A traditional and delightful Greek custom is the offering of spoon sweets to guests as a symbol of hospitality. They are called spoon sweets because the usual serving size is a well-filled teaspoon.
Legend has it that when the custom first began, everyone took their sweet from the same bowl in order to assure that it was safe for all to eat ... not poisoned.
The ancient Greeks savored combinations of nuts and fruits with sweeteners like honey and petimezi (grape molasses).
However, it was during Ottoman times, when sugar was more readily available, that syrupy preserves of fruit, rinds, nuts, and sometimes vegetables became well known. Spoon sweets were favorites of the Turkish pashas (governors) during the Ottoman occupation of Greece, and they became a part of the Greek culinary experience.
Fruits, nuts, and vegetables are harvested when firm (often slightly underripe) and made into spoon sweets. These sweets are made with simple, natural ingredients that transform them into something entirely new, exciting, and delicious.
It is impossible to provide a single recipe for all spoon sweets. The liquid and sugar measurements vary according to the type of fruit or vegetable used. They are not as dense as jam or jelly. The fruit should remain firm and sit in a nice pool of syrup thick enough to coat a spoon. The fruit in spoon sweets retains its original color, taste, and aroma.
In cooking softer fruit and vegetables, a pickling lime bath is often the first step to firm up the pulp (i.e., apricots, watermelon), or a blanched almond is inserted into the pulp to keep the fruit shape (i.e., figs). Harder fruits and vegetables can be grated to make the sweets (i.e., carrots, quince, and potato.
The Island of Chios has several spoon sweet specialties including Orange and Lemon Blossom Spoon Sweet. This sweet is made from a combination of orange and lemon blossoms, tangerine when available, sugar, water, and lemon juice. Another island specialty called a Submarine. Mastic, a translucent sticky substance similar to tree sap, is combined with sugar, lemon juice, and water. Served on a spoon immersed in cold water, it's a special treat.
Baby Eggplant Spoon Sweet is popular on Crete. It is made with very small eggplants. They are scored with a sharp knife, and slightly cooked. Then they are drained and dried, and a blanched almond is inserted deeply into the pulp. The syrup is made using three parts sugar to one part water, cloves, a cinnamon stick, and lemon juice. The process takes several days of cooking and cooling, but the results are fabulous.
On the Island of Ikaria, walnut and sour cherry spoon sweets are a specialty. On the island of Aegina, immature and soft pistachios are preserved.
In the Peloponnese, whole small green bitter oranges and the rind of ripe Seville oranges (bitter also) are made into spoon sweets using citrus peel and citron.
On Naxos, quince spoon sweet is flavored with basil. Other recipes may call for scented rose or lemon geranium leaves. On Santorini, spoon sweets are made from whole pomodoro tomatoes seasoned with cinnamon and whole almonds.
Monasteries and convents also make spoon sweets. The Taxiarchon Monastery in Lakonia (Peloponnese) is famous for its rose petal spoon sweet. The monks make it every June from a particularly aromatic rose that grows on the monastery grounds. They supplement their income by selling it in huge quantities. One of the most unique spoon sweets is made in a convent in Chania, Crete. It is prepared from grated potatoes and flavored with vanilla.
It takes time and patience to make spoon sweets, so it isn't a surprise that it's considered women's work. Grandmothers passed the recipes down to their daughters and the younger girls watched until they were old enough to help. The sweets were something that every young Greek girl had to know how to make in order to be a successful housewife.
Times have changed. More women work outside of the home and do not want or have the time to make their own spoon sweets, so a wide range of spoon sweets is now commercially produced. Manufacturers have tried to make use of the local market as well as to tap into international culinary prospects. To a certain extent they have been successful.
Women committed to the preservation of traditional recipes and preparation methods feared a loss of their culture and identity so they formed local Women's Agricultural Cooperatives all over Greece. Collectively, they developed new skills seeking to improve on production methods. They learned how to run businesses and educated themselves regarding marketing their products. Traditional homemade spoon sweets are now widely available through these Cooperatives.
Spoon sweets can also be eaten in the traditional way and also used to top fresh fruit, in baked goods like cookies and cakes, and drizzled over ice cream and cheeses. Sour Cherry Spoon Sweet is an excellent accompaniment to all types of poultry, and the syrup is used to make a favorite summer beverage, Vyssinatha. Quince and sour cherry spoon sweets are also delightful served with cheese (feta and manouri, especially).
Spoon sweets are healthy confections, visually pleasing, distinctive, and extremely versatile. Offering them to guests is a wonderful tradition and a sign of "sweet" hospitality.