Kleftiko: Cyprus' Answer to Barbecue

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aglaia_nov11_goat_post.jpg

Photo by Aglaia Kremezi


From Atlantic Food contributor Aglaia Kremezi :

When my dear friend Seth Rosenbaum first described kleftiko to me, I remembered it as a wonderful, but long-forgotten, Cypriot family dish: Slow roasted goat meat over carob cuttings! It turns out that one can still taste this delicacy at a few taverns on the island. For those who can't build the special oven though, here is my alternative recipe . But first read all about it:

MFK Fisher famously taught the British public How to Cook a Wolf , but would she have known what to do with an aged goat? A far cry from delicate spring lamb, the sinewy goat requires its own special preparation, so much so that in Cyprus it appears in one dish and one dish only: kleftiko, literally the thief's meal.

What inspired the name? In short, the criminal mind, though as with most things in the Hellenic world, one person's vigilante is another's patriot. It is said that the dish is named after the kleftes , the 19th-century guerillas who fought the Ottomans. In an effort to keep their hideouts secret, the kleftes developed a method of cooking that produced no smoke, literally burrowing fire-pits into the ground in which they could bake, not grill, their meat, thereby protecting them from Ottoman detection. The kleftes cooked for survival of one kind, but modern Cypriot cuisine demands a different standard of kleftiko if it is going to compete against not Ottomans but rival tavernas. An old goat is neither wolf nor lamb nor spring chicken, and to turn the tough meat into a buttery version of its namesake has become a source of great national pride. As Cypriots will fondly, if not religiously, insist, "You can't make kleftiko outside of Cyprus!"

Many of the same ideas lie behind the great barbecue we know from the South in the United States--a total control of heat and moisture.

An instance of hot-blooded nationalism, or a sincere warning worth heeding? Perhaps a bit of both. Either way, it fires the imagination, and I find myself constantly recalling, if imperfectly, the strong aroma of the dish, the memory of a taste somehow richer and deeper in flavor, and yet far subtler and less overpowering, than oven-roast lamb. The thief's meal will always be my first after landing in Larnaca.

In theory, you could probably reproduce kleftiko on foreign soil, but you would need to be prepared for a strikingly high level of commitment. To begin with, you would need to find yourself the animal. An old goat, at least three years of age, is not exactly standard fare in the meat aisle, not even at your most committed local butcher.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Assuming you can find the katsiki , it should then be butchered into large pieces, still on the bone, and seasoned sparingly. By this I mean that the goat should be left a relative "virgin"--virgin only insofar as it is handled so little before being placed in the oven--I should hope though that the poor, old, "virgin" goat, as described, did not go through life entirely chaste. The goat should have nothing more than salt and pepper sprinkled onto its flesh, and is never enhanced by elaborate marinades or brines.

As you search for your animal, you would be well advised to start the minor task of constructing the classic Cypriot clay fournos or oven , in which your meat will bake from anywhere between 2 and 12 hours. It resembles a wood-burning pizza oven, with incredibly thick walls in a semi-circular, domed shape, but with a smaller opening. The function of the fournos, rather than a traditional oven or smoker, becomes important depending on precisely the type of kleftiko you want to produce. The distinction is marked, your choices two and two alone: ofton or ofton tis teratsias . Is your goal to concentrate Inferno-like heat, or to trap luscious smokiness? Do you desire buttery richness, or the slight firmness of a smoked goat rib?

With ofton, the more common preparation, tavernas will place the meat, dusted with salt and submerged in water, in terra cotta pots, well sealed in order to produce a Dutch-oven effect, in preparation for high-temperature baking. This method will produce excellent, buttery kleftiko, with the meat falling away from the bone into a stew of its own rendered fat and skin. But the more adventurous chef takes a different path in search of a remarkably different end product. He instead produces a dish known as ofton tis teratsias, "cooked in the carob tree oven," a method for making kleftiko that originates from the Karpasia peninsula, and can still be found in a few devoted tavernas on the island.

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Seth Rosenbaum

Seth Rosenbaum is a doctoral student in English literature at Harvard University. Before returning to graduate school, he spent a few years living, traveling, and cooking in France, Italy, and Greece.
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