Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Have you ever caught a whiff of pita baking in its own tapsi in the oven? Its fumes deftly escape the rubber seals of the oven and gently caress the left nostril while surreptitiously wafting themselves up the right. If you are famished, the imminent promise of pita as you enter a kitchen, can send you quite mad.
As a comfort food, pita cannot be surpassed by any other. Its history is as multi-layered as its form, though as an ideal, it exists quite without the world of decay and remains unsullied, as an inspiration to those who aspire to greatness. Its etymology too, is multi-layered. Our word πίτα, or πίττα comes from the Italian pitta, which in turn is derived from the Latin picta, which in turn again is said to be derived from the ancient Greek πηκτή. Thus, pita, a paradisiacal composition of alternate layers of pastry and filling, is a purely Greek phenomenon, though it is one that has spread throughout the Balkans and beyond. So ancient and exalted is its pedigree, that a rudimentary form of pita is described in the cookbook of the celebrated Graeco-Roman chef Apicius.
Pita can take many forms, but arguably, the most unexpected of these would have to be lasagne, considering that it just fits the layered definition. Lasagne too is a particularly ancient and Hellenic form of pita. It derives from the word lasanum, being the Latin word for the receptacle in which Roman legionnaires disposed of their bodily refuse in a hygienic and environmentally friendly manner, which in turn, derives from the ancient Greek «λάσανον,» meaning simply a vessel. Whether or not the choice of receptacle was the decisive factor in the survival of this dish into the modern age and its institution as classic pub food is a vexed question. However, one can only speculate at the amount of mirth that a dish created in an army issue chamber pot would have raised among the Greeks of the Roman Empire. Had the profounder etymological aspects of the joke survived to the present, it is quite plausible that we would refer to this culinary mainstay of the western world as «καθηκόπιτα.»
Historical precedents notwithstanding, conventional Greek-Australian pitology recognises only a narrow cross-section of its various possible forms. Spanakopita and tyropita are generally the most readily available savoury forms, though obscure sub-species such as prasopita, makaronopita, kreatopita, kotopita and even galatopita do exist. The role of pita in sweets is a contentious one. While kolokythopita is of itself self evident, is karydopita truly a pita? And, if we consider that pita merely is comprised of layers of pastry alternating with filing, why is not baklava and galaktoboureko considered to be a form of pita as well?
Pita is one of those Greek foods that are yet to received the legitimacy or widespread appeal of focaccia. I remember the first time I brought some spanakopita to school for lunch. My classmates looked at it in a horrified fashion, exclaiming: “Oh my God, it’s alive! What the hell is that?” My response, to the effect that what I was holding in my hands was in fact a Greek quiche, failed to convince them and though over the years I did my bit for multiculturalism by offering up to my British-Australian fledgling cultural legitimisers, samples of my mother and grandmother’s cooking, the existence of spanakopita was something that they could never induct into the multicultural culinary melting pot.
One of the interesting things about Greek-Australian pita is the way that it tends to polarize Greek-Australian males into tacitly acknowledging the matriarchal fabric of our society. There seems to be a consensus that no one can make a pita tastier and more satisfying that one’s own mother of grandmother. This observation was gleaned in the following way: Chatting with some friends a few weeks ago, I was offered some spanakopita by one of them. I rejected the offer indignantly for two reasons. The first came in the pita variant of the Islamic shahada: “I confess that my mother’s pita is the only (decent) one and I am its prophet.” For truly, I am convinced that my mother’s pita is superior to all others. Secondly, and this I did not articulate, I observed that the ‘thing’ masquerading upon the plate as pita had been constructed with supermarket-purchased filo pastry – notably, the Antoniou type.
This is tantamount to blasphemy. Whatever form it takes, whether that be the conventional layer upon layer or the complex Vlach ‘şorci’ or serpentine, twisted and rolled pita, the fyllo, or ‘petra’ as it is known in Epirus, must be rolled, paper thin from scratch, upon one’s kitchen table, using the long, thin rolling pin known as the οκλαή, from the Turkish ‘oklava,’ and which also doubles as a rod for the meting of punishment to Greek-Australian children, thus reinforcing the fine line that exists between pleasure and pain. There is absolutely no place in our complex, multi-faceted, pluralistic society for pre-prepared fyllo, and when our august Kevin completes his education revolution and embarks upon the cooking one, all those purveyors of this pernicious product will be dealt with so severely, that they shall never rise to vex us with their pestilential presumption, ever again. For that matter, stay away from those pites whose fyllo is said by its maker or recipient to have been rolled by a «πλάστη.» Yes, this is the proper Hellenic term of a rolling pin but herein lies the problem. It is too contrived and artificial a term to be applied to such a homely, traditional instrument and thus must be viewed with revisionist suspicion.
