In Greece we love cookies, apple pies and flans, but we are also very proud of our traditional sweets. Having that in mind, in our new article we decided to focus on Greek halva. We started, as always, by looking for information on its history…
We found out that the name halva comes from the arabic word hulw which means sweet. This may be the reason why this word reffers to many different confections, in countries spreading from the Balcans and Turkey to India. We read that Nevin Halici, in the Turkish Cookbook (order it online), claims that halva is the oldest dessert in Turkey, as it is mentioned in writings of the 13th century. There, two types of halva are described, one made with grape syrup and one with almonds. During the 17th century, in Constantinople luxurious dinners were taking place, called “Halva Dinners” where people savoured this dessert. Nowadays there are many halva variations in Turkey, as well as in many other countries, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, India, Bahrein, Kuwait, Quatar and Iran.
Of course, halva is one of our favourites too, in all its variations. In Greece, the most famous type is the sesame (tahini) halva or Greek Macedonian halva or “Grocer’s” halva (find it online), made with tahini (a sesame paste).
We learned that this kind of halva was brought to Greece by Minor Asia refugees, experienced artisans who opened small shops, mainly in Thessaloniki and Pireus. In 1936, an order to make halva with raisin syrup was imposed, with the aim of supporting raisin producers. During World War II, halva was being produced with carob honey too. Until 1965, it was illegal to add sugar to halva. Today, Greek Macedonian halva is a characteristic fasting confection served on the festive table on “Clean Monday”, the first day of the Great Lent before Orthodox Easter. What is more, its extraordinarily high nutritional value is getting more and more acknowledged. In the same time, Greek halva is an element used in experimentations by the Greek modern, creative cuisine, that loves to transfrom it into ice cream or semifreddo!
The second type of halva the Greeks love is the Greek semolina halva, which is really easy to make and therefore a common homemade dessert. One can find semolina halva in many Eastern Mediterranean countries, in Iran, in Turkey and in the Gulf countries. It is made with flour, semolina, corn flour, rice flour or other cereal, cooked in oil or butter and moistened with syrup.
We read that, according to the researcher Marianna Gerasimou, our halva is a variation of the Turkish one and that, there, it was considered a luxurious treat, in contrast to the sesame halva. The Greek version is made with semolina (find Greek semolina here) -hence its name- and extra virgin olive oil (order Greek olive oil online), while in other countries they prefer sheep butter. There are many variations, with orange, raisins, nuts, and contemporary experimentations too, with cranberries, dried fruit or chocolate.
The third halva you can taste in Greece is the halva Farsalon which takes its name from the town of Farsala in Thessaly. Although it is a common, traditional confection all over the country, we had difficulty in finding information about it on the Internet or in books. As a result, we decided to move in a new direction… to find someone who could tell us the history of halva Farsalon, along with his own story. We paid a visit to a halva Farsalon specialist, Mr. Belederidis in his shop in Athens. We asked him to introduce us to his favourite dessert and he told us everything… except for his secret!
Firstly, we would like to ask you what types of halva are there in our country?
There is the tahini halva, the Macedonian halva, the one made with semolina and the halva Farsalon which has roots in Farsala. There are also halvadopites which are similar to nougat.
What are their differences?
The first one is made with tahini, the second with semolina and the halva Farsalon is made with starch, corn flour. The basic ingredients for a halva Farsalon are sugar, water, corn flour, almonds, oil and fresh butter. During the Great Lent, from Clean Monday to Easter, the fasting version is made only with oil.
In your opinion, which halva is the most difficult to prepare?
Halva Farsalon is somehow peculiar to cook. The recipe is important, but all the flavor comes from perfect cooking, when the artisan knows how to caramelise it right. Of course, there are secrets that artisans don’t reveal. Also, the equipment you use is important, the metal pot we use… only in that can you make halva Farsalon, in nothing else. There is a whole procedure… before beginning to cook the halva, we sterilize the pot so that the poison goes away.
What do you mean poison?
If you leave copper to age it gains a green colour. Our pots don’t reach that point as every time before starting the cooking process, our first job is to sterilise the pot with lemon and salt. Other pots used for creams have an extra layer to protect them, as the poison comes out a lot when milk boils.
How did you learn the art of cooking halva? Did someone teach you?
I learned from someone in Northern Greece, who was from the same village as my father-in-law. I met him randomly in Kastania, a village between Veroia and Kozani. We wanted to buy halva, but I was under a very bad impression because I had eaten bad halvas. Imagine, we had it in the car and I was refusing to touch it. When I finally tried some, it came as a shock to me, I thought it was really well-made! I left the others at the village and went back right away, with a loaded car, to congratulate the artisan. That’s how we started talking, we exchanged numbers, I asked him to show me, then we made halva together, I filmed it… I came here and started working on it until it reached the point I wanted and then I turned it into my job.
How long have you been doing this job? When did the things you described happen?
I have been running this workshop for seven-eight years, but I have had the halva in my hands for fifteen years now. At the beginning I had started selling halva to bakeries wholesale.
Where do you come from?
Ι come from Xanthi, from a family of bakers.
Before your occupation with halva did you already have experience in pastry?
