Saturday, August 29, 2009


(Please click on the photos to enlarge)

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.

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