The Genius of Greek Cooks – Guest Post

There is no one I know who writes more eloquently and with more passion and knowledge about Greek cooking than my Canadian-Greek friend, Dora Tsagias. Though Dora grew up in Canada, her heart has always been in her homeland and after her marriage, she and her Uruguayan-born husband Alex made their home in Athens for a time.

They now live in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada where they raised their daughters and where Dora owns a specialty food shop that is packed to the brim with products from all over Greece – the finest of olive oils, Cretan cheeses, Greek mountain tea, oregano of course, honey and much more. If you’re lucky on the day you arrive, there might just be some her own fresh-made pastitsio filling the air from her oven. Her store is called Tithorea after the village in mainland Greece at the base of Mount Parnassus that is her maternal grandparents’ ancestral home.

Dora, Ευχαριστώ πολύ. Thank you very much for allowing me to share your piece that so beautifully celebrates the genius of Greek cooks. And what better time than now, as the Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival is set to return to Sifnos on September 22, 23 & 24, named after the late Sifnian chef and author whose last name Greeks use for the word cookbook itself. During this festival, cooks from all of the islands of the Cyclades, throughout Greece and beyond will do what they love most – bring with them the ingredients their ancestors used and, in what amounts to a cooking extravaganza and huge eat-a-thon, create dishes that generously nourish body and soul. What could be more healing than that after these past two years when events like this were forced to cancel, when the pandemic kept us so apart

Καλή όρεξη to one and all. Bon appétit

THE JOY OF TRADITIONAL GREEK COOKING 

(ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΗ ΚΟΥΖΙΝΑ)

by Dora Tsagias

During the weeks, then months, of the pandemic, I was confined to my kitchen as never before. Ingredients I took for granted, such as flour, yeast, whipping cream, and brown sugar, were erratically unavailable. Fear of shortages, fear of the unknown, spurred me to look at old recipes given to me from my theia Maria that belonged to my yiayia Thodora. 

I recall my grandmothers’ stories of World War II rationing and the intense deprivations long after. What else that comes to mind vividly is my own admiration for φτωχή κουζίνα, the traditional cooking of the poor in Greece. In times of want, which historically have been all too frequent, a cook had to make do with what was available. This is true in every country, necessity being the brood mother of invention. The inconvenience of no whipping cream had nothing to do with the scrounging and stretching of the cook facing bare shelves.

Back in 1993, when Alex and I moved to Greece, I’d brought several cookbooks along from Canada. But when I began to be invited into Greek homes, and asked my neighbours how to make σπανακoπιτακια , or αuγολέμονο (start with a mature hen), or ντοματόσουπα (simplest of tomato soups), I shelved the books. They seemed fussy. I woke up to the realization that the immense variety of Greek food was expressed fully—and spontaneously—by frugal home cooks using what they had, no matter how limited that might be. The authority was Yiayia, grandmother. None of my Greek family or friends used cookbooks at all—or even measuring cups and spoons, except sometimes for baking. 

I’ve eaten at fancy restaurants in many places during my travels, the ones with the hype, food shows, books. After having dinners at my theias’ houses, I can’t worship at those urban temples. Greek home cooks have a depth of information on seasonal ingredients, a vast range of dishes they serve, and an inborn aptitude for knowing what’s ripe today. After years of cooking with them, I’m still in awe of the impromptu genius of the traditional cook. Follow the dropped crumbs and you’re led back to a φτωχή κουζίνα.

Cuisine was high/low because for much of history, Greece had a small middle class, unlike France, which developed a restaurant culture and an elaborate bourgeois cuisine. This is why Greeks appreciate everything. Parts of the pig and cow I never thought would see light are served forth with relish, along with, hard to behold, a platter of songbirds. Hold one by the beak and bite, crackling bones and all. I have surreptitiously slipped many morsels of lamb heart, intestines of unweaned veal, and rabbit kidney to the side, but my family and friends love this country soul food. 

I remember how fascinated Alex was seeing our neighbours out for daily walks but they’re weren’t just walking. They were picking dandelions, spiky greens, snapping fennel flowers; jumping a ditch and risking a broken collarbone for a few sprigs of asparagus. A foraging instinct spirals in the DNA. Foraging is kind of in with chefs worldwide these days, but I’m not thinking of a morning out collecting seaweeds or fiddlehead ferns. Greeks forage out of an abiding bond with seasons and land. Foraging: the opposite of selecting produce coated with wax, plastered with stickers, or passing up strawberries from Chile in winter. No prewashed lettuce compares to ραδίκι, chicory. During the rush of summer bounty, the extra artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, cooks preserve them under oil, to be pulled out when needed. Beans and hot peppers. Fennel flowers and tomatoes dry on screens in the sun. The μανιτάρια (mushrooms)  and chestnut- gathering among the majestic golden trees in fall signals the beginning of dinners by the fire. This is true today, true when I first arrived in Athens, and true as far back as memory goes. 

Φτωχή κουζίνα’s defining heritage is that Greeks have a deep-rooted connection to the earth. A second gift: a waste-not philosophy, crucial for us Earth dwellers. Φτωχή κουζίνα: Use every ounce of the pig, snout to tail, grill whatever your fishing line pulls in, grow what you can, shop frequently so that bunch of carrots or broccoli doesn’t wilt before you get to it. The habit arose from lack of refrigeration but results in less waste, a practise I still use living back here in Rockwood. Greeks still have tiny refrigerators compared to most in the U.S. or Canada. Shopping daily seems not a chore but a time to hear the news and talk about what you’re going to do with the kumquats or beets.

The primary waste-not example is bread. Loaves are bought almost daily from the local φούρνο (literal translation is oven). This habit goes way back. (Oddly, the word connects with “fornication”—prostitutes used to gather around the bread ovens  for warmth.) A local man who was a child during WWII told me his breakfast then was a slice of bread moistened with wine and sugar. Babies today are given a hunk to soothe their gums, where my dad still to this day soaks day-old bread in water and dredges it through sugar when he is craving something sweet.

