There’s nothing like some Big Fat Greek Potato Pie!
One of the most distinguished and yet least well-known figures of Modern Greek and European History is the Corfiote (i.e. from the island of Corfu), Ioannis Kapodistrias. He was born in the year of American Independence, 1776, when Corfu and the rest of the Ionian Islands were still under Venetian dominance. As one of his ancestors had received title from Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy, Kapodistrias was a hereditary Count whose family name was entered in the Libro d’Oro of Corfu in 1679. At age 21, he left home to study philosophy, law, and medicine at the University of Padua in Italy; from there he went on to establish himself as one of the foremost figures in European diplomatic history of the early 19th century. Count Kapodistrias was the arch nemesis of the legendary Austrian “Fox” Prince Metternich, and he was directly responsible for the diplomatic recognition of a neutral and independent Switzerland (even as we know it today). He was also appointed joint Foreign Minister of Russia by Czar Alexander I.
While Count Kapodistrias was busy making a great name for himself by assiduously engaging in European diplomacy and politics, in 1821 his countrymen had raised the banner of freedom and were successful in liberating a large chunk of their homeland from the Ottoman yoke. In 1827, as the still fledgling Modern Greek state was being formed through a bootstrap National Assembly, a leader was sought who could act as an independent “Governor” to bridge the various established factions and form a cohesive bureaucracy that could function as an effective government. As he was the most illustrious Greek of his day in Europe, the (almost) unanimous choice as the very first Governor of an independent Modern Greece was, you guessed it, Ioannis Kapodistrias.
Among his many accomplishments before and after he accepted the invitation to govern Greece, there is one priceless (literally!) anecdote that led me to write about this singular figure of Modern Greek history. Count Kapodistrias occupies a distinguished position in the history of Greek Gastronomy, for he was directly responsible for the introduction of the tuber which became known as “patata” to Greece. It may surprise some to learn that those famous Greek lemon potatoes are relatively recent developments in Greek cookery, but so it is. From its indigenous origin in South America, and one century after it had been introduced to the rest of Europe, the humble potato finally reached Greece and what a reception it got!
At first, people were wary of the agents who appeared in the marketplaces and offered sacks of potatoes to anyone who would take them at no charge whatsoever. Nobody wanted anything to do with them or their newfangled ‘food’. As there remained much widespread impoverishment among his compatriots due to the length and violence of the (then) still recent struggle for independence, Governor Kapodistrias believed that the introduction of a crop that could produce three harvests per annum would go a long way towards easing the recurring food shortages, especially in the urban centres of his fledgling state.
Since the uptake of the potato among the Greek populace did not exactly take off to his satisfaction, the ‘Governor Count’ concocted a stratagem to trick his countrymen (and women) into accepting the potato as food. He had the entire shipment of potatoes offloaded onto the dock at Nafplion (capital of Greece from 1829 to 1834), and ordered armed guards be set up to keep a not very vigilant eye on the potato stockpile. The guards were explicitly instructed to turn blind eyes at convenient moments. Once the guards were in place, the curiosity of the populace was piqued and they were keen to discover why these potatoes were deemed valuable enough to guard with armed soldiery. Some of the braver souls took advantage of the subtle carelessness of the guards and ‘stole’ some of the potatoes in order to try them out. In no time, all the potatoes were stolen away and the rest is Greek culinary history!
Today, whether baked, roasted or fried, the potato has become a staple food in any Greek home. The most prized potato variety in Greece is cultivated in the province of Arcadia in the central Peloponnesus; though spud cultivation is common enough throughout Greece, Arcadian potatoes fetch a premium in the marketplaces of the country. Harvesting of potatoes in Arcadia begins as early as March and carries through to the autumn. If you ever get the chance to sample pan baked Arcadian new potatoes still fragrantly fresh from the fields in late July, you will swear the Olympian gods themselves, and not Count Kapodistrias, had gifted the potato to Greece!
So, I would like to dedicate this recipe for Greek Patatopita or ‘Potato Pie’, in honour of the first Governor of Modern Greece: Count Ioannis Kapodistrias.
2 ½ lbs. (1 kilogram) potatoes
1 cup (250 ml.) dried breadcrumbs1 cup (250 ml.) of finely crumbled real Greek feta cheese
1 cup (250 ml.) of finely shredded halloumi* cheese (*halloumi is a traditional Cypriot cheese made from sheep and goat’s milk that has a texture similar to mozzarella though saltier in its flavour)2 tablespoons (30 ml.) Greek extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon (15 ml.) finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1 slight pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1. Wash and peel potatoes, then cut them into small chunks and boil in plenty of salted water until soft (approx. 30-40 minutes).
2. Drain potatoes when they are fully cooked and place in a large mixing bowl then mash them well and leave to cool slightly for a few minutes.
3. Add the two cheeses, mint, nutmeg, salt, pepper and well-beaten eggs to the mixing bowl and incorporate well with the mashed potato until the entire mix is smooth and creamy.
4. Using one (1) tablespoon of the oil, grease a pie baking pan well and then spread a little less than half of the breadcrumbs evenly across the bottom of the pan.
5. Pour the potato pie mix into the greased pan and spread it evenly.
6. Evenly distribute the rest of the breadcrumbs across the top of the evenly distributed pie mix and spray the remaining olive oil overtop.
7. Place the well-filled pie pan in an oven pre-heated to 350° F. (180° C.) for 40-45 minutes or until the top of the pie is golden-brown. Note: The pie will rise while in the oven and will settle when removed to cool, so don’t be surprised by either state.
8. Remove pie from the oven when it is ready and let stand to cool for 1 hour before slicing and serving.
Patatopita makes an excellent side for a baked/stewed vegetable or red meat dish, or it can be eaten on its own with a handful of Kalamata Olives as an accompaniment.
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)