Taste for Travel correspondent Georgia Gerardis on the Greek island of Rhodes tells the story of Christmas traditions in Greece and shares a unique recipe for the Greek Christmas cake which is also served as the special New Year’s cake served in every home.
Although modern Greece shares many traditions with the rest of the world, she still keeps her unique Christmas customs alive. Modern, English songs translated into Greek may be heard in schools and streets but there are mainly three official traditional carols (Calanda) sung by children who go from from house to house. One for Christmas Eve, another for New Year’s Eve and the last one for January 5, the Eve of Epiphany.
All are sung in the mornings and children are treated with coins as pocket money. In some municipalities, boats are decorated instead of a tree as the symbol of the Greek Saint Nikolaos who was the protector of sailors and is celebrated on December 6 when Christmas season begins.
Mums and grandmas are busy making the traditional Greek Christmas sweets – kourambiedes, melomakarona and diples. Melomakarona are soft cookies drenched in honey syrup whereas kourambiedes are rosewater scented butter biscuits covered with lots of icing sugar.
Diples (pronounced the-ples) are mostly made by islanders and in northern villages. They are fried sheets of dough in the shape of small rolls or roses, drenched in honey syrup as well and sprinkled with walnuts and cinnamon. Stuffed turkey, pork and yiaprakia (stuffed cabbage leaves with meat and rice) with a tangy lemon sauce are the main courses for the festive days. However, the queen of the table is the Vasilopita which is cut ceremoniously and eaten on New Year’s Day.
Vasilopita is a kind of bread/ cake covered with icing sugar and nuts shaping the numbers of the New Year.
In some regions, it is sweet bread while in modern times it has been altered into a spongy cake. Its significance lies in the coin that it contains and the meaning of it all. The head of the family makes a virtual cross with a knife three times before cutting the pieces. The first five pieces are not eaten.
They are offered to the house, Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, the landlord and for the poor (yes, Greeks have always cared for the poor). The one who finds the coin – which was gold in the past whereas in modern times a simple coin folded in foil – is considered the lucky person for the year to come and also receives money as a prize. Vasilopita has a story behind its recipe like most traditional recipes do.
The story of Vasilopita originates in the 1500s in the Kessaria capital city of Kappadokia in the Middle East where Vasilios the Great lived and was a highly respected bishop who had devoted all his life to God and the welfare of his people. He was thoughtful, kind and generous and gave up all material possessions. Everybody adored him. One day a greedy general, a tyrant named Ioulianos, threatened to loot and besiege the town unless he was given all jewellery and humble possessions.
Vasilios the Great was in despair knowing how poor his people were so his only hope was to pray all night for help. The tyrant and his armed forces appeared but only to find Vasilios the Great with his hands bare, refusing to offer any possessions and claiming that his people were too poor and hungry. Ioulianos threatened to exile and kill him. The loyal Christians of Kassareia could notbear the thought of their loving Bishop to be killed and offered their belongings.
The tyrant’s action was met with God’s anger. A mighty rider with his fellow warriors on horses appeared and lunged on the enemies and destroyed the whole army. It was said to have been Saint Merkourios (a mighty general) with angels who answered the Bishop’s prayers.
After this victory, Vasilios the Great wanted to return the jewellery to his people but they refused to accept. One third was kept for the foundation of a hospital, orphanage and a school whereas the remaining was returned in a special way. He shared the belongings by hiding them in small loaves of bread. Each family member would receive the small bun. This action of love was met with great surprise. Justice prevailed in the end. Vasilopita contains a coin to symbolize his great action. The coin is added in the batter before cooking.
Vasilios the Great died on January 1 and that’s the reason why most Greeks offer gifts on this date instead of December 25. He is the Greek Santa but bears no resemblance to the other one known in the West as a portly man dressed in a red suit and an uncanny ability to fit down the narrowest of chimneys to leave presents.
Vasilios was tall, slim and with a dark complexion. He had a long beard but his hair was short. While Saint Nikolaos, the protector of sailors, was the chubby, jolly man with red cheeks, long white hair and beard.
Now let’s get down honoring the queen of the table, Vasilopita. The bread-like variations are too filling (the original recipes call for orange juice, walnuts and sometimes raisins) for a dessert after all that food on New Year’s Eve. Many families prefer to serve it the next morning for breakfast. My family wouldn’t compromise so I came up with a more dessert like, more aromatic version and, of course, it contains not only chocolate but also wine!
250 gr soft butter
250 gr sugar
300 gr flour
1 cup of mavrodaphni, Greek dessert wine (Madeira or any port will do)
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
2 drops of vanilla essence
50 gr grated dark chocolate
A pinch of salt
Heat oven at 180C. Beat the butter with sugar on high speed till it becomes light and soft. Add eggs one by one while beating on a lower speed. Add a little flour and wine, the cinnamon, baking powder, cocoa, salt and vanilla essence. Continue beating on low speed and add the remaining flour and wine. Turn off the mixer. Add the grated chocolate and fold gently.
Grease a baking pan (23 cm) generously with butter and sprinkle a little flour to prevent sticking. (Or line with baking paper) Discard excessive flour by turning your pan upside down and shaking (in the sink). Bake for 50 min to an hour (depending on the size of your eggs) checking by inserting a toothpick in the middle of the cake. When the cake cools off on a rack, you may decorate it either with plain icing sugar or chocolate glazing. Or even both. Be creative and add any décor to suit the festive days! For a large family double the ingredients but use 6 eggs.
Preparation time: 25 min, baking 50-60 min. Serves 10
Georgia’s restaurant Ammoyiali is 2km from the centre of Rhodes Town on the foot of the Monte Smith hill near the Temple Of Apollo. 17 Voreiou Ipeirou Street. Call for reservations: 224-1023-980, 224-102-3939.
©Georgia Gerardis 2011