Monday, 5 June 2006

Tears of a kitchen maid

Greeks love sweets. Probably from childhood they learn to love sweets. Many a Greek child is too fat and if you were to see the amount of candy they leave the shop with, you'd be horrified.

The most popular sweet for adults is baklava. The consumption of baklava here is probably as high as over the water in Turkey. Tourists complain that baklava is too sweet. And this honey-nuts-pie is pretty sweet. But that sweetness should be a healthy sweetness, because of the honey.

Another traditional sweet is the 'Spoon Sweet', glika koutaliou. When you visit a Greek for the first time, you will get these sweets presented on a little plate besides your coffee and a glass of water. They are made of fruits or vegetables preserved in sugar. Figs, pistachio, walnuts and apricots as well as tomatoes, lemons or pieces of pumpkin find their way to the pot of sugar.

The best I ever ate were preserved lemons. The fresh sour taste of the lemon marrying with the sugar made an impression on my tongue I will not forget. But you only find a few preserved lemons. The most popular 'Spoon Sweets' are made from green tomatoes, figs, pumpkin and pistachio. The last one is my favourite.

When I discovered a pistachio tree close to our house I was very happy. First I would make Spoon Sweet with the fruit and later I would make them into the wonderful nuts to accompany a cooling drink. However it was too soon to be happy.

First of all the tree was wild and did not have that much fruit. Last year in May I picked three quarters of the fruit when they were still green. For making 'glika koutaliou' the fruit or vegetables have to be unripe. They should already be strong, have their natural shape and taste. Last year the result was a little pot with my favourite candy and it tasted very good. In September I picked all the other fruit. They are ready when the outside skins burst open and the nut comes peeping out. I dried the peeled fruit in the sun, hoping they would turn into the pistachio nuts you buy ready prepared at the shop. Then they have an opened hard shell with the green nut peeping out.

While it was easy to peel off the outside skin, the hard shells around the nuts stayed closed. I roasted them, put them back into the sun, roasted them again and back into the sun, but without any edible result. I am still trying to find the right way to turn them into those lovely nuts you eat while having a drink.

This year I discovered a complete orchard of pistachio trees. I like them so much that I picked a whole plastic bag full of them to turn into my favourite candy. However I forgot how I did it last year. So I got the recipe from a Greek friend. But I wondered why I did not recognize any of the things she had written down. I had to prick them and cook them in water until the skin turned loose. Skin? I never saw a skin on the outside of a green pistachio.

It was on one of those days when a heatwave struck the island. I was busy with three big cooking pans. In one pan were the pistachios on which I could not find any outer skin. In another one was the sugar happily partying with the water and in the third were the pots where I wanted to put my beloved Spoon Sweets. I burned my fingers looking for a skin on a still boiling pistachio. I burned my nose looking into the boiling pan with sugar in order to see if it would turn into molasses. But I stayed happy. Water was streaming down my body. After what seemed like an eternity and when I nearly wanted to stop, I discovered a tiny white skin coming loose from the pistachio fruit.

I was already standing in a pool of water and because I was so occupied with the cooking it never crossed my mind that the water would come from anywhere other than water spilt while cooling down my burned fingers and nose. So I happily put the pistachio fruit with their little skins into a strainer and I turned off the heat under the pan with sugar because it looked like the molasses was ready. Then I looked around and discovered that there was water all over the kitchen! I did not understand until I looked into the pan with the pots. They were nearly burnt. All water had disappeared. I took out the boiling hot pots and put new water into the pan. Drip, drip, drip, there was a hole in the pan!

So in this roaring heat I had to mop the kitchen. And this was just the beginning. Because how was I to get rid of those little skins on all of the pistachio fruit? That was the kind of work which made the perspiration run down my body as quickly as the water streamed out through the hole in the pan. I'd had it. I would have to very gently rub each pistachio fruit in order to get the skin off! When I had managed to fill the smallest pot, my patience was totally gone. I opened the pan of sugar and discovered there was no molasses anymore but only sugar. I probably cooked the sugar and water that much that it turned into one big lump of sugar. So I gave up. I threw the lids on the pans and fled to friends to cry my disappointment.

The next day when our thermometer in the shade reached 37°C I angrilly peeled off those nasty little skins, which took me hours of perspiring in the heat. Then I took all the sugar I could find in the house and cooked it into a molasses. Then I sterilized three pots in another pan and filled them with the pistachios. When I tasted them they were still pretty hard, so I probably picked them too late. I let the pots cool off and then I put them as far away as I could. I do not want to see them for a good while. Maybe they will to surprise me after a few months by softening the fruit, because I cried so many tears over them.

I am sure that last year when I made my perfect first pot of Sweet Spoon Pistachio I used another recipe. Because if I remembered that I had to peel off those skins I would have never started preserving such a big bag full of pistachio fruit. Now that the temperatures have become normal and my tears have dried up I will look for that other recipe. In September I will attack the pistachios again and with new knowledge I will turn them into those tasty nuts to accompany a drink. Life is hard in the Greek kitchen. Especially when there is a heatwave going on...

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

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