Driving around Greece, you spot the old planting configuration of a wheat field bordered by olive trees and grapevines. There you have it, the sacred trinity: wheat, oil, wine.  φτωχή κουζίνα’s triumph: wheat, which means pasta and bread. Ah, what the home cooks did with pasta! Poetry and fun and most of all inventiveness from flour and water — nothing more basic, and yet even the simplest accompaniment can reach the sublime. Chickpeas or bitter greens, any bitter green crushed into a pesto, a handful of herbs, whatever you have. Good oil, and, with luck, a few shavings of truffle. Pasta’s infinite varieties prove the brilliance and solace of the poor kitchen.

The transformative ingredient in Greek food remains great olive oil. My family has been pressing ours for generations. Picking olives in October through December connected us with the ancient cycle of the seasons. Olive oil, in the Mediterranean world, is not just an ingredient, it’s a libation, a holy substance that connects you to the earth and promotes a sense of belonging in time. Our brand new oil, glowing like liquid emeralds, was a revelation. Trying to duplicate my yiayia’s stuffed zucchini, her χοιρινό ψητό  (pork roast), even her plain green beans, I’ve fallen short. Mine is good. Not as good. I watched closely. Whereas we North Americans drizzle olive oil into the pan, she flipped off the spout and poured. She used three times what we did. Four times.

I copied. Our food sparkled, and I learned: Douse your salads and grilled steak — but also rub a daub on an insect bite, baby’s umbilical cord, or stretch marks, or dry skin. Steep some with lavender and flavour your bath water. Pour a dribble on an orange and sprinkle with salt. Fry with it, yes, regardless of what you read to the contrary. For a Greek family of four, they will use one pound of butter per year. But they use, as I do, at least a litre of olive oil a week.

I think the abiding connection to nature and the respect for what it gives lie at the heart of why Greeks seem to feel at home in time. We become happy when we fall into natural rhythms, seasons, expectations. I love to see the ρυθμός, the rhythm, of dinner, which arrives with all four distinct courses at once. Each is savoured and concentrated on. At the call “καλή όρεξη” to the table, you flush with pleasure; you are coming into a celebratory ambience. Something wonderful is about to happen. No one speculates on how many calories are hiding in the meal.

After a long Greek dinner, I feel not only the gift of exceptional company, food, and wine but also an inexplicable sense of well-being, of revival. This healthy appreciation is directly connected to  φτωχή κουζίνα. Revere what you have. Food is natural, eaten with moderation, yes, but with gusto. Here we are at the heart of the matter. Those great grandmothers knew all about gratitude and respect for what’s served forth.

We are at a big moment for change. The pandemic gives us a chance to rethink, control, reinterpret. I keep reminding myself that the Italian Renaissance flowering occurred after the plague. The wartime, hard-times grandmothers facing meagre cupboards developed one of the most loved cuisines in the world. Their heritage could not be more genuine. Here’s poet Cesare Pavese: “A gulp of my drink,” he wrote, “and my body can taste the life/of plants and of rivers.” The abundant ancestral table remains set for the best life has to offer. Opa!

SHARON’S BOOKS, THE SIFNOS CHRONICLES: TALES FROM A GREEK ISLE AND SIFNOS CHRONICLES 2: MORE GREEK ISLAND TALES ARE BOTH AVAILABLE THROUGH AMAZON. YOU CAN RECEIVE THEM IN AN INSTANT TO READ ON YOUR KINDLE OR OTHER DEVICE, OR ORDER THEM AS A PAPERBACK. IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO BE IN SIFNOS, YOU CAN BUY THEM AT TO BIBLIOPOLEIO, THE BOOK SHOP, IN APOLLONIA.

THE WEBSITE FOR DORA’S SHOP, TITHOREA, IS HERE.

Ships Come & Ships Go

Ships come and ships go. It’s what they do. Transport goods from one port to the next. Connect places that geography would otherwise keep totally apart. Carry people who have somewhere else they need to be.  Which brings me to a favourite subject of mine, Greek ferries.

I’ve been travelling to Sifnos long enough to understand there’s a different sense in how ships come and go. The ferry that took me there the first time, the old Agios Georgios, is no more. New ships, faster and more comfortable and efficient, came along and it stopped running its route some years ago. I’d heard that it sank while sitting beside the dock in Piraeus, then one morning a few months later I read on my smartphone that the old dear was under tow on her way to Turkey and a demolition shipyard there. 

Such is the way of progress, I guess, and it would be hard to argue that such changes are anything but good. Otherwise those voyages to Sifnos would still take most of the length of a day as they did in decades past, instead of the two or three hours that are possible now. But the news of the Agios Georgios’s demise brought a flood of emotion that surprised me. How I loved that old ship, I realized more than ever that day. Sure, it was creaky and worn, but it took me to a place I’d come to love, the journey there was a big part of the fun, and it was on its deck after sunset one night I’d realized that the dark hills passing by were ones that Homer himself would have seen. The day I learned of the ship’s imminent demise I did a blogpost right away and the many reactions it received taught me something else. If the connections that I as an occasional visitor to the island felt with that ship were profound, how much more so must be those of those who live there and rely and sail on it all the time. And those of the crews, who set forth every day on calm seas and through storms. And those of the men in each port, the rope attachers I call them, who drop whatever they’re doing every time a ferry appears and rush down to the pier to do the often dangerous work of tying ship to shore. It struck me more than ever that day that ships have a soul. And a relationship with every person who sets foot on their decks.

