One of my Christmas presents from Mr K, in 2011, was a beautiful traditional clay cooking pot traditionally known as Yiouvesti. Clay pot cooking in Greece dates back to ancient times. However, clay pots are still used today in many kitchens (and outdoor wood fire ovens, or the local baker) in Greece to make favourites such as kleftiko and tava. The secret to clay pot cooking is that you do not add any extra liquids or fats – not even olive oil.
While reading Vefa’s description of the history of kleftiko, the setting in my mind was immediately the Mani region of Greece, the most southern tip of the Peloponnese.
Vefa’s Kitchen has an excellent recipe for this style of kleftiko. See page 439. You may also use other types of pots such as cast iron cookware or the like. If you do, you may want to add a little oil to stop the meat and vegetables from sticking. You should also reduce the cooking time slightly, as cast iron is not as thick as the clay cooking pots.
In the Greek cooking bible, “Vefa’s kitchen,” Vefa Alexiadou tells the story of kleftiko. “Kleftiko has a long history in Greek cooking. The name means “stolen meat,” and it refers to the tradition of Greek freedom-fighters hiding in the mountains from the Ottoman authorities. They baked their lamb wrapped in its own hide and buried it beneath the campfire so that the smell would give them away…”
The Mani is a rugged and barren landscape peppered with olive groves, crumbling towers and stone villages. The region was once well known for fierce and savage blood feuds between villages. However, it was also the birthplace of many a Greek hero, such as Theodoros Kolokotronis, leader of the Greek War of Independence.
The Mani is spectacularly and breathtakingly beautiful. Its narrow, winding roads full of potholes, patches of gravel and random cows, all on the sheer edge of a cliff face are, however, terrifying. After completing a circuit of the Mani, I found myself trembling in fear from the roads – and awe from the most beautiful landscape. I could see why many of the villages of the Mani were, traditionally, only accessible by sea. Nonetheless, don’t let me description of the roads deter you from a visit to the Mani. It is really the most remarkable place. It is a beautiful crumbling time capsule, where village life has not changed seemingly for many hundreds of years.
While in the villages of the Mani, kleftiko is made in the traditional clay pot; there is also another way to prepare this delicious meal if you don’t have a clay pot handy. The lamb can be wrapped up with vegetables in a delicious phyllo parcel.