Cyprus Mail
Life & Style Profile

For the love of pastries

ALEXIA EVRIPIDOU takes a trip down memory lane with the woman behind Nicosia’s Sarah Lyne, a successful bakery that started in her spare room

Sitting in her peaceful mountain home in Nikitari, the deep chair cushions Eleni Menelaou, a white haired old lady with pale skin, as she pauses for thought. “I’m a little nervous,” she says finally, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of an article being written about her.

The gentle lady before me is the modest founder and self taught pastry specialist of one of Nicosia’s favourite and oldest bakeries, Sarah Lyne. She also happens to be my grandmother, whose pies and sweets have fed generations of Cypriot and foreign appetites for over three mouth-watering decades.

Looking at her, one would be forgiven for dismissing this little, aged woman as a grandmother like any other. She is gentle, cuddly, soft spoken and kind. However, with inquisitive and intelligent eyes, it is evident that she has more to offer then just sweet niceties.

Passed around from home to home for adoption three times before the age of 10, Eleni herself gave birth to seven children, miscarried three, had several conversations with death, helped the second in command of the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) escape capture and created Sarah Lyne from her kitchen at the age of 48, a time when most women in those days looked forward to their twilight years. All this, and with just half a liver.

Eleni shrugs: “we weren’t allowed to have an opinion, as a girl in my time. Life in the village was hard. I had to accept and get on with things. I never questioned and I tried not to think”.

It was not until way later, when her business took off after 1979 that Eleni came into her own.
Born to the mountains of Ayia Irini near Kannavia in November 1930, her youth was harsh, poor and simple. A daughter of two goatherds and sister to six siblings, Eleni was just another mouth to feed who could be given out to childless relative couples. Losing her father at the age of seven and forced to leave school to help her family, aged nine Eleni helped build roads in the mountains, digging and clearing rocks.

Not a fan of unnecessary words and emotional “fluff”, she purses her lips gently and searches for a place to begin her 83-year story. Her eyes bore deep into the back of mine and she begins, matter of fact.

“My first memory was of a dark night; my mother gave me a plate of food and told me to take it to my uncle and aunt, who lived a little further up from our house. I navigated upwards through the mountain on a small dark pathway at night and delivered the food. They were already eating. They asked me to sit and told me that from now on, I would be their daughter. I was four”. Eleni had only the clothes on her back to take with her.

Unhappy staying with her aunt, Eleni helped tend to her new parents’ animals in their fields. Although her real mother lived quite nearby, the child was not to see her biological family for three years. It was not that her mother was mean, Eleni defends, “her family were poor, hard working goatherds and her uncle didn’t have children, it was not uncommon”.

One random summer’s day, Eleni’s mum called on her, asking her to visit the family home. “My mum gave me a bowl of warm, fresh, homemade anari cheese. It seems the villagers had told her of my unhappiness. After siesta had finished, I needed to return to the fields. My mother shouted up the village to my aunt that I would no longer be coming back”, and that was that. At the age of seven Eleni had moved back home.

Death came knocking shortly after. Eleni recalls the same aunt holding her wrapped in a bed sheet on a donkey, her mother guiding them to the English hospital in Amiantos; a fruitless and long journey, after which she was taken home to die. The despairing family were unable to pay the daily five pound hospital fees for professionals to care for her typhoid.
Eleni laughs warmly at the memory of her mother’s despair when, during this time, she begged for fried potatoes. The doctor had given strict instructions to abstain but, unrelenting, Eleni eventually got her way; a trait which was to benefit her throughout her life. Exasperated, her mother threw her the fried potatoes saying “eat them, then go ahead and die so both you and I can get some rest”. Neither the fried potatoes nor the typhoid killed her.

Death escaped her but not her father, who lived in Asinou minding the goats. She was seven but barely knew him. She was told that he’d died ‘from his misery’. Eleni was given to her grandparents so she could continue school.
Though her body is now slow; supported by a walking stick and friendly human hands, her mind is razor sharp. Eleni speaks directly but with beautiful poetry in her chosen words. Her stories are rich in emotion and imagery. A cup of tea soothes the transition to the next part of Eleni’s life.
At 17, a young, dark skinned, brown eyed dreamer was chosen for her. In 1948 they married, and nine months on their first daughter was born.
A sudden memory evokes a coy smile: “I met the big hero of the revolution of 1955, Gregoris Afxentiou, second in command to Georgos Grivas of EOKA”. Chased out of Spilia by bombs, Afxentiou randomly knocked on Eleni’s door. With children at her ankles, she was reassured by the military man carrying weapons that he meant her no harm; only requesting help. Eleni enlisted her mum and the local priest’s assistance and hid him in a church in Kannavia.

