Greek monastic food gets cookbook treatment
By DEREK GATOPOULOS
Associated Press Writer
Posted: Aug. 1, 2008
MOUNT ATHOS, Greece In a secluded Orthodox
Christian sanctuary, the phone is ringing again
for Father Epifanios Milopotaminos.
Ever since he wrote a cookbook sharing his
secrets for feeding his fellow monks,
Milopotaminos' cell phone rings constantly with
requests to speak at seminars, appear on
television and do cooking demonstrations.
He's an unlikely candidate for sudden celebrity;
in the nearly four decades since he took charge
of cooking on the secluded Mount Athos sanctuary,
little about what he does has changed.
"It's the same way meals were prepared 100 years
ago, or 50 years ago," Epifanios says of the
meat- and dairy-free diet, much of it cooked over
a log fire. "It's a clean diet that people once
ate across the eastern Mediterranean."
This year he shared that diet, collecting 126 of
his recipes in a book that provides a rare
glimpse into life in this community of some 1,500
monks in 20 monasteries that strictly limits
outside access, including barring women.
And people appear to like what they see.
"People are curious because we use different
ingredients and different methods," he says.
Epifanios already has appeared on a popular Greek
cooking show and his publisher, Synchronoi
Ozizontes, says the leather-bound cookbook has
sold 12,000 copies, a healthy figure for the local market.
Athens nutrition scientist Paraskevas
Papachristou says books such as Father Epifanios'
get a great deal of attention because Greeks generally want to eat healthier.
Whether people actually make the recipes is
another matter. Papachristou says the interest is
at odds with an overall trend away from
Mediterranean diets because people cook less and eat more convenience foods.
Published in April, "Cooking on Mount Athos" (so
far available only in Greek) offers
unpretentious, tasty recipes. Don't expect
arugula with balsamic vinegar. Rather, lots of
chickpeas and bitter wild greens.
"Monks at Mount Athos don't eat meat," says
Epifanios. "The word butter is never mentioned in
the book, and we don't add flour to thicken
sauces. We just let the ingredients boil down."
Epifanios' catalog of recipes is divided into
seafood - with and without backbones, according
to different fasting categories - or vegetables.
No desserts at the Holy Mountain.
Slow cooking suits the heavily bearded monks, who
rise well before dawn and spend much of their day in prayer.
"We have a lot of time, without families, wives
and children to tend to," Epifanios says.
"Everyone has a secondary job. One monk may be a
librarian, another may write books, or make
wooden carvings, or weave prayer knots, or be an
icon painter, an incense maker, a winemaker, or a cook," he says.
Unlike the typical Greek priest, Mount Athos
monks have a ruffled appearance, many with hands
hardened from manual labor. They often can been
spotted on the mountainous peninsula driving a tractor or a worn-out van.
Dinner, and its unhurried preparation, is where
the talking takes place. Monks, migrant workers
and guests sit around Epifanios' table peeling
potatoes, slicing vegetables and topping up
glasses with monastery made-wine or the potent grape-residue spirit, tsipouro.
On special occasions, it's the same food made on
a much larger scale. The monks use two hefty
wooden poles to place pots more than a yard wide onto outdoor fires.
Epifanios - who calls himself a cook, not a chef
- says his meals are rooted as much in centuries
old church practices as in common sense.
Unfashionable ingredients such as broad beans,
artichokes and okra, which many older Greeks
still associate with poverty and often are
ignored by the young, remain staples here.
"People are less in touch with their natural
surroundings nowadays," Epifanios says. "They
used to eat what they found around them and what they could gather.
"Now they try Chinese, Indian food, and dishes
from - I don't know - Finland before they realize
that what they really liked all along was the
meals their grandmother made them."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.