour-and-water pastry. The way they are made is most unusual. The pastry is rolled out by hand, the filling is stuffed into the dough, and the end result is a seamless filled pancake, which makes you wonder how the filling got into it in the first place (a little like how a ship got into a boat). They resemble the most primitive pie that anyone could have ever conceived, before ovens and baking tins were invented.

Recently I went out for a walk with an aunt of mine who was picking fennel to make dolmades. She reminded me of how I once made delicious fennel pies, and I suddenly remembered that I hadn't made them in absolutely ages. What usually scares me about pie-making is the dough: I can never get the quantities quite right for the perfect pastry. Most Greek pastry/dough recipes tell you how much flour you need, and then tell you to use as much water as necessary to make a particular kind of dough; others tell you how much water you need, and let you play around with the dough. The phrase Greek cooks use is "όσο αλεύρι σηκώσει." These kinds of recipes are not for me. I want exactitude. Fennel pies cannot be made in the traditional way with bought pastry (that's the lazy, modern way which will be described at the end). It is the same dough that is used to make cheese and honey pies (sfakianes pites - Σφακιανές πίτες). This will be the closest that I come to making my own pastry.

As mentioned above, fennel pies are very distinctive to Crete, and especially Hania. The recipes on the internet come from this area. They use the same technique, but the pies produced look quite different from each other. explorecrete makes a pastry dough with a strong liquor produced wholly in Crete, called raki (tsikoudia) The pies come in the 'boat-in-a-ship' form. Elias Mamalakis mentions leaves from garlic plants in the filling, which is something my aunt also told me to use when we were talking about how to make marathopites. It's a coincidence that we have some garlic in the garden (planted by the famous mother-in-law); it stands out with its long stalks, looking very much like cultivated grass. You can't mix it up with fresh spring onion, which has shorter dark-green stalks growing altogether in a tuft, whereas garlic grows on one stalk with alternate leaves. But Elias Mamalakis' pies are what I call the 'lazy method' of making marathopites: they involve using two thin pastry sheets with some filling in between, which are then sealed with the tines of a fork. Both pies are equally delicious and authentic. If making pastry sounds all too much for you, just buy some pastry rounds and make the pies using the lazy method.

For the pastry, you need:
½ kilo of strong or all-purpose flour
1 shot glass of olive oil
1 shot glass raki (if you can't get hold of this, try vodka or gin; if you prefer to make a non-alcoholic version of this pastry, omit it altogether)
some water
some salt
Make a well in the bowl with the flour and pour the oil and alcohol into it. Add the salt, and mix everything with your hands. Add water slowly enough to allow you to gauge the amount needed, and keep kneading it into the dough to make a compact soft pastry. Snap off bits of pastry and shape them into small balls - bigger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball; that would be about as large as a small mandarin. Put the pastry aside until you are ready to make the pies. Cover the pastry balls with a cloth so that they don't dry out.

For the filling, you need:
a mixture of leafy greens (spinach, mint, parsley, spring onion) or wild horta, all finely chopped
as much fennel as you used of leafy greens (this is purely up to you; the more you use, the more fennelly your pies will smell and taste, the more authentic your pies will be)
a few fresh green leaves from garlic plants, finely chopped
a glass of oil
salt and pepper to taste
a pinch of flour
The filling is really quite simple to prepare. Make sure all the greens are clean and free of grit. Drain them well by pressing them into a towel so that most moisture is absorbed into it. Mix the greens with the oil, salt and pepper. Then toss in the flour. This is to keep the mixture compact and slightly flattened.

Take a ball of pastry. Using your hands, flatten it out into the shape of a little round saucer. Make it as thin as you can without tearing the pastry. Take a large tablespoon of filling and place it on the pastry round. Wrap the pastry around the filling, so that it forms the shape of one of those little silk pouches that rich tradesmen used to carry their gold coins in (think fairy tales, medieval castles and princely suitors - all that's missing is the gold thread used to tie them up).

Then flatten the little pouch and spread it out again, using your hands, into a thick disc, kind of like a small, fat cooked pancake. This step is tricky because again you don't want the pastry to break. That's why the greens should not be too damp, and the pastry should be made with 'strong' flour, which is widely sold in supermarkets, as well as all-purpose flour and 'soft' flour, which is good for making cakes and biscuits. (Personally, I have been buying organic flour for quite a while, and I love working with it.) This mixture will give you about 15 little pastries, but this is never exact; it all depends on how much mixture you make, and how big you make the pastry balls.

Cook the pies individually with a tablespoon of olive oil for each one, turning them over to get them crispy golden. You can cook them in a bigger pan, but you will use more oil.

If you think fennel isn't the herb of choice to your liking, you can use all sorts of other wild horta greens and herbs that are commonly used in Cretan cooking: parsley, mint and spinach are the more common ones. These pies can be made with the herbs and greens of your choice. They are equally delicious. They remind me of my absolute favorite lenten food my mother would make for all fasting periods, when we lived in New Zealand. Fennel pies also make a great accompaniment to a good soup, akin to a spicy herb bread. And look what my lucky children are having for their morning school break today.

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