CULTURE

Pretty sweet thing: The Tsakonian eggplant

Leonidio, in the Tsakonia region of the southeastern Peloponnese, which is renowned for its stunning landscape and architecture, has to a great degree retained its traditional lifestyle and characteristics.

Just 4 kilometers from the sea, Leonidio is spread out across the floor of a valley, with its back up against the steep inclines of Mount Parnonas. Designated as a protected traditional settlement in 1977, it is a popular destination with Greek and foreign visitors and a magnet for weekend travelers. It is also the capital of Tsakonia, a region that is not formally defined as a political entity, but which is located mostly in the prefecture of Arcadia and consists of another eight villages.

In Tsakonia, elderly locals can still be heard speaking a dialect named after the region and which linguists have defined as being of Doric origin. Thousands of years old, the Tsakonian dialect, however, is at risk of extinction as it has no written tradition and is passed down orally from one generation to the next.

The heart of Leonidio is Plaka, a seaport where trade flourished from antiquity up to modern times and which served as a distribution center for goods destined for the Peloponnesian hinterland. Local merchants and shipowners were also instrumental in the Greek War of Independence.

Other than commerce, Tsakonia is also known for its olives, citrus fruits and abundant vegetables. Its most famous crop, however, is the Tsakonian eggplant, a long, purple-lilac variety with white stripes, which has been awarded Protected Designation of Origin status.

The Tsakonian eggplant is a marvelous vegetable. It is sweet and so does not need to be salted before cooking — a technique used with other varieties to draw out their bitter juices. And not only is it pretty to look at, but its flesh has a velvety texture and is very tender.

Roast eggplant is a staple in the diet of most residents of Leonidio and especially in the Tsakonian villages. They are cooked in the oven or in the traditional manner, which is on a heated stone or cast iron surface (much like the Spanish plancha). Once they are tender, they are peeled and chopped coarsely, and eaten as a salad with salt, pepper, oil and vinegar, and a bit of finely chopped onion.

Vaskina, a mountain that is part of the Parnonas range and overlooks Leonidio, is renowned for its dairy products, and like other Tsakonians, residents here use local wheat to make bread in the shape of a large donut. They also make a low-fat, flat bread known as ?kolioures,? which is cooked in a teardrop-shaped metal baking tray. The bread is eaten with ?artouma? (the Tsakonian word for cheese).

Below is a recipe for an eggplant casserole that is found in many parts of Greece. Here, however, we use sweet Tsakonian eggplants and cook it the way the locals do, though because they tend to use very heavy meats such as mutton, you may prefer to opt for veal or lamb.

RECIPE

Ingredients

(serves 4)

1 kg red meat (lamb, veal, or any other kind), cut into chunks

5 Tsakonian eggplants

1 medium-sized onion, grated

1 1/2 cup pureed fresh tomatoes

100 ml olive oil

1 tsp mixed spices (nutmeg, allspice, clove)

Salt if it?s too watery, remove the lid when the eggplants go in. Garnish with a sprinkling of finely chopped parsley.

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* Evi Voutsina is a chef and a contributor to Kathimerini?s Gastronomos magazine.