Grab a slice of Spanakopita history the next time you have a craving for the famous Greek spinach and cheese pie.
Spanakopita is a type of Greek pita, which is another word for a pie. In this case the piecrust is always layers of phyllo dough that you can fill with sweet or savory fillings. The pitas are part of a mezze appetizer spread but can also be a main course, or a snack. But where did this dish originate? Read on to discover a little Spanakopita history.
Spanakopita is the most famous pita of all. To make it, brush layers of phyllo dough with butter or olive oil and fill the middle with spinach, scallions, herbs, and feta cheese. Chefs will often put their own stamp on it changing up the herbs, cheeses, and alliums. In my Spanakopita recipe, I love using a mix of feta and kefalotiri, scallions, dill, and mint. The salty, briny, and aromatic flavors make this pie incredibly delicious.
In Greece, you can find Spanakopita in windows of street-side coffee shops and bakeries and more refined versions on restaurant menus. In Greek homes both in Greece and abroad, families serve Spanakopita for any and all occasions. Most of the time they stock their freezer with backups to satisfy unexpected company as well.
Early origins of Spanakopita
Greeks have been eating these pies since ancient times. One of the earliest references to one comes from the poet Philoxenos in the fifth century B.C. Philoxenos writes that at the end of a banquet the hosts served a cheesecake made with milk and honey that was baked like a pie. That sounds similar to my recipe for Melopita from Sifnos, and it bet it was spectacular. Other ancients were fond of cheese pies wrapped in fig leaves, which is starting to resemble the leaves of dough that encase our modern day pies; the literal translation for phyllo is leaf.
Spinach, phyllo and Spanakopita arrive in Greece
Spanakopita is one of Greece’s signature dishes. It is ubiquitous all over the country, but some of the most famous versions come from the northwestern region of Epirus. Historically master foragers, Greeks in that region and beyond, have used wild greens as the backbone of their diet. It was only a matter of time before they started finessing them into pies. But when did the actual spinach arrive? Spinach originated in the Middle East and merchants brought it to Spain. Finally, during the Byzantine Empire it arrived in the rest of Europe. Farmers in the area that comprises present-day Greece discovered that they could cultivate this leafy green very easily.
Like the arrival of spinach in Greece, phyllo emerges during Byzantine times, and with it come the pies that it makes become a cornerstone of Greek cookery. Phyllo is a basic dough with flour, salt, water, olive oil, and sometimes yeast or another leavening agent like baking powder. It’s an easy dough to make, but one that takes time and finesse to roll out. The quickest way to make the pies today is to use commercially produced phyllo. All you have to do is brush each paper thin layer with olive oil or butter to create an incredibly satisfying pie.
Are you salivating after this bit of Spanakopita history? Now it’s time to try out my favorite Spanakopita recipe!
Sources for the historical info:
The Food and Wine of Greece by Diane Kochilas, pages 111-112
The Olive and the Caper by Suzanna Hoffman, pages 83-93