Magic & Melancholy: Christmastime in Athens, 1998. PLUS a Recipe for Melomakarona.
The story is an old one, originally published in Yukon News in 1999. The recipe is both ancient and new.
My partner and I arrived in Athens in early December, at the tail end of a trip through Greece. It was cold, and we were tired.
When winter arrives in Greece, it truly feels like Demeter will never emerge from mourning again. This is grief on a mammoth scale, obliterating all memory of brilliant skies and wine-dark seas. The world is grey; always was, ever shall be.
No wonder Greeks have turned with such enthusiasm to the shiny sparklings of Christmastime. Athens in December is limned with silver and gold, with bright blue and red and green blazing forth from shop windows and reflected in the puddles on the cracked sidewalks and grimy streets.
Empty stores are rented out for the month and stuffed full with tinsel and coloured balls and brightly painted nativity scenes. Loudspeakers blare a combination of Christmas carols and Byzantine chants. The fancier cafes (where a Nescafe cost $3 then) are all dressed up with artificial evergreen and fairy lights.
For the visitor, it’s oddly dislocating--cheerful western consumerism overlaid on poverty and the meloncholy of Byzantine spirituality, overlaid in turn on the ancient world, still so present in the fallen pillars and broken statues scattered throughout the city.
Our pension was situated halfway between Plaka, the labyrinth of streets just below the Acropolis, now lined with tourist shops, and Syntagma (Constitution) Square.
If we walked a block towards the Acropolis the three worlds met: to the left, the tiny, Byzantine Little Mitropolis church; to the right, a shop spilling over with Christmas goods; straight ahead and up, high on the rock that dominates the city, the Parthenon. Incongruous, but we had grown accustomed to incongruity, and liked it.
The enthusiasm for Christmas is fairly new in Greece, a result of the closer relationship with Europe since the Second World War. New Year’s day is the traditional time to exchange presents; children used to wait for Saint Basil to bring them toys and sweets (or an egg, or a lump of sugar, in the lean times). The traditional New Year’s cake bears the saint’s name--vasilopitta–and has a coin baked into it, bringing a good year to the lucky one who finds it. These days, Saint Basil is still in attendance, but he is joined now by Santa Claus, winking and twinkling and full of jolly promise.
We had five days to wander through the city–not nearly enough time, but on some days, almost too much. Athens is on full-time sensory overload. There are throngs of people on every street, conversing at the tops of their lungs, mopeds leaping from the streets onto the sidewalks, horns honking, and everywhere, the reek of diesel.
But busy as the city is, there are places of refuge. Plaka is one. Jammed with tourists in the summer, in winter the narrow streets take on the atmosphere of a village. Shop owners are tired from a busy season, and solicit passers-by half-heartedly or not at all. At night you can hear your own footsteps on the deserted lanes that climb the base of the Acropolis rock. An older, slower world emerges.
The Acropolis itself is another quiet escape in winter, especially if you go at around closing time, as we did, inadvertently. There’s hardly anyone present. Lone guides roam among the rubble, offering their services in six languages.
Always the best part of visiting the Acropolis is the climb up the giant marble steps of the entrance, the Propylaea. This approach to the ruins is reminiscent of the scene in The Magician’s Nephew (the first of the Narnia books) where the children enter the cold ruins of a dying world, half excited, half fearful, and come across legions of former kings and queens, frozen in stone.
The massive ruins of the Parthenon, and the history they contain, can inspire the same excitement and dread: am I up to this? What will they demand of me? What if I don’t feel anything? In winter, when the facades of ancient buildings and the expressions on ancient statues are un-obscured by hordes of other visitors, there’s time and space to allow your responses come to the surface.
There used to be, in 1980, when I first arrived in Greece, numerous photographers at the Acropolis who set up in front of the Parthenon with old-fashioned cameras. For a small fee they would take your picture and develop it right there. In 1990, when I visited again, there was one such photographer left. Materials for the old cameras were hard to find, he said, and besides, everyone has their own camera now. He took my picture back then, telling me it was an historic event. In 1998, he too was gone. So my partner and took each others' pictures, posing the way the old photographers would have posed us, looking stiff and a little goofy, on the bench just down from the temple.
