The mountain of the gods
Years ago I went with my parents to Greece for the summer holidays. I had been studying ancient Greek for quite some time in high school. Translating the old texts always seemed to me like a puzzle, with a nice story as an outcome. So after years of learning about myths and philosophy, I was thrilled to actually visit the source of all this. I was not disappointed: from the ancient ruins of Delphi, via the beautiful nature with olive trees and rocky coasts to the modern culture; it was a great summer.
So when I was considering recently where to go to I got excited finding out I could easily and cheaply get to Thessaloniki. And so I finally returned to Greece after more than 10 years. While road tripping through the north of the country it is hard to avoid the references to the ancient culture: from the birth place of Alexander the Great to the hometown of Aristotle. Completely at the start of my road trip, after some time of discovering and relaxing in Thessaloniki – eating chicken souvlaki and Greek salads – I arrived at Mount Olympus. This is not only the highest mountain in Greece, but also the place where the Greek gods used to live.
The day I went to hike up the mountain it was cold but sunny. Although I had a can of dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice), some nuts and bread-sticks for on the way, I could not resist buying some savoury pastries in one of the many bakeries in the small town at the foot of the mountain. The owner of the hostel where I staid had told me about a good day-hike. Starting the hike I was not actually sure if I had chosen the correct path, since there were starting points at different sides of the town. However, I knew I was supposed to pass a monastery and I found a sign pointing towards a monastery. Must be correct, right? The path that I took turned out to be tough: going steeply up, up, and further up without respite. Not easy, since I had not hiked in the mountains for a while. But of course, the more you go up, the more impressive the views become. And they were stunning, a wide view over the mountains, the villages below, and the blue sea. I can totally imagine why the Greek gods wanted to live on the Olympus!
As it turned out, I had not taken the path I intended to take. But mine did cross with the right one, and I did indeed pass the monastery. A beautiful and intriguing place, since it had been turned into a ruin after the war but was partly built up again. The combination of the ruins, the splendour of a Greek Orthodox church and the mountains was breathtaking.
I turned back to the town following the path I had intended to take in the beginning. The road meandered through a canyon and crossed a river several times. Going down, the views were even more beautiful. So although I did not reach the top of the mountain (you would need more than a day and stay in a refuge for that, and it had started snowing at the top the day before) I was very tired but also very satisfied when I came down after 8 hours. Not only had I spent a day hiking on a beautiful mountain, I also finally had been to a place that I had come across so often in the old myths and that I had been curious about for years.
And those pastries that I bought in the town were definitely needed, since I hiked for longer than I originally intended. This made me think that next time I go hiking I should make some empanadas before. Of course, empanadas can be filled with whatever you like. But this filling is a small tribute to Mount Olympus and the lovely bright flavours of the Greek kitchen.
Chicken, olive and feta empanadas
Ingredients (For 10 empanadas)
I usually use a circle of 12 cm in diameter, but of course you can make smaller ones if you want. You won’t taste the vinegar in the dough, instead it helps to make the pastry more flaky.
For the dough:
- 140 grams of plain flour
- 60 grams of cold butter
- 1 egg (half for the dough, half for the egg-wash)
- 1 teaspoon of white vinegar
- 30 ml of cold water
For the filling:
- 2 chicken thighs – around 200 grams without bones
- 1 small onion
- 1 small red capsicum/bell pepper
- 1 tomato
- A good handful of black (Kalamata) olives
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Feta – around 40 grams
- Oregano – 3 full teaspoons
- Bay leaves – 3 or 4
- Black pepper
- 1 dried chillipepper
- Olive oil
Place the chicken meat in a small pot. Smash the garlic cloves with the flat side of a knife and take the skin off. Put in the pot with the chicken and add the bay leaves and some whole black peppercorns. Fill the pot with water until the ingredients are just under. Bring this to a boil over a high heat. Then turn back the heat and let the chicken simmer for around 25 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the chicken cool down in the poaching liquid.
Meanwhile, start on the dough. Place the flour on a clean working surface and add a good pinch of salt. Crack the egg in a small bowl and whisk it. Chop the butter in small pieces. Mix the butter with the flour and use your fingers to combine until the structure resembles breadcrumbs. Make a small well in the middle and add the vinegar and half of the whisked egg. Put the rest of the egg aside to use as egg-wash later on. Start to combine the ingredients while adding water as you go. Knead until the ingredients are combined and you have a dough that is not sticky anymore, but don’t knead for too long. Wrap the dough in plastic foil and place in the fridge to rest.
Once the dough is in the fridge, finely chop your onion and capsicum. Use a small, sharp knife to peel most of the skin off the tomato and slice in small pieces as well. When your olives have stones in them, use the flat side of a knife to squeeze them so that it is easy to remove the stones. Finely chop the olives as well. Place a small pot over a medium heat with a good splash of olive oil and add the onion. Once the onion starts to soften, add the capsicum and fry for another five minutes. Then add the tomato and the olives and season the mixture with salt, the oregano, some black pepper, and the crumbled dried chilli. Leave this over a medium high fire while taking the chicken out of the poaching liquid. Use a fork to pull the chicken meat apart into threads. Add those to the tomato and capsicum mixture, together with a few tablespoons of the poaching liquid. Let this simmer together for another 10 to 15 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the flavours have mixed well.
Next it is time to assemble the empanadas. Preheat the oven to 200°C and cover a baking tray with baking paper. Use a rolling pin (or in the worst case scenario an empty wine bottle) to roll out the dough to around 2 mm thick. I usually divide the dough into two pieces, and start with rolling out half of the dough while leaving the other half in the fridge. Use a small bowl or an actual cutter to cut out circles of dough. Place a small amount of filling – how much exactly depends on the size of your circles – on the dough. Use a fork to crumble the feta and place some feta cheese on each circle of dough as well. Fold them over into the shape of half moons and press the ends together. You can either simply use a fork to press the dough together, or fold the ends over to close the empanadas. Repeat this until all dough and filling have been used. Place the empanadas on the prepared baking tray. Take the other half of the whisked egg and add a small splash of water. Cover the empanadas in a bit of the egg-wash so that they will get a nice shine.
Place the baking tray in the oven and bake for around 25 minutes, or until golden brown.