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Greek cuisine: sugar’s influence over the millennia
Sugar became a staple part of the Eastern Mediterranean diet around 1000 AD when sugar industries in the Middle East and Africa were established. However, over a thousand years earlier Greek explorers around the time of Alexander the Great were probably among the first Europeans to see and taste sugar. Today, sugars are a cornerstone of modern Greek cuisine.
‘Stones sweeter than figs’: an ancient Greek discovery
According to secondary sources, the Greek general Nearchus of Crete, who commanded Alexander the Great’s army in 327 BC, was the first European to encounter sugar in what is now known as the Punjab area of India. We know that Strabo, a Greek geographer some three hundred years later, described ‘a reed in India that brings forth honey without the help of bees’, and mentions sugar in solid form, describing it as ‘stones the colour of frankincense, sweeter than figs or honey’. The Greek naturalist and physician Dioscorides spoke of it as ‘a kind of solidified honey, called saccharon, found in reeds in India and Arabia.’ Greeks today still call sugar ‘sakharo’ or ‘zahari’.
It wasn’t until over 1000 years later – when sugar industries in Yemen, Ethiopia and Zanzibar arose – that sugar began to play a part in Greek cuisine. Even then, sources mention the sparkle it gave to food rather than the sweetness. The Kitab al-Tabikh, a medieval Arab cookbook, describes aruzza (a rice dish) as having ‘sugar sprinkled on it, so it flashes and gleams like light itself.’
Loukoumia: Hellenic Turkish delight
Despite the name we know it by in Western Europe and North America, Turkish delight, loukoumia is an important part of Greek and Cypriot gastronomic and social culture.
The island of Syros is famed for having some of the best loukoumia in the world. In the early 19th century after the Greek War of Independence, the island exported huge shipments of it to sweet shops across Europe and Asia, to as far away as Japan. The loukoumia from the Greek city of Patra is so famous that it has its own name – ‘Patrina Loukoumia’ – and the loukoumia produced in the town of Geroskipou, Cyprus is protected by EU copyright.
Made from the simple ingredients of water, starch, and sugar, and flavoured with iconic Greek tastes like rose, bergamot, and ‘mastika’ (resin of the mastik tree), loukoumia is often filled with nuts like pistachio, or served plain. For the perfect chewy texture, the loukoumi maker starts with either an invert sugar syrup or a liquid sugar, heated to precisely 105 degrees centigrade before adding the rest of the ingredients. To finish, the sticky mixture goes into moulds before large slabs are turned out, dusted with a good amount of powdered sugar and cut into various sizes.
Petmezi: a resurrected traditional Greek molasses
Petmezi is a traditional Greek molasses made from sugar cane. Although the cane itself has mostly been imported from Asia, the pungent, amber coloured petmezi is a traditional natural sweetener of Thrace, a region in the eastern part of the country. After crystallines became widespread at the start of the last century, petmezi declined in popularity. It had all but died out until 1999 when a movement to revitalise land use in Genisea, the capital of the region, inspired a group of women who started to produce and sell petmezi again.
Telling the stories of the lives of the older generation who used to make petmezi around the swamps outside of the city, the group is educating new generations about their ancestors’ way of life, and selling petmezi to be used as a natural sweetener in jams, traditional desserts and yogurt, but also in salads, as a glaze for meats and as an accompaniment to cheeses. It’s also popular with the local older generation who use it as a sweetener for coffee.
The battle over Baklawa
The history of baklawa is hotly contested. Greeks and Turks have argued over its origin for hundreds of years, but historians believe that it has its roots in ancient Greece, where a dessert very similar to the current baklawa – known as ‘gastrin’ – was made. On the island of Crete, gastrin is still popular to this day, made with nuts, seeds and pepper layered between thin sheets of dough.
Today’s baklava is a crispy dessert, made from layers of filo pastry and a nutty filling, and scented with cinnamon, cloves and orange zest. After slowly baking, sugar syrup is poured on top, resulting in a caramelly flavour and melt-in-your-mouth texture. While traditional, at-home cooks are likely to use honey, or heat a crystalline sugar together with water to make sugar syrup, larger scale artisan and industrial manufacturers use liquid sugar.
Though the fight over baklawa’s origins is likely to rage on for centuries to come, the Greeks invented the dough technique that made its wafter thin pastry sheets possible. In fact, the name ‘phyllo’ was coined by Greeks, which means ‘leaf’ in the Greek language.
Whatever the controversies are, people all over the world can share a delectable, traditional sweet treat, courtesy – at least in part – of the melting pot of cultures and tastes that is Greek cuisine today.
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