Sweet flavours of Attica
In Attica, tradition meets the wonderful flavours and intoxicating aromas of sweet delicacies that are an indispensable part of every household and every pastry lab all around Attica’s mainland and the Saronic islands. Here, in this colourful and diverse “mosaic” of Attica, local customs marry pure ingredients with seasonal produce, giving sweet flavours that accompany the most important moments in people’s lives.
So get ready for a sweet journey that tastes Attica, featuring exceptional local products and authentic recipes for desserts that thrill even the most demanding palate!
Christmas and New Year’s in Attica are days full of family warmth and aromas coming from the kitchens of the houses. Main ingredients are the pure honey from Kythera and nuts – such as the Aegina pistachio (fistiki), Attica’s product of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Honey with nuts symbolises good fortune, prosperity and anticipation for rebirth. Pomegranates, Vravrona figs and Kalloni raisins complete the list of the most popular and beloved dessert ingredients for Christmas and New Year’s.
Melomakarona is the ultimate, addictive festive dessert that is consumed with no… regrets, since its main ingredient is Troezen extra virgin olive oil (instead of butter) and Kythera honey (instead of sugar). Crunchy on the outside and honey-soaked on the inside, they smell of delicious spices and are sprinkled with chopped walnuts. As for their name, the word “melomakarona” has an ancient Greek origin. In ancient Greece, the “meilichies prosfores” (propitiatory offerings) were held to appease demons and Hades gods, for good fortune and a favourable New Year. These offerings were small placenta cakes (pies made with dough, cheese, sesame and spices) covered in honey, just like melomakarona.
Kourabiedes are the mouthwatering, double-baked cookies that are packed with the aromas of butter, almond and rose water. They are the “snow ball” desserts of Christmas, covered in velvety layers of powdered sugar.
Diples is the traditional dessert of Attica that is offered not only at Christmas and New Year’s but also at engagements, weddings and christenings. In Kythera they are known as xerotigana, while in Methana they are called tsipilies and are made with flour, eggs, orange juice, olive oil, salt and baking soda. The dough is then deep fried and covered in honey, cinnamon and chopped walnuts. “Diples” (“folds”) are said to symbolise the infancy of Christ, while honey – just like in melomakarona symbolises the welfare, success and happiness we anticipate from the coming year.
A reference dessert of New Year’s, the vassilopita (Saint Basil’s cake) is the undeniable… queen of the festive menu. Either in the form of a fluffy cake or in the form of a fragrant bread, the vassilopita has a hidden coin inside that represents good fortune in the year to come. The cutting of the cake has its own traditional ritual and the lucky coin finder is believed to have prosperity and joy in the New Year! The custom of vassilopita originates from ancient Greece. Athenians used to organize “Kronia”, a festival in honour of God Cronus (“Chronos” is the Greek word for time and year). During these festivities, they made sweets and pies in which they used to hide coins. One of the best-known desserts they made was the “melipiktos artos” (honey bread) they offered to the god to ensure good health, power and good fortune. The Orthodox tradition associated the custom with the Feast Day of Saint Basil the Great, which is observed on January 1st.
The christopsomo (Christ’s bread) is made in Attica 2-3 days prior to Christmas, especially for this great religious celebration. It is prepared like a common bread, using however better quality flour, sifted through a fine sieve. It usually has a round shape and is heavily decorated with several embroidery patterns or “ploumidia” (embellishments) that represent local customs and traditions. In the middle of the bread there is always a big cross made with dough, with a whole walnut in the centre. It is sprinkled with sesame, while in many places people also use dried figs, raisins and almonds. The christopsomo is never cut with a knife, to avoid harming with steel the power of good that lies in the bread. In Kythera it is made with molasses, orange zest, cinnamon and sesame, and two christopsoma are prepared – one at Christmas and one at New Year’s instead of a vassilopita.
Other desserts of Christmas and New Year’s are the traditional baklavas with Aegina pistachio and almond, paper-thin pastry and honey syrup, as well as the katsoumbles (doughnuts) that are made in Megara on Christmas Day, for the whole family to eat after church. Tsoureki (sweet mahlab bread), saragli (rolled baklava), kataifi, ravani (semolina cake), karidopita (walnut cake), galaktoboureko (custard pie), syrupy phyllo rolls with Aegina pistachio, as well as Yule log cake with dark chocolate and Troezen orange zest, baked quinces, apples or pears with Greek yoghurt and grated walnut, cookies with orange zest, Christmas spices and walnuts… Mouthwatering sweet flavours that complete the festive menu all around Attica.
Attica, however, is sweet not only at Christmas and New Year’s. Any time of year, the amygdalota (almond sweets) of the Saronic islands fascinate with their flavor and aroma. The spoon sweets with Poros fruit (lemon, orange, bergamot, sour orange), grape, apricot, sour cherry, quince, apple, fig, cherry as well as vegetable such as carrot, cherry tomato and eggplant are wonderful companions of coffee or tea. The boubaria from Megara (traditional sweet pies) are offered during Lent and at people’s happy moments and occasions.
The pasteli, the uniquely tasty and rich in vitamin E sweet bar with sesame (or nuts) and honey, originates from Homer’s time, while other desserts of Attica that have remained unchanged for centuries are the pipeki (milk pie) of Methana, the moustalevria (must pudding), the sykomaida (fig pie), the sykalevria (fig pudding) and kiourlies (traditional pancakes). In Kythera look out for the local traditional desserts such as the rosedes (almond paste sweets), the pastitseto (cookies with vanilla, fresh butter and quince jam), the koumaro (bite-size sweet made with arbutus fruit), the koufeto (pumpkin spoon sweet), the mandoles (caramelised almonds) and the melounia (small honey-soaked cookies).
Attica’s gastronomy is rich and full of sweet temptations. A culinary journey across its unique destinations will prove it!
Photo: GNTO, Haris Kakarouhas