Friday, 19 September 2008

Moustokouloura - grape must cookies (Μουστοκούλουρα)

It finally came. Yesterday. And when it came, it darkened the sky with its thickness, turning the lucid blue of summer into the bruised hues of autumn. The rain dutifully stayed away from Hania for four months without a drop falling from the sky. Umbrellas were stored away, raincoats hung up under summer jackets, boots stashed away in the darkest corners. The days were filled with sunlight. Our tourists were thrilled to enjoy rainless days on their summer vacation, without the worrying thought that in the middle of their holiday, they may have to head for a covered passage or a large tree to avoid a sudden downpour, soaking them to the skin and dampening their happy memories of a Mediterranean holiday under the sun.

(the washed out look of Hania after a slight drizzle in the afternoon)

In the meantime, dust particles piled upon more dust, the earth dried up, our skins became parched, and everything had become as dehydrated as a sun-dried tomato. The arrival of the rain refreshes us, it washes away the dust and dirt, it cleans up the atmosphere, it moistens our skin, it fills up our reservoirs, it relieves us from garden irrigation duty. We wear our raincoats, we search for our umbrellas, we close our doors and watch it falling from our windows. Drivers beware: the first rains are always more dangerous than subsequent showers, especially in dry climates like Crete. The water falls on dirty roads laden with dust, making them extremely slippery.

grapevine in the rain grapes
(another dozen or so tubs like this one hang on the vines waiting to be picked)

The first rain in my town is like a breath of fresh air, but it always seems to come on a day when I'm not able to stay at home to enjoy watching it fall from the window. The first rain is also a promise of more to come: one good rain shower and the grapes will have had it. They begin to rot, making them useless for any purpose except animal feed. They need to be picked now (which is why everyone who owns grapevines in Hania was making grape must last weekend) and turned into anything that uses grapes: there is only so much fresh fruit that you can eat...

All over the town and especially in the villages (as these tasks require the luxury of a spacious yard, people can be seen making grape must, syrup (petimezi - one of the most ancient recipes known in Greece), wine and tsikoudia. Some people also dry grapes and turn them into raisins, while most noikokires (housewives) add grapes and must to many sweets: moustokouloura (cookies), spoon sweets and moustalevria (jelly).

(must dripping into a bucket, grape must, petimezi, moustalevria)
grape must ramni hania chania grape must ramni hania chania petimezi ramni hania chania moustalevria grape products
(grape spoon sweet, tsikoudia, wine, raisins)

The grape spoon sweet was made using Nancy's recipes, who recommends adding some pelargonium leaves to add more aroma to the sweet; thanks to Mariana's garden for this. Imagine giving a dinner party and producing one of these spoon sweets (my favorites are fig and quince) at the end of the meal; your guests will praise you for creating this ambrosia. It is a like a sorbet in a way, cleansing the palate form the meat and sauces sarved in the main meal. Serve this spoon sweet with some tsikoudia and lots of water (syrupy sweets tend to clog your throat).

Grape must biscuits (moustokouloura) are also a wonderfully aromatic cold weather treat. They taste and smell a little like gingerbread, but they are cooked as a biscuit, even though they remain soft after being cooked; they are more like a crusted bun with a soft centre. They are very easy to make, but require quick work once the flour is added. The dough becomes stiff quite quickly, so it must be kneaded to a soft and pliable consistency, difficult when it contains no butter or margarine (my dough was a little stiff, which is why my cookies didn't turn out so smooth). These biscuits are made with olive oil, and they are classically used during a fasting period. They keep up to three weeks in an airtight container.


My recipe comes from Psilakis' Cretan cookbook.

You need
1 cup of grape must
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of oil
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of ground cloves
1 shot glass of brandy
3/4 cup of natural orange juice
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons of baking soda
1 kilo of all-purpose flour
Mix all the liquids together. Add all the remaining ingredients, except the flour, and mix well. Add the flour and mix it in quickly to get a soft pliable dough. The classic shape of the cookie is a round one with a hole in the middle (kind of like a doughnut), but you can also make finger-shaped cookies. The baking sheet does not need to be greased. Cook in a moderate oven for about 25 minutes; the cookies will turn golden brown, depending on the colour of the grape must, but they should not be overcooked.

As I was making these cookies, it started raining again. It was a strong reminder of the changing of the seasons. It suited the mood in my kitchen; the cinammon-clove smell emanating from the oven matched the rain and grey skies, and so did the autumn colours of the ingredients used to make these cookies. A similar recipe can be used for making a grape syrup cake (petimezopita), once again similar to gingerbread. Both are perfect with a cup of strong coffee.

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