It is common knowledge that tradition and food are well tied together. Especially in Cyprus - or in the Mediterranean as a whole - where we need no reason to cook/bake. Simply, there is always some nose-shattering, finger-liking good in the oven.
The Easter period is no exception. With traditional food ranging from coloured eggs for τσούγκρισμα (tsougkrisma) to thick, golden φλαούνες (flaounes), one cannot dismiss my personal favourite; the sweet bread-like braid - το τσουρέκι (tsoureki).
Thanks to its ever-growing popularity, this tradition has turned into a mass production with bakeries now producing it all year round. Yet nobody makes it sweeter than the hands of my grandmother - as any proud grandchild would say.
Rooted in the cuisines of Europe and Western and Central Asia, it is wildly known in Greece and Cyprus. Tsoureki is also known as λαμπρόψωμο (lampropsomo) whose name derived from a Greek word for Easter: Λαμπρή, meaning 'to bring light' and the word ' ψωμί' (bread). Thus, referring to the light Christians believe to receive by Christ's resurrection. This is what my research has enlightened me with, yet I am certain tsoureki's history is as rich as its taste and that there many more details engraved in its origins.
Tradition says that this braided strands of dough can also be given as an Easter gift from children to their godparents.
Crossed in three strands, each one is believed to represent an aspect of the Holy Trinity and despite the strands being separate, together they form - both literally and metaphorically - a unified whole.
After a year of returning to the island, I now find myself embracing the culture and local music, and by spending time with dear relatives, I begin to treasure tradition more. Through observing my generation's ignorance - dare I say - to preserving such customs (myself included), I decided to ask my grandmother to show me how she makes her famous tsourekia and in this way create cherished memories with this 90-year old soul.
My grandmother, Yiannoulla, has always had her house open for family and in her traditional kitchen she carves up some unforgettable meals. Besides her known γεμιστά (stuffed vegetabes), κουνέλι (rabbit) and πασταφλώρα (jam tart), tsoureki is another of her specialities.
Back in the day she would invite her friend Chrystalla over to help her with the hard kneading of tsoureki. At almost 90, she hasn't touched her tsoureki recipe in a while. Yet we all know that when your granddaughter asks you to bake something together, that smile cracks through her wrinkles, and dough is to be prepared!
My uncles called me crazy for making my grandmother go through this two-day preparation yet I wanted to share this memory with her. We gathered the ingredients which included the aromatic μέχλεπι (machlepi) and μαστίχα (masticha) and followed her vintage-written recipe passed down to her by her mother's sister Efthalia from Constantinople.
Taking into account the craziness that surrounds any Philippou household with crying babies, uncles singing, aunties laughing loudly and dogs roaming around, concentrating on following the recipe was a difficult task.
Not having done this in a few years, my grandmother naturally forgot parts of the recipe and I couldn't decipher her handwriting so, as you can imagine, our tsoureki-making experience was a bit of an experiment yet a lot of fun.
Half way through we realized we had mixed what was meant to be the προζύμι (homemade yeast) with the rest of it. By this point my grandmother had given up and my aunt and I were trying to salvage the situation. Nonetheless, the dough infused with herbs smelt great.
Kneading the dough was hard work, no wonder grandmothers are so tough. Doing what we could from the recipe, we let the dough rest overnight so as to let it rise.
*Tip: Cover the dough with blankets as you let it rest over it. A warm, moist place helps it puff.
The following morning, I ring grandmother to tell her I'll be over soon to braid the dough but never underestimate the excitement of a Cypriot grandmother when she needs to bake something - she had already baked all seven of them.
An interesting, important factor to be added here is that as her 90-year old wise brain is selective nowadays with retaining memory, the tsourekia were left in the oven a tad longer than planned and thus giving them a not-so-golden colour but rather one of a darker palette.
Nonetheless, the appearance of this Easter tradition was not the reason I wanted to do this with my grandmother. Yes the sweet smell of tsourekia can melt my nose away, yet the memories of being in my grandmother's kitchen, wearing her apron and beating that dough while she holds the bowl are to be kept forever.
Well, perhaps until I'm 90 and forget my glasses in the oven.