Monday, 3 October 2011

Zimaropita (Ζυμαρόπιτα)

Tune in every second day this week to see how we spent our family holiday in Central/Northern Greece.

After our brief stay on the Tatarnas Bridge overlooking Kremasta Lake (lasting all of five minutes), we continued on to Karpenisi in the prefecture of the mountainous and fir-tree covered Evritania of Central Greece, where a magical sight awaited us: there on a steep hill was built a Greek town, complete with apartment blocks, and surrounded by Christmas trees!

Approaching Karpenisi

"Why do you want to spend your summer holidays 1000m above sea level?" Hrisida asked me when I told her that we were interested in touring the landlocked parts of our country. Sometimes the heat and sand just get to you when you have them every day above your head or among your toes. And even though we have many mountainous regions in Crete, they are usually bare and rocky, not covered in Christmas trees and mushrooms, with bears, wolves and boars roaming in them; you'll be lucky if you manage to catch sight of (or eat) a hare these days. If there were a chance to see snow even now at the tail-end of summer, believe me, we'd have taken it.

Karpenisi in the summer and winter

Karpenisi is one of the most unusual Greek towns I've ever visited. Its population is made of tertiary students (there is a TEI - state technological institute - based there), civil servants and old-age pensioners. The town is well known in Greece as a good place to base yourself for a visit to the Velouchi ski resort located nearby. The town, and indeed the whole of Evritania, holds a significant place in Greek history, due to the many heroes of the Greek revolution coming from here, as well as some important events taking place within the area.

In Hrisida's words: "I think the advantage with Karpenisi compared to other mountain resorts is that it is the biggest and liveliest place at such a high altitude. Ιt has a rather large population all year round. Most of the locals are living here permanently and not coming only at the weekends to serve the tourists. So people sort of hold on to their identity here, to how they were brought up. They have university degrees and office jobs but they also tend their gardens and keep a few animals. Despite the modern Greek image that Karpenisi seems to convey, it is very traditional in its way of life. It can definitely hold the title of  the capital of the mountain regions of Central Greece."

Hrisida isn't actually from Karpenisi, and neither is her family. "We decided to come and live here after my husband got a job in the public service. This was just after I'd given birth to our third child; up till that time, we'd been living and working in Athens, even though our origins are Macedonian. I was relieved when my husband finally did get a transfer out of the capital city. It's not the best place to raise a family." Indeed, quite a few of the younger people in Karpenisi now are not originally from the area; it's mainly the pensioners who fit into that category.

Hrisida's family had just returned home after spending a week on the island of Kerkira on a family holiday when we visited her. "I miss being able to see the sea, unlike you, who doesn't care to see it any longer." The discussion of where we prefer to take our holidays also brought to light another interesting fact of everyday Greek life:

"Whenever I get the chance to leave town on a holiday, I am always torn between going up north to visit our parents, so that the children can get to know their grandparents better, or to take a proper holiday. So most of the time, I end up feeling like an immigrant in my own country; I visit my parents, which isn't a holiday, and I also visit my in-laws, which again isn't a holiday either. So there really isn't much time left for a proper holiday. This year, we were lucky to get away for a week. If I had the choice, I would spend all my holidays by the sea." The urban-rural commuting issue is actually a very significant one for many Greeks; I also experienced it myself when I lived and worked in Athens, although on a smaller scale, since I was living independently and not raising a family at the time. I also still see it happening when friends and relatives from the mainland come to the island to visit their old people. With the recent economic crisis, it's becoming more difficult to afford to do this regularly, but the tide is also turning: people are coming back to live in the rural parts of Greece. No matter which direction the economy takes, Greece always ends up doing the opposite from the rest of the world where few people who have moved away from rural areas actually return to them.

Hrisida is very well educated and well travelled, both in her own country and abroad. After finishing Greek university, she continued her studies in the UK, where she met her Greek husband who was also studying there. They spent a period of six years abroad: "I thank God for the time I spent in the UK as it gave me a different down-to-earth perspective of myself and my people and culture, just when my educated friends in Greece were starting to make the sign of the cross every time they passed in front of a church, probably because religion accounted for sophistication to them." 

Her opinions about the Greek identity amused me since I knew what she was referring to, despite myself being a Greek born abroad. I mentioned that I had been brought up in the same Greek way to what she described, even though I wasn't born here. But she had a different opinion
about that:

"You were born in New Zealand. So you've had Anglo-Saxon influence, whether you care to admit it or not." I gulped at this, as I often wonder how I would have viewed life had I been born in Greece and not New Zealand.

