The Holy Week in Greece is full of scents and flavors. Ovens work overtime baking brioches (tsourekia), Easter biscuits and melitinia, diminutive sweets that originate from Santorini. Traditionally, melitinia are made by women and girls on Holy Tuesday to be eaten on the evening of the Resurrection and the coming days of Easter (Orthodox Easter falls on April 12 this year). The melitini (“melitinia” is plural) is made with an old traditional recipe. Katerina Peppa, the Santorinian lady who showed us how melitinia are made, believes that the idea for the recipe was born during Lent, when fasting was mandatory, so people had to find a way to use fresh cheese and butter produced on the island so as not to waste them. To form each melitini, the dough must be delicately and skillfully “pinched” by hand, producing a jewel-like tart that can be found in a variety of sizes.
The name “melitini” derives from the ancient word meliteros, which means “sweet like honey.” The delicious, moist center filling consists of fresh, soft unsalted cheese (usually myzithra or anthotyro) mixed with flour, eggs, sugar, vanilla and mastic powder. The outer shell is a very thin dough made from flour, water, salt and olive oil or butter. Women with thin, nimble fingers lift the dough around the filling and form a lacelike edging around the circumference. The more skilled the maker, the more pinches she can make in one melitini. Typically, melitinia require teamwork. In every team, usually a family, there are specializations: one takes on the role of pinching, another rolls the sheet (though this is mostly done by machine now), another makes the filling and so on.
Elegant ntourtouletia are the Lenten version of melitinia and also come from Santorini. While not as well known, they are also made for times of celebration, such as wedding days, in addition to the fasting period. They’re encased in phyllo, which is similarly shaped, pinched and baked, but filled with crushed honey-roasted almonds.
Variations on melitinia can be found in the Cyclades, such as on Tinos and Syros. Instead of mastic, the bakers may use orange zest, for example. Melitinia also greatly resemble Cretan lychnarakia (also known as skaltsounia), which can be found in bakeries across the country. They are both stuffed with fresh unsalted cheese, but melitinia are sweeter, more aromatic and their dough more delicate, while the latter has fluffier, bulkier dough (which makes them easier to prepare) and are usually served with cinnamon and raw honey.
Melitinia require artistry, craftsmanship and time. Thus, they are hard to come by in many bakeries. Most housewives continue to bake them at home, though usually with fewer pleats than in the past. The Bakery of Bougias in Piraiki, Piraeus, is an exception to the rule. Apostolos Bougias opened the bakery 40 years ago, and his grandsons Apostolis and Loukas took over six years ago. The brothers come from the island of Symi and the Easters of their childhoods were filled with the magnificent aroma of their grandmother and aunts’ melitinia. After a great deal of trial and error, they were finally able to recreate their grandmother’s recipe, and they introduced the delicacy to the bakery, where it was enthusiastically received by customers (especially those from Santorini and other islands). Closer to the traditional version are the melitinia of Diamantis bakery in Ilioupoli. And last but not least, die-hard fans of these sweets can order melitinia all year long from Erotokritos bakery in Santorini.