Traveling to Thraki, the northernmost area in Greece during the Christmas season is an exciting, albeit wearing journey. After flying from the southernmost area of Iraklio, Crete – two planes, a taxi and a long train ride later, we reached our destination in the time it takes to fly across the Atlantic. My mother-in-law, Vasiliki, lives in the village of Dikea, one of many small Greek farming communities nestled in a stretch of land bordered by mountains to the northwest and the Evros River to the east, forming the natural borders of Bulgaria and Turkey, respectively. People from all three countries have peacefully co-existed in this area through centuries of political strife, population exchanges and abrupt border changes. It’s a different world from the southern prefectures – no tourists and only an occasional stranger passing through. The sprawling fertile plains fed by the river have provided the stage for industrial farming here – predominantly sugar beets (and even local sugar processing plant), wheat, barley, corn, sun flowers and cotton. There are a few organic projects in place, but the conversion process has not proved to be advantageous for farmers and more information is necessary before people will feel confident in crossing-over. One village in the area, Soufli, was famous for silk production, which prompted French merchants to build the rail line through this area nearly 100 years ago. At some point the silkworm’s sustenance – mulberry trees were replaced by crops.
Today, the rural population of Thraki is predominantly people over 60, some of whom still tend their crops or have merged with other families to share the financial and physical burdens. Farming has become such a financial risk that a great percentage of young adults from the area have moved away for better jobs in cities — quite a few now live in Germany. Many farms have been leased to modern farmers with modern machinery, the consequences of which have yet to be seriously assessed. Pollution of the main water source, the River Evros, by industrial nations in the north is also a contributing factor to the exodus. Hence, many villages in the area are nearly abandoned.
Vasiliki recently retired after running a sizable family farming business on her own — her first husband died 30 years ago and her sons moved away in the 80’s. She is by no means a conventional Greek woman of her era — drives her own pickup truck and industrial farm tractor by day, tends to her home-garden and weaves rugs with her own loom by night, as well as a whole host of traditional tasks. Her husband, Christos has been flexible with the changing times. He has owned a small supermarket across the street from the train station for over 50 years. Business was good when the village was thriving and the rail line was the only mode of transportation and shipping. In the advent of the automobile and refrigerated trucking, the train route went out of fashion. Christos transformed his market into a farm supply/bicycle repair shop, which he still runs himself 6 days a week. At 79 years old, he’s more fit than many men half his age.
Vasiliki and Christos’ house is surrounded by their vegetable gardens, fruit and nut trees, chicken and turkey coops and farm equipment. Their poultry has so much “roaming” space I thought I spotted them in the village plaza having coffee and cookies. Their traditional home has one all-purpose room — kitchen and sitting room with a wood-burning oven. During the cold winter months, everyone packs into this room with the only heat source in the house. The Christmas season revolves around long visits to family and friends for coffee and an overabundance of traditional sweets (the heavenly black cherry spoon sweets disappeared first). Vasiliki’s house was like a train station with people coming and going. Every day, there was some flurry of activity in the kitchen. Vasiliki made her own pizza dough in a huge baking pan, topped with homemade feta cheese and horta (wild greens). The next day, she rolled out the same pizza dough into thin rounds, each one brushed with a butter-egg-feta layer, gathered up the whole slippery pile and baked it slowly in the wood-burning oven, resulting in a heavenly delicious and rustic crisp layered pie. Auntie Yianoula dropped by one afternoon and quickly began work on homemade phyllo dough. She kicked off her shoes, rolled up her sleeves and covered the floor beneath the kitchen table with a plastic sheet to protect it from flying flour. After one hour of watching her form the dough and expertly roll out each sheet with her long, thin rolling pin using quick turns and strokes, I still couldn’t grasp her technique. We used the phyllo for our Christmas horta-pita — rich with aromatics from the garden — sautéed leeks, spring onions, dill and parsley. Homemade phyllo has so much more body and flavor than commercially made versions, it is hard to fathom turning back.