And now, another ship is going, leaving Sifnos. The Speedrunner, a ferry so many have relied on and truly loved has been sold, its route through the Western Cyclades ended, the fate of this boat uncertain. This ship is not old, certainly not creaky, and few are the islanders from the agonized reactions to this news I’ve read online who are ready to see this development as progress. Had I been on the island last Thursday, I would have been there on the dock too to witness its final departure. But I wasn’t and could only watch by video. Still, I know that when the boat’s captain edged the bow with his consummate skill to mere inches from the edge of the dock and in a gentle kiss to the island lowered the huge anchor onto it, then performed a full-circle pirouette on the way back out to sea, my eyes were far from the only ones that were no longer dry. 

So, here’s to connections. Connections to friends we haven’t seen for a while. To places far away where we feel so at home. To friends we haven’t found yet. Connections that, after these two years that have kept us so apart from each other, we need now more than ever. Connections to the vessels that bring us together. To the hardworking crews on ship and on land who make all this possible. Opa! We can’t wait to sail with you again.

Video: the Speedrunner’s last moments in Sifnos.

My blogpost: Ode to an Old Ferry

MY BOOKS, THE SIFNOS CHRONICLES: TALES FROM A GREEK ISLE AND SIFNOS CHRONICLES 2: MORE GREEK ISLAND TALES ARE BOTH AVAILABLE THROUGH AMAZON. YOU CAN RECEIVE THEM IN AN INSTANT TO READ ON YOUR KINDLE OR OTHER DEVICE, OR ORDER THEM AS A PAPERBACK. IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO BE IN SIFNOS, YOU CAN BUY THEM AT TO BIBLIOPOLEIO, THE BOOK SHOP, IN APOLLONIA.

It’s About Time – Sifnos and Ceramics

Sit down in any taverna on Sifnos, order their home wine from the barrel, and you are likely to find yourself participating in the oldest of this island’s arts. It’s not the wine that I speak of but the vessel in which it arrives, a clay pitcher with the restaurant’s name inscribed in its glaze. Made by a potter who lives and works close by, it is yet one more example of a craft that dates back on this island to the Bronze Age at least. And now in January 2022, the United Nations’ UNESCO added the ceramics of Sifnos to Greece’s National Index of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a designation that recognizes the craft’s contributions to life on the island and beyond and aims to preserve the practice for generations to come. It’s about time, some might say, the very long time that this art has made Sifnos what it is.

Walk into any of the island’s small but impressive museums and there you will find among the collections examples of pottery that range through the ages and from the very tiny to those that are spectacularly huge. Kastro’s archaeological museum and the one at the Mycenean acropolis at Agios Andreas have pieces that were shaped by Sifnian hands in the early Cycladic period, some 4000 years ago. Apollonia’s folklore museum has a large collection as well, this from the more recent past. But to learn what pottery means to Sifnos, no museum visit is needed. Simply look around wherever you are. Pottery is everywhere and even if you tried, you couldn’t escape it. Plates, cups, cooking pots, water jugs, flower pots, chimneys, ash trays, signs for businesses, even beehives in the ancient style, and yes, wine pitchers – if it’s possible to mould any item, practical or decorative, out of clay, it’s been done. And it’s used every day.

But to fully experience the legacy of pottery on Sifnos there’s an even better and, I’d argue, more satisfying way. Sit down in any of the island’s tavernas, the more traditional the better, and let its owners feed you. Delicious food is everywhere and for that, you can thank the island’s potters long gone. Pottery developed here early and back in the mists of time, when in much of the world cooking consisted of nothing more than hanging a piece of meat over a fire, on Sifnos they had pots. They’d place inside whatever of the island’s bounteous produce they’d gathered from the fields, toss in wild herbs they’d picked as they walked through the hills, some wine, and set the meal to simmer over hot coals for hours. As a result, instead of lamb cooked on a grill, on Sifnos you’re likely to find it as mastelo – stewed slowly, slowly to fall-off-the-bone tenderness in a clay pot in wine and, if you’re lucky, potatoes that soak up every drop of its savoury juice. And no visit to this island is complete without a taste of its signature dish revithia, chick pea soup, placed in communal ovens on Saturday nights and left to cook through the night so it can warm hungry bellies after church the next day. Such magic, such comfort and richness of flavour created from so few and such humble ingredients. It’s little wonder that crews of Greece’s merchant marine have long considered themselves lucky if they have a Sifnian as their ship’s cook.

As old and glorious as the pottery of ancient times was, one of the golden ages of Sifnian pottery remains within living memory and there are those still working today who practised it during that time. Through the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, the island gained fame for the quality of its products, their utility and the beauty of the designs, and the industry was a major source of employment and surely pride for Sifnians. Workshops in every seaside village grew in number and by the 1960s even tiny Heronissos had six of these tsikalaria in its environs. Large ships arrived regularly to lay anchor in the bays, then departed laden with pots and storage containers destined for kitchens throughout Greece and beyond. Tsikali, a kitchen’s main cooking vessel. Skepastaria, the narrow-necked lidded pot every islander knows must be used for chick pea soup and nothing else. Stamnes, storage jugs for water. Plates and bowls. Perhaps flaros, the decorative pieces Sifnians place atop every chimney.

Then … near disaster. Plastics arrived, more modern cooking methods, and ceramics came to be seen as passé. One-by-one the pottery wheels on Sifnos stopped turning, furnaces grew cold, tsikalaria closed, their owners forced to find other ways to earn their living, and many of these buildings found other uses. Fear grew that the art of ceramics on this island was at its end. Fortunately though, a few stubborn potters held on and some continue to work even today in shops that will whisk you back to centuries ago.

Photo by Anna SimitiPan

Fortunately too a new generation of craftspeople recognized the potential in the growing number of visitors to Sifnos, asked the old-timers to teach them the skills, and pottery shops are now everywhere on Sifnos again. In every town, every village and in between. Some sell wares in the traditional designs while others use the same methods to create their own more modern styles.

