Thursday, 8 December 2011

Candy and Marzipan

(Christmas market in Molyvos)

If the Greeks were to celebrate Saint Nicholas like they do in Holland, the women’s co-operatives would be busy as hell. Because the places (besides bakeries) that specialize in making sweets, are those run by these groups of women — baking cookies, making jams and marzipan.

A few decennia ago they started these local businesses to get the farmers’ wives and housewives out of their isolated position. This way they could learn to run a business and make their own income. Since 1980 at least 11 of these women’s co-operatives have been started on Lesvos and indeed it gives the women something different to do. Most of them have chosen to preserve and bake: a logical choice because, all year round in the Lesbian countryside, there is plenty of fruit and vegetables available. However preserving is time consuming, so I can imagine that sitting around a table mounted high with nuts or summer fruit, you’d happy to share this with other women whilst gossiping, discussing and laughing as you peel, de-stem and chop. These co-operatives are a solution for housewives who are bored, for women who love to cook; the small harvests are shared and preserved and this way traditional recipes will not get lost. Because I imagine these women cook exactly as their grandmothers have taught them.

As far as I know the only women co-operative that does something different here on the island is the women’s co-operative of Petra, where since 1983 women have run a Bed & Breakfast and a small diner above a pub at the central square by the sea.

At the other co-operatives, in Agiasos, Anemotia, Polichnitos, Filia, Molyvos, Parakila, Asomatos and Mesopotos, they merely make jams, the famous gliko tou koetaliou (preserved fruit and vegetables in sugar sirup) as well as baking cookies and cakes. They also make marzipan with walnut and almonds from which they create the most wonderful flowers and other decorative things. These beautiful creations are mostly given as presents at important festive events. I love marzipan, but when I get such an exotic flower I display it for weeks on the table until dust settles upon it and I have to throw it away.

I am sure they could also produce the candy that is traditional for the Dutch celebration of Saint Nicholas (characters made of chocolate, special biscuits as small as a nut, animals made out of coloured sugar) but in Greece they don’t have such a tsunami of candy at the beginning of December, because the Day of Saint Nicholas is not a celebration for children like it is in Holland. For the Greeks Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the fishermen (see: Saint Nicholas) and on the 6th of December all people named after this saint – Nicos – celebrate their nameday.

Anyhow, the Greeks are not big candy eaters. There are some ouzo- and mastic candies, probably produced for the tourists and they make Turkish Delight, called in Greek loukoumia (jelly-like preserved fruit coated with fine sugar).

All Greek celebration days have their own sweets, mostly cakes or cookies. For example during Christmas they bake kourambides (almond cookies) and melomakarona (cookies dipped into honey); chocolate rings and balls are not part of the Greek Christmas culture. They used not to even have a Christmas tree to hang them in. Although nowadays you see more and more Greeks having a Christmas tree and chocolate rings and balls to hang in the tree. But this is a new trend coming from abroad.

The regular candy here in Greece – if you can call those candy - are the chocolate bonbons and some are so big that you better call them chocolate bonbon cookies. The easiest ones to make at home are the almonds coated with chocolate; but these chocolate fantasies are really a threat for your teeth because they are so hard.

And then there are the sugared almonds, koufeta in Greek. These are traditionally presented together with the invitation to a wedding or a baptism. They are a symbol of the good and the bad times: the bitter taste of the almond stands for the difficult times in a wedding or a life, and the sugar coating for the happy times. And you have to be sure that you put an uneven number in the bag because an even number can be divided and symbolizes a divorce.

The candy-month has started, also in Greece where they have started baking for Christmas. Last Sunday there was the Christmas market in Molyvos where they presented lots of cookies and cakes. Because of the crisis I bet that most of the women will be producing their Christmas sweets at home, baked in the wood stove of course. I wonder if the women’s co-operatives – that mostly sell at fairly high prices – will survive the ongoing crisis.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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