Then it was closing time, and we were chivvied out, back down into Plaka, where we embarked on an exploration of Byzantium in the shops selling religious icons.
The painting of icons is a thriving art. One shop owner told us that many of the artists from whom he bought work painted for the big monasteries and churches. Their work went for huge sums, a fact that visitors looking for souvenirs found hard to fathom, he added.
Under his tutelage we learned to distinguish between Russian and Greek styles (icon painting is highly stylized), and between hand-painted and printed work. Later, in another shop, I bought an icon for myself, an inexpensive mass-produced copy of a 15th century Russian painting.
The subject is famous: three weary travelers sit at a table, a bowl of food in front of them. They are the Christian holy trinity—father, son and holy spirit—come down to earth in disguise. Sarah and Abraham–who appear in some versions of this icon–offer them food and wine, not knowing who they are. The icon is often entitled philoxenia–the Greek word for hospitality, which means literally, love of foreigners.
The owner of this store explained why the subject is painted over and over. “This was the only time the holy trinity was seen on the earth at the same time. We had seen the son, but not the father or the holy spirit.” He went on to give our small company of two non-believers a gentle lesson in Christian theology. “It is we who divide them into father, son and spirit. Really they are one, but we can’t understand that.”
I like this little icon. It expresses the best of Greece–generous, open-hearted hospitality to visitors, no matter how poor or bedraggled. That hospitality is not always forthcoming–Greeks are not saints–but when it does appear it is breathtaking.
Later that week we happened upon the National Gardens, exhausted by a long and fruitless trek along the frantically busy Vasilissias Sophia to the National Gallery, which was closed. The National Gardens are another refuge from noise and confusion, laid out by King Otto of Bavaria in the 1830s. (King Otto was assigned to Greece by England, France and Russia after the war of independence in 1822.)
The gardens are also a haven for cats. There are cats on the benches, cats in the shrubbery, cats in the trees. Dogs are not allowed in the park; this is policy. On the entrance gate to the gardens is a notice asking strollers to love their fellow creatures and be kind to them.
Some Athenians take this request very seriously indeed. We rounded a corner and came across a small pond bustling with busy ducks, white farmyard ducks, the kind you see in children’s books. As we stood watching a woman arrived with a sack of bread scraps. She didn’t even have to call the ducks; as soon as they saw her they swarmed, beaks open, quacking imperiously. This was clearly a daily event. She threw their bread to them with repeated sweeps of her arm, and stuffed individual pieces into waiting beaks.
We sat on a bench to enjoy the scene. And then came another moment of Athenian sweetness. An elderly man, dressed in the casually elegant fashion of 40 years ago, struck up a conversation with us in polite and formal English.
He had been in the merchant marines, he said, and traveled all over the world. He was happy to tell us he’d been to Vancouver, to Montreal, to Toronto! But no, never to Whitehorse. As he left, he gave us a sort of blessing. “Be good to each other, because you only have this life.”
On our last night we were invited out for an ouzo with Sacha, a young physiotherapist from Varvarin in the former Yugoslavia, and a fellow lodger in our cheap pension. Sacha was locked in a love-hate relationship with Greece–he didn’t want to be there, but he didn’t want to be in his own country either. Of all the countries in the EU, only Greece and Italy would allow him in with a Yugoslavian passport. Canada and the US were similarly closed.
Sacha took us to a tiny, quiet bar on the steep streets underneath the Acropolis, with a long window that overlooked half the city spread out below. In a city square visible in the middle distance a waterfall of Christmas lights swayed in the wind. We were all a little melancholy.
We walked home through the silent Plaka, past the Roman agora, past the Little Mitropolis church, past the stores sparkling with Christmas paraphernalia. In the dark and the quiet, we could feel the utter foreignness of Athens, the feeling it gives of being somewhere totally other – neither Europe nor Asia, neither first world nor third, neither modern nor ancient. Only all those places at once.