Tourists who are new to the island are often surprised to find laid out on a street an array of identical pots in wet clay, placed there in the sunshine to dry. But whether a first-time visitor or one of those devotees who return often from afar, rare is the one who leaves without at least one piece tucked into their luggage somewhere. I need only look at my collection at home to see that.

Only a part of what I’ve brought home over the years. And, this being Sifnos, many of these pieces were gifts.

UNESCO got it right. This ancient skill that has long defined so much of life on Sifnos, its Intangible Cultural Heritage, continues to do so to this day and it’s unthinkable that the craft should ever disappear. To those Sifnians who worked hard to bring this important designation to their island, I say Μπράβο – Bravo! And they’re far from finished yet. A museum in Artemonas dedicated to the art of ceramics, they tell me, is in the works. The diligence of Sifnians, their commitment, their pride, their inventiveness know no end. These qualities are as enduring as the pots that survive from four millennia ago.

SHARON BLOMFIELD IS THE AUTHOR OF THE SIFNOS CHRONICLES: TALES FROM A GREEK ISLE AND SIFNOS CHRONICLES 2: MORE GREEK ISLAND TALES. THESE BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT TO BIBLIOPOLEIO, THE BOOK SHOP IN APOLLONIA, SIFNOS, AT TITHOREA, A GREEK FOOD SHOP IN ROCKWOOD, ONTARIO, CANADA AND ON AMAZON.

My Readers Bring Joy

Last week brought a flurry of messages from around the world, from people I’m lucky to count as my friends. One in Athens told a tale about her 90-ish mother’s still-eager eye for young men. “Miss you,” she tacked onto the end. Me too. Laughter flew back and forth between Trinidad and myself over the latest absurdity in this covid-mad world. Leonard Cohen’s poem, “There is a crack in everything … that’s how the light gets in,” popped up on Facebook and every line touched me deep inside, posted there by a California friend who had no idea how much I needed to read those words right then. An Icelander’s photo arrived from Sifnos, the Greek isle we both love. It was of the exact spot, a close-up of where we’ll meet when finally we can, of the very meal I’m quite certain we’ll share then. And an email came from our Sifnos travel agent about our planned visit there next spring, the one I’ve lost track of how many times these past months we’ve been forced to postpone. This last message, the surge of hope it brought with it, made my heart leap. In fact, they all did. Every message, every bit of conversation that followed, filled me with joy. This whirl of seemingly random connections from all directions, ones that arrived as though choreographed, felt almost cosmic to me.

And the thing is, without some words I once wrote, I’d have no idea that any of these people, save one, even existed. Would never have heard their names. Without the book I wrote about my love for the island of Sifnos and how my attachment to that place so far from home came to be, their lives and all the kindness and fun they bring with them would never have touched mine.

How happy I am now that I persevered through the days, months and years of toil it took to turn an idea into The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, the 287-page volume we can all hold in our hands. That I took what was a jumble of experiences, thoughts and feelings and created from it a story that can make sense to someone else. That I waded my way through the myriad steps and the stress it took to turn my rough manuscript into this finished book. That I found the right people to help me with all that. That I pushed onward despite what every writer I know tells me they face too – the doubts, the fears, the utter breathless near-panic at one point in my case. The worry that your best efforts might not be enough. That you really have nothing interesting to say. That your story might be missing something important and fall flat. Or worse, that your words might, totally contrary to your intent, cause someone distress or even harm. 

How glad I am that I didn’t stop after that first book came to life, did a second one, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales, and created this blog whose 111th post you’re reading right now. How fortunate that back at the very beginning of all that I paid heed to the Muse that grabbed me by the hand and, in a moment I remember as though it were yesterday, gave it a firm shake and said, “There’s a book here and you are the one who must write it.” How well-rewarded I’ve been as a result.

When writers press Publish and send their work into the world, they have no idea, really, what will happen next. There’s so much every one of them wonders about. Will it be well-received? Will it sell? Will it even be read? Will it find anyone who cares about it at all. If someone does read it and happens to like it, how would they ever find out?

At the birth of The Sifnos Chronicles, I wondered all that too, and wished for it what I thought were appropriately modest hopes and expectations. But what I didn’t expect, never dreamt as a possibility at all, was that it would lead me to discover in all corners of the world so many who live and breathe Sifnos as much as I do. That conversations long and short would follow, between Canada and the Pacific, Israel, India, across Europe and far beyond. And Sifnos, of course. That true friendships with those I’ve been privileged to meet in the flesh and those I’ve not yet, would follow. That one day I’d be in an ongoing gabfest among four of us on three continents about koulouria, the Athens street snack one of us was about to bake in her oven right then. That these were the riches this book was about to bring into my life.

To other writers out there, the nervous, the hesitant, those who wonder if your words and ideas are worthwhile at all, this I say now … when that Muse strikes you, listen. Persevere. Push on through the obstacles in your path. It’s worth all the effort. 

I promise you’ll see that in time. I just can’t tell you how.

SHARON BLOMFIELD IS THE AUTHOR OF THE SIFNOS CHRONICLES: TALES FROM A GREEK ISLE AND SIFNOS CHRONICLES 2: MORE GREEK ISLAND TALES. THESE BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT TO BIBLIOPOLEIO, THE BOOK SHOP IN APOLLONIA, SIFNOS, AT TITHOREA, A GREEK FOOD SHOP IN ROCKWOOD, ONTARIO, CANADA AND ON AMAZON.

The Ancient Towers Return

Today a very special event returns to Sifnos. Friktoria, the lighting of its ancient towers, antiquity’s communication system on this island.

This celebration was one of so many cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19. We can all hope that its return, though still without its grand after-party for this year, is a sign that we are on our way back, finally, to a more normal way of life.

The following is a repeat of a blog I posted in 2018. Whether you’re on Sifnos or just wishing desperately you could be, happy Friktoria to you. Xronia polla.