"In both cases, Hrisida, I would have been born a Greek," I assured her.

"You are born Greek, but believe me you are more of a New Zealander than you like to admit." Hrisida had a point. Maybe I prefer to think otherwise; maybe I'm a closet New Zealander.

manaShe smiled and said: "If you were born in Greece and never had any contact with the Anglo-Saxon mentality, irrespective of your education, you would be obsessed with the carpets in your house and you would probably have spent a fortune on them." I laughed, because Hrisida knew my carpets were cheap and I had never had them cleaned professionally.

"You'd also be obsessed with the curtains," she continued, "buying miles and miles of expensive flouncy fabric that looked pretty indoors, but hideous from the outside to strangers who were passing by your house and saw them fluttering in the wind when you were airing the rooms. You'd probably have a very expensive cookware set that you pay back for the rest of your life. You'd also spend a lot of time hunting storage space in your home for your huge number of possessions compared with the size of your house, storing things in places which always got flooded in the end like the storage space above the bathroom, or the basement." I was in hysterics, because I knew of so many cases of all the scenarios she had just mentioned.

hora_153"These expensive traits seem to be invariably passed from mother to daughter, and the ridiculously high cost of this lifestyle never prevented anyone from executing this master plan," Hrisida explained, noting that modern Greek women coming from very poor agricultural backgrounds just a generation or two ago place so much importance on becoming urbanised and acquiring material things that they consider upper middle class, even if that means getting their households into debt. "But it's comforting to think that in a sense we are all the same and no one gets out of line. Mind you the Anglo-Saxons have their own obsessions too, like planning their holidays months ahead, buying Christmas presents in September, thinking it's normal to pay 40 pounds a head for eating out. I have seen both ways and I know I have a choice to do something this way or another way. My choices are based on the situation: there is never just one option to consider."

locally made sausage karpenisi
With 40 pounds in Karpenisi (and most other places in Greece), you can take out your whole family for dinner, dining on fresh, local, seasonal food; if you're travelling solo, it'll be difficult to spend 40 pounds on food in one evening, and actually eat it all yourself.
katiki dip tzatziki dip cretan wine in karpenisi roast chicken, horta and sausage fasolada karpenisi slow cooked goat in lemon sauce karpenisi

"You didn't mention brand labels!" I said.

"Οh well, I didn't want my list to become very long," she replied. "So you are Greek, then. Try commenting on these traits in a living room full of Greek women your age, taking the opposite point of view. Not an eyebrow will stay in its place."

Hrisida held a position in the Ministry of Education as a public relations officer when she lived in Athens. In Karpenisi, she found clerical work at the TEI. Recently, Hrisida was made redundant due to the prevailing political and economic situation, a victim of the crisis. But this does not perturb her at all. "I grew up on so little without realizing it before my parents made some good money when they went into business by buying a bakery. They made all sorts of bread products as well as traditional pies. I wouldn't have a problem doing that again, Lord knows how good I am at making traditional Greek pites. My children are often given clothes from friends and they don't go to frontistiria - I fill in where the teachers are inadequate. We're thinking of installing a wood stove in our house so that we can cook our dinner using the ample firewood available in the region and keep warm at the same time. As long as we aren't starving, I think we'll be fine."

 Bread - wherever you go in Greece, you will be able to find a bakery that sells freshly baked bread (except Sundays). Although the bread sold in bakeries round the country is made from similar flours, each bakery produces its very own taste in bread, as well as its very own loaf shapes. From a bakery in Karpenisi, I bought two segments of a loaf in a similar shape to the one in the middle on the top shelf, as well as a small loaf of bread made of cornmeal (very gritty, I guess it's an acquired taste); neither of these kinds of bread are available in my local bakeries.

That's the Greek rural spirit: poverty is bearable as long as there is food on the table. Starvation cursed the Greeks in WW2, when the Nazis confiscated all the food; if there is no starvation, all the rest can be dealt with. Hrisida joked with me that she is simply joining the pensioner lifestyle a little earlier than expected (and without a pension), living the dream life of the average Greek, simplifying her life, tending a garden, and keeping in close contact with the family. There's no better place to do this than a place like Karpenisi or Hania, small Greek towns in the countryside.

