04 . 08 . 15
Grains & Gods

Mixing the ingredients of kolliva. Writing & image by Julia Georgallis.

Though a Londoner through and through, I have always taken a huge amount of inspiration from my Cypriot roots, especially when it comes to food. Cypriots are obsessed with food. There is so much pastry on the island that I’m pretty sure at any one time, at least 70% of the population must be eating some kind of baked good. ‘Have you eaten?’ – the eternal question on everyone’s lips whenever entering any relative’s house. The Cypriots not only love their food, they excel in it – produce, after all is one of their biggest exports. They are the mongerers of squeaky halloumi, salty feta, heady olive oil and meaty olives. But the preoccupation with food runs a lot deeper than superficial gluttony or economic gain. It represents abundance and nourishment – offering something to eat is also offering your friendship, and after some research I found that the Ancient Greeks used food in multiple rituals to symbolise the many facets of life.

My trip to Cyprus in July 2015 was unfortunately marred by a family tragedy – my granny passed away rather suddenly and violently. The funeral was raw, honest, emotional, gave great comfort and was of course, laced with food. I am not, however, referring to the spread during the wake. I am referring to the service itself. Before closing the grave, the priest doused the coffin with aromatic olive oil and a good helping of pine nuts. Not expecting this to happen, naturally, I was baffled as to why the priest was making a salad of my dead grandmother. But after asking around, I found that olives have been used in funerals for thousands of years to protect the souls of the deceased, and the pine nut to symbolise eternity. Each offering at the grave varies from village to village – I found out after that rather than pine nuts, wheat or barley is also often used in other villages, grains also symbolising life. After the funeral, I cast my mind back to a workshop I ran for a group of school childre last year and was reminded of other food related Hellenic funeral rites that also have ancient roots.

In October 2014, I was asked to prepare an Ancient Greek recipe for primary school children who were studying Ancient cultures. One of those that I thought had a very beautiful history was kolliva, a barley based dish flavoured with pomegranates, parsley, sesame seeds, raisins and almonds that is still eaten at funerals today. Each part of the recipe is symbolic, representative of the elements of life. The pomegranate represents Persephone, goddess of the Underworld and symbolises both death and fecundity. The raisins are Dionysus, god of ecstasy and creativity, the almonds Aphrodite, goddess of love, devotion and beauty. Sesame was said to unlock the subconscious and free the soul. And parsley personified death itself. The main ingredient of the dish however was barley, which represented Demeter, mother earth or the mother goddess. Grain, as I mentioned before, is life itself. During the workshop, the children mixed the ingredients and memorised how each of the ingredients represented a god, using food as a kind of mnemonic.

Though it comes from a sad place of losing some one so close to me, this post wasn’t intended to be sad – I find it all quite beautiful, actually, how food can be so revered and used in such a poetic way. Food becomes, literally, soul food according to my Ancient ancestors and a recipe, instead of a set of instructions, becomes a map to explain all varying parts that make up our little lives…