The Queen of Pies

What started out as a bit of an afterthought has now become GCH icon.  No I ‘m not talking about Mount Dirfis’ 17 switchbacks or the iconic views from Parnitha, I am talking about the freshly baked spinach pie or Spanakopita as it’s known in Greek waiting for each guest upon arrival.

We asked GCH’s very own licensed tour guide and Greek culinary expert Christina to give us a bit of history, and her recipe for Spinach pie using the traditional method for phyllo pastry.

 “Spanakopita” has been a tradition of Greek gastronomy for thousands of years. This tasty spinach and feta pie is often served as an appetizer, but it makes a filling meal as well. Whether you haven’t tried spanakopita yet, or it’s an old favorite, learning more about the history of the pies and particularly of this popular dish will make it even more enjoyable.

Inside the pie pastry we find greens (free-growing in the meadows, or cultivated in gardens as well as eggs, dairy products, meat or fisheries. In other words, it is a product that combines two of the elements of the ‘trinity’ (oil and flour) with all the other food that has been recognized as archetypical of a healthy and balanced diet. The production and consumption of food is a cultural code equally rich and meaningful to that of language. Pie is a sort of traditional “fast food”: it is produced relatively quickly, and can easily be consumed outside the house, at the modern workplace, or at the fields. It is the ‘queen’ of the table of the poor, since it can be made from the remaining of other meals. Nothing is thrown away, it can be re-cooked, refreshed and become a new relish. It is also the food of the feast, of the unique occasion that we wish to share with those around us. Pie pastry is folded and embraces its materials. And this has a symbolic meaning: pie unites those who share the same exceptional customary circumstances, and, at the same time, it implies a wish for a permanent union through the folding of its pastry sheets. The thin pastry sheet is called philo which is meaning “leaf” in Greek language.  Apart from the bread and the cheese, it is hard to think of any another food that condenses in a more characteristic way a diet experience accumulated through the centuries.

The ancient history of the pita starts from the sludge created by the mixing of water and flour, i.e. the milled grain. This trophic symbol to this day is still called “genima” (birth). This sludge, which was baked in the shields of the warriors of antiquity and it still continues to be baked on a heated stone or iron surface, to be offered as a ritualistic dish, then became a round dough that is flattened and baked on flat stones. The various kinds of pita, “palakountia” and “koptoplakountio”, of the Byzantines, with a pastry sheet on the top and bottom, and a filling of hazelnuts, almonds and honey in between, or the “tetyromenoi plakountes” (cheese pies), are the first forms of pie, and they are the memories that keep the taste of the modern pies.

Of all pies, the spinach pie, is one of the most common, since  Greece is an agricultural and livestock country. In addition, the necessary ingredients are available in all seasons. Early cooks used a variety of greens in their dishes. However, historians note that spinach didn’t arrive in Greece until the Byzantine Empire (15th cent.). When the people realized how easy it is to grow the leafy green, it became a staple of Greek food. Of course, slight variations of the spinach pie exist, according to the way each housewife prepares and bakes the pie.   

INGREDIENTS

3 1/4 cups (800 g) all-purpose flour or hard flour type M, sieved

4 tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 (~400 ml) water

2 tbsp white vinegar or wine

Sprinkling of corn flour to flatten the phyllo

2 lbs (1 kg) spinach

1 bunch dill, minced

1 bunch spring onions, thinly sliced

1 big leek, white part thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

3/4 lb (400 g) feta cheese

2 tbsp olive oil

4 tbsp semolina

Dried oregano to taste

Coarse sea salt (or regular salt) to taste

UTENSILS

1 short and thick rolling pin

1 very long and thin rolling pin

Sieve

Baking dish

Basting brush

DIRECTIONS

  1. Prepare the vegetables by washing and slicing them and crushing the garlic through a garlic press. If the leaves of the spinach are too big, chop them roughly.
  2. Add salt to the spinach and squeeze the spinach with your hands to remove the moisture.
  3. In a big bowl add the spinach, spring onions, garlic, olive oil, leek, oregano, salt, pepper, 2 tablespoons of semolina and crumbled feta and mix them well.
  4. On a large flat surface, add the flour in a mound and make a well.
  5. Add salt, olive oil and white vinegar or wine and mix well as yougradually add water.
  6. Knead the dough with your hands until you have a soft but not sticky dough.
  7. Cut the dough into 4 round pieces.
  8. Take one piece of dough, add some corn flour and press it with the thick rolling pin and flatten it as much as you can, forming a round shape.
  9. Continue the process with the thin rolling pin, adding corn flour when needed. Roll the dough back and forth with the rolling pin until it becomes thin and has a diameter about the length of the rolling pin.
  10. Brush a baking tray with olive oil and sprinkle 2 tbsp semolina.
  11. Lay the phyllo pastry inside. Brush the top with olive oil and lay an additional layer of phyllo pastry.
  12. Preheat the oven to 180°C (356°F).
  13. Add half of the spinach and cheese filling on top of the two phyllo pastries.
  14. Lay the third phyllo pastry and add the rest of the filling.
  15. Fold the four sides of the phyllos (if you see there is too much dough cut it, especially at the corners) so as to cover the surface of the filling.
  16. Lastly add the final layer of phyllo pastry.
  17. Using a knife, make cuts into the phyllo pastry (to release moisture when baking), brush the surface with olive oil and sprinkle some water.
  18. Bake at 356°F in the oven for about 1 hour until the top of your pie is a golden brown color.
  19. Cover your phyllo pie with aluminum foil so it does not burn.
  20. Once the bottom of your pie has also turned a golden brown color, remove the foil to let the top achieve a slightly darker brown color.
  21. Let it cool a bit and serve warm.

Sources

Culinary Cultural Heritage of Greece – The Pie – Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports – Directorate of Modern Cultural Assets and Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Trichopoulou, A. και P. Lagiou (1997), «Healthy Traditional – Mediterranean Diet.  An Expression of Culture, History and Lifestyle», Nutritional Review, 55, 383-389.

You can follow Christina on Instagram or book your very own phylo lesson or gastronomy tour @christina_traveling_spoon

Christina Drangana – Licensed Tourist Guide/ Host of Culinary Experiences