Orlando Gough travels to the Greek island of Seriphos and returns with three recipes - two savory, one sweet - all with the starting point of saffron.
The monk is in the monastery, his monastery you could say - he is the only monk. He chants and he sings. We stand sheepishly just inside the entrance of the katholikon. He swings the censer vigorously, waving the smoke in our direction, and moves through us, still chanting. Who's this for? It's certainly not for us; it seems to be a private audience, him and his God.
We shuffle out of the katholikon and wander off to look round the defunct living quarters, to walk up onto the roofs, to admire the bougainvillaea tree, to enjoy the view of the surrounding islands. A scrawny cat leaps effortlessly from roof to roof, parcour expert. Outside chickens and goats search for food in a compound devoid of vegetation. It is dusk. The sky melts into the sea. The sea is like milk.
We are on the island of Seriphos, one of the Cyclades, at the Monastery of the Taxiarches, which, like many monasteries and churches in Greece, is in the middle of nowhere. That seems to be the point: the further from human life, the nearer to God.
From the boat, the island looks like a brown hunk of rock. It is mountainous, almost treeless, forbiddingly barren. In the south-west, there are the remains of the iron mining industry rusting gantries and machinery and trucks, disused quarries which have been almost completely reclaimed by nature.
At the turn of the twentieth century the iron mines were extremely productive, attracting native and immigrant workers. But there was a human cost. Dangerous conditions and punishing working hours led to fatal accidents.
In 1916 the miners called in Konstatinos Speras, a charismatic anarchist and pioneer of the trade union movement, to help them form a local union. When it became clear that their grievances would be ignored, they went on strike. A warship with a detachment of soldiers was sent to the island.
The lieutenant, Chrysanthos Xanthos (misleadingly winsome name) gave the miners five minutes to disperse, and when they refused, opened fire. Four miners were killed. Xanthos and another officer were lynched and killed. After this incident, conditions improved marginally. The mines finally closed in the 1960s.
There is a statue of Speras on the beach at the village of Megalo Livadi. It's a melancholic place. Half the buildings are abandoned, including the handsome neoclassical headquarters of the mining company.
Abandonment is everywhere. It's not just the monastery, it's not just the mines. All over the island there are vestiges of terracing where once there must have grown grain and olives and lemons and almonds. Scarcely any of it is still used, only a few terraces of prickly pears and some of prostrate vines, from which the island's curious amber-coloured wine is made. In fact, almost all attempts at agriculture have been abandoned. It is an island of rusting agricultural machinery, of disused shepherds' huts, of derelict farmhouses, of empty hillsides.
The only game here is tourism, and most of the people who are servicing the tourists don't even live here; they scarper back to the mainland at the end of September and don't reappear till May. All the food comes by ferry.
But the island has a stark beauty: the white white houses, the brown brown rock, the blue blue sea. Above the port, Livadi, is one of the most beautiful towns I've ever seen, Chora, which spills off the hillside like sugar cubes tossed from a bowl.
And out on the mountainside, in amongst a low scrub of dry prickly olive-ochre vegetation which smells of curry and rum and aniseed, there is, apparently growing straight out of the rock, a glorious piece of magic: tiny wild crocus plants, and inside them their stigmas - saffron. Bend down, and there is that distinctive smell: honey, metal, grass, hay.
Curiously enough, Greek cooks seem reluctant to use saffron. I'm not.
White Bean Soup (Fasolia) with Saffron (serves 4)
200g dry white beans haricot or cannellini
5 cloves garlic
3 bay leaves
6 thyme branches
4 tbsp olive oil
10 sage leaves
1 medium onion, finely chopped
400g tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped
a generous pinch of saffron (about 40 strands, if you can be bothered to count)
salt and pepper
Cover the beans generously with water and soak overnight.
Next day, pour off the soaking water and cover with 2 litres of fresh water. Add three of the garlic cloves, peeled and left whole, the bay leaves, the thyme and a tablespoonful of the olive oil. Bring to the boil, add a teaspoon of salt, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer at a blip for about an hour, till the beans are soft but not mushy. Strain, reserving the broth.
Put the rest of the oil in a saucepan, add the sage leaves, the other two garlic cloves, finely chopped, and cook gently for a minute or two. Add the onion and cook for ten minutes, till soft. Add the tomatoes, the saffron and 1.5 litres of the broth. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the beans and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove the thyme branches. Season with salt and pepper.
Good the next day in fact better the next day.
And delicious with some clams or cockles added for the last five minutes of cooking..
Chicken Kebabs with Saffron (serves 4)
generous pinch of saffron
1 small onion, grated
juice of 2 lemons
80g Greek yoghurt
3 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
600g boneless chicken thighs, cubed
Warm the saffron over a gentle heat until it is brittle. Crush it with your fingers, and dissolve it in 2 tablespoonfuls of warm water for 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix together the onion, the lemon juice, the saffron and its water, the yoghurt, the oil.Season with salt and pepper. Add the cubed chicken, mix well, and leave for at least two hours, preferably overnight.
Thread the chicken on to skewers and grill for about 10 minutes, turning regularly.
Serve with some olives, a herb salad and warm pitta bread.
Cheese and Honey Pie with Saffron (serves 8)
This is based on a recipe from Siphnos, the island next to Seriphos.
generous pinch of saffron
200g plain flour
350g ricotta (on Siphnos it would be myzthra, a fresh cheese made from sheep or goat's milk)
100g runny honey
50g caster sugar
4 eggs, beaten
Heat the oven to 200C. Dissolve the saffron threads in two tablespoonfuls of warm water for 10 minutes.
Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour (or whizzing them together in a blender); add a few tablespoonfuls of water, and mix well. The mixture should just hold together. Butter a large tart tin, roll out the pastry, put it into the tin, trim the edges, prick a few holes with a fork, and bake it blind for 12 minutes.
Work the cheese and the honey together in a bowl. Add the sugar, the beaten eggs and the saffron and its water.
Take the pastry from the oven, pour in the cheese and honey mixture. Lower the oven temperature to 160C, and bake. Check after 20 minutes. The filling should be just, but only just set.
Sprinkle the top with a little ground cinnamon.
Words by Orlando Gough. Imagery by Kim Lightbody.