After a year spent refining the art of stocking, and then cooking from, our pantry – what else to do when cooped up at home? – there’s one ingredient that we are eager to evangelize about: tahini, the paste made from grinding roasted sesame seeds.
It has a lot going for it: Tahini has a long shelf life, is packed with calcium, iron and Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, and is a good source of energy. In fact, tahini has seen a comeback lately, as part of the greater attention being given to plant-based diets, together with all the various nut butters and non-dairy milks.
Sesame, of course, is not a nut but a seed. And in contrast to all other nut butters, tahini is not a new food. The first mention of tahini as an ingredient is believed to be in an anonymous 13th-century Arabic cookbook (the word itself traces back to an Arabic root that, in its verb form, means “to grind”), although sesame has been cultivated since around 4,000 B.C.
Although it is always readily available on supermarket shelves, tahini is not as widely consumed in Greece as it is in Cyprus or the Middle East. The country’s sesame cultivation occurs mainly in the northern regions of Macedonia and Thrace, and in addition to making tahini, sesame seeds are sprinkled on breads and rusks, used as a coating on koulouria, sesame bread rings, or found in koulourakia, twisted or coiled cookies. They are also a crucial ingredient in pasteli, a traditional candy made with honey and sesame.
The only time tahini and its derivative, tahini halva, become a staple on everyone’s table is during Lent, the 40-day fast before Easter. The most common use of tahini during Lent is as a spread on bread with honey (what we like to think of as the Greek equivalent of a PB&J) or mixed with honey and cocoa, which renders something remarkably close to Nutella – both sweets are an alternative to desserts made with eggs, milk and butter. It’s also a key ingredient in tahinopita (tahini cake) or sweet pastries like Lenten apple pies.
The very devout and monks/nuns also use it instead of olive oil on the days that one cannot have oil at all (Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent). This custom has resulted in dishes like tahinosoupa (tahini soup), a vegetable soup with tahini as the main fat, sometimes with the addition of small pasta like orzo or bulgur wheat.
But even during Lent, mass-produced white tahini – made by grinding toasted, hulled sesame – is what you’ll usually find in supermarkets. It wasn’t until we tasted whole grain tahini, in which the sesame’s hull is left intact before toasting and grinding, that we truly fell in love with the paste and made it a staple of our everyday diet. The reason being that whole grain tahini, aside from the great health benefits, has a very full, nutty taste, almost like peanut butter (minus the salt, of course).
The only time tahini and its derivative, tahini halva, become a staple on everyone’s table is during Lent, the 40-day fast before Easter.
High-quality whole grain tahini is hard to find, especially tahini that is produced in Greece and made with sesame seeds grown in the country (most sesame is imported from abroad). However, it is definitely worth tracking down, as both its taste and texture is superior to white tahini. To help you in that search, we found some of the best whole grain tahinis in Greece. Their owners all share the same love and respect for the product and the consumer, doing everything in their power to make tahini that is both tasty and beneficial to those who enjoy it!
Thanasis Polyzoides, the owner of Samythos, started the company a decade or so ago. After studying agriculture and spending many years listening to everyone in his small village of Vryssika, in the northeastern region of Evros (close to the Turkish border), complain that they couldn’t make products that would bring them fame and fortune, like in other parts of Greece, he decided to do something about it. “We always cultivated sesame, but it was mainly for personal use,” he tells us. “The local Evros variety, however, is very special and very old. The soil here is poor, so sesame is a very good choice for cultivation, as it needs very little in terms of water or care. The fields are in a mountainous area and have low yields, which give a more intense taste and are higher in essential oils. Harvesting is done manually, to ensure the best possible results.” Nowadays they produce around 6-7 tons of sesame per year, all organically grown, and are looking to expand, as demand is quite high.
Samythos tahini differs from other whole grain tahinis because the seed is never heated too much during production. They produce a “cold pressed” version and a “raw” version, the only one of its kind in Greece. “We have designed all the machinery ourselves in collaboration with universities in Korea and Japan. Our goal was to make a product with the highest nutritional value possible, a tahini to enjoy in small quantities, as its nutrients have high absorption rates. This is achieved by not heating up the seeds much, in any part of the production. We also make sure that the sesame storage does not harbor the harmful salmonella bacteria, or aflatoxins,” he explains.
