There was a time, probably not so common now, that ‘visits’ (επισκέψεις) to a Greek home followed a series of conventions that, in some ways, were almost rituals. The visitors would be entertained in the ‘salóni’ – a room a bit like the British ‘front room’ -a place that the family rarely set foot in. It was decorated with whatever finery possessed and furnished with formal, and usually uncomfortable furniture. In the winter the rugs would be brought out of summer storage,adding a background aroma of mothballs to the ambiance. In the scorching heat of summer, the couches and chairs would wear cotton covers, to protect the upholstery from the damaging effects of bright sunlight, dust and also would be cooler to sit on than heavy brocade or velvet.
‘What can I treat you to?’ (‘Τι να σας κεράσω;) would be the hostess’ question and, once having established wether you took your greek coffee sweet, medium, or plain – or maybe you prefer a little liqueur? (ένα λικεράκι). More likely than not, she would then bring a small tray with a tiny cup of thick, black coffee, a thimbleful of vivid-coloured, slightly antique liqueur and, glistening, jewel-like, on a cut glass saucer, a spoonful of syrup-preserved fruit. This is not jam, as it sometimes referred to by the unknowing, this is a ‘spoon sweet’ – γλυκό του κουταλιού.
Most cultures have a history of preserving the bounty of the summer to enrich the dark days of winter. In past times this was, of course, vital for survival – not just for variety. In Britain we have a tradition of preserving – making jams, chutneys and pickles. In Greece things are not so very different, although it is safe to say that chutney is not part of the culinary consciousness, the art of laying down fruits in the form of these ‘spoon sweets’ has a long and enduring tradition. The incredible variety of these preserves says a lot about the resourcefulness of Greek cooks – preserving is not confined to just summer produce, and not confined to fruit alone – there is nearly always something that is worth the effort of turning into one of these sweets.
The more common ones ,of course, are the ones made from apricots, strawberries and cherries.The really gorgeous ones though, are those made from something a little more interesting. Nothing, but nothing captures the heady days of early summer like strips of rose petal conserved in rosy syrup. There is pure magic in the little peridot pieces of preserved fresh pistachio nuts. On the island of Kos, the plum tomatoes (the variety preferred by its one-time Italian governors) is used to make a spoon sweet that has an almost caramel quality – completely throwing off any savoury suggestions. And for the very dedicated cooks, there is nothing that shows off their skill and patience more than ‘nerantzi’ spoon sweet. The peel of seville oranges is carefully removed from the fruit in strips, then these strips are painstakingly coiled up and threaded together. These garlands of citrus peel are then preserved – a process that takes several days. The result though is glorious – capturing the zest of bitter oranges for us to enjoy throughout the year.
Courgettes and aubergines, pumpkins, grapes and figs are all successful candidates for the purpose of preserving as spoon sweets; I love making one from kumquats at Christmas. Kumquats are readily available in most supermarkets at this time of year and the pretty jars of mini orange fruits make lovely presents. The difference always between these sweets and jam, is that the fruit should be kept as whole as possible; a little piece of nature suspended in syrup.
Although the rituals of visits have been diluted as time goes by, the popularity of spoon sweets continues – though they have had a bit of a rebranding of late as yogurt toppings. For me though, they always conjure up an image of a Greece that is not the Greece of package holidays and charter flights, but is the Greece of a polite and respectful visit – a refreshing glass of water and a spoonful of sweetness.
Kumquat Spoon Sweet – this is adapted from a recipe by the ‘Delia’ of Greece, Vefa Alexiàdou
NOTE – although the actual cooking time is 1hr 15mins, you need to allow 7 days for allowing each step to stand and cool – And despite it looking complicated, it is worth the effort!
1 kg fresh kumquats
1.5 kg sugar
250ml golden syrup
Day One – Rinse the kumquats, and prick each one several times – I find that stabbing them with a wooden skewer does the trick! Put them into a large pan and cover with water and cook for 40mins and then drain. Put the fruit back in the pan and pour in 1 litre of water and then leave it to stand in a cool place for 24 hours.
Day Two – Remove the kumquats from the water, put to one side. Add 750 gms of the sugar to the soaking liquid and bring to the boil, stirring it to make sure the sugar dissolves. Allow the mixture to boil for 5 minutes, without stirring. Now return the fruit to the pan, remove from the heat and allow the mixture to stand again for 24 hours.
Day Three – Divide the remaining sugar into 4 amounts (187.5 grams each). Again remove the kumquats, putting them to one side. Put the first of these smaller amounts of sugar into the pan, bring to the boil until the sugar has dissolved. Return the fruit to the pan and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Again allow to stand for 24 hours.
Day Four – Repeat the process of removing the fruit and adding the next amount of sugar, boiling until it dissolves. Then returning the fruit to the syrup, boiling for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Allow to stand for 24 hours.
Day Five – Repeat the above process.
Day Six – Repeat the above process.
Day Seven – Do not remove the kumquats from the syrup just add the golden syrup. Cook for about 10 15 minutes making sure, of course, that the syrup doesn’t caramelise or burn. Remove from the heat.
Allow the kumquats to cool in the syrup, gently shaking the pan from time to time.
When the mixture is cool, transfer t sterilised jars and seal.