Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sweets From the Land Where West Meets East

I’ve eaten a lot of baklava over the years. It’s one of my guilty pleasures, although it can be hard to find where I live. Baklava is a sweet treat made from multi-layered phyllo pastry, nuts, fruits, syrups and honey. It has been part of Greek, Turkish, Cypriot and Arab cuisine for centuries, although recipes for it have evolved as time went by. I tasted baklava for the first time at the home of a Greek Cypriot friend when I was a teenager. It was served in tiny diamond shapes. The beautifully flaky phyllo pastry rendered it incredibly light and the concentrated filling made with ground nuts, enhanced by the layers of syrup poured over it made it incredibly sweet and delicious. Since then baklava is my special treat of choice – when I can find it.

The only thing is, no baklava ever really measured up to stuff that my friend and her mom made all those years ago, except once when I found a tiny Cypriot bakery tucked in the back streets of a town in the north of England. But last week all that changed. I visited Athens for the first time and discovered baklava like I had never tasted before.

Baklava is believed to have been developed by the Assyrians back in the 8th century, but it is the Greeks, more specifically the Athenians, who are credited with incorporating the lighter pastry into its construction. Originally the Assyrians made it with a much heavier dough, almost like a bread dough. “Phyllo” means “leaf” in Greek – and the many-leaved pastry is what makes baklava so light – but it is the nuts I love. Chopped very finely or ground, they make this sweet treat something incredibly special. However I learned on my visit to Athens last week that actually I knew very little about baklava. In fact, there are almost more versions of baklava than you could possibly imagine.

Greek people are famous for their hospitality, so it should have come as no surprise to me that their portions are generous. However even I was surprised when the first baklava I ordered (at the Orizontes café at the top of Lycabettus Hill) came in a slice the size of a piece of pie. I was used to the tiny morsels served in western countries, and this portion was the size of about ten of those, (Thank goodness my husband and I had decided to share.) Not only that, but it came garnished with ice cream and drizzled with caramel sauce. Mmm – three of my favourite things on the same plate – this was looking good.

And oh my goodness, it was. Walnuts and pistachios had been blended together in this confection in very generous portions. In fact if I had scraped all the nuts out of the baklava we were served I am sure there would have been about half a cupful. This was a festival of nuts, offset by delicious Greek honey and layer upon layer of pastry. Delicious.

Various forays into little tavernas and visits to the odd bakery (okay, I probably ate too much baklava, but it was in the name of research) led me to realise that baklava comes in all shapes and sizes, and can contain everything from nuts to dried fruits and even coconut. Most people are passionate when they talk about the baklava they make or serve. One man said that they only used goat and sheep’s milk to make their baklava (which kind of horrified me as I’m a bit funny about stuff like that, but in truth their baklava was delicious). Another explained to me that the reason some of the baklava we get in England is not quite the same – I’m talking the packaged stuff that you buy in store, not from speciality bakeries – is that it is a dry version of the original. This helps it to keep better for shipping. Come to think of it, some of the pre-packaged baklava I have bought in the past did have awfully long shelf life dates stamped on it. In fact, it was all beginning to make a lot more sense. I have purchased fresh syrup-soaked baklava in the beautiful Harrods’ food halls in London before, and it was always displayed in a refrigerated case. The shop staff always say that if you are not going to eat it straight away, you should refrigerate it too but to definitely eat in within a couple of days. There is no way something that has sat on a shelf for a couple of months can compete with that.

It certainly explained why I loved the baklava in Athens so much – it was definitely fresh - with lots of honey and syrups. In fact, I found that some varieties of baklava in Athens actually contain more fruit than nuts, gorgeous plump dried fruits, syrup-soaked to the point of saturation. My husband ordered one of these at Dionysos, a restaurant in the shadow of the Acropolis. He likened it to Christmas pudding, and when I tasted it I could see where he was coming from. The dried fruits outnumbered the nuts and they were absolutely sodden with spiced syrup. I could taste cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. There was less pastry in this version, but it was still incredibly delicious. Once again it was served with ice cream, but this time surrounded by crème anglaise and caramel.

Since I got home, I’ve been talking to lots of people about baklava, and it turns out I’m not the only one who loves it. In fact, most major cities, including London, Chicago and New York, have bakeries that make their own version of the real thing. Fans of baklava are passionate about their favourite source, and I have actually heard arguments break out over the subject of where you can get the best baklava outside of Europe and the Middle East. As for me, I have learned that while baklava may come in a myriad of different guises, it is still one of my favourite treats. Whether nuts or fruit prevail, the combination of layer upon layer of light flaky pastry, delicious fillings and mouth-watering syrups is something I can’t help but love – and I’m definitely in very good company when it comes to that!