Sunday, 14 June 2009

Kolotsita (Κολοτσύθα)

My parents often told me that when they left Greece for New Zealand, they were each carrying half a suitcase worth of baggage. This was their way of reminding their children that they should be grateful for what they had, because it was much more than what they themselves had at our age.

But when they left their homeland, they didn’t realize just how much emotional baggage they were carrying with them. It is overwhelming to think how much weight this excess luggage would have amounted to, if it were calculated in real terms: it would have included the Greek language, religion, everyday customs, habits, dress sense, and a host of other non-tangible assets, including, of course, their food traditions. These are some of the things that are transported free-of-charge, and possibly some of the things that early immigration officials in the New World did not take into account when they were assessing the fitness of the newcomers into a country.

Abraham Yiakarmakaki was a local jeweller in Hania, lived in Crete, the island of his birth, until 1923, when he was forced to leave in accordance with the rules that governed the population exchange scheme between Greece and Turkey. He was a Moslem citizen of the Ottoman Empire and his family had been living in Crete since the time of the Ottoman conquest of the island. Before departing Crete, he took his family (half of his children were born in Crete, the other half in Turkey) to the remains of a fortress in Halepa and told them to try to keep the view they saw before them stamped in their mind "lest you forget". He knew that there was little hope that he would ever see his hometown again.

Although he never returned to see his birthplace, those Turkish offspring, along with their children, did manage to visit it, and Abraham's story still survives, being retold by his grand-daughter, Saba Altinsay, in her historical novel Kritimu, which fictionalised the events leading to the departure of her grandparents from the island of Crete. One of the recurrent themes of the story was who had the right to call themselves a true Cretan. We find out that Abraham's name was changed when he arrived in Turkey, in an attempt to wipe out his Hellenic links: 'Yiakarmakaki' was too Greek, so the family name was changed to 'Altinsay', meaning 'gold-measurer', a name related to his work as a jeweller, and he was never again called Abraham (the Turkish equivalent is 'Ibrahim'). When his family arrived in Turkey, they only spoke the Cretan dialect of Greek.

One of the saddest moments in the story was when Abraham realised that there would be no one to visit the graves of his ancestors and his first wife who had died while giving birth to their first child: "Abraham often came [to the cemetery]. He had seen it growing over time and was saddened by this event. But now there would be no more new burials. He was upset to think that the graves would be left alone. They had gotten used to his visits, they would be waiting for him to go and see them. If he could dig them up and take them with him, he would have done so. The living ... would find some way to look after themselves, but the dea - who would be looking after their desolate souls now?" (translated from Turkish to Greek to English)

kanevaro st hania chania kanevaro st hania chania
Kanevaro Street, Hania.
kanevaro st hania chania

Saba describes the many sights and sounds of Kanevaro St, a road (still in existence) running parallel to the water's edge in the Venetian harbour of Hania, where the old market area of the town was located in the late 1800s, occupying buildings from the Venetian period (pre-1650):

"Το σφυρί του μπακιρτζή, το καζάνι όπου έβραζε η ζάχαρη του λουκουμιτζή, το σούρσιμο του χαρτιού στου παλαιοβιβλιοπώλη και στου καπνέμπορου, που είχε τις δέσμες με τα τσιγαρόχαρτα, ο ήχος που έκανε το σιτάρι καθώς το άδειαζε ο σιταράς από το ένα τσουβάλι στο άλλο, οι ζυγαριές του λαδά που ζύγιζε το λάδι, το ψαλίδι του τσοχατζή, η λαμαρίνα του φουρνάρη, όλοι αυτοί οι θόρυβοι ενωμένοι κάνανε τον ήχο της Κανεβάρο." (translated from Turkish)

kanevaro st hania chania
Some of the sights in modern-day Kanevaro St, where the history of the town over a period of 4000 years can still be traced: from the Minoan civilisation (approx. 2000BC) to the Venetian conquest (1300 AD) to the Ottoman period (1700) to modern day Greece (since 1900).
kanevaro st hania chania kanevaro st hania chania
kanevaro st hania chania

"The hammer of the copperman, the cauldron where the loukoum maker's sugar was boiling, the sweeping sound of the paper at the second-hand bookshop and the tobacconist's, with his bales of cigarette paper, the sound the wheat made as the miller emptied it from one sack into another, the scales of the oil merchant as he weighed the oil, the textile merchant's scissors, the baker's trays, all these sounds together made up the orchestra that played on Kanevaro Street. " (translated from the Greek)

