Article by Maria Broadley
When asked if I would like to write about something – anything – that might be construed as interesting, entertaining and cultural about Skopelos, I was stumped. Not because of a dearth of culture on the island, but because of the multiplicity and complexity of the subject. My thoughts eventually turned to the Season of Lent and the fact that Easter will soon be upon us (I admit it, I’m a slow thinker!). We are in a time of the Lenten fast, when many devout Skopelites restrict their diets and even choose to be hungry as a sign of faith.
Greek bread, Psomi, has always played an important part in the Greek diet. It has long been the main staple, especially in frugal times, when Greeks would survive on a thick chunk of it with either cheese and a few vegetables or a bean soup. There is also a special corn bread, called bobota stemming from hard times. Many islanders are not fond of this bread because it brings back painful memories of World War II, when it was a staple food, eaten to survive. Bobota is made of cornmeal, honey and water and baked in a square pan. Nowadays, when cool, a warm sweet syrup is poured over it, or powdered sugar is sprinkled on the top.
Today, a laid table is not complete without a basket brimming with fresh, crusty bread. The Skopelites, like all Greeks, will go out of their way to buy a good fresh loaf, with everyone having their favourite bakeries and a good relationship with their baker: they still prefer to buy a fresh one daily. Be it crusty, hard, topped with sesame seeds, filled with tiny raisins, or stuffed with tangy olives, some type of bread must be at the table.
Before households had their own ovens, Greek housewives would make up several batches of their own recipe at home, maybe once or twice a week, put the ready-to-be-baked dough into a wooden carrying board (that normally had sections for each loaf), and carry it off to the local baker to be baked in his oven. Hours later the women would return to collect their baked loaves. The baker’s oven became the focal point of village life, even acting as a communal kitchen, as the women brought in not only their breads to be baked, but also their individual casseroles to enjoy long slow cooking in the embers of the bread oven when the day’s baking was done. In Skopelos Chora the bakery at Giftoroma has become the local pie shop, but the principle remained the same until very recently.
‘Psomi’, the Greek word for bread, literally means morsel, something special and delicious to eat: the ancient Greek word for bread, ‘artos’, means flavour. The breads prepared in Greece today date back to ancient times. They are flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices including cardamom, sea salt, rosemary and olive oil. Many of the sweet breads have nuts, slivers of lemon or orange peel, and honey glazes. Popular bread shapes include round (kouloura), braided (plexouda), long (franzola), or flat, envelope style (pita).
Greeks are known to be superstitious, and one bread is specially made when something is lost. This is St. Farnourio’s Bread, named to honour St. Farnourio, the ‘finder of lost things’. Such a bread is prepared with the hope that so doing will prompt the lost item to reappear. In Skopelos Chora this saint is honoured at the Faneromeni Church – the one with the clock. Special breads are baked for other occasions too, including the birth of a baby, the baptism of a newborn, and weddings, when sweet, decorative breads are adorned with special designs to commemorate the occasion. And you have probably seen Greeks arriving home from Church carrying pieces of bread wrapped up carefully in napkins.
Bread therefore plays an important role in the ordinary life of the people of Skopelos: let’s take a closer look at it.
In Greece, holy bread plays a central role during Communion, the most important rite of the Orthodox Church: for Orthodox Christians, it becomes the Body of Christ. The Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church therefore use leavened bread for the Eucharist: the sacramental bread symbolizes the Resurrected Christ. This bread, known as prosphorá or a πρόσφορον (prósphoron, offering) may be made out of only four ingredients:
• fine (white) wheat flour
• pure water
Sometimes holy water will be either sprinkled into the dough or on the kneading trough at the beginning of the process.
The baking may only be performed by a believing Orthodox Christian in good standing — having preferably been recently to Confession and is accompanied by prayer and fasting. Traditionally, the prosphoro is prepared by pious women and widows. Traditional Greek homes reserve a pan that is used only for making prosphoro.
The wheat used to make the prosphoro is symbolic of the human essence, which consists of the many elements of nature: the yeast represents the life-giving force of the Holy Ghost. The division of prosphoro into two parts is symbolic of the distinction between human flesh (flour and water) and soul (yeast and Holy Water).
Before baking, each loaf is formed by placing two disks of dough, one on top of the other, and stamping it with a special liturgical seal. The stamped design on the upper part of the loaf is that of a cross with the letters IC, XC, NIKA, which stands for ‘Jesus Christ Conquers,’ and is cut out by the priest during the preparation of the Eucharist (‘thanksgiving’). The service of artoklasia (breaking of bread) represents a thanksgiving for God’s blessings and commemorates Christ’s miracle of multiplying five loaves to feed thousands. In accordance with ancient traditions, a least five prosphora are used during the first part of the liturgy (proscomidia).
The prosphora should be fresh when presented at the altar for use in the Divine Liturgy. Often several prosphora will be baked and offered by the faithful, and the priest chooses the best ones for the Lamb (Host) that will be consecrated during the proscomidia at the beginning of the Greek Orthodox communion. The five are: the prosphoro for St. Charalambos (an early Christian Bishop in Magnesia, Thessaly, whose name Χαράλαμπος means joyful light in Greek. He lived during the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211), when Lucian was Proconsul of Magnesia. It is believed that at the time of his martyrdom in 202, he was 113 years old); the prosphoro for the Virgin Mary; the nine-part prosphora for the saints; the prosphora for the living; and the prosphoro for the dead.
The remaining loaves are blessed and offered back to the congregation after the end of the Divine Liturgy to those who did not receive communion. This bread is called the Antidoron (Greek: αντίδωρον, antídōron), i.e. a ‘gift returned’, or ‘in place of the Gifts’ and the custom dates to the seventh century. It must be treated with respect and be eaten without dropping crumbs. This is what the faithful of Skopelos can be seen carrying when leaving Church. Other sacred breads include artos, panagia, and tsoureki (Greek Easter cake).
Bread appears in various other customs of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox monasteries celebrate a ceremony to the Panagia (the Virgin Mary) in which sacred bread –prosphoro or panagia -is solemnly taken to a refectory after the liturgy. Special breads also mark periods of Orthodox fasting. For Greek Orthodox, Lenten fasting begins on ‘Clean Monday,’ when a special flat bread called lagana is baked.
It is customary for Orthodox who are named after a particular saint to celebrate their ‘name day.’ On Skopelos, according to custom the celebrant provides the five prosphora to his/her Church on the eve of the saint’s day. The small round loaves of white bread, which are spiced with cloves and bitter orange-blossom water, are then blessed by the priest, and one of the loaves is sent to the yortaris, or feast giver, while the other loaves are cut into pieces and offered to the congregation and to the poor.
All that remains now is to eat and enjoy it. Kali Orexi!