I had worked with my uncle, but I didn’t study pastry at all. I used to be a musician, I played the bouzouki…
You told us that you evolved the halva to reach the point you wanted. Did you make interventions to the recipe? Would you say that you modernised it?
Yes, I did some experimenting of my own, I made it sweeter, softer, to reach the point I wanted.
That was something we wanted to ask… Do you believe that we can alter traditional recipes, make them more modern?
Here’s the thing… Halva Farsalon is a traditional confection, it is what it is. Now, if you start adding chocolate, custards and vanilla, then no. It is an authentic, traditional product with a specific taste, that you cannot change, by adding mastic for example.
What exactly is the difference between the halva you liked so much more than the others you had tried?
It tasted somehow like a candy… Many customers after trying it, ask whether it contains honey. I don’t put anything in, what matters is how you caramelise it, how you cook it until the perfect point.
So, you would say the secret lies in how you cook the halva?
The secret is the artisan. It takes perception. What matters is not the recipe… The moment the ingredients curd in the pot, that is the point when the cooking process starts. Just like when you want to roast meat and you want to roast it to perfection, not to burn it and not to leave it raw, to give it the right taste. It is also very important to use good ingredients, good quality oil, butter, almonds. By the way, people think that water makes all the difference, but it doesn’t matter at all.
Could we cook good halva at home?
Many people try, but they burn the sugar, turn it into caramel and then use it to make halva. Normally, that is not the way to do it.
Have you passed your secret on to someone?
My daughter is studying pastry and I have shown her everything, and my wife too. But it is a manly job, it is not easy, you have to have strong hands. When you cook halva, you make its crust, you throw it in the air… It is tough for a woman to do, but nothing is impossible as long as you want it! If I grow old and there is no successor, I won’t take the secret with me. I’ll show it to someone, just like that man showed it to me. I was a stranger, wasn’t part of the family, but he trusted me with his secret and was happy to see me make a living of it. It takes a lot of love, of course. If you don’t love it, like in everything, you won’t be able to make halva no matter how much you want it. You have to have your eyes on it when you cook it, to listen to it… When you toss and turn it, you have to live it!
Since you mentioned your daughter, do they teach confections such as halva in pastry school? Or is it another story?
There is a professor who makes halva, but with a different technique.
Also, we would like to ask you whether young people prefer traditional sweets. Do they know them?
You know how it is, there is a lot of new-style desserts out there… But tradition doesn’t go away. Halva is a tough confection, there are only a few artisans and they keep their secrets, but there is also no will from young people to learn, because it is difficult. If we slowly disappear, I am afraid that there will be only clumsy cooks left! Just like the halva sold at fairs… When I used to work wholesale, I went to leave a halva sample at a bakery. The owner refused, saying that halva doesn’t sell, so I left. One day I was passing by and I stopped and took a pan of halva with me. I told the owner “please, leave it here and give people some to try, because things are not as you think”. People liked it so much that a customer wanted a whole pan to take it to Farsala!
Do you know where does the habit of selling halva at fairs come from?
Halva Farsalon started at fairs. In the past, there were no shops. Fairs were being held every week and there they sold everything, anything you can imagine. Halva became known during Tuskish occupation, by Turkish artisans in Farsala. We “stole”, let’s say, the art from them and halva became a local treat at Farsala. But if you look deep into history, this dessert comes from Constantinople. In Farsala, there was a famous artisan called Nouris, who was the best. Then there was Karatolias, Oikonomou, Bobotis and many more. That’s how halva earned its reputation. Now, if someone wanted to open a halva workshop in Farsala, I think that he had to attend a 50-day school in order to get a licence. I don’t know if that is still the case there.
We wanted to ask you too about the origins of halva. Do you know if there is a similar sweet in foreign countries, in Turkey for example?
No, in Turkey they have Turkish delight (lokum) and sujuk lokum. There is no way they have halva Farsalon. They may have something similar called halva, but it won’t taste the same.
Do we export halva Farsalon? Can anyone find it in foreign countries as a Greek product?
As far as I know no. I have been asked to send halva and tsoureki (Greek sweet bread) to France, but I didn’t venture it as they needed large quantities and I had to build an additional unit to follow export regulations. The person who asked me that, was a Greek who wanted to supply pastry shops in France.
Do tourists come to your shop to try halva Farsalon?
Some have come, but Peristeri is not a touristic region, such as Monastiraki. But, today a customer came from Salamina island. My halva has travelled to Germany, Kanada, Moldova, England…
So, halva can be stored for days?
Yes, just like loukoumi. But not for too long, as it has no preservatives.
Do you make halva every day?
Yes and every day it is sold out. Especially in winter and during the Great Lent. But it sells all year long, except for August when we are closed.
And one last question… We would like to ask you, what other desserts do you like except for your own?
To be honest I always liked traditional sweets even before making a living of it. I will acknowledge a cake if it is good. But those were the sweets that attracted me, and this is probably why I got into them.
This is how the sweet story Mr. Belederidis told us comes to an end, him being loyal to his favourite dessert… We are this loyal too to our love for anything sweet, whether it is a sweet dessert, sweet story or sweet thought. More sweet thoughts and ideas coming soon!
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