Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Austerity cuisine: Life of Pie

My proofreading and translation work often takes me through culinary journeys - here is what I've been working on for a little while now.

The culinary concept of πίτα (PI-ta = 'pie') is an ancient one, and there is no culture in the world that does not have some kind of pie in its culinary repertoire: some kind of filling stuck together or enclosed in a flour-and-water mixture which can be as dry as pastry, or as sludgy as batter. Pie fascinates us because an uncut pie is mysterious, as it does not reveal its contents, so that we have only its aroma to estimate its inner secrets. Like bread, pie is a portable meal, with the added luxury - unlike that of bread - of being a complete meal that does not need assembly. Pie is also one of the most creative culinary offerings of the primitive kitchen. The basic rule in making pie is that there are no rules, hence the pie each person creates can be as original as s/he wants it to be. It is this basic rule that makes the Greek pita so versatile, and so important in culinary history: pie can be as rich - or as poor - as you can afford to make it. And for this reason, pie embodies all the facets of austerity, as it makes use of anything and everything: unlike soup which is an equally austere meal, pie can be carried anywhere and everywhere, so that it can be eaten by the very poorest people working far away from their homes.

The oldest forms of Greek pita may contain just flour and water, with some honey and nuts sprinkled over them, as in saragli from Northern Greece, and xerotigana from Crete:
"The ancient history of the pie in Thrace starts from the sludge created by the mixing of water and flour, i.e. the milled grain. This trophic symbol is to this day in Thrace still called ‘genima’ (birth). This sludge, which was baked in the shields of the warriors of antiquity and in Thrace still continues to be baked on a heated stone or iron surface, to be offered as a ritualistic dish, then became a round dough that is flattened and baked on flat stones. The various ‘palakountia’ and the ‘koptoplakountio’ of the Byzantines, with a pastry sheet on the top and bottom, and a filling of hazelnuts, almonds and honey in between, or the ‘tetyromenoi plakountes', are the first forms of pie, and they are the memories that keep the taste of the spiral-shaped or ‘curly’ pies of Thrace." (cf. Angeliki Giannakidou, Thracian pita)
Most pita ingredients originate from small-scale cultivations of garden vegetables, eggs and milk. Meat pies (kreatopita) have always been considered an extravagance - even today, a meat pita in Greece is usually made for Easter or a special occasion:
"The animals needed to produce the dairy products, usually chicken, sheep and goats, were reared in the household for the purposes of consumption, and it was almost unthinkable that a household would not produce whatever was required in order to feed its members." (cf Maria Fakiola, Corfiot pita)
But producing so much food for the daily needs of the - often large, in past times - family household was very hard work and on a very regular basis, the food supply would be supplemented by nature's offerings, hence the abundance of wild greens in the Greek pita which are used to make hortopita:
"The greens used vary depending on what thrives in every area, and it mainly constituted sorrel, kafkalithres, fennel, sowthistle, chard, galatsides, poppies, myronia, and nettles. These pies are primarily called ‘hortopites’ (Imvros, Molyvos in Lesvos, Chania in Crete, Mykonos and Evia), or ‘lachanopites’ (cabbage pies), ‘marathopites’ (fennel pies) and ‘tsouknidopites’ (nettle pies) according to the filling, while they are referred to as ‘gemostopites’ in Karkinagri of Ikaria." (cf Ourania Rapti, Aegean pita)
Given the nature of the Greek pita - a frugal meal that can be made from virtually anything - pita epitomises austerity:
"... as the economic and cultural activity of a society is heavily influenced by the natural environment, it is only natural that primary ingredients for food meet the circumstances which they define." (cf Eleni Bintsi, Vlach pita)
Yet, despite its economical basis, pita can be dressed up for any occasion. It can take on religious significance and be prepared ritualistically, as in the fanouropita, made in honour of St Fanourios, finder of lost things:
"Fanouropita ... is made with seven ingredients: oil, flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, water. ... From oral accounts we also know that fanouropita can be made with seven or nine ingredients (oil, flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, water, dried fruit, and orange)." (cf Rodoula Stathakis-Koumaris and Chrysafa Tsonou, Gaslaxidi pita) 
Where a paucity of basic ingredients was experienced, both the sweet and savoury could be combined; with the addition of rice and using an intricate manner of rolling the pastry, a 'richer' offering could be produced, as in the case of bubari:
"... bubari is a sweet Lenten pie with a spinach base ... Bubari is a very oily pie, since, in Megara, there has always been an abundant production of olive oil (an ancient variety from Central Greece, local subspecies of ‘Megaritiki’ of Olea europaea  var. Media oblonga, both an oil and table olive). The spinach was grown in local orchards and home vegetable gardens, and the (seeded) raisins used came from a local grape variety with small berries that locals dried in their homes. Traditionally, they did not purchase any of the basic materials, since every family produced its own products, even the flour. In order to both provide a main meal (for lunch) and also prepare enough pie in an economical way for the needs of the family, sometimes rice was added. The most common form of the pie is ‘bubari’, ie rolls in the shape of candy." (cf Maria Kalozoumi, Megara pita)
In line with the concept of austerity, nothing was wasted. Even an ingredient regarded as 'useless', like the unused squash that was left over from the previous autumn and had made it through to the spring, would be treated like royalty, and a special feastday would be assigned to use it all up, as in the kolokithopita (pumpkin pie):
"Kolokithopita in the Messinian town of Thouria is prepared by housewives and consumed only during the first Saturday of Lent, on the feast of Sts. Theodore... The main basis for the preparation is dry yellow squash (pumpkin)." (cf Elli Prasinou-Favvata, Messinia pita)
These days, I myself rarely make a galaktoboureko without adding pumpkin: pumpkin bougatsa and pumpkin galaktoboureko are now standard dishes in our house when I have pumpkin.

