Greek Pork From a Medieval Past

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

The Jamón serrano of the Cyclades is called loza in Kea, and louza in Mykonos, Syros, Tinos, and other islands. The word clearly originates from the Italian lonza (cured pork loin). The Cycladic islands were under Venetian rule for some time -- some islands from the 13th to the 15th centuries, and others until the 17th century or even later. Despite their colonial history, some islands were never occupied by the Ottomans, as the rest of Greece was.

By the late 15th century, Kea was dominated by pirates and almost deserted by its inhabitants. It was later repopulated by people who fled from other islands -- my maternal grandfather's family probably came from Patmos, as my mother's maiden name, Patiniotis, suggests. Others came from the mainland, while many of the 16th century settlers on Kea, Andros, and other islands of the northern Cyclades were Arvanites. I find it fascinating that Venetian food habits, alien to this ethnic group, have survived on the island to this day.

Poor islanders sold their loza to the wealthy to support themselves. To this day, loza is a rare delicacy in short supply. One cannot just walk into a local butcher's shop and buy loza; you have to order it in advance early in the winter. Some Kean families, like my neighbor Zenovia, still make their own to last them until late spring.

Besides the loin, parts of the ham are also used to make loza. The meat is cut into long strips that can fit into the pig's large intestine, the casing that protects the meat during the smoking and drying. Today, in fact, the most sought after part of the pig on our island is the large intestine. Getting pork meat is not a problem, but it is the pig's intestine that determines how many pieces of loza a family can make.


Zenovia's Preparations



The rocky hill on the northern side of our property belongs to the Stefa family. On top of the hill is the house where elderly Flora Stefa lives. Her son, Tasos, built his house down by the bay at Otzias, but keeps his animals -- a couple of cows, sheep, goats, a pig, and some chickens -- on his mother's land.

The sheep and goats graze around our property, and from the window next to my desk I often exchange glances with Taso's beautiful brown, gray, or dappled goats as they nibble the meager sprouts between the steep rocks. They obviously wish that they could climb the dry stone wall that separates them from our garden. Each day, Tasos yells in his unique way at the top of his lungs to let the goats know it is milking time; the goats return faithfully, and our dogs just as regularly bark and go crazy.

Zenovia, Taso's wife, is one of the best cooks on the island, and I often consult her whenever I have questions about the authentic Kean way of doing things in the kitchen. After seeing the Atzakas family butcher its pig, I was really looking forward to learning from Zenovia how to prepare different kinds of cured pork.

Taso and Zenovia's relatively new house at the beach has no covered porch from which to hang the pig. Instead, they make the short trip to his mother's home where they butcher the spring lambs and kids, the pig, as well as the occasional milk-fed veal, in a large garage-like space that Tasos constructed for that very purpose. The long, tin-roofed room has a fireplace on the far end, while the hooks for hanging the slaughtered animals protrude out next to the entrance.

When I arrived one afternoon in February, Zenovia, her sister, and a friend were preparing the stuffing for the sausages at the near side of a long table set in the middle of the room. At the far end, next to the blazing fireplace, the complacent men were sitting and drinking raki, the local moonshine. Their work, the slaughter and butchering, was done. Now relaxed and somewhat inebriated, they were teasing the women with sexual innuendos as the sausages were filled.

Sausages


To make the sausage stuffing, Zenovia uses bits of leftover meat from the loin and the ham, after the prime pieces for loza have been cut and trimmed. While grinding the meat, she adds fat -- about a quarter to a third of the mixture should be fat, she said. She flavors the stuffing with homemade strong, red wine, salt, pepper, and ground allspice, adding plenty of thrymbi (wild savory). Thrymbi (called throumbi in other parts of Greece) is gathered from the hills all around the island, and tastes like a cross between wild thyme and mountain oregano. It is the herb of choice for Keans. The sausages are briefly macerated in wine, and then hanged to smoke for two to three days.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

For the low smoky fire, maintained about three feet from the sausages, Zenovia adds copious amounts of almond shells. Each garden has a few almond trees, and with her almonds, Zenovia makes the most wonderful traditional flourless cookies. She adds the woody stems of thrymbi to the fire, as well as the onion skins that she has been collecting for months because they produce lots of smoke, she tells me.

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Aglaia Kremezi writes about food in Greek, European, and American magazines, publishes books about Mediterranean cooking in the U.S. and Greece, and teaches cooking classes. More

Aglaia Kremezi has changed her life and her profession many times over. She currently writes about food in Greek, European and American magazines, publishes books about Greek and Mediterranean cooking in the US and in Greece, and teaches cooking to small groups of travelers who visit Kea. Before that she was a journalist and editor, writing about everything, except politics. She has been the editor in chief and the creator of news, women's, and life-style magazines, her last disastrous venture being a "TV guide for thinking people," a contradiction in terms, at least in her country. She studied art, graphic design, and photography at the Polytechnic of Central London. For five years she taught photography to graphic designers while freelancing as a news and fashion photographer for Athenian magazines and newspapers. Editors liked her extended captions more than the pieces the journalists submitted for the events she took pictures for, so she was encouraged to do her own stories, gradually becoming a full time journalist and editor. You can visit her website at www.keartisanal.com.


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