2018: If you’re on the road from Kamares to Apollonia and you keep your eyes peeled, you might see a giant stone archway on the top of a hill. One of the lesser-known treasures on this island, it was built in the 6th century BC and is what remains of the Tower of Kambanario. At that point in antiquity, Sifnos had active mines producing gold, silver and iron, and was at the height of its wealth and prestige and vulnerable to pirate raids. So over the next three hundred years, Sifnians built stone towers, one every square kilometre or so. They built them near mines, atop hills and at least one at the edge of the sea, every one of these within in sight of another. Then with smoke and mirrors, they’d flash good news and bad around the island. The cell phones of old, you might say. If an attack was coming, people would rush to the tower and find shelter inside.

By this century, of course, time had taken its toll on these structures, communication methods had changed and, in fact, local knowledge of many of the towers had been lost. Then in 2003, a sailing race was scheduled to reach Sifnos and an idea was hatched. Volunteers were gathered and they lit fires in a few of the towers that were known then to welcome the boats. 

Through archeological work that dates back at least 30 years now, a total of 78 ancient towers have been found and interest in this aspect of Sifnian history has grown. Some of these towers, like the one at Agios Giorgios near Cheronissos, are mere scattered piles of stones that are barely distinguishable from the rest of that rocky hill. Others are much better preserved, some with wells, presses and millstones. Some are readily accessible, others at the end of a long walk through difficult terrain. Visitors can easily reach at least two ancient towers, Mavros Pyrgos, the Black Tower on the edge of Exambela and Aspros Pyrgos, the White Tower, a short walk from the road into Platys Gialos. Enough of both remains that with a bit of creative thinking, you can imagine what they once were.

Since then, sailing race or not, the lighting of the towers has become an annual event held on the 50th day after Greek Easter, the Sunday at the Pentecost. Every year more and more volunteers come and last year they lit 78 ancient towers, 4 acropolises and 3 ancient sanctums, some reachable only after a good two hour trek. In 2018 the event falls on May 27 with at least 81 spots planned for thus far. At 7 o’clock as always, the tower chosen to be the first one will send its smoke signal high into the air. Those towers that see this will respond, setting off a chain reaction that over the next minutes will light up towers all across the island. Just as in times of old.

Well … except that the smoke these days is orange and comes from a canister. And the local radio station broadcasts the event live, on the internet too, with volunteers calling into the studio to describe their group, their tower and how many signs they see from their spot. 

Afterward everyone will gather in the island’s centre for a huge outdoor party with a music concert, treats for one and all and photos and videos from each tower to watch. This being Sifnos and this being the way they’ve so long done things here, everyone from near and far will be welcomed to the party, no matter how long-standing or recent their attachment to this island. 

Except for pirates, of course.

You can learn much more about the ancient towers of Sifnos at https://www.sifnos-towers.gr/en.html.

Many thanks to Lambros Galanis for the use of his photograph above. Those below are courtesy of the Sifnos Tourist Information office.

SHARON BLOMFIELD IS THE AUTHOR OF THE SIFNOS CHRONICLES: TALES FROM A GREEK ISLE AND, NEW IN SPRING 2019, SIFNOS CHRONICLES 2: MORE GREEK ISLAND TALES. THESE BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT TO BIBLIOPOLEIO, THE BOOK SHOP IN APOLLONIA, SIFNOS, AT TITHOREA, A GREEK FOOD SHOP IN ROCKWOOD, ONTARIO, CANADA AND ON AMAZON.

A Box of Cookies

Sigh …

I came across this photo not long ago, and my heart leapt. When will I be able to visit my beloved Sifnos again? When will it be safer to travel once more? 

Sigh … some more.

Though the cookies in this photograph of mine are a particular kind you’ll find everywhere in Sifnos, to me they represent much more than that. These exact ones came in a box tied in blue ribbon, a gift to my husband and me once from a man whose business we patronize whenever we come to the island, and who we have occasion to see often and talk philosophy with while we’re there. He met us with a big smile as we stepped off the ferry, then handed us the box, making sure to point out that it came from the bakery he considers the best, which we knew meant he’d taken a trek to the next town. For us. Some customers are just customers, he’s said to us before, but there are those who are more. To which I would reply how rare it is to find business people like him who add so much to your life, far beyond the goods or service their establishment provides.

Rare in much of the world, but not on Sifnos. How often we’ve been presented at the end of a meal with a pair of almond cookies like these, amygdolata they’re called, along with our change. Or pieces of cake. Spoon sweets, perhaps on yogurt. A glass of ouzo or a homemade liqueur cordial. Not only with meals, but whenever the giver has felt so inclined. And always expressions of joy upon seeing us on their island again. Such gifts have been coming our way since our very first days ever on the island, a time when we were but passing strangers, ordinary tourists who’d done nothing yet to earn such consideration. Since then, gestures like this from Sifnians have been such a constant that they barely surprise me any more. But every one of them touches and warms my heart still. 

When I look at this photograph, what I see is Sifnos itself. The generosity of spirit that is not just a feature of what its people do, but defines who they are to their core. I see why I find myself so at peace when I’m in their midst, why I’m compelled to return again and again. I see what they’ve shown me about gifts large or small, tangible ones or those that are mere messages from one heart to another, that giving one always returns much more than has been given away. How kindness multiplies itself when it’s shared.

Sometime over these past long months when it’s been impossible to go pretty much anywhere, my spirits were boosted one day when a recipe for amygdolata from Sifnos landed on my computer screen. I saw that the instructions came from an impeccable source, one of the island’s many fine bakeries, and though I’d never thought of baking them myself before, this seemed the signal to give it a try now. The ingredients are few: ground almonds, sugar, enough egg whites to hold the mix together, a whole almond to top each cookie. The instructions are those I’ve been given for other Sifnian dishes, to put them in a not-too-warm oven and bake them  slowly, slowly. They’ll stay moist that way. The best part was that, since there is neither flour nor any milk products in the mix, I was able to share the warmth of Sifnos with those near to me who must eat only gluten or dairy-free.

