The night is still dark and outside it is a silent – the early morning period when there is a stillness in the air, the distractions that come during the daytime are far away and a tranquil peace lies over the sleeping village. But already the lights in the bakery of the village are shining, and there are promises of delights to come. Wiping the sleep from my eyes I step into the bakers world…
Kostas is already hard at work. With the air of someone who has done this a thousand times, he goes through the same ritual, relaxed and at ease in his realm, with a speed of movement that is quite astonishing. Each bread mix is prepared before it is emptied onto the floured table. Chopping, weighing and finally a quick roll over a floured surface and, as if by magic, a line of perfectly formed, soft, smooth bread doughs appear before my eyes. My own attempts not only take five times as long, but end with crudely shaped impersonations. In the hands of a master however, everything looks so simple.
But it’s not only the speed and grace of the work which makes me stare somewhat spellbound. Above all it is the passion and care of the daily ritual at the bakery of the village. You can see the pride that Kostas takes with each and every task. “Imagine every house in the village will be eating this bread this evening” – the community and the village is in his blood.
Kostas was born and raised in Zitsa, a village some 30kms outside Ioannina. His father started the bakery after the previous baker in the village retired. But although his life revolves around the village, his mind is constantly searching for innovation. He has been hosting travellers in his house for the last 8 years. Usually it’s through online sites which offer hospitality and cultural exchange to travellers: Couchsurfing, BeWelcome, Warm Showers, Hospitality Club. At other times perhaps he finds a traveller on a road in the area, stops to chat and invites them to his home; or a cyclist or backpack laden wanderer will arrive in the village unexpectedly and find themselves with a bed for the night and a home cooked meal.
It is a mentality which you do not often find in a small village, something which is so basic to humanity and to life, to be able to share with other human beings, to teach and to learn, without asking for anything in return. To be open to new possibilities, not afraid of the unknown. And this attitude has clearly permeated into the very life-blood of the village. The rest of the residents have become so accustomed to seeing strangers and foreigners that they will inevitably direct anyone towards the bakery if they appear to be lost, even if they are in fact not.
Kostas estimates that over 500 guests have come and gone since he first started hosting travellers. It’s how he met his American wife, Anna, who quit the fast life of a lawyer in New York, and moved to this small, but very much living village. Since then she has opened a beautiful little book shop a stones-throw from the bakery – she calls it a literary and creative community centre. Inside is an eclectic collection of new, used and rare books from all over the world, in many different languages. And almost all of them were given as donations. She hosts events for children, invites travellers to give presentations, and is building something new and different – the Zitsa Bookgarden is the first bookshop in the 800-year history of the small, 500-person village. Check out the website here and feel free to send some books 🙂
Together with Kostas’ mother Vassiliki, Kostas and Anna run the bakery which, as far as I can tell, acts as a hub for the village, a meeting point and for me, the very heart and soul of a living Greek village.
There is something so comforting as you open the door, an invitation to the senses: the rich smell of freshly baked bread which greets you; the sight of crispy, golden loaves, cheese loaded specialties, sesame crusted goodies and mounds of homemade biscuits; the sound of laughter and conversation – every local greeted with a smile; the feel of the warm bread in your hands; and of course the most important…the taste. A complexity of sweet, savoury, crunchy and soft, and the best sour dough loaf I’ve tasted!
But it’s not just the everyday baked goods of a village bakery.
Kostas is always creating, taking a recipe and changing something to create new innovative delicacies to tickle the taste-buds. Perhaps something which is fundamentally rooted in American cuisine inspired by Anna’s background, or an idea from a traveller who passes through. The first time I visited I made a focaccia, and the next time I came back he was serving a new specialty – sour dough focaccia, topped with creamy sheep’s feta and sundried tomatoes. Different tastes and ingredients from all over the world are mixed and blended, intimately linking chemistry and cooking – it is the experiment of flavours.
And meanwhile Vassiliki prepares sweets, pies, and traditional homecooked food with the typical assurance of a Greek lady. No recipes needed here, no measurements – it’s all stored and locked away inside her brain, the eyes and the hands are able to weigh everything.
It is here, in a village visited by Lord Byron, that I have spent a wonderful two weeks. He came here in 1809 and was inspired to write a poem. My hosts have allowed me to indulge my own creativity in the kitchen.
The vagabond cook has been reborn anew here in Zitsa.
Anna has taken to calling me her personal chef, giving me leave to create whatever my heart desires, as long as it’s vegetarian and preferably contains chocolate! And every day with Kostas we have a new idea, a novel recipe, or we tweak something in one of the bread doughs, adding an ingredient here, taking a concept and changing it. I recognise in him the same enthusiasm and insatiable desire to create, in his eyes the same glint, an identical gleam of excitement that comes with a freshly conceived idea. The moment of anticipation as we open the oven to reveal a completely new creation. An approving nod of the head, or sometimes a slightly puzzled look if the experiment hasn’t quite gone according to plan. Words are not always necessary.
And then there is the ritual. Whether it is the same fresh bread he makes every day, or one of the many new concoctions, there is a common phenomenon which unfalteringly occurs: Kostas closes his eyes and inhales, slowly savouring the smell, a look of complete peace, almost intoxication written on his face as the aromas are logged, savoured and stored. This is a man who lives and breathes the bakery, and feeds the village with his passion.
And his hands and heart shape everything.
To see some recipes follow the links: