Greece – Flavors of the Peloponnese
Travellers’ accounts of life in the Peloponnese from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries overlook food almost entirely. Most European gentlemen visiting Greece in those times thought little of the local fare-they considered it poor, and even unhygienic. Despite the dearth of details regarding actual meals, however, historical descriptions of the region often mention ingredients that form the basis of Peloponnesian cuisine to this day.
Olive trees frame everything on the peninsula-sea views, hillsides, architecture, vegetation. In the Peloponnese as on Crete, therefore (to a lesser degree throughout Greece), agriculture and gastronomy revolve around the olive and its unctuous gold.
No meal in the Peloponnese is complete without a bowl full of olives, and there are dozens of ways to cure, them. Kalamata, in Messinia, is home to the tight, mahogany-black, almond shaped olives that are perhaps the world’s most famous. Those from Nafplio, in Argolida, are cracked, slim and green.
Peloponnesians know their olive oil the way the French do their cheese, and they use it liberally in everything from salads to sweets. The raw green-gold soil is dribbled on to toasted bread, emulsified with lemon as a dressing or served fried in all manner of dishes. In the southern region of Mani, even plain bread is crisp-fried in olive oil as a local meze (one of a selection of appetizers usually accompanied by ouzo). Anevata koulourakia (floating biscuits) are made with one tumbler full of oil per kilo of flour. The wood burning baker’s oven at Areopolis -praised by people all over the Peloponnese- uses the olive’s thick green juice to make crisp paximadia (rusks).
Olive oil is a vital ingredient in the peninsula’s kourambiedes (shortbread-style biscuits), and it helps make the compulsory wedding ‘dessert of joy’, called diples. Curled, finger-thick dough fritters known as lalanghia are kneaded with, then fried in, olive oil and served either hot with grated sfela cheese or cold like a pretzel. They are traditionally made at Christmas but can now be had all year round.
Whether in tavernas, butchers’ shops or homes throughout the Peloponnese -especially in the sparse, almost lunar, setting of the Mani -the wealth of cured pork dazzles. Pasta and singlino, two local names for salted pork, are made with slight variations all over the peninsula.
On the mountain plateau of Arcadia, only thigh meat is used. The pieces are big. Salted, boiled in wine, browned in olive oil or lard and seasoned with allspice, cinnamon and pepper, they are preserved in rendered lard or olive oil.
In the Mani, preserved pork is salted, then smoked over sage or cypress wood. Many butchers sell it at that stage but, to be considered edible, the pasta must be boiled with oregano and orange peel. Almost every kafeneio in the area serves pasta with a few green olives and strong local firewater.
Peloponnesian sausages are made exclusively with pork. They are often seasoned with orange, pepper and allspice. Garlic, nutmeg and wine (as well as the ever-present orange peel) are added in Mani.
For about 20 days each year, between the end of May and the middle of June, the monks of the Taxiarhon Monastery at Aighio, in the northern Peloponnese, prepare their famous rodhozahari, or rose-petal jam. This exotic, rare spoon sweet is made from the macerated petals of plump, pink, highly-aromatic roses grown on some 80 acres around the monastery. The factory is a makeshift shed a few hundred metres from the monks’ cells, and the jam is sold in plain, stout, yellow tins.
The monastery has made rose-petal jam for at least a hundred years, but no one seems to know how or when the tradition began. According to one Brother, the most likely story is that the roses and the secret recipe for rose sugar were brought to the monastery by a Bulgarian monk during the Turkish occupation. It is the custom in the Rodhopi Mountains (along the border between Bulgaria and Greece) to grow roses and distill rosewater and rose oil.
The monks’ recipe is unique, but the sweet is not exclusive to the Peloponnese.