When we think of the Greek pita, we usually think of pastry, thick or thin, wrapped round a tasty filling. But making filo pastry is not an easy task, and certainly not an everyday one, so that, and in many cases, there was not enough time to make the filo pastry for a pita, which, in contrast to the pastry, had to be made with some urgency, in order to feed the family and guests. Thus, in many cases, we see recipes for self-crusting pita:
"The Peloponnesian mountainous hinterland is a place with a long tradition in sheep and goat breeding, both transitional and permanent. In the mountainous area of Olympia, namely in a small village just outside Andritsena, the Alifeira (Rogkozio), I tried two milk-based pies. Both summarize the most characteristic element of the food traditions of Morea - and in general, of Greece: austerity. This was manifested in the korkofigki, made during the period when lambs and goats are born, at the beginning of winter; and galopita, prepared with special care, mainly on Holy Saturday, to be eaten as a dessert at the festive table on Easter Sunday. Its flavor reminds one of galaktoboureko (Greek custard pie), but without containing pastry or syrup. (cf Yiannis N. Drinis, Peloponnesian pita)
"The types of pie are many and various: pies with home-made pastry, the leading role played by the hortopita (with wild greens collected from the region and spinach), as well as cheese pie, spiral pie known as ‘strifti’ (with cheese and sugar), milk pie and porridge pies such as mamaligka and bambanetsa. The name mamaligka is known in the Balkans and refers to a sludgy porridge mixture made with cornmeal. Mamaligka is a custom of Fthiotida, made with a kind of porridge originating from wheat flour to which cheese and zucchini or pumpkin are added. It is not covered with pastry, but egg is brushed over it, mixed with oil and sugar. It is thin, so as to cook quickly, and it is always cooked till the top is crusty." (cf Fotini Tsonou, Lamia pita)
The pies described above remind me of zimaropita, which a friend taught me how to make.

