It already smells delicious on the steps leading down to Niki Agathokleous’ realm. In the two production rooms in the basement of the tiered hillside house in this small village of around a thousand inhabitants, we discover the source of the delicious aroma: around half a dozen pots of bright-yellow kumquats with sugar syrup are simmering away on low gas burners, while opposite them, a row of pots are bubbling with fragrant bergamot peel on skewers. Cherries and apricots are on the boil in the room next door. “In autumn we preserve apples, figs and grapes,” Niki tells us. And she does not just cook fruit; she also turns carrots, pumpkins, aubergines, tomatoes and walnuts into the typical Cypriot glyko tou koutaliou.
In many parts of the island these little sweet treats now go by the English name of ‘spoon sweets’. They were once an integral part of Cypriot hospitality: “In the olden days, when village families received guests, they would first sprinkle their hands with rose water. Then they would welcome them with a typical strong coffee and some glyko tou koutaliou – in other words, some spoonfuls of the family’s sweet preserves,” Niki tells us.
Almost all women on the island used to preserve the fruits from their garden in sugar syrup for the winter months. Proud of their thriftiness, they constantly came up with new ways of making use of leftovers. Nothing was thrown away; they even preserved watermelon rinds. Inspired by the resourcefulness and expertise of her female ancestors, Niki began to produce spoon sweets to continue the age-old tradition of village hospitality.
Meanwhile Niki has been producing her glyko tou koutaliou for a quarter of a century.
We only use pure fruit, Niki assures us. “No additives, except for a little lemon juice. And we add some cloves, cinnamon or vanilla, almonds or nuts to the vegetable creations.” To preserve one kilo of fruit, the producer of the delicious glyko tou koutaliou – which are nowadays usually eaten as dessert – uses one-and-a-half kilos of sugar. “The preserving process takes two days.”
Apart from the spoon sweets, Niki’s little company also produces jams, jellies and amigdalo, a delicious almond paste. And what’s more, she finds the ingredients for her products practically outside her front door. Limassol oranges, lemons, cactus fruit and the golden kumquats all grow locally. There are apple orchards near Kyperounda in the Troodos mountains, just a few kilometres from Agros, and cherry orchards in the hills around Pedoulas. Nuts also grow here, and mushrooms – which are also preserved in sugar syrup! Apricots glow in the orchards around Nicosia; bananas ripen in Paphos. Aubergines and pumpkin grow in abundance in many areas, as do tomatoes, carrots, plums, figs and medlars.
On the little shady terrace in front of Niki’s house we try a selection of her sweets from tiny glass plates: glossy dark walnut balls, little orange-red shimmering carrots, golden bergamot spirals. And of course the kumquats, little pumpkin cubes, the watermelon rind, quinces and aubergine. The sun is shining, and down in the valley the almond trees are in blossom.
peel of 1 untreated orange
4 organic eggs
1 sachet (or 2 heaped tsp) of vanilla sugar
juice of 1 orange
350g sugar preserved fruit or spoon sweets drained and chopped into small pieces
200ml fresh cream
50g powder sugar
50g roasted almonds (chopped)
Put the milk, semolina sugar and orange peel in a saucepan, bring to the boil, and stir continuously until it forms a pudding mixture. Remove the orange peel and set aside to cool.
Mix the orange and the vanilla sugar thoroughly, then add the orange juice. Stir the mixture into the cooled pudding. Carefully fold in the preserved fruit. Pour the pudding mixture into a baking tin lined with greaseproof paper. As an alternative to the baking tin, you can also use an ovenproof dish and serve the semolina pudding in it later.
Bake for about 30 minutes at 160C in a fan-assisted oven (or at 180C with upper and lower heat) until the semolina pudding is firm. Allow to cool, then turn out on a platter. When cold, beat the cream with the powder sugar and spread it over the pudding. Sprinkle with the roasted almonds and serve.
Taken from: Cyprus – A Culinary Journey by Marianne Salentin-Träger and Rita Henss. Published by: C&C Contact & Creation GmbH. Translated by: Jenny Piening and Lucy Jones. Photos: Anja Jahn and Markus Bassler. Recipes by Marilena Joannides and Franz Keller Available from local bookshops and Amazon