Built amphitheatrically on the slopes of Profitis Ilias at the southern end of the island of Karpathos, the town of Menetes lies nestled inside the mountain at an elevation of about 300 meters. The island’s largest village, with more than 500 permanent inhabitants, Menetes is a prime example of a settlement that was originally built to avoid pirate raids. The town is “protected” by the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, which literally stands on the edge of a cliff. Directly opposite, perched on a rock overlooking the town stands the church of Aghios Spyridonas, the patron saint of Menetes, which was built in the late 19th century.
The Gerapetritis family works hard to preserve the local cuisine, customs, and traditions in Menetes, where you can get lost in the winding, maze-like alleys, where the view of the Mediterranean Sea gives you a sense of peace and calm, and where the spirit of resistance and the value of freedom forged the soul of Karpathos. At their bakery, which was established almost 20 years ago, siblings Michalis and Marianna, along with their mother Koula and occasionally their father Giannis, knead all their products by hand, from simits and zibilia to cakes.
An ode to simits
Around ten o’clock in the morning, eight people gather around a long wooden bench. They work together like a relay team, with Koula setting the pace. The first person uses a knife to cut the dough into thin strips, which are then passed on to the next person to knead. Everyone works quickly and methodically, with the knowledge gained through experience. The kneaded strips are passed down the chain to be formed into simits: first a ring, then vertical strips stacked on top of each other – nine strips in all. The last person coats the simit in sesame seeds, aniseed, black caraway, cumin, and nutmeg in a round pan. The dough itself already contains more herbs.
Once prepared, they are baked and allowed to dry for about 1.5 hours. “The simits, broken into smaller pieces in a wicker tray with candy, chewing gum and sugared almonds, are given out as a treat at weddings and christenings”, explains Michalis, adding that they make over 300 simits every day. Crunchy, with a distinct aniseed taste, they are also eaten as a breakfast snack with cheese and butter. “The smaller version is called ‘karelaki’”, adds Marianna.
The family’s history parallels that of the local community, which began to emigrate en masse to the United States, Canada, and Australia after World War II. Koula, who was born in Australia, came to Karpathos when she was three years old. She married Giannis when she was young, and they have lived together happily for more than 50 years. They worked tirelessly to make a better life for themselves. They used to run a taverna in the same location before they decided to convert it into a bakery. “I spent six months in Athens learning the trade. I’ve had a variety of jobs over the years. I’ve worked as a farmhand, as a construction worker ,and as a fisherman”, says Michalis.
Not your typical cake
Just before his fiftieth birthday, he thinks back to his early years of playing with his friends, bouncing from rooftop to rooftop and chasing each other with homemade slingshots and bows while coming up with new games to kill time. He nostalgically remembers the fish stew his mother used to make and the milk he used to drink directly from the goat at his family’s summer home in the nearby town of Stavri, where Koula cooked all their meals, as well as goods like the ones they currently sell at their bakery, in a wood-fired oven.
“Have you had some cake?”, Marianna asks me with a smile as I’m having a chat with her parents on the white-and-blue staircase next to the bakery, which, from a distance, resembles the Greek flag. She offers me something fluffy and aromatic, the size and shape of a shortcrust cheese pie, made with anthotyro cheese (myzithra cheese may also be used), cinnamon, and sugar. “This is the cake we make, and it comes in two varieties. One is milk-based, like the one you’re having now, and and the other is a brioche-type cake with mahleb and mastic”, she explains. While we’re talking, they offer tourists delicious simits, kourabiedes (shortbread-type biscuit with ground almonds), cabbage pies (savory pies with greens), and sourdough bread with butter. Every year, they go to the Church of the Cross to get holy water for the dough they use for this particular bread, because they also make yellow bread and black bread, among others.
They are hospitable and kind people who love their village and identify with its history and legacy. Regardless of how difficult it is for them to source local products (only their olive oil is sourced locally) or how expensive it is for raw materials to reach Karpathos due to rising prices, they continue to remain open all year round, taking care of their fellow townspeople and making sure that they have bread on the table on Sunday, while keeping their tradition alive in order to pass it on to the younger generation. They are heroic frontiersmen who cherish their heritage and their community.
This article was previously published in Greek at gastronomos.gr.