Cooking with Eleni

Greek food is the absolute best. Using the freshest of ingredients, locally-grown products, aromatic herbs and tangy spices, there is nothing that compares to this harbinger of the Mediterranean diet. Every Greek woman has her own way of making traditional recipes–those “secret” tips that make her cuisine unique.

And this especially applies to my cousin, Eleni Koniditsiotis Kostakos, born in Amykles and now residing in Agios Ioannis. Because I offered to help one afternoon as she was preparing dinner, I finally, finally learned her secret to making meatballs that are soft yet firm.

The secret ingredient? Olive oil in the meat. It provides the “glue” to hold the meat, bread crumbs and other ingredients together and to keep the meatballs from falling apart.

Making the mixture; notice the puree of red onion and garlic

In this bowl are (no measurements): ground beef, dry bread crumbs as well as stale bread which has been rolled between our hands to make crumbs, a puree of garlic and red onions (this prevents chunks which cause the meatballs to crack), eggs, salt, pepper, basil and cumin. I was surprised that there was no oregano, but I might try adding some. And of course, olive oil. Lots of it! Squish everything together and start rolling the meatballs. I was surprised at how smooth they were, and that’s the secret to keep them from falling apart while cooking.

Next step: fry in lots of extra-virgin Greek olive oil! They are delicious served as-is, or in a homemade tomato sauce.

Speaking of olive oil, there is nothing like fresh-pressed oil found in every Greek home. Eleni’s family, like most in Sparta, have olive trees. The olives are beginning to grow now, and are harvested in early winter, November-December.

Baby olives

The harvest is a task that is done by hand, not machine, and the entire family works together. Preparation begins early. Last week, Eleni washed the nets which are spread under the trees to catch the fruit. She then stretched them out to dry.

Washing the olive nets


Drying the olive nets

Every village has a processing plant where the oil is extracted; smaller settlements will bring their olives to the closest one. Families keep enough for their own use and may sell their surplus. I love Eleni’s olives. Unlike those sold in stores, hers are not kept in brine, but are packed in oil which makes them sweet, not bitter.

Eleni’s olives and oil. You can tell by the dark green color that this oil is the first-press, or extra virgin.

Now I have to figure out how to get bottles like these home!


Papa Georgiou’s Family Tree

I always enjoy talking with the priests who pop in and out of the room where I am working. Many are young and will spend a couple of years at the Sparta Mitropolis before they are assigned to a church. Others may spend a lifetime in service there. One of the longest serving priests in the Mitropolis is Papa Georgiou. For 50 years, he has daily and faithfully fulfilled his responsibilities and served five different Bishops. His eyes are kind, he is gentle, and he has maintained the Orthodox tradition of not cutting his hair or beard after being ordained a priest (today, priests can choose whether or not to follow this pattern).

One day when Papa Georgiou stopped by to say hello, we talked (using lots of hand gestures due to my broken Greek) about the importance of the digitization project — to preserve marriage records and eventually make them available to researchers around the world. Amazingly, my message was understood and his eyes lit up. With much enthusiasm, he began talking rapidly about his family and the research he had done. I had a hard time following him and must have looked a bit confused. He said he had something to show me.

He left the room, and returned with a scroll. As he began to unroll it, I could see he needed help. I held one end and continued to move backwards until it was fully unwound. I was truly speechless when I realized the scroll documented his family history research, and it stretched about 20 feet!

Papa Georgiou unrolls his family tree scroll, June 2018

Papa Georgiou has worked on his family history throughout his life. Yet, even though he has access to any and all records that are available in Sparta, he could go back no further than his great-grandfather, Konstandinos Blathras born 1790, died 1881. That’s about the time frame where most of us are brick-walled as well.

Papa Georgiou did not limit his research to Greece. He has family in America and traveled there many times to visit and gather the names of his kin. I was surprised to see that the data was typed in English. He explained that his nephew in America entered all his research into a computer and had the scroll printed. A perfect blend of old and new (a pattern I see everywhere around me in Greece).

