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Friday, 29 May 2009

FOOD UNCOVERED - The Power of Festive Food

The Power of Festive Food

With Christmas having just visited us, and the New Year on our doorstep, there is no better time than now for discovering and enjoying traditional Cypriot festive food. Almost every country has at least one special food that is eaten on New Year’s Eve, or in the first days after, that is supposed to bring luck, wealth or success in the coming year. The Cypriots follow the Greek tradition of eating “Vasilopitta” (a cake baked with a coin inside).

The story behind this is that the cake originated from the famously high taxes that the Ottoman Empire imposed on the Greek people during their long reign. It is believed that a Bishop of Greece, through some miracle, managed to recover a large portion of the Greek people's riches from the Ottoman's grasp. When he attempted to return the riches to their respective owners, however, fighting amongst the Greeks broke out! Saint Basil (the English name for Vassilis) asked the women to bake a large cake with the valuables inside – this way, when he sliced the cake, the valuables miraculously found their way back to their rightful owners!

Today, a cake is baked in honor of this miracle with one coin hidden inside it. Traditionally cut by the head of the family on New Year's Day, one slice of the cake is supposed to be for Jesus Christ, one for the house and one for absent family members. The person who bites into the piece of cake with the coin in it will be blessed with good luck for the coming year. Did you know that the Cypriot Santa is not Saint Nicholas, as the English know it, but Ayios (Saint) Vassilis? In Cyprus, Father Christmas visits people on New Years Day instead of Christmas Day, therefore it is tradition that presents are given and received on this day, which is also Ayios Vassilis’ Day.

One of the main concerns for the Greek Cypriot household is preparing bread for important religious and festive occasions. Throughout history, housewives used their skill and imagination to make different types of bread, baking each one with a symbolic meaning incorporated into it. The various perceptions, myths, prejudices and superstitions of their faith ended up in their breads, often to call good spirits and send evil ones away.

This Cypriot belief in evil spirits is also associated with the celebration of Epiphany on the 6th January, aka the “Feast of Light” (called “ta Phota” in Greek). It is on this day Christ was baptised in the River Jordan, symbolising the spiritual rebirth of man. On the eve of Epiphany, known as “kalanda”, people fast and then gather in church for the blessing of the waters, which are supposed to have held evil spirits for the past twelve days. After Mass, the priest visits all houses to cleanse them from the spirits or demons (known as “kalikandjiari”, they appear on Christmas Day and play evil tricks on people afterwards). On Epiphany Day, a celebration takes place at all seaside towns, where the Archbishop leads a procession down to the sea where a ceremonial baptism is performed. During the ceremony the leading priest throws the holy cross into the sea, and young men dive into the water to retrieve the cross, and return it to him. Now that is enough to work up a hunger!

For most Greek Cypriots faith plays an important role in their lives. The Greek Orthodox faith observes several fasts during the year, which means abstinence from foods derived from animals containing red blood, from dairy products, and at times even from olive oil, and wine. Foods that are allowed to be consumed during fast periods are called “nistisima”. With the Christmas Fast, which lasted from November 15th to December 24th, recently over, and the Great Lent Fast, which begins seven weeks before Easter, looming up ahead, now is the time to indulge in all those delicious Cypriot delicacies!

Why not dig in to leftover “christopsoma” (Christmas bread), “gennopittes”, Christmas “paximadia”, and “koulouria” (seasonal cookies), all of which are made across the island in various shapes and names according to local village tradition. In fact “koulouria” can be made in various forms: “vortakouthkia” meaning frogs, (which expresses the wish for rain to help farmers), “athropouthkia” which means little people (the Greek Cypriot tradition links them to dead peoples’ souls), and “zembilouthkia”, meaning baskets (an expression of the wish for the blessing of crops). In some villages, the “stavrokouloura” (koulouria in the shape of the cross) are hung on the walls during religious occasions. They form part of the festive decoration as well as a protecting force, as since ancient times, Greeks believed that wheat and wheat-related products would protect people from evil. Now there’s a great reason to get baking!

Nathalie Kyrou © 2009. All rights reserved to the author.

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