Friday, July 28, 2017

Going to the Great Pita Pie Festival in Lia, Greece

 One of my very first blog posts, back in August of 2009, was this one about the Great Pita Pie Festival in Lia, Greece, started by the first woman mayor of  Nick's native village.  It's still going strong eight years later,  scheduled for August 17 this year. Our family will be there for all the delicious fun.  (And the villagers mentioned below will all be there too!)

Last week, when we drove up the winding mountain road in northern Greece and arrived at Nick’s native village of Lia, just below the Albanian border, we were thrilled to learn that the famous “Yiorti tis Pitas”—or “Festival of Pita Pies” was happening the very next day—Saturday Aug. 22.

The Greek calendar is full of religious holidays—like the August 15 festival of the Virgin Mary, which is second only to Easter in importance—but each village also has its own Saint’s Day (Lia celebrates July 21—the feast day of the Prophet Elias.)

But we had never been lucky enough to be present at the “Festival of Pita Pies” which, as far as I know, is unique to Lia.

Our neighbor in the village—Dina Petsis –was elected Lia’s first female president in 2006 and she brought to the village the Festival of Pita Pies—a kind of harvest festival—now in its third year. Pita pies are the traditional delicacy of this area of northern Greece. The pitas are not desserts, but savory pies with all manner of good things baked between layers of phyllo dough. (But Dina also cooked a sweet apple and cinnamon pita as well—because I asked for it.)

In 2002—when daughter Eleni spent a year living in Lia, rebuilding the ruined family home and writing her travel memoir “North of Ithaka”, Dina introduced her to the secrets of pita making,including a pita made with 13 kinds of wild greens including nettles, and another cheese-y pie called “dish rag pie”. Eleni even learned to make a sweet cake that a single girl can bake and take to church, which she called in her book “Get a Man” pie.

Last Saturday, Dina, who is not only village president but also the finest cook in Lia, let Eleni help her make 5 different kinds of pitas. All the village women from miles around were cooking their specialities. Dina’s contributions included a pita full of various greens, a quiche-like pita featuring zucchini (everything from her garden, of course) another pita with macaroni and cheese in it, and my personal favorite—a pita filled with chicken and rice. (The secret ingredients, Eleni told me, were mint and grated carrots.)

Dina had been so busy getting ready for the Pita Festival that she cheated this time and used store-bought phyllo dough for her pitas, although most of the village women proudly make their own homemade phyllo dough, which is rolled out on a board with a stick that resembles a broom handle.

A large, level area in the village, shaded by plane trees and called the Goura, was strung with lights and Greek flags. The ladies contributing pitas came early. There were 76 pitas in all, cooked by more than 30 women. Notis, who runs the one village store and coffee shop in Lia with his wife Stella, had been roasting lambs on spits all day for those who were not satisfied with pita alone. He and his helpers also sold beer and local wines. Notis would hack meat off the lambs with his cleaver, fill a plate and weigh it to know what to charge.

But the pitas were free. Daughter Eleni and Dina and her helpers cut the pitas into squares and brought each table a plate filled with a variety. There were no prizes—for no one could taste every pita and decide which was the winner. (Our table, however, unofficially awarded first prize to Dina’s Cotopita—the chicken pie.)

Then Dina, in her role as president, gave a speech of welcome and the orchestra began to play. The clarinet player, as usual, was the star, assisted by a fiddler, a bouzouki player, a singer and a young boy on the tamborine.

Our village priest, Father Procopi, along with Dina, started the dancing and the lady cantor from the church joined in. (In the photos Dina is wearing a black and white blouse and Eleni a turquoise dress.) Then, as the high spirits (kefi) increased, more pita-baking women and exuberant young people joined in the dance. The older men mostly watched and drank and devoured the 76 pitas donated by the expert cooks.

We went to bed around midnight, but Dina and her husband Andreas didn’t stop dancing until 2:30 in the morning.

We’ve already marked next year’s calendar for August 22-- the fourth annual Yiorti tis Pitas in Lia.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Grand Old Fourth with the Grandkids

This year we were lucky to have daughter Eleni and her two kids, Amalia, 5, and Nicolas, 2, come to stay with us in Grafton, MA from June 27 to July 5.    Although they live on the 14th floor of a New York high-rise and have Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art  a few blocks away, the simple pleasures of life in the country delighted them and Nick and I loved sharing an old-fashioned Fourth of July weekend.  Along with Eleni and kids on this visit came Emilio’s niece from Nicaragua, Maria Agustina, who is staying with them while she looks at colleges in the northeast.  Eleni’s husband, Emilio, couldn’t make it to Grafton because he was so busy launching his new coffee company Eleva, back in New York. 

