So 2020 has finally taken itself off; shuffling away belligerently in its slippers and scruffy tracky bottoms… Only to be replaced by 2021; seemingly a nastier, more insidious version of itself. We are all braced for more rules and regulations.
Back in March 2020, for those of us fortunate enough to avoid any of the real disasters of Coronavirus, there was a sort of weird enchantment with the whole ‘lockdown’ thing. Some got caught up in an almost group determination to make the most of all this free time. There were those hell-bent on starting something akin to triathlon training; wild swimming seems to have become the rule, rather than the exception. And then there was that much-neglected hinterland to nurture, with reading and, possibly even writing…
When you’d done with all that, you could always develop a new skill … painting perhaps or baking? Everyone seemed to be nurturing a sourdough monster.
For me, at least, what became really obvious is that self-motivation is incredibly hard. Never mind triathlon training and creativity, I was finding it really tricky to get enthusiastic about cooking. Hang on… let me clarify that ….I cook every day and I love it. It’s just that cooking for the same two people day after day becomes a bit repetitive…Even a signed-up foody like me, faded with the seriousness of what was happening around us. Images of ‘fiddling’ and ‘Rome burning’ were truly difficult to ignore; exploring elaborate new recipes seemed more than a tad irrelevant.
In 2020 I hardly touched my ‘celebrity chef’ cookbooks. Who wants foams, food stacks and swirling sauces when the world seems to be narrowly dodging Armageddon? At home, it was mainly a year of tried and tested recipes. That much-loved tasty, familiar, comfort food, with the occasional resurrection of some real old favourites. Then towards the end of the Summer, inspiration came from an unexpected but curiously appropriate source.
‘Woke ‘for 1,200 years
Anyone interested in Greek cuisine will be aware of the culinary tradition of the monastic community of Mount Athos. For those not familiar, this is a self-governing, monastic republic situated on a mountainous peninsular in north-eastern Greece. It is home to 20 monasteries, with some 2,000 monks living there and it is a seriously spiritual place. But in recent years, the diet of the monks of Mount Athos has become the focus of wider interest. Let’s face it, these monks have been ‘woke’ for the best part of 1200 years. They live on a mainly ‘plant-based’ diet – they cultivate their own vegetables, olive oil, and wine. Although they don’t eat meat at all, they do eat fish and a little dairy produce, But of course, as much as they need to feed the body, for the monks, feeding the soul through abstinence and fasting is just as important. For about half the year they only eat pulses and vegetables and olive oil is left out.
Some years ago, this extreme combination of the Mediterranean and 5:2 diet came to the attention of health gurus. Research suggested that the monks lived longer and had fewer of the diseases of modern society. A book, ‘The Mount Athos Diet’ was published (not by the monks) and for a while, it really became a bit of a thing.
Out of all the international attention, one of the monks gained a certain amount of fame in culinary circles. Brother Epiphanios took holy orders in 1973 when he was 18, and the kitchen quickly became the place that he felt he could serve the community best. As a small boy, he had loved to help his mother cooking – he was always standing near her, watching, and learning. His father had had his own vineyard and Epiphanios helped him too, acquiring all the skills of viticulture.
Over the next 47 years, Brother Epiphanios established a real gastronomic culture at Mount Athos – but always within the dietary rules of the monastery. Famous international chefs wanted to learn his techniques and recipes. He took over the monastery’s Mylopotamos Vineyard and developed it into an award-winning winery. In 2008 a cookbook was published – it has been translated into eight languages. He cooked at conferences and food exhibitions and on TV. He became an esteemed member of the Hellenic Chef’s Association and the World Association of Chefs.
Very sadly, in the final month of 2020, at the age of 64, Brother Epiphanios passed away- not from Covid19 but from a cancer that he had been battling for some time.
Last summer I managed to get hold of a magazine version of his summer cookery. And for the first time in ages, I was really inspired and Epiphanios’ food has become a bit of an obsession. In some ways, there’s something curiously appropriate about cooking ‘monastic’ food in our semi-hermit times.
‘Preparing and sharing food is an act of love.’
But don’t be under any misapprehensions, there is not much penance involved here. These are recipes that are simultaneously robust and delicate, celebrating all the glorious produce of the seasons. Above all, Brother Epiphanios’ sensitivity and joy shine through in his cooking. The dishes are, in some ways, simple – you don’t have an Ottolenghi- length list of ingredients to find – but they are truly clever and refined. In his instructions, Epiphanios stresses not only the importance of the freshness and quality of the food ingredients but also that other essential ingredient, love for the people that you are cooking for. In an interview with the journalist Margarita Pournara in 2019 he said,
‘For us Orthodox Christians, preparing and sharing food is an act of love. Through each part of the process, sourcing the ingredients, the preparation, the cooking, the serving up, you must have in your mind who you are making it for. The people that you love. It is so important to see their faces light up with the first mouthful.’
True words of wisdom.
It was always unlikely that I would ever sample Brother Epiphanios’ food – for one thing, women are not allowed to visit Mount Athos. But I would have loved to see him managing his pots over his wood fire and to taste his cooking, but it was not to be.
His recipes, his love, and his legacy live on to sustain us.
My thanks go to articles and images from Kathimerini, Lifo, Greece Is, and Greek Reporter