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.
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.
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.
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.
In Mykonos and other smaller islands, the sausages are dipped in salty brine and air-dried in the wind during the cold, yet sunny winter days. Mykonos is a particularly arid island, and their precious quantity of wood is not wasted for smoking meats.
The pieces of meat destined for loza are generously salted for a day or two, and then most of the salt is washed off in a wine bath. Meanwhile, the large intestine is thoroughly cleaned and soaked in wine. Pepper, ground allspice, and thrymbi are sprinkled all over the meat, which is then carefully packed into the large intestine. It is a particularly difficult job, as the casing tears easily.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
Zenovia, needle and thread in hand, sews the torn spots of intestine carefully, fitting it tightly around the meat. Finally, pieces of string are passed through one end of the meat, and lozes (plural of loza) are hung over the fire to smoke for three days. They are ready to eat after about a month, as they need to hang in the wintry sun a few hours each day until they are firm and dark, Zenovia instructed me.
Paspalas (pork confit) and Tsigara
Well-prepared Paspalas are the Kean equivalent of duck confit. The ribs, and other large pieces of fatty meat, are boiled in well-salted water until tender. The water is then drained off, and the meat is briefly sautéed in its own fat. Pieces are cooked with greens and vegetables, often together with other meats, like the local veal, to flavor winter stews.
Photo by Aglaia Kremezi
Zenovia makes the most wonderful fresh fava and lettuce stew with paspala, finishing the dish with avgolemono - the typical Greek egg and lemon sauce. Yannis, in his tavern in Hora, the island's main town, uses paspala for the eponymous Kean dish, a kind of rich scrambled eggs that combines pieces of pork confit with tomato sauce and eggs.
Tsigara, the smaller pieces of meat and fat that are prepared exactly like paspalas, take their name from the verb tsigarizo (to fry or sauté). Kept in a jar and submerged in lard, tsigara are the equivalent of modern-day flavoring cubes, but with an incomparable richness and depth of flavor.
Tablespoons are added to all sorts of greens, vegetables, and pulses, all through the winter, transforming already good dishes into delicacies. They are also used to make glynokouloures (flat breads flavored with glyna, as pork fat is called on Kea). Islanders, even those who have forsworn the use of lard in the mistaken belief that it is worse for your health than butter and margarine, dreamily describe the sublime flavor tsigara adds to baked or fried potato dishes.