The end result is a quite fine and runny tahini – not thick and chunky like other brands, making it very easy on the palate. It’s also lower in calories since the seeds are left to sprout a bit before they are ground, a process that “eats up” fats and releases iron and calcium.
Their raw tahini, on the other hand, is a very special product, one that lacks the flavor of roasted tahini. “We try to communicate to people that this tahini is almost of medicinal value and very little is needed in order to gain nutritional benefits,” Thanasis says. “It is not to be eaten in large quantities or used in cooking!” Instead, a teaspoon of the stuff is more than enough.
Samythos now exports to 12 countries, and in the U.S. you can find it at dianekochilas.com. In Greece, you can order directly from them either through their website or their Facebook page, or at specialized vendors around the country.
The ancient Greek word for sesame (sisamon, σήσαμον) became the brand name for this very new tahini business, which first appeared on the scene in 2018. The company was set up by two brothers, Andreas and Giorgos Fardis, who left their jobs as a successful dietician and mechanical engineer, respectively, and decided to make tahini and nut butters their primary profession. “Our family always cultivated sesame, as the plain close to our village of Peristera, near Thessaloniki, has perfect soil for sesame cultivation and there is almost no humidity in the air. However, our father didn’t really have the time to continue grandpa’s sesame crop, as he had to work away from home so much. Our grandfather also cultivated almonds and hazelnuts. Our mother kept up with the crops, selling them to others for very little profit. So we decided to take matters into our own hands,” Andreas explains.
Using the money they had saved, they bought the necessary equipment to start producing nut butters (almond, hazelnut and peanut), as well as tahini. “Our goal was to supply the market with excellent quality, organic products, devoid of sugars and of course palm oil,” he adds. And it is true that they have succeeded so far, although Andreas is somewhat disappointed with the local market in northern Greece. “There are people who complain that our products are expensive, but they don’t realize how much work and care they need. Our aim at the moment is to export most of our products to Europe and other markets that can appreciate the quality we produce and to some select shops in Athens as well, as Athens is a good market for whole grain tahini and nut butters.”
For their tahini, they use the traditional method of first soaking it in salty water, then washing, then drying/roasting at around 80 degrees C and finally grinding in a stone mill.
Demand has rocketed during the pandemic, making Cicamon a bit more difficult to find. Your best bet is to try ordering directly by sending an email to email@example.com or by phone at +30 6978 530 895.
The beautiful island of Lemnos, in the northern part of the Aegean, is home to many great products: DOP white wine made from Muscat grapes, as well as red wines made from the limnio variety, DOP cheese (the feta-like kalathaki), rusks and flour from a local wheat variety. It’s also the home to one of the country’s tastiest tahinis, made by the Ahilladelis family. “It all started with our grandfather Vassilis, who opened a small business in the 1930s making tahini and sesame oil. The local variety of sesame we have in Lemnos is of excellent quality and I think it is similar to the one from Evros,” says Nikos Ahilladelis, who runs the business nowadays with his brother Elias; the duo now also produce excellent tahini halva, spoon sweets and grape must. “Our crop is not organic, but sesame doesn’t need much in terms of chemicals. It is a sturdy crop and it is not so burdened with chemicals,” Nikos adds.
They produce around 50 tons of sesame per year, most of which is grown in their own fields, but they also buy some from trusted local farmers. “Every detail counts when it comes to tahini, as it is not a complicated thing. First is the sesame itself and then what you do with it,” Nikos explains. They follow the traditional method of soaking and roasting before grinding with a traditional stone mill. “We were the ones who taught Athenians to eat whole grain tahini in the 60s. They only knew the white tahini. Our products were featured in Vassilopoulos supermarkets and gradually people learned that whole grain tastes better than white,” he says. They don’t currently sell any of their products in big supermarket chains, deciding instead to focus on select smaller shops. “We want customers who know what they are buying,” Nikos adds. They also export, under a different name, to Singapore and some parts of Europe.
Visit their website or send them an email to find a vendor near you. Most of their products can be found at Katalahou (9 Mavromihali Street) and Peri Lesvou (27 Athinas Street) in Athens, or you can order large containers online from Limnos Shop.