Over the past year and more now of this pandemic, collectively and as individuals, we have lost so much. For many, the ability to travel ranks high on their list. It certainly does on mine. In the midst of all that has occurred, this ability may seem a luxury and its loss a trivial concern, but in many ways I think it is not. It’s a basic human need to come together. With those in your neighbourhood. Your family and friends. With those farther afield. It seems to me that when we each retreat and stay in our corners, our understanding of others wanes and bad things often follow. How much better for everyone when we travel thoughtfully wherever we go, meet each other with open hearts, appreciate the differences between us, learn what we can from ways of life different from our own and take these lessons home with us.

I take home with me so much every time I leave Sifnos. Photographs. Stories. The warmth of good foods and, sometimes, recipes to recreate these at home. Memories of bright smiles and new people we’ve met. The ability to speak a few more words of Greek. The determination to become more Sifnian in how I treat others. And lately, more gifts from our philosopher-businessman friend. On more than one occasion, he’s chased us right down to the port, roaring up on his motorbike while we’re waiting for the ferry to arrive and delivering another of those blue-ribboned bakery boxes, treats to ease our journey away. 

“Your faces look different than when you came,” he said the first time he sent us off this way.

“Yes, they’re brown,” I replied, “from the sun.”

He agreed, but what he’d actually meant was that we looked more relaxed. “You’ve taken the power from your vacation,” he said.

Indeed.

This recipe for amygdolata is neither Sifnian nor the exact one I made, but it’s close.

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

Wings of Hope, a Tale

Photos by: Helen Tsopouropoulou via www.ww2wrecks.com

Good stories never die. Some – maybe the best ones – merely lie dormant, lurking unseen, for up to years at a time and when the right story-teller comes along, stir themselves back to life.

So, I imagine, Antonis Grafas might say. A professional diver, he is a passionate explorer of sunken wrecks in the Greek seas, each with its own tale to tell. But the power of the story he uncovered on the sea bottom near Sifnos and the hold it took on his imagination surprised even him.

This story begins in 1943 on the night of November 7 when a crew of six airmen, members of the British RAF’s 38th squadron, climb aboard their Vickers Wellington bomber in Berka, Libya and head out as the lead aircraft on a wartime mission over the Aegean aimed at freeing the islands of Greece from German and Italian control. Somewhere above Naxos, they are struck by enemy fire and forced to ditch in the sea. 

Such stories were countless during the Second World War and many ended in tragedy. This one, however, did not. The captain managed somehow to keep the aircraft airborne for a time, but soon realized that this would not be possible for long. He spotted an island nearby and steered toward there. The airplane hit the water just offshore and sank in less than a minute. Luckily, all six men – the Canadian captain, an Australian, and four British – made it to dry land unharmed.

Unknown to them in that moment, their good fortune had only begun. They had landed on Sifnos where kindness, openness and hospitality to strangers was the way of life then, as it remains today. They huddled together through the night beneath a tree and the next day a farmer found them and led them to his home. The first thing he did was to give the thirsty men a precious drink of water. Then he contacted the local chief of police who decided the men should be taken to a hilltop monastery to rest and stay safe, hidden from enemy patrols. Over the next days they watched as a steady stream of islanders trekked up the hillside bringing figs, cheese, eggs, almonds and cookies plus lutes and violins to entertain them, this during a terrible period of time for Sifnians over which one hundred-eighty of them died from lack of food. After four days, in the dead of night, a fishing boat spirited the six men away to the relative safety of Serifos, and in time all returned to civilian life in their home countries.

Of course no dive team, no matter how inquisitive, would learn all that at the sea’s bottom among the fishes. No wreck, no matter how well-preserved, would so easily yield a story like that and, as ever with their explorations, Grafas and his team researched further. Military records and flight logs would be the obvious place to start. Then a broader search to find whatever other snippets of information had been recorded elsewhere and remained, waiting to be found. It was here that Grafas struck gold.

After the war the Canadian pilot and captain of the aircraft, Robert Adams, did not try to forget his combat experiences, as so many of his contemporaries sought to do. Instead he embraced the miracle that Sifnos had been to him and, every year at Christmas, he would send a package off to the island with small gifts for the schoolchildren and a note a Greek neighbour in Toronto would write for him. In 1966, he returned with his wife. Among the crowd waiting for him at the port was Dimitris Bakeas, the policeman who twenty-three years before had arranged for the crew’s safekeeping, and the two men embraced joyously. At the school, Antonis Troullos, a young teacher who had taught lessons about the six airmen to his classes every year, had his students ready with a greeting in methodically-prepared English, a bouquet of flowers “from our village” and a musical performance of a piece called “This Song Belongs to Freedom.” He was the honoured guest at an official reception and dinners in more than one town. He walked with Giorgos Karavos, the farmer, from the spot near Chryssopigi where they’d first laid eyes on each other that fateful morning, along the path to the farmhouse and up the hill to the beautiful monastery of To Vouno where in those perilous days Sifnos had cradled this stranger and his crew safe in its arms. 

The church at Chryssopigi, on the spit of land near where they’d gone into the sea, is the island’s most revered religious site and upon his return, Bob Adams was told, “Holy Chryssopigi gave her blessing to meet you. She sent you the right people in the right time.” And how. 

What emotions he must have felt as he stood and gazed out toward to spot where that aircraft he’d captained, he knew, lay submerged far below. Could he have ever imagined that someday, long into the future, explorers skilled enough to go beyond normal diving depths would discover that it lay there, still largely intact? The least damaged wreck of a Wellington bomber ever found worldwide, in fact.