In between holiday festivities, there are still daily chores to be done. Judging from their store room shelves stocked with homemade wine and spirits, dried fruits, preserves, juices, pickled vegetables, sausages, herbs and garlic hanging from the rafters, I wondered if Christos and Vasiliki ever had time to sleep. One morning Vasiliki was in the kitchen surrounded by lethal looking hot red peppers — every surface was covered with peppers and the oven was smoking with batches being dried for a variety of culinary specialties. Some were coarsely crushed, others ground to a fine powder in a pestle and mortar. Later, sacks of wild mountain tea stems, which the old villagers refer to as “pharmaco” or medicine, had to be separated and stored. Strings of homemade sausages were hung from the awning outside, cabbage needed to be pickled, the garden compost needed turning, chicken eggs needed to be collected, and a chicken needed to be collected for avgolemeno soup. I was commissioned to make the soup, although I did not have to “collect” the chicken — Christos did the honors. My instructions were to simmer the chicken until done with a little salt then add small-grain rice. Nothing else. Avgolemeno (avga means egg and the rest is a good guess) is added just before serving — consisting of egg whites beaten to soft peaks, folded into yolks and lemon juice then tempered with a little hot stock — makes a frothy comfort food fit for the gods. Their roaming organic chickens are so flavorful, the luscious golden stock needed nothing more than salt. When asked by cousin Dimitris from Athens, “who made this delicious soup? ” I replied, “the chicken did.”
The same was true for the roasted Christmas turkey. The meat was rich and robust as opposed to the stringy watery-bland birds I grew up with that I actually entertained the idea of eating it more than once a year. Greek poultry stuffing is sumptuous, based on ancient lavish banquets — minced giblets, pork and/or beef sautéed with leeks, onions, rice, chestnuts, currants, red wine and a dash of cinnamon. Exotic, intoxicating flavors. Vasiliki and Christos find the term “organic” quite amusing. They know no other way to cultivate produce or raise animals and have developed what we might consider innovative solutions to the many obstacles of farming. Pesticides were introduced in Greece after the Second World War and thankfully viewed with great suspicion by small-scale farmers. So the consensus here is, chemicals have been around for half a century, but farmers have been around far longer than that!
Our organic conversation was interrupted by a loud horn from a truck outside. It was the “dairy woman” delivering our fresh butter, milk and yogurt for our New Year’s dinner. Savory dishes of grilled sausage and pork chops, cabbage and wild arugula salad with a dash of hot pepper, steamed horta with olive oil and lemon, orzo with Vasiliki’s tomato juice, spring onions and herbs, lined the dinner table. The finale was traditional Saint Vasilis Bread (Vasilopeta), which is slightly sweet with a hint of cinnamon — a cross between bread and cake. Traditionally, a coin is baked in the dough and brings good luck to the recipient of the slice with the coin (watch the teeth though). We could not resist making another favorite dessert, galatoboureko, a luscious farina custard layered between phyllo dough and laced with brandy and honey syrup.
1 quart milk
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup farina
1 cup butter
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup Metaxa brandy (Grand Marnier or other flavored liqueur)
10 eggs, separated
2 cups honey
2 cups water
2 cinnamon sticks
4 whole cloves
1 teaspoon orange or lemon rind
1/2 cup brandy
1 pound phyllo dough
1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven 350F, butter a 9x13x2 inch baking pan.
To make the honey syrup:
In a heavy medium-size sauce pan, bring all ingredients except brandy to a boil.
Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove from heat, add brandy and set aside to cool completely, then strain.
To make the custard:
In a large saucepan over low heat, simmer the milk and half the sugar until sugar dissolves.
Using a wooden spoon, add farina slowly, stirring constantly until the mixture is thick and smooth.
Add the butter and blend completely.
Remove from heat, and blend in vanilla, lemon rind and brandy and set aside to cool completely.
In a large stainless steel bowl using a heavy whisk or electric beater, beat egg yolks with remaining sugar until frothy. Using a rubber spatula, fold farina mixture into yolks until blended.
In another bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. With a spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the farina.
To compile the galactoboureko:
Trim phyllo sheets to fit the baking pan, leaving a generous edge around the bottom.
Place 12 phyllo sheets into the pan, one by one, and use a pastry brush to thoroughly but lightly cover each sheet with melted butter (or pour melted butter into a gentle-mist spray bottle and spray each sheet, keeping butter liquid if necessary by resting in a pan of warm water).
Spread cool custard mixture evenly into the dish, then top with remaining individually buttered phyllo sheets.
Using a sharp knife, score the top layer of phyllo into 3-inch serving squares or diamonds.
Bake for one hour until golden. Remove from oven and pour syrup evenly over the top and allow to cool. Serve at room temperature or cold. Store in the refrigerator.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.
Photo: winged victory of Samothrace