Kleftiko: Cyprus' Answer to Barbecue

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Once the oven is white-hot, the chef sweeps the charcoal and ash from the center of the fournos to the side walls, making way for the centerpiece, which bakes for anywhere from 4 to 10 hours, or more in some cases. The principle behind rendering the sinews and collagen of the meat into the dish's hallmark velvety texture combines both indirect, scorching heat, as well as small amounts of smoke penetration that creep in through the seals on the terra cotta pots. Once ready, the meat falls from bone to plate to mouth, with little time in transit.

Do the Cypriots have some kind of special formula for sealing their fournos, distinct from other clay oven traditions? Not so far as I can tell.

For ofton tis teratsias, however, the fire pit instead acts as more of a "cold" smoker than a radiant heat room--too much heat and the meat will fall apart, with no dish to hold it together. How much is too much? The most precise answer I was able to get from locals invariably ran something like this: "you should be able to touch your hand to the inner wall of the oven for just three seconds." Then, apparently, the temperature is just right. The tis teratsias chef then takes a fresh, wet batch of carob wood with stems and leaves attached and lays them in the center of the oven, forming a bed onto which the meat is placed. The wood must be wet to prevent it from catching fire, and also to encourage smoking. Because the meat has no proper baking dish as in standard ofton, chefs generally use the ribs of the goat in order to maintain the structural integrity of the meat in the oven, and also because the rib meat, even at a lower temperature, will cook more quickly than the thicker cuts of old, tough goat, which are reserved for the standard kleftiko. As in traditional barbecue, the combination of fresh wood and charcoal produces a smoking effect, but in this case the wood makes no contact with the charcoal embers, resulting in subtler, less pervasive smoke penetration.

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Photo by Maria Symeonidou Georgiadou

The next and perhaps most difficult step in producing kleftiko, either ofton or ofton tis teratsias, is a necessary patience, the self-control not to check the meat during its roast. If one were to open the ofton oven prematurely, precious heat would be lost. If one were to try to sneak a look at the ofton tis teratsias too soon, the concentrated smoking effect, along with the moist, low heat atmosphere, would literally evaporate with the wind. It is no wonder then that the secret to great kleftiko, as I have been told many times, lies in the quality of the seal on the oven's small door. By carefully fastening the thick metal door, either with clay or a dough and flour paste, the oven becomes a steaming chamber, sealing in either heat or smoke, depending on the method of choice. Do the Cypriots have some kind of special formula for sealing their fournos, distinct from other clay oven traditions? Not so far as I can tell. Rather, I am tempted to understand their focus on "quality of seal" as synonymous with a kind of chef's intuitive judgment, and knowing the right time to break the seal on the cooking chamber.

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, except that in these instances the Cypriots perform the task at a range of temperatures, ideally without sacrificing texture or juiciness. After 12 hours (or more) of preparation, from oven lighting to the actual roasting, the fork-tender meat or succulent ribs are traditionally served with potatoes, sometimes braised in the fats and juices given off by the goat, collected in the terra cotta pans. The potatoes from Cyprus, already of superior quality, become incredibly luscious, if not to say a bit heavy, saturated with what certainly deserves the culinary distinction of goat jus .

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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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