The other night we had the opportunity to serve dinner to a vegan, the vegan’s almost vegan boyfriend and the vegan’s almost vegan mom, plus our almost vegan selves. A kind of Asiatic stir fry mix of vegetables and tofu (from Volos) including some serious chilis worked for everyone’s diet restrictions. But what about serving dessert (pudding) to someone who doesn’t consume milk, eggs, butter or yoghurt etc?
The solution was tahini halvas bought locally but concocted in Volos by Papagiannopoulos. A chunk of that and some grapes topped off the meal just fine.
Though Halvas is available year round here in Skopelos, all of the markets are especially full of variations of basic halvas (with nuts, chocolate) during the Lenten fast when the Orthodox go “vegan” and fast from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, olive oil and wine.
There are three different types of basic halvas. In Skopelos and in many parts of Greece the first type of halvas is made from semolina and turns out a like a semi-soft cake. When invited to dinner, locals who offer “to bring a dessert” will often haul this tasty type with them. The recipe is easy for you need “one unit of oil, two of semolina, three of sugar and four of water”. 1-2-3-4
In one of his books about Greece (“Roumeli”?), Patrick Leigh Fermor, the great travel writer and hellenophile extraordinaire, mentioned that halvas from Farsala was the best he ever had. This second type of halva from the small farming community in the Larissa regional unit is quite different from the semolina variety as it is a kind of caramel jelly cake. Instead of semolina it employs finer wheat flour (though I’ve seen corn flour listed) to give body to the hot sugar. Research indicates that the sweet may have originated in southern India where it is also popular.
The third type is a block of tahini paste, sugar and flavorings (pictured at top). It is found all over the Middle East and probably started to be manufactured seriously in Greece after the population exchange in the early 1920s. Among other things, the Anatolian and Pontic Greeks brought their Tahini halva recipes with them. Outside of Volos, the bigger manufacturers of Anatolian halva today are located in Northern Greece and the sweet is sometimes known as Macedonian Halvas.
The traditional Anatolian type of halva is made with heated honey mixed with tahini and then refrigerated for a few days to allow the sugar to crystallize which gives a distinct texture. Today corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for many makers.
[Monday morning bonus of unnecessary information below]
Since Tahini is an oily paste made from crushed sesame seeds which needs a lot of seeds, I figured that sesame for tahini might be grown in Greece. Not so. Greek sesame production seems to have peaked in the 1960s (11,169 tons) and fallen off since then. Greece currently produces an average of only 70 tons per year probably only enough to put on bread and koulourakia. The big producers are not even Middle Eastern but South Asian (Myanmar, India and China) and African (Sudan, Tanzania).