The roar of the waves lapping against the shore. This rhythmic, undulating bass, tenor: underlying the alto whisper of tourists chatting in many dialects. Way up on high, the ethereal chattering of birdsong punctuated by the sonorous harmonics of church bells.
Fira, Santorini on a sunny Spring morning. The blazing sun, bouncing off the ivory and azure. The hills covered in the soft, subtle curves of the buildings, all clambering and jostling for your attention. In amongst them a thousand details: flashes of colour and grey, church spires, vain flora and intricate planters.
Away from the hill, looking down upon the shimmering, clear aqua of the Aegean lies the rest of the Caldera: the main Island and the smaller adjoining ones, together constituting this post-eruption volcanic depression. Appropriately, the etymology arises from the kitchen: the Latin caldaria, means “cooking pot”. Indeed it is sometimes referred to as a cauldron in English.
One evening in Oia, having watched the sunset and been overwhelmed by the subsequent throng returning back to their coaches and buses, we decided it was time for dinner. We asked a local shopkeeper for his recommendation of a good place to eat: he directed us to a place nearby, assuring us that this was where he eats.
This place was just off the main strip, but we would never have found it without the recommendation. A rather unprepossessing place, so much so that we questioned our wisdom as we climbed the stairs up, and even as we surveyed the menu. We needn’t have worried: the service and food was flawless. The staff were charming, knowledgeable and efficient, and my moussaka was textbook. So you see, our inclination to not follow the herd and search out our own path served us well: it reminded me of the value and importance of doing the same thing in one’s life!
Looking back, what stood out for me there were the desserts, which at one point we were considering eschewing: oh lord, we were so glad that we took the advice of the staff and indulged (albeit sharing rather than having a dessert each)!
The first dessert I was rather excited about, as I had recognised it: Muhallebi. I hadn’t eaten it, but I had read (and dreamt) about it and instinctively knew it would be rather different and most probably quite wonderful. My hunch was spot on as for me this was a standout desert: refreshing, delicate and cooling. If you look upon this word and think it looks very Middle Eastern you’d be right. In fact this restaurant had Cypriot leanings, and given their proximity to the Middle East, they have many such influences: this rice flour desert can be found in different guises across Turkey, much of the Middle East and North Africa, and even India!
The second dessert was portokalopita: a cake constructed of layers of filo soaked in an orange syrup. Again, for me this really was special: delicately flavoured with orange and not too sweet, with a unique texture lent to it by the layering of soaked filo.
Back in Blighty, it occurred to me that the excitement and recognition of the first sweet treat was equalled only by a similar epiphany the weekend before when I spent a long weekend in Stockholm and had had a cardamom bun for breakfast. Happily, both pieces of food knowledge shared a common source for me, which I had completely forgotten at the time I tried them: Falling Cloudberries – A world of family recipes, by Tessa Kiros.
This book is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and engaging cookbooks I own. She has the unique background of being half Greek-Cypriot and half Finnish, and the book reflects this background, having sections on Greek, Cypriot and Finnish food (as well as others), and has lots of information and pictures of her colourful relatives and her life which makes it unique and very personal: it’s also a stunning book in terms of design and photography. It is here that I had learnt about the cardamom buns in a Finnish context, and of course about the Cypriot Muhallebi.
Clearly my destiny and life recently has pointed me back at this wonderful book, and I have been relishing it. I have included a spiced bun recipe below, slightly tweaked from Tessa’s. After making these I thought wow: the spiced sugar could be a hit on its own. Just use the same ratio of sugar to spices: 25 g sugar (of your choice) to 1 teaspoon of cardamom and cinnamon, each. This would be great stirred into a porridge (reminding me of my cardamom porridge cooked for me in Pemba, Zanzibar many years ago!), yoghurt with granola or many deserts!
In typical style, I have meandered from the Aegen to the Nordics and I hope you enjoyed the journey… I have to finish by thanking the Greek people from the bottom of my heart for their warmth, hospitality and spectacular food. Efcharisto poli: I’ll be back soon!
Swedish/Finnish Cardamom and Cinnamon Buns
This will yield around 18 buns…
125 ml tepid milk
50 g golden caster sugar (or white if you can’t find golden)
13 g fresh yeast (yes – it is important to use fresh yeast, as I discovered to my cost!)
63 g butter, softened
1/2 egg, beaten (use the other half for the glaze)
1/2 teaspoon salt
325 g plain flour
for the filling
40 g butter, softened
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
25 g golden caster sugar
Ensure the milk is tepid for the yeast to work: place it in a bowl with the sugar and crumble in the yeast. Leave for 10 minutes.
Add the egg, butter, salt and mix in. Add the flour, bit by bit, mixing it with a wooden spoon. It will get stiffer and you will then need to use your hands to bring it all together. Turn it out onto a work surface, and now the fun part: the kneading! Knead for a good 5-10 minutes, continuously digging in with your palm and rotating 90 degrees, and slapping the dough against the work surface (great workout!) to build up the gluten. It should form a lovely smooth, shiny ball of dough. Leave in a warm place for about 2 hours: it will have doubled in size thanks to our friendly fungii – go read a book, drink a glass of wine, chill!
Let’s take our bundle of joy and break it in half. Take each one, and roll it out into a rectangular shape: it should be quite thin. Now take a knife and spread half the butter over it, then sprinkle over half the sugar and spices evenly. Roll up the rectangle of dough lengthwise so that you have a cigar shape. Do the same with the other half.
Now for the magic: Cut each cigar with a sharp knife on the diagonal, alternating \ and / cuts, therefore creating fat V shapes: the point of the V should be about 2 cm and the top about 5 cm. Now take each one and lay it so they are all sitting on the larger side, and squash down on the middle: the rolls and filling on the side will splay out artfully into stripes and will look rather magnificent! Brush lightly with egg, some more sprinkled sugar and maybe a bit more spice if you fancy.
Now leave the buns to rise again for 30 minutes: preheat your oven to 180 C (350 F / Gas 4). Bake them for about 20 minutes, or when they are golden on the top and on the bottom. When ready eat them hot as they are a delight but also good cold: make sure you cover them properly to stop them hardening. Enjoy with a coffee for the authentic Swedish fika experience!