My internet is on the fritz so until it gets ironed out, it just might APPEAR that I'm off schedule. Lathos. Wrong. But I do write at night, so bear with me. One day two will appear and that will mean that I'm up and running again.
I called Despina at 10:30 this morning. No answer. As I was in my office with functioning internet, I noticed that she was online, so I sent her a little message telling her I’d tried to call. She answered “Oh the girls must have hidden the phone.”
A plan was made to meet her and her mother at Melilitos by noon for what would be a preliminary run cooking lesson. A private one, as it happened, just for me. We needed to see what would be the issues, would it work out having a cook and a translator, all of these pesky little things that might come up when we bring the first round of visitors into the kitchen to learn how to make Greek cuisine. When I showed up in the little stoa, or alley that Melilotos is tucked inside, I saw a smallish woman with black hair smoking a cigarette, also waiting. Melilotos was still dark meaning Despina hadn’t yet arrived, so I got comfortable on the marble steps and she was eyeing me, eyeing me, until finally, “Perimenitai yia .... (I tend to fade out when people speak Greek to me, still latching onto the first word while they round to a complete sentence.)
“Oriste?” This is what I’ve been taught to say so that they understand I just want them to repeat so that I can try again.
As it turned out this was KIKI. I write all caps because that is her character. Don’t be fooled by the small package. When Despina arrived and opened up, she immediately offered to run for coffee leaving KIKI and I to sit. “Exeis Doulia etho?” (Do you have a job here?) I started to repeat “Doulia” and said, instead, “Dulia” like “Julia.” She made four quick steps over to me, clasping my face in both of her hands saying again, “doooLYAH.” And grinned. “eh!? Ohi, DULIA. Ohi.” (Not ____. No.)
Finally, my own Greek Yia yia!
But KIKI is Despina’s aunt (I believe), not the star of the show, Ireni, which confused me a bit. I kept looking at the photograph of Ireni on the wall with her light hair and Mucha expression (click Mucha for visual reference) and finally, a light, a presence entered the place wearing a white muslin blouse embroidered with flowers and a serene expression. This was Ireni, master cook and teacher of today’s cooking lesson.
But what shall we cook? The discussion surrounding this went on for a few minutes while I sipped on my coffee. Every once in a while Despina would poll me.
“Paige, what is the most traditional Greek dish you think people would like to learn?”
I told her it seemed like her department. I’m the dum-dum that’s here to learn how to cook after all.
The discussion continued. Despina turned to me.
“Do you think people would like to learn to make Dolmadakia?” or stuffed grape leaves.
I said surely yes and told her it’s something they could find the ingredients for when they returned home if they hunted a bit, but the discussion continued and everyone had seemed to agree on a final point. Despina looked at me again, saying with finality,
“We will make pita.” (Pie.)
If you have been a faithful reader, and even if you have only peeped in for one or two entries here on this online journal, you will see many many mentions of tiropita, or cheese pie. It is the national snack of Greece and one that I have happily added to my snacking repertoire, but I’ve always expected it to be a bit of a bugger-bear to make, at least for a stir-frying, egg scrambling cook such as myself.
Allow me to fast forward the tape a bit so that you don’t get the full lesson with paying for, I mean enjoying it in person! We beat dough with our fists like welter weight champions. We rolled it out with a long stick and spun it in the air until it was as thin as a bedsheet. We washed spinach, once, twice, three times, and I was filled with the terrifying realization of how much dirt I have probably consumed in my life now that I know what it really takes to clean greens, the peaks of grit that had accumulated on the sink serving as hard evidence. We crumbled feta, cracked eggs, poured, beat, rolled, and spun more dough.
“You’re doing the hardest lesson first, Paige!”
Bravo Koritzi mou. Ella Koritzi mou. By the time I’d finished I was dusted until my elbows with Allevi, flour and a bit wounded from the all of the effort. What a wimpy baker I am. Every criticism for me was “MORE FORCE, Paige, don’t be afraid.”
Eventually the bulk of the work had been completed and Despina excused herself to go shopping for a baby birthday party she would be attending later. I continued rolling with force and the big stick, watched more vegetables being washed, and before I knew it, it was singing time. KIKI started, out of nowhere, belting a Greek ballad, and Ireni joined in while she rolled the dough. Then KIKI was laughing with such emotion tears were in her eyes and said, in Greek, we’re all crazy here!!
They asked me if I knew any Greek songs. I said I was a fan of Hadzidakis, and they immediately started in with this:
The pita went in the oven. Despina returned. We sat. They smoked. We talked about life. I drank the same cup of coffee I had been working on since Despina offered it which had also been drunk by everyone there. The community cup, marked with an orange poppy.
To pass the half hour needed for the oven Ireni decided to make spring rolls. Without much talk the four of us started in on wrapping vegetables in rice paper until there was none left. Finally, the hour was upon us and our creation was ready to meet its purpose, to fill our now hungry bellies and delight our senses. Honorable pita that it was, it did its job perfectly.
The phylo was dark and crispy, falling in paper thin flakes on my lips, my shirt, the table, everywhere. There was an unusual addend of spearmint with the feta that gave it a fresher, lighter twist than the usual greasebombs sold on the streets. Having it hot, just out of the oven, made by my hands (even partly) was perhaps the meal of the year.