Sunday, June 17, 2012

Greek Election Day Special: Kolyva On The Menu

Standing nervously on top of a tall ladder yesterday and worrying even more than I usually do, I doubled down (as they say all the time on the news these days) on fear and thought about today’s elections in Greece, which seem to affect so much and so many.  

I mean, it’s really serious business and, although all the media coverage in the world can’t seem to pull any logical thread through the events there, which have been unfolding for so long now, the Repertory Theater of the Unsound Mind that is CNBC (standing in here for all of the media business news outlets) seems continually to be revolving through cycles of Greek Tragedy and Greek Comedy, adding only occasionally some Greek History to the mix. 

Seeking safer harbor and anchorage in the birthplace of Western Civilization, from my ladder perch (I was changing light bulbs in a crystal chandelier) I pondered for several minutes the significance of Kolyva, Greece’s “cycle of life” dessert that is traditionally served at funerals and at Lent.

In her Fruit Book, in the chapter on Pomegranates, Jane Grigson writes memorably about her first encounter with Kolyva in Cyprus:

“We had gone one day to the easternmost tip and promontory of the island to stand on the high site of Aphrodite’s shrine, and look across to Syria, where she had come from.  The road went through a monastery courtyard.  In the morning it was empty.  In the late afternoon, it was full of families, spending the day in little cells. People rushed about, women carried their best bowls carefully and we saw they were full of wheat, decorated with silver bits and pieces and pomegranate seeds.   

Later on, I discovered this special dish is called Kolyva, and its ingredients have a special meaning.  It is made for funerals, and I think that the Sunday we were there was the Greek Orthodox Easter, when the hopelessness of Lent turns to joy, the darkness of Good Friday becomes the Resurrection.  In this dish, said to be a pre-Christian ceremonial dish, wheat stands for everlasting life, raisins and nuts for joy and sweetness, pomegranate seeds for plenty and fertility.  The day ended in another church, with candles, everyone giving us candles, everyone lighting their candles from their neighbors’.  As we drove home in the twilight, we passed other churches with their doors open and more candles burning inside. A greeting for Persephone on her return?”

Here is Jane Grigson’s recipe for Kolyva, an ancient dish connoting austerity, darkness-before-the-light and, one sincerely hopes, rebirth:

½ kg (1 lb) whole wheat, soaked overnight
½ teaspoon salt
300 g (10 oz/2 ½ cups) white flour
125 g ( 4 ½ oz/ 2/3 cup) sultanas
1 tablespoon (2tbs) cumin seeds
1 tablespoon (2 tbs) ground cinnamon
60-75 g (2-3 oz/1/4 – 1/3 cup) sugar
250 g (8 oz/2 cups) walnuts, finely chopped
1 tablespooon (2tbs) chopped parsley (optional)
icing sugar
blanched almonds
silver dragees and balls
seeds from one or two pomegranates

Drain the wheat, then put in a pan and cover generously with water.  Simmer until wheat is soft, about two hours, add the salt and simmer for another minute or two.  Spread on a cloth to dry.  Brown the flour carefully and slowly in a heavy pan over a low heat until it is golden.  Take care not to burn it. Mix half the flour with the wheat, add sultanas, spices and sugar.  Spread into a large shallow bowl, making the top flat.  Mix walnuts and parsley and spread evenly over the top, then cover with the remaining flour.

     Sift icing sugar over the top, pressing it down with a spatula or waxed paper.  Decorate with almonds, silver dragees and balls, and the pomegranate seeds.  At a funeral, there would be a silver cross in the centre, the initials in almonds on either side, and decorative borders of pomegranate seeds and the almonds and silver things.

See you (for ouzo on Mykonos) after the election.


  1. Kolyva would have been an appropriate desert at Sam's post-funeral lunch at a Greek diner in Calverton. Jonny and I packed up my mother's things on Wednesday, and I accompanied her on her journey down to Great Falls, an Alzheimer's facility here in Virginia. What a long, strange, three weeks it's been.

  2. Jonny described the Virginia place to me and it sounds like a very positive move. I expect you all could use a lot of rest now. Kolyva sounds quite good, I think. We're all looking for a little bit of lightness and the hope of rebirth at the moment, I think. Curtis

  3. One of my life dreams is to visit Greece. I doubt I'll make it there ...

    Another astounding post, Curtis. Thank you.

  4. Hi and thank you. It's one of our goals too. We're hoping to go next year (to Athens, to Crete) but we'll just see how things go. I tend not to succumb to end of the world fears, but that's becoming increasingly difficult. Watching the year in/year old, week in/week out reporting on the rolling Greek disaster really raises my fear factor. So does getting back on that ladder, but cleaning the chandelier is the project du jour. Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, by the way, is really great. Curtis