Kollyva, the Age-old Greek memorial sweet

Where I come from, a woman understands that she has reached a ‘certain age’ when her turn comes to prepare kollyva for departed relatives… Kollyva (or kollyvo) is a sugary pilaf made with wheat-berries, raisins, almonds, walnuts and pomegranate seeds; an absolutely delicious sweetmeat, fragrant with cinnamon and cloves. It is traditionally prepared to mark nine days, forty days, and one year from a beloved person’s death. In the old days, pious women would often make it for All Souls’ Day (the first Saturday of the forty days of Lent and the Saturday before Pentecost) as well as on important saints’ days.

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The closest of kin has the duty to prepare the grains and take a plate to the church or the cemetery to be blessed by a priest during a brief ceremony; then spoonfuls of this symbolic sweet are distributed among the parishioners as well as the relations and friends of the deceased, and the passers-by.

David Sutton, associate professor of socio-cultural anthropology in Southern Illinois University, who spends time on the island of Kalymnos, contributed in 2003 a wonderful piece about kollyva in theSlow (Food) magazine. He begins with what he considers “one of the most potent threats in the arsenal of an angry wife or daughter,“ namely: “when you’re dead, don’t expect me to make kollyva for you!” In his book Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (Berg), Sutton observes that during the memorial liturgy for a recently deceased, ‘the bowl of kollyva is usually placed in front of a picture of the dead person as if he or she were offering it to the attendant congregation.” He supposes that the deceased shows his or her “…food-based generosity,” since the family makes the sweet offering on the dead person’s behalf.

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Those who taste kollyva are not supposed to thank the person who offer it, but instead, make the sign of the cross saying: ‘God forgive his or her sins.” The custom seems somewhat lost today, though.  Recently, as we were walking down the steep path to Hora from the cemetery, after the solemn one-year memorial for my late cousin Leonidas, only an old lady responded properly to our offering, while most people politely thanked us.

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Some scholars say that kollyva was the Christian version of sacrificial food, in contrast to the pagan custom of slaughtering animals to please the gods.  Others will tell you that kollyva (in ancient Greek the word meant “small coin” or “small golden weight,” as well as “small cakes”) is the continuation of polysporia the mixture of grains symbolically offered by ancient Greeks to some of their gods, especially Demeter (Ceres), the goddess of agriculture. The Turkish ashure (or Noha’s pudding) is a similar age-old sweet. The wheat berries are not drained but simmered with sugar, together with beans and chickpeas until the cooking liquid thickens.  Nuts and dried fruits are added, and the soupy ashure is served in bowls, decorated with pomegranate seeds. It solidifies when it cools, like a real pudding.  In Israel and throughout the Middle East I found similar sweets, with the grains cooked in milk and sweetened with honey. Obviously, they all share the same ancient roots.

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In Athens and the other big cities, most women don’t prepare the kollyva at home anymore, but have them made by professionals who cover the wheat with a thick sugar paste and make elaborate decorations, using silver-coated almonds and dragées.  After blessing, portions of the sweet pilaf are handed out in small white paper bags on which is printed a cross and the name of the deceased.

In Mount Athos –the secluded community of monasteries in western Macedonia– the monks make magnificent decorations for their kollyva, producing fabulous ephemeral pictures of their patron saints with colored sugars.  Unfortunately, I have seen only photographs of these extraordinary edible icons because no women are permitted to visit Mount Athos.

The recipe I give you here is my adaptation of the kollyva I learned from Koula Maroupa, from Paros.  Instead of throwing away the cooking liquid, Koula pours it into individual bowls, and refrigerates it after it’s cooled.  It becomes an additional sweet, a delicious jelly full of vital nutrients that can be served sprinkled with cinnamon and a little confectioner’s sugar.

Parsley, which looks somewhat out of place, symbolizes the ‘green pastures’ where the souls rest. Whenever pomegranates are in season, a cup of their seeds adds color and freshness to kollyva. For Greeks, this fruit symbolizes fertility, and we feel we must add it to kollyva gia to kalo” (for good luck).

RecipeKOLLYVA, Sweet Wheat Berry and Nut Pilaf

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