Slow-cooking Cyprus style
It was about 5pm. I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast. I was down in the Paphos area exploring the possibility of organising a “Wine and Golf” holiday based at Aphrodite Hills. I’d been checking the timings for traveling from one winery to another, part of my initial research. Also visited a few wineries and introduced myself. I’d only recently come to live in Cyprus and did not yet know my way around well.
I stopped outside an unimposing Taverna that took my fancy. I browsed at the menu outside. When it comes to restaurants, I certainly believe in Shakespeare’s “All that glitters is not Gold, all that shineth is not Silver.” For me this had a feel-good factor, the right Feng Shui.
“Can I help you?” asked the owner.
I was feeling more than a little peckish. “I suppose it is too early to eat,” I ventured hesitantly.
“We’re not really ready yet,” was the reply, "but you could have a Tavas dish in about twenty minutes, if you’d like a drink with some dips while you wait."
“Tavas will be fine,” I said and went in.
A “Tavas” is a clay pot for slow cooking. All around the Mediterranean, people have a tradition for slow cooking. You are all probably familiar with Greek Kleftiko. Do you know why it is so called? “Kleftis” is a robber in Greek. As the Greek uprising was gathering steam in the 19th century against 400 years of Ottoman slavery, the Klefts were the resistance, the Robin Hoods of the day, hiding in the mountains. They couldn’t give themselves away with smoke and cooking smells. So they would dig a big hole in the ground and put burning coals inside together with a lamb, cover it with earth and leave to cook for hours. Cyprus has “Kleftiko”, but it also has its own local traditional method of slow cooking with the Tavas, similar in concept to a Moroccan Tagine, but without the conical top.
I was just reaching the end of my Keo beer when my Tavas was brought to me all piping hot from the kitchen. Delicious aromas of cumin and cinnamon wafted up to me. We use both spices a lot in Greek cooking – sometimes one and sometimes the other. A Tavas dish, however, has the two spices combined. Chefs will vary in their preferences, but typically one uses two teaspoons of cumin and one of cinnamon. If chicken is the meat being cooked I find the reverse works best – two teaspoons of cinnamon with one of cumin.
I have to say that that Tavas dish which I ate in this empty restaurant a short distance from Aphrodite Hills on the coastal road from Paphos, was the best Tavas meal I have ever eaten – before or since. It inspired me to go out and buy a Tavas Pot from our local pottery in Paralimni.
As well as using it in the traditional way with lamb or pork cut into smallish cubes, I sometimes cook a whole piece of top of leg of lamb in the Tavas. This has had people raving about it at dinner parties. I sometimes also slow-cook chicken pieces in a Tavas.
Very similar to a Tavas dish is the Greek Psito which can also be cooked in a Tavas Pot. You might like to have a look at Myrtia's recipe for this.
It’s difficult to fit into airplane luggage but, if you can, I’d quite recommend buying a Tavas Pot to take home after a holiday in Cyprus. A little one maybe!