At my rejection of the proffered pita, my friend sighed in understanding and empathy. He too contended that there was no pita in the world that could surpass that of his mother’s. He went on to tell me that he almost came to blows with his cousin on the issue, while on a hunting trip. Stopping their slaughter of fierce woodland creatures for the sake of replenishment, the two cousins, whose mothers are sisters, quarreled terribly over whose mother made the better pita and actually stopped speaking to each other. Their quarrel was only resolved when one of the sisters admitted her sister to be the superior in the art of pita-construction, something that her dumbfounded, adoring son, found to be an earth-shattering revelation.
I can trace the development of my mother’s pita among several generations and locations, much as a wine connoisseur can not only tell you the region in which the grapes of a wine have been grown, but also which vineyard in a particular chateau, and whether the vines are of a first, second, third or fourth growth. My mother’s pita is thus an amalgam of her grandmother’s pita, and the pita of her primary school teacher, who hailed from the villages of Zagori, a renowned centre of pita-making in Epirus, with a few bits and pieces from some aunts great and ancient, thrown in and a good deal of my mother’s own inspiration in the choice of the blend of cheeses and inclusion of aromatic greens. No other influences outside these are permitted, for my mother is, as all true artists should be, a purist.
The matrilineal link is well and truly broken in the case of my grandmother, as occupant of the intermediate position on the pita chain between my great grandmother and my mother. I will never forget the look of scorn on my great-grandmother’s face, when, on a trip to Greece, her daughter tried to please her by attempting to construct what she termed ‘pita.’ The result was a Picasso-like tapsi of asymmetrical fyllo of a fascinating and original texture but which was totally inedible. While my great-grandmother and I stifled peals of evil laughter, my poor grandmother offered what seemed to be her final excuse for her failure: “After all, I’ve lived in Athens most of my life.”
Pita is a funny thing. In the case of my grandmother and great-grandmother, it acted as a metaphor for a dysfunctional relationship, that has never been able to be set aright, with the passage of time. In the case of my sister and I, vis a vis my mother and great-grandmother, its accretion of layers over the years is commensurate with their own passing down of layers of information, family history and lore to us. One of my earliest memories is of my mother and great-grandmother in the kitchen, draping newly rolled sheets of fyllo over the chairs and spreading flour on the table, in preparation for the next one. While this opening of the ‘petra’ took place, other, older horizons unfolded. I was transported thousands of kilometres away, to a place I had never seen but had always been a part of, in a time not my own. In that tableau of imagery and the spoken word, was an insight into the lost, pre-Promised Land world, a world of deprivation, yet simultaneously, of vibrant vitality. In it, I learned village history, understood the context of ancient feuds and why my mother’s compatriots behaved in the way they did. I also learned that a particularly fat, obnoxious woman could be described a ‘zhaba’ (an Albanian and ultimately Slavonic word for a female toad) and that no-one outside a certain small radius could understand pejorative terms such as ‘bouliana.’
As the first fyllo was laid upon the tapsi and my great-grandmother’s gnarled hands reached for the dried, prepared filling, the entire circumstances of the family’s arrival in Australia was elucidated. After that, a sigh and a further covering of fyllo to obscure the disappointments, unfulfilled dreams and disillusionments, regrets and yearnings of a life that could have been, if only people had been kinder, if times had not been tough. And then again, an insulating layer of spinach. Lower your voice and speak in riddles. The children must not know what we are talking about.
The last fyllo is the fyllo of stern resolve and resolution, for this is the fyllo that is the public face of the pita and it must be confident, hard and give away as little as possible. It is only to the perceptive few that know the secret of the layers, that the ingredients of the pita speak, unfolding the passion of their mysteries. The uppermost fyllo is that which is offered to all with love and in the hope of comfort that comes not from forgetting but from the sure knowledge that accretion is the panacea if not of all ills, then of all expectation, a disease in itself. As time passes, so does the pita. Now that my great-grandmother is one hundred and two and no longer has the strength she once had, there is a void in my mother’s pita that will never be filled. The other day, my mother called me with a sense of triumph in order to announce that after a hiatus of a few months, she was embarking upon the most noble enterprise of pita construction. I expressed my enthusiasm by quoting what I thought to be a joke suitable for the occasion: “Q. Why do Pontians make long, rectangular Vassilopita? A. So that they can fit their lyra in it.” When I arrived at my mother’s house later that afternoon, I was curtly informed that all the pita had been consumed. There are some things that you just can’t joke about with my people, it seems.


First published in NKEE on 7 April 2008