Across the road from the gate of our house stands an iconostasis - a small low brick-built shrine dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ, celebrated every year on the 6th of August. The shrine is typical of such structures all over Crete and the rest of Greece. It may be built for a number of reasons: the owner of the land wants (or wanted) to build a church on it at some time, the dedication may have been made to honour a saint or a special moment in the time of the owner of the land, or for a sadder reason, as is more often the case these days with so many road accidents: a person may have died somewhere close by and the family of the deceased asked for permission to build a shrine in this place.
(Can you see the rainbow in the photo? This photo of the shrine was taken in May, 2008)The shrine in my neighbourhood has been there since thw second world war. It was built by the frantic mother of a man taken away by the Nazis because he was involved in the resistance. He came back alive (and is still going!), so his mother must have been pleased about her decision to erect the shrine. The women of the area faithfully come to keep it clean and tidy, and keep the flame of the kandili (lamp) lit, which is placed before the icon depicting the Transfiguration of Christ; this makes it more likely that the shrine was built as the first step in a church being erected on the site eventually (which is now highly unlikely).
On the eve of the celebration day of a saint or event in Christianity, the forefeast (paniyiri) is always held in the evening: a liturgy performed by the local parish priest (the congregation - all wearing their 'Sunday best' - stands in the yard of our house!), with a food festival to follow. 'Loaves and fishes' were once distributed to feed the masses; this tradition is carried on by the loaves (pictured in front of the shrine) and the feast that takes place afterwards. No celebration in Greece can go by without food. As life has become more structured in our epoch, the Ladies' Auxiliary Society of the community of Vamvakopoulo decided to take on the organisation of the paniyiri this year, asking members of the community to contribute the food for the festival, which will be spread out for all to partake in, in a little park a stone's throw away from the shrine.
Can you imagine what delicacies the ladies in the area (myself included) might prepare? Word of caution: think lenten. The Feast of the Transfiguration occurs during the fasting period before the Dormition of the Virgin Mary: the first fourteen days of August are fasting days with the same rules applying as for Great Lent before the Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday. Although people don't fast as rigorously as might have been the case in past times, the fast is observed in front of the clergy and for official purposes. So the food being offered must be food that is permissible during a fasting period: no meat, no cheese, no milk, no eggs, no fish (except shellfish and snails).
Because the meal is not going to be eaten in sit-down-at-the-table style, but more as impromptu free-for-all with people wandering around the street holding a plate, it's very important that the food can be eaten without too much cutlery or getting your hands dirty. Therefore, my offering is going to be lenten kalitsounia, traditional Cretan pies. (The finger-food rule wasn't actually followed by most of the other cooks, but everyone had a good time, and there was plenty of wine and orange juice for refreshments.)
Normally, kalitsounia are made with a cheese a mixture, but for the purposes of the feast, the mixture used today is completely vegan: vlita, mint, parsley, onion and seasonings, with some breadcrumbs mixed in to create a stronger mixture that will not break the pastry open due to excess liquids in the leafy greens. Vlita (amaranth) is a bit like spinach, but does not retain as much water. It grows in abundance in the summer - it is never grown in the winter, not even in a greenhouse.
This is probably the best way to use up the vlita in the garden, which has been thriving right throughout the summer incessantly. I normally bake kalitsounia, but lenten kalitsounia cannot be baked: they do not contain any oil or fat, so they won't be tasty if they aren't fried. Hence, another marathon cooking run for me on the eve of the eve of the celebration, as kalitsounia can be prepared ahead and I can join in the fun of the paniyiri on the day.
This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Divya from Dil Se.
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