To say that Papa Georgiou is proud of his family history research is an understatement. This is one of his crowning achievements. Just look at the joy in his face! My goal is to follow his example and leave such a legacy for my posterity.

Family history brings us joy!

R&R: Gytheio

Rest and relaxation — time to get out of Sparta! After 2-1/2 weeks of long and tedious days handling dirty and moldy old documents, my body screamed for sun and surf. So I went where the locals go, south to Gytheio. It’s only 40 kilometers but a world away.

Homes on the hillside overlook the harbor, Gytheio, June 2018

Gytheio is the capital of Mani and the second largest city in Laconia.

Archaeological findings date Gytheio to ancient, even prehistoric, times. It has served as an important port for Sparta and the entire southern Peloponnese. Merchant ships bring in goods from foreign lands and take out olive oil and other products.

Boats moored in the harbor of Gytheio, June 2018

This city is a haven for tourists. I met people from the Netherlands and Germany, and I spotted several Americans. Sometimes when I speak Greek in public, people answer me in English. I once asked my friend, Giannis, why is it that people don’t think I am Greek–after all, I am a full-blooded Spartan and I was speaking the language. He replied that it is obvious that I am American. I thought that was an odd response until today, when it was easy to pick out Americans among native Greeks and Europeans, and they were not wearing jeans, white sneakers or tee shirts! Maybe we emanate a certain aura?

This is a fish-lovers’ haven, and fresh octopus was hanging everywhere, but not for me.

Not for me!

The city’s neoclassical buildings provide charming sophistication. Each one is distinct and different. The colors blend beautifully and give Gytheio its distinct look.  A lover of architecture could spend days here.

Each building is charming and unique.

As I wandered along the waterfront, I noticed a lighthouse situated on a promontory.

This point of land is actually the Kranai islet, connected to the city by a concrete walkway. It led to beautiful and surprising things!

A tiny church (of course!)

A fortress / castle / tower! This is the Tzanetakis Tower, built in 1829 by General Tzanetakis Grigorakis, who was one of the leading figures of the Grigorakis family of Eastern (Lower) Mani and a hero of the 1821 Revolution. One can only imagine what this building has witnessed. Its position on the island gives it a perfect view of the harbor and the city. The family continues to be prominent in contemporary Greece, and donated this tower to the government. It is now a museum but unfortunately was not open.

Tzanetakis Tower, Gytheio, June 2018

The tower commands a perfect view of the harbor and city.

The lighthouse looks fairly new, but the structures adjacent to it testify that a look-out building on this point has been in place for centuries.

Old and new, standing as sentinels to the harbor

As I sat on a rock and absorbed the spirit of this place, I noticed an unusual round, stone circular structure at the edge of the water–obviously historic and meaningful, but unknown.

Ancient, but unknown – obviously important

I sat for a long time, taking in the sea, the view and the history. I wonder: what was life like for people living here in the 1700’s, 1800’s and even before. This is a land of rock and stone. There were pirates patrolling the seas, invasions by Turks, Venetians and others; there were vendettas among families and wars among clans. And of course, there were other harsh realities of life and the forces of nature–all combined to make Mani a very difficult place in which to exist.

But countering all this is the sea. And today, Mani’s beaches draw people worldwide who seek respite from the challenges of their own lives. Spending an afternoon in this environment of serenity and beauty is rejuvenating and refreshing.

Mavrovouni Beach

This day was so very needed by my body and soul. A dip into history and a dip into the sea. I’m now ready to get back to work next week!


Amykles lies adjacent to Sparta, south of the city on the road to Gytheio. It is a village of historical and religious prominence, dating to pre-8th century B.C. It is the site of the ancient Throne of Apollo, and is discussed in the writings of Pausanias. This website has photos, historical data and artists’ renderings of the sanctuary as it would have appeared in ancient times.

