"Are you trying to be funny, Yianni?" I asked the chef at MAICh when he presented koliva for dessert recently.
"Yes," he replied.
Koliva are associated with death. In the Greek version of this dish, boiled wheat and nuts are shaped into a firm 'cake' which is covered in icing sugar, decorated in almonds and dragees (silver sugar balls) and 'cut' (more like smashed up) at the end of a memorial service for a dearly departed, as dictated by tradition in the Greek Orthodox (and other Christian Orthodox) church. It's very rare to see koliva served elsewhere aside from outside churches and at memorial services, hence my confused horror. While I was trying to enjoy my serving of koliva - it's also very hard to use the two words 'enjoy' and 'koliva' in collocation - it suddenly occurred to me that I had never made koliva myself, even though both my parents have died, which means that I have had a number of opportunities to eat koliva made for my very own dearly departed. These days, businesses specialising in the making of koliva deliver them to the church for you, which is how the koliva part of my parents' memorial services had been handled.
Nowadays, no-soaking-required, quick-boiling wheat is readily available, simplifying the work of the cook. Once the wheat is boiled till soft enough to chew easily (I let it cook for 45 minutes), it is strained and allowed to dry between two towels overnight. I placed the towels in the fridge to insure against spoilage.
I have always felt quite daunted at the thought of making koliva myself. Wheat is vulnerable to fermentation processes once it comes in contact with moisture. Boiled wheat needs to be dried and kept in cool conditions, otherwise it can easily turn toxic and cause food poisoning; although this was more common in the past when food safety measures were less stringent, every now and then we still hear about cases of food poisoning breaking out after a memorial service during the hot weather in the summertime. This is what has stopped me from making koliva in the past: it felt a little like mushroom-hunting.
Although koliva have been known to Greek people since antiquity, and are made right throughout the year by confectioners specialised in the job, koliva recipes use three ingredients that generally don't get used much in the Greek kitchen: hulled whole wheat grain, toasted crushed sesame seeds and toasted chickpeas ground to a flour.
Cooking Greek food most of my life, using more or less the same recipes handed down from one generation to the next, I believe that koliva are one of those dishes which represent an important culinary experience in every Greek person's life. I felt that I had to make koliva one day, simply to fulfil my own beliefs concerning my Greek heritage. But since there is no death in the family to commemorate, how could I do this without traumatising my family?
Although not generally eaten as a sweet outside the demands of tradition, Greek koliva make a delicious dessert. I've even heard of them being served with ice-cream! They are just sweet enough to be enjoyed as a snack any time of the day, and their composition make them the perfect breakfast cereal. Koliva contain everything that regular boxed breakfast cereal contains: whole grains (in this case wheat), and fruit in the form of dried nuts and raisins. But unlike koliva, breakfast cereals have an unacceptable sodium content. It's common knowledge that boxed cereals aimed at children contain both sugar and salt in plentiful supplies, something that even breakfast cereal companies admit themselves. Although koliva are initially made without any sugar added, they are always served with sugar, since the icing sugar that coats them is mixed into the koliva when the 'cake' is shared out after the memorial service. Sugar content can be regulated, as the amount of sugar added to koliva depends on the maker. They taste just as good without any added sugar, since there is a high composition of dried fruit in koliva. When sugar (which creates moisture) is added too soon to koliva, they turn out sludgy. Some people prefer them this way, while others prefer them drier. The drier they are, the slower the fermentation process.
The pomegranate seeds and the blanched almonds were still moist when I mixed the other ingredients, so I let them dry in the fridge overnight before I added them the next day to the nuts-and-flour mixture.
Fresh pomegranate seeds are usually added to koliva when they are in season. Pomegranate forms an important part of koliva due to its connections with the underworld: Dimitra's daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades to become his wife, and the story goes that she refused to eat anything he gave her until her hunger got the better of her. She ate six pomegranate seeds before Hades released her to the world above. Those six seeds represent the darker colder months of the year (Autumn and Winter) when Dimitra is grieving for the loss of her daughter's company, time Persephone spends with her husband, the King of the underworld.
Koliva are always eaten sweetened after a church service since they are always covered in fine icing sugar. At home, I had the chance to have mine without any sugar at all, but it was hard to convince the kids to do the same!
One 500g packet of wheat makes quite a lot of koliva. I was a little worried that I would be making too much and we wouldn't eat them quickly enough before they went off. But I needn't have worried. The supermarket assistant who I asked to direct me to the shelf where hulled wheat was kept (a product I've never used in our daily cooking) gave me a bit of advice about how to keep koliva in perfect condition so that you can enjoy them all week, and even longer. She told me that if I want to make koliva to be enjoyed for personal use rather than for a memorial service (she was obviously an expert in doing this herself), I should keep the boiled (and dried) wheat in a separate bowl in the fridge from the remaining ingredients (which can be mixed up in another bowl). In this way, she said, the wheat can be used (and more importantly, won't go off) for anything up to a fortnight. Sugar should only be added when serving.
Given that there is no real reason to make koliva in our house, I had to think of a way to get my family to consume them once I made them. I called them 'breakfast cereal', and added chocolate drops to make them more palatable, just like Yianni did at MAICh. They turned out to be very successful. I gave myself the chance to have a go at preparing koliva, at the same time as overcoming my fear of making this special dish which invokes feelings of ethnicity for all Greeks. This cereal dish constituted our daily breakfasts for the first week of this year, a time when grains were traditionally cooked in Crete in the past as a way of welcoming prosperity in the household.
It is customary, when making koliva for loved ones departed to add a few drops or a pinch of an ingredient that the deceased was paticularly partial to, something like their favorite food, eg olive oil, coffee grounds, etc, to personalise the koliva. This was the only part of the ritual that I did not perform, for obvious reasons.
Here are the three recipes that I based my own version on: a koliva recipe by 3A company, one of the firms that packages wheat grains; the breakfast of our ancestors by Peftasteri; and food for the dead by Mariana Kavroulaki (only this one is in English). They all generally use the same technique and ingredients to make koliva.
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