Saba also makes many mentions of the food that her grandfather's family was eating in Crete while they were living here, all of which are still known today:
... except for this one:
  • μοσχομύριστη κολοτσύθα: ζύμη με λιόλαδο, ανακατεμένη με τυρί και κολοκύθα (deeply aromatic kolotsita: pastry with olive oil, mixed together with cheese and zucchini or pumpkin)
The word 'kolotsita' is the dialectal Cretan Greek word for 'zucchini (courgette)'. In modern Hania, zucchini, cheese, oil and pastry (as well as potato) are combined and made into 'boureki', a word deriving from the Turkish 'boreg', meaning 'pie' or 'bread'. When 'kolotsita' is mentioned in the book, it is clear that this food can be carried and eaten like a pie; it was shared out by a shop owner whose wife had made it, to both Muslims and Christians when a politically oriented fight broke out between them in an attempt to appease them, and it was also packed for the soldiers to take away with them when they left Crete on a boat. It probably wasn't eaten on a plate with a fork as boureki is these days; the two different religious groups would have murdered each other by the time the shop owner set the table, and soldiers of the time did not have the luxury of conveniences like tupperware and disposable cutlery.

Although it is never called kolotsitha, this kind of courgette-cheese-pastry pie, known in the region as boureki, is made regularly in Hania throughout the summer using the same ingredients mentioned in Kritimu, with the addition of potato; some peoeple make it without pastry, while others cover only the top of the pie with pastry. The bottom of the pie is never lined with pastry. This boureki is not well known outside the region, but it always features on a taverna menu card in Hania. Non-locals often confuse it with other meanings of boureki in Greece, meaning 'cheese pie', which it is in any case, with the addition of the vegetables. At MAICh, the cook often makes individual boureki pies, which look a lot like a tiropita (cheese pie), with the addition of courgettes.

boureki 2009
The first boureki for the summer season is always looked forward to with great anticipation.

Saba herself solves the mystery of kolotsitha in a recent email to me. Here are her directions:

"You make a base like pizza base. It should be a bit thick (I put one egg while I am preparing it), made with flour, salt, egg and drops of vinegar. Blend them into a dough and lay it onto the tray. Then you slice the kolochitas (courgettes), not rounded, but perpendicular. Put the kolochitas on the base: one layer kolochita and one layer mizithra. It should be better if you do it with a thick goat cheese; make sure the mizithra is not too soft. Don't make more than two layers, otherwise it will be too thick, stay too juicy and won't cook. After you finish your ingredients (mizithra and kolochitas) put some olive oil on top and put it into the oven, with maybe a pinch of black pepper (no other herb), but try to keep it as simple as possible. The top of the kolochita should be open. Do not close like we do in boreki; it should be like a pizza."

boureki with thick filo phyllo pastry
My uncle is a better cook than I am - here's his perfect version of boureki covered in pastry.

Kolotsita was a kind of 'Cretan pizza' made during Ottoman rule on the island, with its foundations based firmly in the culinary traditions of the previous conquerors of Crete, the Venetians. Kolotsitha was the forbearer of the modern boureki. It was made with simple basic ingredients, without too much decor; the key to successful recipes using a simple approach is quality, which is found in the freshness of the ingredients.

*** *** ***

When Abraham's family left Hania in 1923, they took their language, food and local customs with them. They were referred to as 'Cretan Turks' in Crete (Τουρκοκρητικοί - Tourkokritikoi), and the descendants of these people are still proud to call themselves Giritli ('Cretan Turks' in Turkish). Turkish cuisine admits that the Giritli have their own culinary traditions, with a heavy basis on the natural environment, featuring wild greens and olive oil, which is what the well-known Cretan (ie Mediterranean diet) is based on.

The political situation which forced the Giritli's emigration from Crete has purged their Greek language skills; very few of their descendants have managed to keep their knowledge of Cretan Greek, for obvious politically motivated reasons (aside from the natural decline of an immigrant community's native language) but there are pockets of Moslem Cretans spread througout the Middle East, notably Syria, who still speak Cretan Greek amongst themselves, although this will be the case generally only in the older generation.

seamless marathopita
My marathopites look very similar to Nihal's borek (left), while stamnagathi and maroulides are similar to dandelion and often cooked with meat in Crete, just like Butel cooks them.
stamnagathi maroulides ascolibri

But the culinary preferences of the Cretan Turks who settled in Turkey on the Mediterranean coast have been maintained to this day. They have also been passed on to other generations, and have spread into the general population. Nihal in the US and Betul in the UK, both from Turkey, cook in a similar way to how I cook in my own home here in Hania. Ibrahim recently sent me photos from Constantinople, showing how his mother's mother and father's father (from Hania and Iraklio, respectively) passed on their culinary traditions to their children (ie his parents), which continue to be maintained even today.

And now you know where the common Turkish surname Giritlioglou comes from, so you know what you are in for when you go to Turkey and decide to eat at a restaurant called Giritli...

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