Robert Adams had not come to Sifnos alone. CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, wanting to tell of the bravery of countless ordinary Europeans who had risked their lives in wartime to save people they didn’t know, had chosen his story and sent a film crew along. The documentary they produced and broadcast to Canadians, This Song Belongs to Freedom, is a story of human connections across miles, cultures, and time.  

It was this old film, one likely unwatched for a long time, that Antonis Grafas came across. It sent him and his crew’s historian back to Sifnos where they met a relative of Mr. Karavos, herself a diver. They spoke with a fisherman who showed them a small aluminum piece of the aircraft his nets hauled up one day. They visited To Vouno where he was shown the quarters where the men lived, little changed in all this time. “We were,” Grafas says, “witnessing a plot that started to unfold in front of our eyes.” They went abroad too, virtually as 21st-century technology allows, to Canada, Australia and the UK to meet descendants of the six flyers and hear the parts of the tale they remembered having been told. “The story about the Vickers Wellington bomber was something unique,” he says. “In the 20 years that I investigate wrecks, it was the first time that the actual diving was overshadowed.”

What was Grafas to do with all this now that he’d found it? Create his own film, of course. Divers are also photographers and videographers, recording what they find underwater for closer study back on dry land. And where to premiere it? On Sifnos, naturally. So on October 24, 2020 – the 80th anniversary of the declaration of World War II in Greece – in the square in Apollonia near where Robert Adams found himself wined and dined and honoured in 1966, Wings of Hope: A Story of Bravery, a new film that tells this old story was presented to the world. You can watch it here

You can learn more about Antonis Grafas at his website and watch video footage from the dive itself, plus greetings to Sifnians from descendants of the airmen and more on the the 1895 Siphnians Association’s YouTube channel.

You can also find This Song Belongs to Freedom, the entire 1966 CBC documentary, on my previous blog post, “Sifnos in World War 2: a tale.”

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

Moussaka, its story

We had moussaka for dinner last night. It was everything this most famous of Greek dishes should be. Savoury, flavourful and clearly prepared by a warm-hearted cook. Referred to by some as “Greek lasagna,” moussaka is a layered dish of sliced potatoes and eggplant, a tomato and meat sauce in between, and a thick topping of stiff béchamel sauce. Baked sto fourno – in the oven – until the top is golden brown, the whole thing bubbles, its smell is divine and the taste satisfies my tummy and much more. Last night’s certainly did.

Study the menu in any Greek restaurant or taverna anywhere and you are almost guaranteed that moussaka will appear. Last night’s version came via take-out from my husband’s and my favourite restaurant here in Canada, the one we always turn to when Greece is a long plane flight away and we can’t wait any more. And even in 2020 when takeout must do, this place still eases so much of that ache. Its owner, Maria, has roots in Volos, a seaside city between Thessaloniki and Athens, and she’s created a place where that legendary Greek open-heartedness and hospitality fill the air, where your status as a stranger ends the first time you walk through the door, and where among the delights in its kitchen, there is always moussaka. Of course.

So … if you’re someone who is interested in culinary history, you might think that the recipe for moussaka is an old, long-standing traditional one in a country that measures time in millennia, a dish that is Greek to its core. But in fact it’s neither. The moussaka we eat today was invented a mere hundred or so years ago and its inspiration and conception occurred in the fine restaurants and grand hotels of France. Few people know that. But even fewer know that a humble village on the island of Sifnos is the true place where its story began.

Every year in September since 2007, Sifnos, an island long renowned for its good cooks, has hosted a festival that celebrates the foods of the Greek islands. Representatives from all of the neighbouring Cyclades islands and from other corners of Greece gather together for a weekend of music and dance, cooking demonstrations, and cultural events, plus free tastings for all of each island’s unique local foods. Kalasouna, onion and cheese pie from Folegandros, for example. Or Santorini tomato fritters, tomatokeftedes. Eat up. There’s more to taste at the next booth and people anxious to have you sample what they offer.

The festival’s full title is the Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival, named in honour of one of Sifnos’s most famous sons. Tselementes was born in 1878 in the village of Exambela and went on to become an ambitious chef, his career blossoming in Athens and taking him to fine kitchens in Paris, Vienna and New York where he learned of techniques unknown to Greek cooks. Béchamel, for one, that uses milk and butter from cows, an animal that was still absent from Sifnos at the time. A creative cook too, his genius was to combine these techniques with Mediterranean ingredients in a quest to update Greek cuisine, resulting in recipes for moussaka and pastitsio, a similar pasta-based dish, and more. He was a literate man too and in 1932, he published Odigos Mageirikis, the first ever Greek cookbook. So popular did it become that eventually it was reprinted 15 times. To this day, it is still found in most of the country’s kitchens and when Greeks refer to a cookbook, any cookbook, tselemente is the word they’ll use. But despite rubbing shoulders with the upper crust, Tselementes never forgot his native island and during the desperate times the Second World War brought there, he returned home and cooked meals for children, literally saving many from starvation. Little wonder that Sifnians hold this man in such high esteem.

So the next time – whether in Sifnos where I happily ate the version that appears in this photograph, elsewhere in Greece, at Maria’s, or anywhere else in this world – that you sit down to a plate of moussaka, take a moment before you dig in. Breathe in the aroma. Then eat slowly. The pleasures will last longer that way. Kali orexi, as the people of Sifnos would say. Know that with each bite, every layer of flavour will bring you a part of what makes their island so special to so many. Their dedication to good taste. The determination to feed you well. Their zest for life. Epic kindness and generosity. It’s a fine mix indeed.

More from my blog: Cycladic Food Festival

Chick Pea Balls, with a video from the festival

Recipe for moussaka from George Tselementes, grandson of Nikolaos.

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

Sifnian Chick Pea Balls, the Recipes

Thoughts of revithokeftedes, Sifnian chick pea balls, would not leave my mind. And my heart. 