It was very hot, and as soon as they arrived, everyone headed for the pool while Eleni Nikolaides (“Yiayia Nenny”) and Mommy inflated pool toys like Hank the Octopus. Papou Nick looked after grandson Nico on his kickboard.

 Every morning Amalia and Nico would set out carrots and other treats for the bunnies that seem to be reproducing like, um, rabbits all over our property.  The baby bunnies became so tame that Nico could almost pick them up, which had him screaming with excitement.

 The pair had several tea parties on the porch, and Nico was happy for hours playing with his Nemo water table on the lawn.

Friday night, June 30, the Worcester fireworks display in Christoforo Colombo Park on Shrewsbury Street was threatened by rain, but it stopped just long enough for the pyrotechnic display, which we watched from afar in the Beechwood Hotel’s parking lot.   Amalia counted with glee how many of the explosions included the three colors of our flag.

 The next day, Saturday, we went to a “Crab Festival” in the parking lot of the Sole Proprietor restaurant.  It was celebrating the 25th year that Buster the Crab will be enthroned atop the restaurant throughout the month of July to advertise the special crab menu.  

 The kids got free face-painting, balloon figures, and the chance to enter a Buster coloring contest (which would score them a free meal if they came in July with their parents.)   
From there we went to the nearby Worcester Art Museum, one of the best small museums in the country.  The kids admired the medieval chapel and colored in an exhibit of sacred art. (The museum has become very child-friendly.) 

 They loved lying on pillows to look up at the hanging art, with flashing lights and waving plastic cones that are inflated by fans.  That exhibit is called  “Reusable Universe” by Shih Chieh Huang.
 The little ones were captivated by the pink plastic flamingos gathered in the museum’s courtyard, where we ate lunch from the Museum Café.  (Did you know that the plastic flamingo –1957, as well as Tupperware –1946, both originated in Leominster, MA the “plastics capital of the world”?)
Sunday started with a tour of Westboro and Grafton, including a horse farm.  We stopped for an ice cream at Grafton’s Country Store on the picturesque Grafton Common.

After lunch we went to Worcester’s Ecotarium, a science and nature museum that currently offers an exhibit called “Did Dinosaurs Poop?”, combining two topics of riveting interest to Amalia and Nico.  They even got to dig for fossilized dinosaur poop in this sort of sandbox.  The stegosaurus you see outside is Siegfried, who lives at the Ecotarium but no, he doesn’t poop.

One highlight of the Ecotarium was the 12-minute ride on the miniature Explorer Express train around the park, but the biggest hit of all for Amalia and Nico was standing inside the hurricane simulator to feel the force of the winds.

On Monday, July 3, Amalia worked all afternoon making a patriotic farewell cake for her Papou Nick, who was about to leave for Greece where he will spend the rest of the summer.  When she stuck a candle in it, it  became an early cake for his late July birthday.

As soon as Papou left for the airport, the rest of us headed to the Grafton Common for the annual Fourth of July concert.  All of Grafton, young and old, gathered around the bandstand, most dressed in patriotic colors. 

 Amalia investigated the cannons, which are shot at the beginning and end of the concert, and the men dressed as Civil war soldiers.  Nico checked out the flavors of the Cones on the Common.
On Tuesday, July 4, we all headed to a celebration in Millbury’s Dean Park, where hundreds of people were strolling about in the heat, enjoying the music, barbecue and games.

 There were lots of different kind of inflatable challenges and bouncy houses, and Nico and  Amalia were determined to try every one, despite the long lines.  One inflatable was a long obstacle course, but Nico plunged in fearlessly, moving as fast as the big kids, climbing up walls and eventually coming out the other end at the same time as his sister.
 We were planning to go to another, more distant fireworks display that night, but after the heat and activity of the day, we were all too tired. We elected to stay home and just watch the Macy’s fireworks from New York on TV.

The next day we drove back to Manhattan.  It took five hours instead of the usual three, and Nico threw up in the car just as we reached the New York border, but nevertheless, we all agreed, it had been the best Fourth of July ever.