 *** *** ***
As Hrisida mentions, she makes good pites (pies), a skill passed on to her by her mother. Passing on recipes and cooking techniques is a necessary part of growing up as a girl in a Greek home. Kneading dough and opening up pastry isn't every one's cup of tea, but even though Hrisida is quite good at it, she still often resorts to some of the easier recipes which produce very tasty, low-cost pites at very short notice. This one was waiting for us, hot and freshly baked, in the oven the day we arrived at her home. According to Hrisida, it is one of the simplest pies they make in the region: zymaropita.

Hrisida's zimaropita

"I call it Greek polenta," Hrisida told me. "It is a filo-less self-crusting pie, in other words, a 'naked' pie. In Macedonia we call them κολ(ι)ομπαρόπιτα (koliobaropita), since κολιόμπαρος (koliobaros) means 'naked'. Sometimes sugar is added and rice replaces the flour and it is turned into a dessert."

Here is Hrisida's recipe for the typical koliobaropita, also known as zimaropita. For a large baking pan (35x40cm), you need:
800grs-1kg of grated courgettes or marrow (I used an overgrown zucchini, and I peeled the skin, because it was quite thick))
4 eggs, beaten
400grs of feta cheese
2 handfuls of cornmeal (approximately 300g)
1/3-1/2 cup olive oil (if you think the mixture looks too oily, use less olive oil)
1/3-1/2 cup of milk, to make the mixture runny like porridge (don't use too much if the mixture is too runny)
salt and pepper

Mix everything together (no need to strain the zucchini), oil the baking tray and pour in the mixture. Note that it should not be more than 1cm thick when baked. Hrisida used to make them thicker, but as she insisted, it's a case where less is best. Bake it just as you would a pie, for about 45-60 minutes, until golden.

Hrisida's tips: The grated squash/marrow disappears in the filling; it just helps to keep the pie moist. Sometimes I replace a handful of cornmeal with a handful of trahana (dried milk/wheat grains). It's just as delicious. Maybe you can replace half the feta with Cretan mizithra but it is still nice to find chunks of feta in the pie.  It shouldn't be more of 1cm thick when baked. 

hora_62Hrisida's zimaropita was the topic of great discussion. For a start, cornmeal is not a common ingredient in Crete - I even had a hard time finding it in my small local supermarket. Cornmeal is relatively unknown in our cuisine. Her zimaropita reminded me of a pie I once made, called pispilita, also known as plasto. The difference between making zimaropita and plasto is that in plasto, the flour is divided in half and pressed down, the filling is then placed in the middle, and the remaining flour is placed on top to form a crust. These pites used to be whisked up very quickly by nomad women while living in the alpine pastures for the summertime.  They had their chickens and garden, and a bit of cornmeal (καλαμποκάλευρο - kalambokalevro - with which they used to make bobota, another well-known northern Greek dish) from corn that grew in their mountain villages, as wheat doesn't grow well in very cold weather. They didn't have an oven, so they used something called the gastra (γάστρα) which is a cast iron heavy lid that you burn first and then you put over the hearth (πυροστιά), then you put burning coal/ash over this lid and create semi-closed baking conditions.

I also had some mixture left over, so I placed it in an oiled muffin pan - and made soft biscuit-like popovers, perfect for kids' lunchboxes. Compared to Hrisida's pie, mine looks firmer, with less chunky cheese bits in it: this is because I know my family prefers a smoother cheese-pie finish; Hrisida's family likes to find chunks of cheese in their pies. Her pita is also moister than mine, possibly because I strained the marrow of liquids.

Hrisida also gave me her recipe for a spring variation of zimaropita which involves replacing the marrow with greens: "You don't use so many greens as courgettes, e.g. a kilo, because the pie may become too green and slightly bitter. The greens don't disappear as courgettes do, so I would use 1/2 a kilo or less. Chop them up finely and wilt them first by squeezing them with a bit of the salt. Courgettes are a safer choice, hence zymaropita is more popular. It might also work with chopped tomatoes (not pureed), because as a pie it absorbs moisture well." Such variations form many different pies, all with their own taste, so that no one could suspect that they are eating the same thing again and again.

Using Hrisida's advice, I also made a tomato zimaropita - you can imagine the aroma as it came out of the oven...

Those nomadic Greek women had no ovens, yet there they were, up in the Greek alps, grinding corn to make meal, and baking pies with it. And even though Greek women are now no longer nomads and they all have ovens in their kitchens, many of their meals would be recognizable to their great grandmothers, were they still alive.

Black and white photographs taken from Dedication to Mother, by Kostas Balafas.

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