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.
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.