As anyone familiar with Greek folk religious traditions and habits can tell you, communication between Greeks and their saints has traditionally been quite direct – saints are addressed with respect, of course, but also in a friendly and familiar manner. I myself have witnessed several people – almost always of the older generations – have a proper “conversation” (more like a monologue) with the saint of their choice.
Each saint has a particular day on which they’re celebrated; in some places, large festivals are thrown in their patron saint’s honor, with people of all ages dancing and drinking wine until the early morning hours. Throughout the year, it’s common for Greeks to make special “deals” with their saints. A typical tama (τάμα), or a favor you ask from a saint with a promise to give something in return, might go something like this: “My Virgin Mary, help my son do well on his university exams and I promise to light a candle taller than him for you.” Some believe that these habits were inherited from ancient Greek culture and religion, in which people offered gifts (commonly food and wine) to the gods to show their gratitude and threw festivals to celebrate them.
Saint Fanourios (Ayios Fanourios) is particularly popular, probably because he has become known as the saint of lost things. In order for him to help you find what you are looking for – maybe your car keys or even your future husband! – you must bake a fanouropita, a special cake just for him.
The reason the saint became associated with lost things was due to the way his icon was discovered on the island of Rhodes. In fact, he was unknown until the 14th century, when the ruins of a church were discovered. Several destroyed icons were found in the ruins, but there was one in very good condition: It portrayed a young saint dressed in Roman military attire, holding a cross with a lit candle atop. Surrounding the portrait were scenes from his life, depicting his dedication to Christianity and the awful tortures he suffered before his death.
The Metropolitan bishop of Rhodes at the time, Neilos the Second, saw that the saint’s name was written on the icon: Ayios Fano (Άγιος Φανώ). His name eventually became Fanourios, which means “he who reveals” (the verb faino – φαίνω – in Greek means to illuminate, to shine, and also to reveal). The Metropolitan bishop reconstructed the old church (which survives today), dedicated it to Saint Fanourios and declared August 27 as his saint’s day.
The patron saint of Rhodes, Saint Fanourios eventually became popular across the Hellenic world. Since little was known about his actual life, folk tradition made sure to fill in the gaps and add in a bit of spice. The best example is the made-up tale about the saint’s mother, who was supposedly an evil woman and a sinner. In fact, in some parts of Greece people bake a fanouropita to “forgive the soul” of the saint’s mother, although this is quite rare nowadays. Most believers bake the cake in order to help them find what they are looking or for good luck.
Women traditionally prepare the cake, which is made with either seven or nine ingredients – both numbers are symbolic for Greek Christians (there are seven sacred mysteries, the seven days of creation, and the nine orders of angels). While making the cake, tradition calls for a lit candle, burning incense and the reading of a specific prayer. If the cake doesn’t rise, it’s considered a bad omen, but if it rises well and turns out successful, the news is good.
The cake is vegan so that it could be consumed during Lent and also by the priests and monks who fast. In fact, most monastery recipes replace olive oil with another vegetable oil (olive oil is not permitted in very strict Lent). Not only is the number of ingredients symbolic, but the ingredients themselves also carry meaning. Oil symbolizes the mercy of God while flour stands for life. Grape molasses or honey was formerly used as a sweetener, but sugar is more common nowadays; all three symbolize happiness. Warm spices like cinnamon and clove symbolize the graces of the Holy Spirit, as do the orange juice and zest. Raisins, an ancient symbolic ingredient, represent the sweetness of life, while some people add walnuts or sesame seeds, which both symbolize abundance.
There are several variations but the essence of the recipe is the same, as well as the number of ingredients used. Some people like to add sweet wine, others a splash of brandy. On the island of Kasos the cake is made with honey, and on Samothrace they stamp fanouropita with the special holy bread seal (sfragida).
Once the cake is baked and ready, you traditionally bring it to a church to be blessed by the priest. After being blessed, it is sliced into 40 pieces and handed out to the people who are present or to friends. On August 27, churches across Greece smell divine as women come bearing their precious cakes. If you happen to be in Greece, you can stop by a church during the morning mass and claim a piece.
Alternatively, you can try making your own cake home, especially if you’ve lost something – maybe the saint will reveal it! The recipe is easy, and the resulting cake tastes wonderful alongside a cup of tea or coffee.
290 ml sunflower oil + a little extra to grease the pan
360 ml fresh orange juice + 1 tsp orange zest
260 gr brown sugar
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground clove
500 gr all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
160 gr raisins
50 gr sesame seeds + extra to sprinkle on top
Preheat your oven to 160 degrees C. Sift flour in a bowl. In a second larger bowl, add the oil, sugar, cinnamon, clove and orange zest and beat until thick and almost creamy. Add half the orange juice and beat for about a minute. Take the remainder of the orange juice and stir in the baking soda, while holding the container over the top of the mixing bowl – the soda will rise and froth. Then add the orange juice and baking soda to the mixture, followed by the raisins and sesame seeds, and mix. Start to gradually add the flour while folding gently with a wooden spoon. Once all the flour is incorporated, your mix should resemble a typical cake mix (only a bit more liquid due to the oil). Grease a round 25-27cm diameter cake pan. Pour in the cake mix and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for about 50-55 minutes at 160. Remove from oven and allow it to cool before removing it from the cake tin.
May you find all that you are searching for!