Glyka tou Koutaliou
(Cypriot fruit preserves)
Taste can trigger memories of gastronomic pleasures, colors and aromas of our childhood. One of my fondest memories is spending a good part of my summer school holidays at my aunt’s village, situated at the foothills of the evergreen Troodos forest. She would welcome us with a piece of bergamot orange sweet, served on a delicate, silver, two-pronged fork, dipped in a glass of cold water. I can still taste the fragrant – like sweet smelling flowers – taste and the slightly crunchy bergamot peel in my mouth. To this day, the taste and smell of bergamot takes me back to my childhood’s summer holidays.
We Cypriots are renowned for our hospitality and we welcome a guest at our home with a variety of food and drinks. However, there is a colorful sweet, always at hand in any proper, traditional Cypriot home, which has long been linked with hospitality and welcoming: glyko tou koutaliou, a type of fruit preserve whose roots go back to ancient times.
For centuries, preservation was a necessary part of the harvest – it was the only way to make excess fresh fruits and vegetables last for as long as possible. Based on historic references, we know that the most common preservation methods included sun-drying fruits and vegetables or preserving them in either honey or grape molasses (petimezi), which usually involved first boiling the fruit.
The preparation of the spoon sweets is similar to that of marmalade. The fruits are slowly, gently boiled in water and sugar, over several hours or days, until the syrup sets. When the sweet is ready, after cooling completely, it is stored in sterilized jars. If the syrup is set properly, no refrigeration is necessary and the sweets can last for months. Cypriot spoon sweets can be made from almost any fruit, vegetable, nut or fruit peel and the sweets are often flavored with, vanilla, cinnamon and Rose Geranium leaves (Pelargonium graveolens). The list is endless: Cherries, quince, figs, watermelon peel, grapefruit peel, orange and lemon peel, bergamot peel (the bitter Seville orange that cannot be eaten raw), apple, apricots, baby aubergines, tomatoes, garlic, carrots, pumpkins and even walnuts stuffed with almonds. You probably think how something as hard as walnuts can become a sweet. The unripen walnuts are harvested before they harden, while they are still soft and green. However, after the preservation process, the unripe, green, walnuts will turn black.
When the sweets are consumed the left-over syrup in the jar can be used for other purposes: as topping for your homemade ice cream (you can sprinkle it with nuts as well), to wet a sponge cake, to add flavor to a Christmas cake or to mix it with yogurt and nuts and have if for breakfast.
Cypriot housewives made sure that no food was thrown away. In times of surplus production, preserving fruits, nuts and vegetables with sugar and turning them into sweets or jams helped them store food for difficult times and created an additional income for the household since these sweets could be sold to others or during a traditional fair. These practices also led to the creation of a number of Women’s Traditional Product Cooperatives that give the opportunity to women to further their entrepreneurial skills and create small businesses.
Glyka tou koutaliou are suitable for vegans; they do not contain fat and have fewer calories than any other type of sweets.
When in Cyprus try a Cypriot spoon sweet, especially the walnut that is considered the king of the Cypriot sweets. Along the Heartland of Legends, there are villages that specialize in a particular type of fruit sweet. The village of Trimiklini specializes in the production of the walnut sweet as well as the Monastery of St. Heraklidios in the Lefkosia (Nicosia) District. In Agros and Lania there are Cypriot spoon sweets workshops, where you can see the cooking process, taste and buy an assortment of fruit sweets either in jars or vacuum packed that are easier to carry.
If you really want to treat your guests the Cypriot way, then make sure not only to bring back with you an assortment of Cypriot spoon sweets, but also to buy the suitable cutlery to serve them the traditional way, namely the silver two-pronged forks.
Kali orexi (Enjoy)!