I’d watched a video I found online, a part of this year’s Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic food festival on Sifnos, that shows viewers how to make this most popular of the island’s snacks. Still, I was not entirely confident enough to tackle making them on my own. Then, aha! I thought. 

I went to my shelves and pulled out the first purchase I ever made at the island’s bookshop, a slim volume called Traditional Recipes of Sifnos. Equal parts cookbook and cultural treasure, it has taught me how to make revithia when I’m at home and longing for a taste of Sifnos, the chick pea soup that is the island’s signature dish. Surely a recipe for revithokeftedes would be found in there as well. And, of course, it was. On page two, which tells me something about how important a dish Sifnians consider chick pea balls to be.

This book, says its author, Ronia Anastassiadou, is her “effort to collect the most characteristic dishes of Sifnos and the way these are made in our home nowadays.” To gather these recipes, a part of this land’s tradition, she spoke to “old housewives and men with a good relationship with the kitchen.” Sifnian men have long had a tradition of going to sea as cooks on merchant ships and good relationships with the kitchen, I’ve happily discovered in their tavernas, they have in equal proportion to their wives. So if there was anyone who could help me to make revithokeftedes in this year when I can’t be on the island to eat those prepared in Sifnian kitchens, it was Ronia. And I could think of no one more qualified to help me understand the nuances of this dish that is said to have as many different recipes as cooks who make it.

Sometime long after I bought her book, I met Ronia and was privileged to spend time in the kitchen of her old Sifnos house where three generations before her have cooked. That is one of the great joys of travelling among people as generous and open-hearted as Sifnians are, of coming back again and again with no agenda beyond seeing where your curiosity and your own open heart will lead you. The good news, she told me not long ago, is that she’s been working on a new edition, the third one, of her book. It will have traditional local recipes as before, but a lot more – locality, weather, habits and customs, seasons, ways of production, plants that don’t need water, the reason behind everything, etc. Another of the treasures that is the culture of Sifnos. I can’t wait. There’s a spot for it already on my bookshelf at home. 

In the meantime, she has given me her kind permission to share with you from the first edition of Traditional Recipes of Sifnos her instructions for making revithokeftedes as the Sifnians do, your way.

Kali orexi. Good appetite. Enjoy. May the taste transport you to this blessed isle. May it cause you to smile the way Sifnians do, from deep inside. 

Previous post: Chick Pea Balls, a Sifnos Snack

Earlier post: Chick Pea Soup

Video: Revithokeftedes at 2020 Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival

Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new in spring 2019, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.

Chick Pea Balls, a Sifnos Snack

Screen Shot 2020-09-22 at 9.32.33 AMThose who love Sifnos have a special place in their hearts for its talented cooks. I know I do. So it was a happy day not long ago when I found a video online, a part of this year’s celebration of island foods and of its famous son, Nikolaos Tselementes. Born in the village of Exampela, he went on to an illustrious career as a chef in kitchens across Greece and far beyond. His 1932 book, the first cookbook of Greek recipes ever published, became a fixture in the country’s kitchens and still is today. Indeed, when Greeks speak of any cookbook, tselementes is the word they most often use.

The subject of this video was revithokeftedes, fried chick pea balls, and its main intent was to teach viewers how to make the dish. Oh good, I thought. Sifnians know chick peas, create magic from them, and these savoury bites are but one of the delicious foods based on this humble ingredient you can find in almost every one of their tavernas. Though I’ve happily eaten revithokeftedes all over the island and it was one of the first items I learned to order in Greek, never have I made them myself. Here was my chance.

Tasting this satisfying snack all over Sifnos can profitably and deliciously occupy a diner for a very long time. Though the differences may seem subtle at first, every kitchen makes it their own way and I’ve often heard it said that there are as many chick pea ball recipes as there are people who make them. Revithokeftedes, it seems, are where Sifnian cooks strut their stuff. One might use garlic, another never. One version might, from its first brush against your lips, taste of an explosion of fresh dill. Or of whichever combination of wild herbs that grow most abundantly on that part of the island. And every Sifnian yiayia surely passes on the knowledge her own grandmother gave to her.

That finally I could learn to make this favourite food of mine was only one of the gifts this video brought me, so extra precious this year when I can’t travel to Sifnos and can only love it from afar. There are two women in the video who I know. In fact the older one, the yiayia showing how to make it her way, is someone I met early the very first time I visited Sifnos. Since then, she’s always kept such a close eye on me that when I speak of her, I most often call her Grandma. She’d be pleased, I know, at how much I understood of her revithokeftedes instructions, how many of the words I caught. It’s she who’s taught me so many of them. 

Into her old-fashioned food grinder went plump chick peas, not the dried ones. A strong and continuous crank of the handle and the results landed in a large Sifnian pottery bowl. Cooked potatoes followed. Then handfuls of greens, parsley and perhaps at least one more I wasn’t able to identify. Onions, which Sifnian cooks so generously use and I always so happily eat. When the bowl was filled near to the brim, in went both her hands and they mixed and worked through the ingredients until she was satisfied they were thoroughly mixed and held together well. Next, between her palms she deftly rolled out several perfectly-formed chick pea balls. A plate then appeared on the screen, the finished product fried to a deep golden brown. My nostrils began to tingle. Though the Atlantic Ocean and more separated us, I could practically smell them from here. Oriste, she said in that grandmotherly way I’ve heard so often. Here you go. Kali orexi. Enjoy. 

I will. My mouth waters even now as I write these words. Her revithokeftedes, I know her well enough to be certain, will be some of the best.

 

Video: revithokeftedes at the Nikolaos Tselementes Cycladic Food Festival 

Photograph and video: Giannis Kontos

The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive then in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order them in paperback. They are available also at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos and Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario. Please support independent business like that everywhere.