The Persistence of Memory, in a Greek Sweet


Aglaia Kremezi

Click here to view a slide show of the rituals surrounding kollyva, the sugary pilaf Greeks serve to remember the deceased, and click here for a recipe.

Where I come from, a woman understands that she has reached a certain age when her turn comes to prepare kollyva for departed relatives. Kollyva, or kollyvo, is a sugary pilaf made with wheat berries, raisins, almonds, walnuts, and pomegranate seeds—an absolutely delicious sweetmeat, fragrant with cinnamon and cloves.

The dish is traditionally prepared on the nine-day, 40-day, and one-year anniversaries of a beloved person's death, and in the old days, pious women would often make kollyva for All Souls' Day (the first Saturday of the 40 days of Lent) as well as on important saints' days. The closest of kin has the duty to prepare the grains and take a plate to the church or the cemetery to be blessed by a priest during a brief ceremony. Then spoonfuls of this symbolic sweet are distributed among the parishioners and the friends and relatives of the deceased, as well as to passersby.

VIEW SLIDESHOW>> kollyva papaLefteris_inpost.jpg

Aglaia Kremezi

In 2003, David Sutton, an associate professor of socio-cultural anthropology at Southern Illinois University who spends time on the island of Kalymnos, contributed a wonderful piece about kollyva to Slow magazine. He begins with what he considers "one of the most potent threats in the arsenal of an angry wife or daughter" —namely, "when you're dead, don't expect me to make kollyva for you!"

In his book Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory, Sutton observes that during the memorial liturgy for the deceased, 'the bowl of kollyva is usually placed in front of a picture of the dead person as if he or she were offering it to the attendant congregation." He supposes that the deceased shows his or her "food-based generosity," since the family makes the sweet offering on the dead person's behalf. Those who taste kollyva are not supposed to thank the person who offer it but instead make the sign of the cross, saying, "God forgive his" —or her— "sins."

The custom seems somewhat lost today, though. Recently, as my husband and I were walking down the steep path to Hora from the cemetery after the solemn one-year memorial for my late cousin Leonidas, only an old lady responded properly to our offering, while most people politely thanked us.

Some scholars say kollyva was the Christian version of sacrificial food, in contrast to the pagan custom of slaughtering animals to please the gods. Others will tell you that kollyva (in ancient Greek the word meant "small coin" or "small golden weight," as well as "small cakes") is the continuation of polysporia, the mixture of grains symbolically offered by ancient Greeks to some of their gods, especially Demeter (Ceres), the goddess of agriculture.

The Turkish ashure (or Noha's pudding) is a similar age-old sweet, in which the wheat berries are not drained but are simmered with sugar together with beans and chickpeas, until the cooking liquid thickens. Nuts and dried fruits are added, and the soupy ashure is served in bowls decorated with pomegranate seeds. It solidifies when it cools. I have found similar sweets in Israel and throughout the Middle East, with the grains cooked in milk and sweetened with honey. Obviously, they all share the same ancient roots.

In Athens and the other big cities, most women don't prepare the kollyva at home anymore. Instead, they have it made by professionals who cover the wheat with a thick sugar paste and make elaborate decorations using silver-coated almonds and dragées. After blessing, portions of the sweet pilaf are handed out in small white paper bags printed with a cross and the name of the deceased.

In Mount Athos, a secluded community of monasteries in eastern Macedonia, the monks make magnificent decorations for their kollyva, producing fabulous ephemeral pictures of their patron saints with colored sugars. Unfortunately, I have seen only photographs of these extraordinary edible icons, because no women are permitted to visit Mount Athos.

The recipe I give you here is my adaptation of the kollyva I learned from Koula Maroupa, from Paros. Instead of throwing away the cooking liquid, Koula pours it into individual bowls and refrigerates it after it has cooled. It becomes an additional sweet, a delicious jelly full of vital nutrients that can be served sprinkled with cinnamon and a little confectioner's sugar.

Parsley, which looks somewhat out of place, can be added to kollyva to symbolize the "green pastures" where the souls rest. Whenever pomegranates are in season, a cup of their seeds imparts color and freshness. This fruit symbolizes fertility, and we feel we must add it "gia to kalo." For good luck.