As an islander, I’m inured to the sight of leather-faced fishermen and their sparkling fresh catch, to the smell of sea salton the breeze and to the reality of meager island gardens sliced like steps into the slopes of rocky mountains. But the foods of the great Greek plains of Thessaly, smack in the center of the mainland, are a whole other world.
While I love the pure, clean flavors of Aegean island cooking, I have to confess to bouts of craving the comfort factor in the foods of the Greek heartland. This is not the cuisine of fishermen and minimalist country gardeners, but of farmers and shepherds. Until a generation ago, the shepherds and their families traveled on foot, letting their flocks graze in the Pindus highlands in Epirus in the summer and the lush Thessaly plains in winter. There are many similarities in the cooking traditions of Epirus and of the lowlands. Indeed, the winter migration to the plains used to happen just about now at the start of November.
The plains of Thessaly, with subtle rolling hills and checkerboard fields of green and gold, are little known by tourists. This is where most of Greece’s wheat, corn and cotton is grown. Thessaly, of course, is also about the water and seafood culled from the Pagasitikos Gulf. But it’s the shepherds cooking and the riches of the plains that capture this writer’s imagination most, for the simple reason that one of Greece’s most iconic dishes — the savory pie (think spanakopita) — evolved out of the needs of people on the move.
A mirror of place and an expression of an ancient lifestyle, this versatile dish embodies the wisdom of peasant cooking; It travels well and can be eaten without utensils. The pies usually were baked in a mobile oven called a sini, which is basically a copper dome placed over a pan that sits over a layer of smoldering charcoal. (Not too long ago you could still find families who used sinis; I visited a shepherd’s hut high up in the Pindus range about five years ago and found a woman baking with one.) Depending on the season and the skill of the cook, the pies are filled with milk custard (savory or sweet), cheese, trahana (a pebbly, sun-dried pasta), greens and more.
Grains figure prominently in the cooking of Thessaly, perhaps nowhere more so than in those pies. Phyllo pastry, which cloaks the filling in almost all savory pies, would not exist were it not for wheat flour, which is also the stuff of holiday breads. Trahana can be made of wheat flour or bulgur and whole milk, buttermilk or yogurt. (Shepherds have plenty of all three.) In the cooking of the plains, trahana is also a common partner in meat stews, soups, and pie fillings, especially those made with milk. Wheat, of course, is the basis for other pasta, too, namely the ribbon-shaped noodle, sometimes eggless, called hilopites. One of my favorite comfort foods from the regionis a chicken and hilopites dish, garnished with a handful of ground walnuts.
Wheat dethroned corn
Wheat is currently the most important crop in Thessaly, but once, not that long ago, corn was king. Until the 1960s, for example, most bread was made with cornmeal instead of wheat. A cornmeal mush called, not unlike polenta and often enriched with feta, was once the comfort food of hard-working locals. There is even a whole category of savory pies, usually filled with greens, that call not for laborious phyllo but for a cornmeal crust.
Meat, especially lamb, is relished every which way: on spits, grills, skewers; in roasts and in many stews. The old meat recipes of the Thessaly plains call for ingredients only shepherds might appreciate, such as long-boiled mutton and barren ewes. Locals have developed offal cooking to an art form, too. One old recipe is for a sweetbread pie; lamb’s liver stews abound.
Along with meat, the plains’ animals provide an enormous variety of dairy products, especially cheeses, a staple of the regional larder. Some of Greece’s best feta is made here. So endemic is feta that locals just call it “cheese.” From its whey, a handful of other cheeses are made, first among them myzithra, which is a little like ricotta, although it is eaten both fresh and dried as a grating cheese. Then there are the delicious soft sour cheeses: tsalafouti, xynotyri and galotyri. Naturally fermented, they range from grainy to soft and smooth in texture. Galotyri was traditionally served with some of the cornmeal-crusted pies. A slew of Greek yellow cheeses are also produced here. Cheese often makes its way into the stew pot with meat and vegetables.
Wine-Braised Goat (or Lamb) Meat with Bulgur
Makes 6-8 servings
5 pounds goat or lamb, bones in, cut into serving pieces
3 large onions, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup Greek white wine
1 cup bulgur
2 bay leaves
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Heat the olive oil over high heat in a large stew pot or Dutch oven and add the meat, turning to brown on all sides. Add the onions and mix with a wooden spoon. Lower heat and cook the onions until lightly golden. Add the garlic and stir. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Pour in the wine. As soon as it steams up, pour in enough water to come about ⅔ of the way up the meat. Add the bay leaf leaves. Cover the pot, raise the heat to high and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and cook slowly for about 2 to 2 ½ hours, or until the meat is practically falling off the bone. Add more water as needed to keep the liquid content at about half way up the meat.
- About 20 minutes before removing from heat, add the bulgur and stir. Adjust seasoning with additional salt and pepper. Just before removing from heat, stir in parsley.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photo: Baby goat with bulgur. Credit: Vassilis Stenos