Often, pita is made with the poorest of ingredients - wild greens, foraged from the countryside, a sign in older times that one did not have enough food of one's own for the nutritional needs of one's family.  Identifying greens in the countryside is almost a dying art, but now with the crisis, it has had a revival. Wild greens make the most aromatic, the most redolent, and the most highly prized pita:
"Most pies in the Cyclades are made in the spring, since the nature of the area in the spring generously offers a wide variety of wild and domesticated leafy greens. (cf Nikoleta Delatola Foskolou, Cycladic pita)
Where wood is scarce, as in the Cycladic islands, pita is not baked, but fried in individual portion-size pieces, which requires less cooking time:
"The ‘seskoulopita’ or ‘seskoulopitaki’, a sweet pie, is made in Tinos at Christmas. Seskoulopitaki is based on chard, but also contains walnuts and raisins. It is flavored with ground cinnamon and cloves, and chopped mandarin, and is sweetened with molasses and a little sugar. The filling is wrapped in handmade pastry kneaded with orange juice, egg and oil. If the recipe is made as a larger pie, it is usually baked in the oven, whereas when individual serving-sized seskoulopitakia are made, they are fried, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar." (cf Nikoleta Delatola Foskolou, Cycladic pita)
These smaller pies require a lot of work, which is often done collectively:
"Such a task becomes monumental because the preparation of these desserts is time-consuming; since most women on the island have to prepare several dishes for the festive Easter table, they tend to make them in groups to help each other. Hence, they go together in groups of 2-3, maybe more, depending on the number of pies they have to make. Every woman assumes a role, depending on her skills. Some deal with the rolling out of the pastry, others with the preparation of the filling, another with the "pinching" of the pastry into a thin pleat." (cf Nikoleta Delatola Foskolou, Cycladic pita)
Small pita, and self-crusting pita, are the traditional pita offerings from the island of Crete, and they are all fried in olive oil which is found in abundance all over the island:
"With a focus on the local ingredients and cooking methods, the most widespread pies in the countryside and the urban centres of Crete are the pies cooked in a pan, like the ‘hortopites’ (wild greens), marathopites (dominated by fennel), cheese pies (sour, sweet or savoury with mint), ‘nerates mizithropites’ (the dough is fried while still wet), ‘sarikopites’, ‘agn(i)opites’,  ‘kreatotourtes’ (meat pies), the pies of Sfakia, etc. A second category is the baked pies, like ‘tzoulamas’ (dominated by rice), ‘mizithrompoureko’, the light pies that remind one of cake, with the most popular one being raisin pie, etc." (cf Angeliki Baltatzi, Cretan pita)
My favorite kind of pastry pita is one that uses filo pastry in between the filling. It is a favorite all over mainland Greece:
"In Zagori, pies with pastry contain 5-6 thin sheets. Two-three are laid on the baking sheet and brushed with a little oil, one is tucked between the ‘anademi’ (filling), baked dry in the oven to hold the excess liquids, and another two to cover the pie." (cf Calliope Stara, Zagori pita)
This is the kind of pita that I make the most often for my household. These days, we rarely cook pita in the electric oven - the austerity lifestyle forced on us bought back the wood-fired heater into our home and our one comes with an oven compartment. I also make pita in the cooler seasons - heating up the home in summer is unthinkable!

We often think of pita as mainly a gender-oriented task, a woman's job. The solitary life of the Aegean fishermen proves this not to be the case. Their fish pie was probably fresher than the pita their wives served them when they came back home:
"The ‘atherinopita’ (smelt pie) of Kimolos is a dish that is found in several islands of the Cyclades... It started as a recipe made by fishermen who, when they got a good catch, held onto a part of it to make this ‘instant’ pie. The fish mainly used for the preparation of the pie is mostly the thin grey-blue 'sea spray’, called ‘atherina’ (Atherina hepsetus). Its length varies between 8 and 15 cm. They also prepared the same pie to take with them when they went out fishing. They would often make it in their boat. It's a pie that is very simple, easy and quick to make, with small fish, flour and onion, which, as they are mixed together and fried over a hot fire with plenty of olive oil, form a kind of pie." (cf Nikoleta Delatola Foskolou, Cycladic pita)
The importance of having the appropriate pie-making skills is also exemplified in the many proverbs and sayings that abound in the regional dialects of Greece:
«πίτα έχεις; έννοια έχεις» "You got pie? You have passion" meaning the daily care and constant attention needed for the preparation of a meal,
«πότε πίτα και φλασκί, πότε πίτα μοναχή» "Sometimes pie and flask, sometimes pie alone" concerning the adequacy or otherwise of provisions (sometimes, we have wine to drink with our pie, but other times, we will have just the pie),
«πίτα ’κεί που μέλλεσαι και όχι εκεί που ψένεσαι» "Pie for where you will go, and not where you want to go" when something ends up at another recipient other than the one it was intended for,
«όπου πεινά, πίτες θωρεί, κι όπου διψά, πηγάδια» "Whenever hungry, he sees pies, and whenever thirsty, wells", 
«από πίτα που δεν τρως, τι σε μέλλει κι αν καεί;»"Of the pie that you will not eat, why do you care if it burns?", 
«πόσες βουκιές είν’ η πίτα; κατά το δαγκανιάρη» "How many mouthfuls is that pie? It depends on the biter" in reference to the truth or the result of a project),
«ο καθείς την πίτα του για αφεντιά την έχει» "Each one to his own pie", with the a similar meaning to the 'an Englishman's home is his castle', 
«η πίτα που θα μ’ ευφράνει αφ’ το φούρνο φαίνεται» "The pie that I will indulge in can be seen from the oven", meaning that we usually know how something will turn out,
«ζεστή είναι η πίτα νόστιμη» "The pie is delicious when it’s warm" for the importance of timely action. (cf Ourania Rapti, Aegean pita)
Indeed, where would be without pita? 

I have not included any photos in this post, but if you would like to look up some of the recipes mentioned, many are given in my blog. Choose the underlined words in the above text, paste them in the search box on the top left-hand side, and you will find photos and recipes of similar pies as those being discussed here. Click here for a set of photos showing the many different kinds of pita I make

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