Saturday, 19 April 2008

Cheese from Crete (Κρητικά τυριά)

Easter is a time of indulgence, and who wouldn't want to indulge after a 50-day fast; those who say that the Greek Easter fast is 40 days old, are simply wrong; they have misinterpreted the meaning of the word "σαρακοστή" - sarakosti - which means '40 days'. Fasting actually starts with a one-week fast, abstaining from meat and fish only, what is traditionally known as Cheesefare Week. At the end of that week, Clean Monday signifies the beginning of the longer fast where abstinence from meat, fish and dairy products is observed (although shellfish are permissible). If you count Cheesefare Week, that's 58 fasting days before Easter Sunday. Cheesefare Week is not included in these days - that's an extra week of fun and festivities, including Rio-style carnival tomfoolery. There are 48 days from Clean Monday to Easter Sunday - a total of 7 weeks - so why do Greeks talk about fasting during sarakosti, and not penticosti (which means 50 days)?

Here's the answer: the Holy Week - starting from Palm Sunday to Easter Saturday - is not included in what is termed as the fasting period for Easter. After Clean Monday, there are 40 days (sarakosti) until Larazus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday). The Holy Week is of course also a fasting week, but it is treated as a special case. Have you ever heard of Mrs Sarakosti who has 7 legs? All school children in Greece know about her. I found out about her from my own children, who've been drawing Mrs Sarakosti for the last three years. Despite the web link's inaccuracies - yet again - of the number of fasting days in Great Lent, the drawing of Mrs Sarakosti - the mouthless face and the praying hands - is correct. Each Saturday after Clean Monday, one of her legs was chopped off, and when the final leg remained, then the uneducated Greek villager knew that the Holy Week was starting the next day - Palm Sunday. Ans as an aisde, if you're still wondering what penticosti (πεντηκοστή) is, that's the 50 days AFTER Easter, before the Holy Spirit descended and enlightened the people who spread the word about Jesus Christ. It is a educational holiday in Greece (school and educational institutes, eg the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs are closed, but shops are open).

So it's only natural that on Easter Sunday, people let rip when it comes to food. Traditions tend not to die out in insular areas, even in these globalised times (Starbucks is coming to our town only just this week). The people of Crete love their food. They'll mention the names of local produce and dishes as if they are common knowledge. They'll turn up their noses to anything that sounds distinctly foreign. It may sound narrow-minded of them, but at least one can give them credit for knowing what they are eating.

In the days when people actually observed the 50-day fast (people rarely fast for the whole 50 days now), Cretans devised ways to preserve their dairy products. Easter is the right time to get to know Haniotiko cheese. Great Lent starts at a time when lambs and goats are being born, so there were always many milk-fed animals before Easter - hence the lamb becoming the food associated with Greek Easter. Whatever milk was collected was turned into graviera (γραβιέρα) - the Cretan variety of the Swiss gruyere. There are ripened forms of graviera, as well as the more milky (fresher) variety. The holes are not usually as big as what is typically associated in the West as gruyere. Graviera is never missing from our house. We eat about half a kilo every month. I did buy some mature English cheddar once, a very good variety called Cornish Cruncher. Despite being an excellent mature piquant cheese - the kind of cheese we look for in our preferred variety of graviera - it never caught on in my family. It's graviera all the way for them.

Great Lent inspired other ways of creating cheese and preserving milk. As the fast wore on, too much maturing graviera started to accumulate in the cellars, since people weren't eating it. A variety of specially made soft cheeses were produced during this time, the most famous being tiromalama (τυρομάλαμα) - even though we hardly ever ask for it by this name. This is made from the first shaping of graviera, creating a very milky, soft, damp cheese, resembling mozzarella in taste and texture. It also creates those long stringy threads when cooked - and it's always cooked, never eaten fresh. It has a sweet taste, and is mainly used in pies (used as is) and kalitsounia (it needs to be salted and strained). Its soft texture gives it its local Haniotiko name - malaka (μαλάκα), with the stress on the second 'a'. I know what you're thinking: how do you ask for some malaka without offending the shop owner? Here's the conversation I had with my cheese-maker:
  • Kalimera, I want some of that fresh soft cheese which you make before Easter.
  • Look, lady, it's called maLAka, and there's nothing to be ashamed of.
This is why we call the Easter kalitsounia 'malakismena'. Don't get it? Ask a Greek to explain it to you - beware of the bewildered look they will give you. It reminds me of going into a toy shop at Christmastime and asking the shop owner for 'kerata' - reindeer horns - for my son's role in the Christmas pageant. Thankfully, the shop assistant was a woman. The best time to buy malaka is in the spring, when lambs start getting 'baggy' (σακκιάζουν) - filling with milk, while having fewer lambs to feed it to.

One of Crete's most famous cheeses is a soft white crumbly creamy cheese called mizithra (also known as pichtogalo - thickened milk), the same kind of cheese that is widely known as ricotta in the West. It's an extremely versatile cheese; it is ubiquitous in Cretan cuisine. It's found on the table instead of feta, used as a spread on bread or rusk, in savoury pie fillings, sweet pie fillings, mixed into baked vegetables, stuffed in rabbits - the list is endless. Although it does not have a very long shelf-life as fresh cheese, it freezes extremely well. It is never bought frozen, but those who have sheep and goats will make it in large quantities; what they don't eat or sell is frozen and used during times when sheep and goats produce less milk. It is not exported, as it is highly sought after by locals and mainland Cretans living away from the island. And that too, like graviera, is never missing from our fridge, either.

Another popular difficult-to-export highly sought after Cretan dairy product is our 100%-fat cream, called staka (στάκα). It comes in clotted form, and is often eaten warmed up as a kind of high-fat (and cholesterol-filled) dip. It is added to a variety of dishes for extra flavour, but it's not exactly healthy. It is also used in festive pies. One of the most popular recipes using staka is to place a small amount in a saucepan and cook fried eggs in it (sunny side up). It is also used to make the filling in stuffed roast lamb wrapped with vine leaves. Staka can also be heated so that the yellow oily liquid it contains is drained off and turned into butter. This is called stakovoutiro (στακοβούτηρο). Stakovoutiro is used in the same way as butter, although not many people prefer it these days because of its high fat content. In the days when the average farmer used to walk the same number of kilometers that the average farmer of today now drives, eating staka was a form of energy. Nowadays, most Haniotes still use staka in the festive season in traditional festive recipes.

Why do so many Cretan cheeses resemble other European cheeses, but are unknown by their Greek name in the West? Sadly, this has to do with our history. While France and Italy were living the Renaissance (1300-1600), Greece was being subjugated by the Ottoman Empire (1450-1850), who would have liked to annex Greece as a part of Turkey, whose yoke we managed to shake off only about 100 years ago. While the French and Italians were creating works of artistic importance, the Greeks were begging the Turks not to blow up the Parthenon (but they did it anyway), while Lord Elgin was siphoning off bits of it and shipping it to Britain. The same reasoning underlies other fallacies, like why it took so long for feta cheese to have protected-origin status (October 14, 2005).

The map in the photo comes from a larger map of Europe with an 1897 New York copyright. It was being sold as 'posh' wrapping paper in a shop on the King's Road in Chelsea, London. The assistant wouldn't have understood if I had told her that I was going to hang it up in my kitchen as a reminder of my cultural identity. What is now known as Turkey is labelled Asia Minor, the place where a lot of Greece's culinary heritage was born. Macedonia is not mentioned, but Saloniki is. No need to translate Uskup, is there? (For the uninitiated, it's Skopje.) Crete wasn't even part of Greece at the time (it was formally made a part of Greece on December 1st, 1911).

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