Melomakarona--A Traditional Greek Christmas Sweet
In the streets of Athens there is a zacharoplasteion, or sweet shop (literally, sweet factory), on just about every block--just as there is on the Danforth in Toronto, or in Montreal's Plateau. In these enclaves of every Greek sweet you can imagine, where the air smells like spun sugar and your fingers are instantly sticky, you will find plates piled high with towers of melomakarona set out on the counters and in the display cases. Especially at Christmas. Along with kourabiethes, melomakarona are the favourite traditional Christmas sweets, made by the dozens in Greek kitchens, domestic and professional. I have a special fondness for melomakarona (from the Greek meli, or honey, and makoronea, a funeral bread); it was the first sweet I ever made in Greece, with my boyfriend's sister, when I first lived there in 1980, on a small island in the Aegean.
In those days I was new to Greece, new to Greek cuisine, new to the language, new to everything. I found a slim Greek cookbook, written in English, in one of the grocery stores in the village. On the front cover a young woman in a kerchief rolled out a piece of phyllo pastry on a low, round table, the same kind of table we had on our front porch, the same kind of table found in the old kitchens in the ancient village on the highest hill on my island. That cookbook became my close companion for the three years I lived in Greece.
I lost my little book when I moved back to Canada, and I'd give anything to have a copy now. It was the kind of cookbook where measurements were expressed as "one glass of flour" "one small spoon baking powder."
In 2019, while staying on the island of Sifnos, I found another such book, simply called "Traditional Recipes of Sifnos," compiled by Ronia Anastassiadou. In it I found a recipe for melamakarona, calling for "2 glasses of olive oil", 1/2 glass of brandy...." Just like the recipe I remembered.
Melomakarona, Adapated from "Traditional Recipes of Sifnos"
I've halved the recipe, because even halved it yields 30 cookies. But by all means double it, when have time to form 60 cookies by hand and soak them in twos and threes in hot honey-sugar syrup. Put on some Greek music!
Note: think of one glass as a 1-cup measurement, 1/2 glass as 1/2 cup, and so on.
1 glass olive oil
1/2 glass orange juice (freshly squeezed, about 2 oranges)
3/4 glass sugar
1/4 glass brandy
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 glass retsina (substitute dry white wine)
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
Zest of two oranges
1/2 kilo of flour (about 3 3/4 to 4 glasses)
1/4 glass toasted chopped walnuts mixed with 1 tsp cinnmon
This is the full amount of syrup for 60 cookies; I wanted to have lots of volume in the pot for soaking the cookies. I ended up with about 1 1/2 cups left over, but I'm not worried; I'll use it for baklava, or more likely, another batch of melomakarona. Because I've rediscovered how very much I love them.
2 glasses water
1 glass honey
1/2 glass sugar
1 cinnamon stick
Whisk water, honey and sugar together in a small pot. Add cinnamon stick. Bring to a slow boil over medium heat, stirring to help sugar and honey dissolve, and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.
Ronia says, "Attention! The melomakarona must be cold while the syrup must be hot!" This is to ensure the cookies absorb the honey. Ronia's advice is the exact opposite of many recipes online. I figure as long as one is hot and the other cold, you'll be okay. I made the syrup while the melomakarona were baking, let the melomakarona cool to room temperature, and then heated the syrup up again for dipping.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350F.
Whisk all the ingredients except flour in a medium-sized bowl. Add flour at the end. Stop adding flour when the dough no longer sticks to the hands.
Break off egg-sized pieces of dough, roll them into a ball and then into an oblong log. Place each log on the baking sheet, and flatten slightly with the tines of a fork. Bake for 30 minutes in a preheated 350F oven. Cool to room temperature.
Once cookies have cooled, heat syrup over medium heat until it's close to the boil. Reduce heat to medium low. Working in batches of two to three cookies, soak one side and then the other in the syrup, about 30 seconds per side. Sprinkle topping over each batch while it's still warm.
Continue dipping until all the cookies are done. Let dry for 30 minutes or so. Store in a covered container. Will keep for ages.
Makes 30 melomakarona
All the best of the season to you! xo