Parmenion Gatos, the owner of Thysanos, has been a farmer since 2004. The area around his home village of Kokkina, near Volos in the central Thessaly region, is fertile and full of crops. “I started with more conventional crops, like wheat and cotton, but I gradually turned to newer ones, like lavender and cannabis. With sesame cultivation, it all began when a friend suggested I try it, because it needs less water and fertilizers and could easily become an organic crop. I loved tahini myself, so it was a great opportunity to create a product that is not traditional in this part of Greece. The seed is of the famous Evros variety, and we have been making tahini for the last four years. Everything is done by hand. It is a tedious process that gives great results, but of course produces a great quality tahini that does not come cheap,” he tells us.
Parmenion is solely a farmer and sends his product to a specialized mill in Athens to get it ground. “They take great care with our sesame, which is slowly roasted in temperatures under 50 degrees C before being ground. The aim is to not raise temperatures too high, so as not to lose the nutritional elements,” he explains.
Production is still quite low and distribution scarce. “We are trying to make ourselves known in Greece first and then consider exporting. The problem is always the fact that with crops you don’t always get the same amounts,” Parmenion says.
Contact them on Facebook to find a vendor near you or order online from Elli Deli. A few small shops stock it, such as Katalahou (9 Mavromihali Street) in Athens and Mandragoras (16 Dim. Gounari Street) in Piraeus.
Based in Laganas village, in the western Peloponnese, this is the southernmost tahini producer on the market. The cultivation is strictly organic, and every part of the cultivation and harvest is done by hand. The owner, Demitris Anagnostopoulos, comes from a long line of farmers, as the area is quite fertile. “My grandfather, father and uncles all cultivated sesame, but they would sell it to the town of Gytheon [south of Sparta] and other areas to be made into pasteli,” Demitris tells us. He has been working as an organic farmer since 2001, but growing sesame and producing tahini are relatively new ventures. “I started cultivating sesame in 2013, but I would sell it to the mill [the same mill that Thysanos uses] to make their own brand tahini. At some point, about two years ago, the owner of the mill told me to start making my own tahini, as the quality was really high, and here we are!” he says.
Anagnostopoulos tahini definitely has less of a smoky flavor and is slightly lighter in color, a result of the sesame variety as opposed to how much it has been roasted. “The variety of sesame we cultivate is different to the one in Evros, but equally old, and it’s local. It’s blonder and quite high in essential oils,” Demitris says. “We produce around 17,000-18,000 jars or tahini from about 10 tons of sesame. We send the sesame to Athens, to Lambropoulos’ mill, where it is cold pressed into tahini. They take great care with our product and have a different line for organic products.”
Order online at Hlianthos or email the owner directly to find a vendor near you in Greece.
Notable Mention: Floros
A fifth-generation business in the small village of Mesoropi in northern Greece, about an hour-and-a-half drive east from Thessaloniki, Floros was established in the second half of the 19th century by Sofianos Floros, the great-grandfather of the tireless current owner, 52-year-old Floros Florou. Α father of 10 kids and grandfather of two, Floros also teaches math at the local school, in addition to running his sesame mill and tahini business. The village is situated in an area with many small creeks, and there used to be numerous water mills in operation. “Using old stone mills is essential in order to produce good quality tahini,” Floros explains “because stone grinding keeps temperatures low. The lower the temperature, the higher the nutritional value of the tahini.”
Floros used to cultivate his own sesame, but nowadays he chooses the best from northern Greece and the Turkish coast. “I have had the same great suppliers for 30 years now, as great sesame is essential for great tahini. We buy very expensive sesame and try to avoid the really cheap ones that come from Africa or India, as quality control in cultivation is really low there,” he says.
The sesame is first washed with salty water to remove impurities, air dried, roasted in an old wood furnace and then ground. The old furnace gives a smoky, toasty aroma to the sesame that makes Floros’ tahini particularly flavorful. “We try to keep the temperature low, so that the taste is good, but the nutritional value stays high. It is all about the temperature,” he adds.
In Greece, you can order Floros tahini through online shops such as Delizioso and Dimitras Gaia. Or you can contact them directly on Facebook or by phone (25920 93562 or 6972543276) to make an order or ask them for a vendor near you. You can also buy directly from them.
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