Her reminiscences are replaced with shadows from more difficult memories. The third birth nearly took her from this world, it was traumatic and the young mother haemorrhaged close to death in her own home, as neighbours gathered around her dying body helplessly elevating her back and feet with stones. She could feel the blood dripping behind her ears and neck whilst her two little girls watched petrified. “What a thing it was,” she sighs. An experience repeated with her fifth birth, only this time in a hospital and with a car full of living blood donors driving to her rescue.

Irrespective of the hardships, Eleni always loved cooking for her children, and she jokes about her love affair with pastry; “since a young girl, I used to say that when I got married, I would not cook for my children, I would feed them ‘pites’ (a traditional sweet pastry).That’s what I’d decided”. But life left little room for expressing creativity. Priorities were: necessities, births, war, hunger, illness and poverty.

However, five years after the Turkish invasion, she got a break. The family now lived in a basement house in Aglandjia, Nicosia, where Eleni ran her daughter’s grocery shop for ten pounds a week. She’d finally reached her wits’ end; the business was not making a profit and her own children still needed clothes and food. “It was a culmination of needing money and frustration that got me brain storming,” Eleni explains. One day, at age 48, she decided to make and sell daktila (fingers); delicious traditional Cypriot pastries deep fried and filled with nuts and syrup).

After selling everything on the first day in their grocery store, Eleni approached a local supermarket. By the time she’d walked home, the phone was ringing. “Mrs Eleni”, the shop keeper enthused, “we have sold out, do you have more?” She did not, but promised to deliver fresh the next morning and then the next; and so it continued and expanded for over two years.
“I started exploring, creating sweets with fruit, coconut, cake with nuts and fillo; playing with traditional savouries and unusual fillings with spinach, cheeses, chicken, pies and pastries for those fasting etc. Everything came from my imagination. I would see a picture of it in my mind, then lock myself away for hours until I had created it.”

Eleni’s face sparkles with joy and once again she is a young wistful woman. Life may have given her a good beating but she never lost her passion for what she loves.

With minimal space for the unlikely venture, she was forced to turn a bedroom into a kitchen. “Never in my wildest fantasies had I expected it to evolve into a real business, let alone be so successful. Ultimately it was the need to put food and water on the table for my children. Eventually, it became about my own desire of wanting to create the images perpetually popping up in my head. I kept making and making, it was countless the amount of things I was creating.”

Her homely culinary treats took off like, ‘hot cakes’, forcing an over worked Eleni to employ neighbourhood girls to help. Together they prepared vast quantities of pastries daily, feeding the hungry appetites of the police, ministry of health, public broadcaster CyBC and many more. “Four women trying to produce 900 large sweet and savoury pastries each morning, just wasn’t humanly possible,” giggles Eleni.

The girls frequently arrived for work in the morning to find her locked in the kitchen baking. “I’d see the night leave and welcome the morning, still baking; I loved it. Even when we’d moved to the shop in 1981, my family would bring me pillows and blankets knowing I would stay all night.”

The move out of the spare bedroom and into a shop came when a customer offered her a £3,000 loan. Overwhelmed and exited, Eleni graciously accepted and officially opened Sarah Lyne, named after an English lady baker whose cakes inspired her. Despite offers to open similar stores elsewhere in Cyprus and even overseas, Eleni was content to stay put. And the customers were grateful she did. She recalls one purposefully kissing the sweat from her forehead, to show her gratitude for getting her through lent. “My motivation was love, initially for my family, then love of pastry and my customers; they gave me energy to keep creating.”

In 1998, Eleni became a widow. Six years later she was no longer able to work and slowly withdrew from her beloved business, letting her children take over the reigns and the legacy of Sarah Lyne. Not content with retirement and sitting around idly, Eleni packed her bags two years ago, and returned to her beloved mountains. She is now surrounded by a few living friends from childhood and is looking into getting a goat.

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