The sanctuary sits on a large hill overlooking the village of Agia Kyriaki. Because it is under archaeological excavation, the site was fenced and we were unable to enter.  Information on the progress of the dig can be found here:

Ruins under excavation

The church at the top of the hill overlooks a spectacular valley, and it is easy to understand why the Throne was erected there.

A magnificent view of the valley below

My friend, Popi Zarafonitis who lives in Amykles, was my tour guide. She explained that over the years, rocks were taken from the ancient sanctuary and used to erect buildings, such as this Byzantine church of Agios Theodoros.

Agios Theodoros, Amykles

This rutted, dirt road which winds through olive groves was the path of an amazing destination–two churches, one Byzantine, one 19th century–situated “exo-horio” (outside the village).

In the photo below, the square building on the left is what remains of the Byzantine-era church; its 19th century “modern” counterpart is the one on the right. We went inside the older church and I was astonished to see that the 15th century icons painted on stone were still visible–a testament to the faith and resilience of those who labored to build it and worship within. 

Ancient Byzantine church is on the left; 19th century counterpart is on the right

These walls still speak

Old Amykles is a step into ancient history. Today’s Amykles is a step into culture. Recently, a festival was held by the Church to benefit the poor in the community. As always, there was music, food and dancing.

Amykles–a beautiful blend of past and present.

Records Preservation in Sparta

Almost everyone comes to beautiful Greece for vacation. But I come to work! This is precious time for me to do what I cannot from home: visit repositories, explore ancestral villages, look for new sources of information and visit family. This summer is a two-month extended stay for me, as I have added a new item to my “to-do” list–records preservation.

Vital records in Greece are kept in three key locations:  town halls (Dimarheion), archive offices, and churches. All have the need to preserve their documents, but only some have begun this work. Fortunately, Sparta has a Bishop who understands the importance of record preservation, and he was most enthusiastic when approached about the opportunity to have his church records digitized.

In Sparta, marriage license records exist from 1835-present. The bishop approved digitization of 100 years of these documents–from 1835 to 1934. I volunteered to do the work, and honestly, it is my privilege. With the assistance of the church archivist, I work from 8:30-5:00 Monday-Friday.

Working girl

Records from 1835-1840 are sparse, but incredibly, some do exist and we are fortunate to have those that survived both the elements and humanity.

1836 marriage license

As you can imagine, these documents are dusty, dirty and some are very fragile. But they have withstood time and elements. Some have water damage, some have mold, but every one is precious.

Marriage licenses, ready to be preserved

Sometimes we find a document where the priest has glued together several strips of paper to create a full document. If you click on the picture below and make it larger, you can see the vertical lines where the strips are connected.

1894-making a full document from strips of paper

I have an affinity for old documents, as I work as a Citizen Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, and also at the Maryland Archives. But there is something extra special about handling documents that were generated in your ancestral land. Written in Greek script and detailing the marriage information for the bride and groom, I am handling papers that reveal precious family history–information about the bride and groom, and their families.

We never know what we will find when we pick up a license packet. This document has a photo of the groom:

There is a notation on the back of this license that the marriage did not occur, due to an argument between the groom-to-be and his father-in-law!

No marriage! page 1


No marriage! page 2

Sometimes, documents which are not marriage-related are found, and they are removed to be put in an appropriate files. This one is of special interest to me. It is an application of the citizens of my village of Agios Ioannis (Sparta) to the Bishop, requesting a priest. The year is 1874, and 70 men of the village signed the document. One of them–line 27–is my ancestor, Ioannis Papagiannakos. A rough translation: We are pleased to judge this man and to make him our priest, Panagiotis Poulimenakos. He is an honest man, educated, has a good heart and is respectful.

1874. Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Application for Bishop. p1

1874. Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Application for Bishop. p2

1874. Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Application for Bishop. p3

1874. Agios Ioannis, Sparta. Application for Bishop. p4

I anticipate it will take about two months to complete this project. It is rewarding to know that these records will now be saved. A new generation of priests is taking great interest in what we are doing and learning the importance of document preservation.

Stay tuned for updates! 🙂