September 14 is the day the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the discovery of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. According to Greek religious myths, fragrant basil was the plant growing around the Holy Cross, a sign that allowed Saints Constantine and Helen to distinguish Jesus’ cross from among the many others in the area. To commemorate the event, women bring pots of aromatic small-leafed basil plants that they have grown with much care all through the summer to the church on the eve of the holiday.
In church, sprigs of basil on a basket with the gold-decorated ceremonial cross.
Athanasia, my late mother in law, nurtured all summer her tiny-leafed basil –our traditional variety— irrigating it twice every day, and carefully clipping the early blossoms. She managed to shape her plant into a perfect, large sphere, which she proudly offered to the church on September 14. Thinking about her and her beautiful potted basil –which we never managed to recreate– I went to the church this morning expecting to find many similarly well-cared pots. But there was not even one pot! Just sprigs of basil on the basket with the gold-decorated ceremonial cross. Women bended and kissed the cross, helping themselves to a sprig of basil, which, being blessed, is believed to possess secret powers; among them the ability to make the bread rise…
Margarita Marouli, our neighbor, made the basil and marigold garland for the icons.
Greek women believe that bread rises by divine intervention. If you tell them that a batter of flour and water will ferment from the various airborne microorganisms if left for a few days, they refuse to believe it. They are certain that only the direct power of God can turn a mere flour batter into a leavening medium. This is the reason why prozymi –the natural sourdough starter used in traditional baking– is usually made on September 14, or near the end of Holy Week, preceding Easter. On both occasions, either basil sprigs or other flowers are added to the water and flour mixture. If the prozymi is started around Easter, it contains a handful of the flowers that have been used to decorate the Epitaphios—a representation of Jesus’ coffin, which is paraded through the streets in the solemn funeral-like procession on Good Friday evening. But more commonly the dough is mixed on September 14, the Day of the Cross, with a sprig of basil taken from the bunch in the basket that the priest has blessed, and sprinkled with holy water.
Basil from the church is used for the year’s sour-dough starter. Bread, blessed by the priest, is always distributed to the congregation after the liturgy.
Much secrecy surrounds the making of prozymi. I have asked women on various islands to describe the process and received only vague answers: “You mix a few handfuls of flour with some lukewarm water, add the blessed basil or the Epitaphios flowers and, because the mixture is blessed, after a while”—they never say how long exactly —“the mixture starts to develop little bubbles. Then you gradually add flour for the next couple of days, and your prozymi is ready.” Peasant and educated women alike insist that without the blessed additions, the mixture of flour and water will not ferment.
Experimenting with my prozymi, I tried adding sprigs of basil and different flowers to the mixture of flour and water, thinking that they might speed up the process of fermentation, as do grapes. Basil made no difference, but some of the flowers did. Wild marigolds, and the purple flowers of a gigantic thistle that looks like a miniature artichoke, and a few others seemed to somewhat quicken the fermentation. The dried flowers of hops, the plant used in beer-making, worked wonders, but I found that the hops starter does not last long.
The fact is that most island women who still keep the tradition and bake bread regularly have almost forgotten when they first started their prozymi or who gave them the initial piece of dough starter. Each time they bake they keep a handful of the bread dough in the refrigerator. One or two days before baking again, they add flour and water this piece of soured dough, bringing it to life again, before they incorporate it to the new bread dough.