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Pies of Epirus

If there is one Greek region renowned for its pies, that is undoubtedly Epirus

My time in Ioannina, the city I was born and lived before moving to Berlin has come, for this instance, to an end.



This summer, I spent more than a month here, far longer than any other time in all those years that I was coming as a visitor. Before leaving, I felt to dedicate a post to the city and generally to the region of Epirus and that could be nothing else than something related with the most symbolic local food preparation, which is any sort of pie. People here make traditionally a plethora of pies, with different fillings and dough consistencies/techniques, and picking one representative is not always easy. However, I think that the pie that can serve as an ambassador of Epirus’s gastronomy is the great and delicious hortopita or/and its small sister, known as batsaria.




Hortopita


Hortopita is a very simple food that describes perfectly the gastronomic tradition of Epirus, a historically very poor region, sort of isolated from the rest of Greece because of the big mountains that are standing high all around, constituting at the old times transportation and communication rather difficult.



Hortopita is a pie (pita) with horta, the latter literally means grasses but in this case, is better translated as greens. So, it's a pie with greens, which can be of any short, however, the best are seasonal, wild ones that grow locally. Many times, when wild greens are scarce, spinach is used instead. In this case, the name of the pie changes to the well-known spanakopita (spinach pie).


The preparation of hortopita begins with a visit to the local farmer's market to get a nice mix of greens. They can be of different kinds, bitter ones (e.g. chicory family) or "sweet" (e.g. chards), and many others that grew specifically in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, any type of leafy greens can be used.



The first and most tedious activity after coming back home is to clean and wash the greens thoroughly. Then, you cut them by hand, place them into a bowl, add some chopped onions (preferably green ones) and a blend of herbs, typically dill and mint. Salt and pepper is used for seasoning and the whole mix is hand-massaged so as to lose some of its volume. If at this point some water is released it should be drained out, otherwise the bottom part of the pie will turn soggy after baking, something that should be avoided by any means. Often, the cook adds some traxana (a kind of couscous) in the mix that helps absorbing the liquids during baking.



Also, some feta cheese can be crumbled in for a savory note, or the pie can simply stay vegan. At the end, a good drizzle of olive oil is added and the final mix is transferred into a pan that has been layer with several (minimum three) layers of filo (phyllo) dough. In between each filo layer olive oil is drizzled so as after baking the individual dough sheets will stay separated and crunchy. The top of the pan is covered with another set of filo sheets, and the pie is sealed all around by folding over the dough parts that fall out of the pan.



Onto to the closed pie more olive oil is drizzled and this time also some water that helps the dough to come out crunchier. As a last step, only the upper part is cut so as steam escapes during baking, and the pie is ready for the oven, where it stays for ca. an hour or until the dough adopts the characteristic golden-brown colour and the room smells wonderful!




Batsaria


Batsaria is hortopita's easier version. It’s simpler and quicker to make since it doesn't require the kneading of a dough and the rolling out of filo sheets. You can imagine it as a a semi-naked pie on the top.



The dough is simply formed by mixing flour and water (traditionally also yogurt is being used) to reach a relatively wet and sticky consistency. This type of dough is layer by wet hand on the bottom of the oiled pan, while the upper dough part that covers the greens is just a very liquid batter formed by mixing again flour and water, this time containing obviously higher amount of the latter. That batter is subsequently thrown by hand to only partially cover the top of the pie, imagine something like throwing paint onto a canvas using the technique of Jackson Pollock!



Also in this case some feta cheese can be crumbled on the top, together with a good drizzle of olive oil, before the pie is transferred into the oven. Contrary to hortopita that delivers a crunchy mouthfeel, batsaria is only slightly crunchy and additionally chewy.



Back in the pre- and post-war poor times batsaria was made even with corn flour because wheat was scarce and expensive. Later on, very few people (mostly grandmothers) remained making it, until recent years that some modern cooks started to bring back this and other great traditions.



Hortopita pie



Assembled and baked in a 28-30cm-diameter baking pan



Filo dough


  • 350g all-purpose wheat flour

  • 185g water

  • 10g extra-virgin olive oil

  • a good pinch of salt

  • a few drops of vinegar


Find here the instructions on how to prepare the dough and roll it out into filo sheets



Filling


  • 500g greens*

  • a couple of green onions

  • a bunch of dill and mint

  • salt/pepper

  • extra-virgin olive oil

  • feta cheese (optional)

  • an espresso cup of couscous or rice (optional)

* You can use any sorts of wild or cultivated leafy greens, like spinach, chicory, chard, kale etc.



- Wash, drain, cut the greens in smaller pieces by hand, and transfer them into a large bowl.

(If some greens contain hard stalks (e.g. chard), the later are better chopped and shortly sautéed in a bit of olive oil and water so as they soften up before added in the final mix)


- Chop the green onions and the herbs and add them also in the mixture.


- Season with salt and pepper and do a good hand massage to the mixture so as the greens lose some of their volume. If you notice liquid coming out on the bottom of the bowl drain it out.


- Give a good drizzle with olive oil, crumble some feta if you like it, add optionally the couscous/rice, and give a good last mix.



Pie assembly and baking


  • baking pan

  • filo dough

  • filling

  • olive oil and water for drizzling


- Lay three sheets of filo dough on top of each other onto the well-oiled bottom of the baking pan.

(Let the edges from each filo fall out, all the way around the pan)

(Drizzle each layer of filo with some olive oil before applying the next)


- Pour the filling.


- Lay three more filo sheets on top of the filling and each other to close the pie, repeating the same process as before.

(In this case, you do not have to let the filo sheets fall out of the pan. Better, fold them irregularly on top of the filling and each other)


- Fold the edges of the bottom filo sheets over with your fingers and tuck them to stick onto the top filo sheets, all the way around the pan to seal the pie.


- Drizzle the surface with olive oil and spray some water. With a fork make some holes on the top dough layers (or simply cut with a knife) to let the steam escape and avoid crust expansion during baking.


- Bake the pie in a pre-heated at 180 ºC oven, for 45-60 min, until the crust turns golden and crunchy.


- Let it cool down a bit before cutting and eating.



Batsaria pie



Assembled and baked in a 28-30cm-diameter baking pan



Dough (for the bottom part)


  • 300g all-purpose wheat flour

  • 180g water

  • 10g extra-virgin olive oil

  • a good pinch of salt


- Mix all the ingredients inside a bowl until flour is fully hydrated and a sticky, wet dough is formed. Use it as such.



Liquid batter (for the top part)


  • 50g all-purpose wheat flour

  • 80g water

  • a pinch of salt


- Simply mix the ingredients until a liquid batter is formed.



Pie assembly and baking


  • baking pan

  • dough and liquid batter

  • filling (same as for xortopita)

  • olive oil and water for drizzling


- Oil the bottom of the baking pan, pour and spread with a wet hand the dough to cover the whole surface.


- Add on top the filling, and then pour the liquid batter to cover irregularly some part of the top. Typically, this is done by throwing splashes of batter with the hand.


- Give a good drizzle of olive oil and crumble some extra feta cheese if you wish.


- Bake the pie in a pre-heated at 180 ºC oven, for ca. 45 min, until the crust turns golden.