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Kleftiko: The Stolen Meat

June 29, 2011

Thursday was another day dedicated to filming and this time it was my group’s turn to be behind the cameras. We would be filming at a butchery and learning the process behind making a traditional Cypriot meat dish called Kleftiko. Kleftiko (literally meaning stolen meat) earned its name during the 19th century when it was illegal for “commoners” to own animals of any kind, meaning they had no animals to eat during meals. The people would steal a lamb (hence the name) and in order to cook it, they had to use a makeshift oven dug into the side of a hill or the ground. They would heat the meat with wood and then cover the hole with a large rock, letting the meat cook for at least 8-12 hours. By cooking it this way, no smells or steam would escape .. giving the “thief” away.

Today Kleftiko is a seasonal staple in the Cypriot meze. While it is only cooked from roughly March to September, during those months it is almost an attraction to those looking to eat a meze. And in most cases, it is still cooked the traditional way (with a bit of a modern twist). But let’s start from the beginning ..

We arrived at the butchery early Thursday morning to the wonderful sounds of saws ripping through meat and bones (and if you know me, I HATE seeing bones in meat .. this was going to be a tough day for sure). We got a peek in the meat cooler where there were literally whole animals hanging. The butcher was sawing the lamb meat to prepare it for the Kleftiko and there was a special technique to it. While the meat had to be in a somewhat rectangular strip (with bones still in it), it also had to be rolled, so he literally used the saw to make perforations in the meat to roll it up. After that, each individual roll was bagged in a net to keep it together during the cooking since the meat ends up getting really tender.

Inside the meat cooler

The butcher using the saw to cut the meat for the Kleftiko


Netting the meat for Kleftiko

After they had netted all of the Kleftiko meat, we headed into the back room to start the process of preparing the Kleftiko for cooking. The first step was to rinse all of the meat and potatoes with water in huge bins. While the meat and potatoes soaked for a few moments, the butcher’s helper prepared the clay pots the meat would be cooked in. They use clay pots for two reasons. One being that the clay can withstand high temperatures for long periods of time, and two being the fact that is soaks up the flavors during cooking, making the meat more savory. The potatoes are simply cooked in metal tubs. The helper fills each clay pot (and the metal tubs) with several spices including cinnamon sticks, pepper, and garlic. Then she poured “pure spirits” (which I think was vodka) onto the spices. After that, the pots and tubs were ready for the meat and potatoes.

The potatoes waiting to be rinsed

Adding the spices to the pots

"Pure spirits" waiting to be added to the spices

The butcher started filling each pot with about 15 pieces of Kleftiko and each tub with as many potatoes as would fit. He explained to us that each net of meat constituted one serving of Kleftiko, and while the net helped maintain the shape of the meat, it also helped him to know exactly how much to giver each person when serving the finished product.

Full pots of Kleftiko ready for the next step

After the pots were filled with the meat, they needed to be covered so the meat wouldn’t burn. The butcher covered the met first with thick paper and a square of pig skin. The pig skin not only added to the flavor but because it is tough, it helps a lot in preventing the meat from burning. After each pot was covered with the skin, they proceeded to cover the pots with multiple layers of foil to further prevent burning and to hold in the flavor.

Pig skin waiting to go on top of the Kleftiko meat


Covering the pots with the paper and pig skins

With the pots all covered (and the tubs with potatoes covered in foil as well), it was time to transport everything across the street. Yes, I said across the street. That is where the butcher keeps his ovens. In order to cook the Kleftiko in a somewhat traditional way, he uses outdoor, large clay ovens to cook the meat in. The ovens were cracked from the extreme heat the endure, but he informed us that he fixes the cracks occasionally. While the meat does need to cook for at least 8 hours, we learned that as long as the ovens are air tight, the meat can actually stay inside for much much longer, ensuring its freshness.

Kleftiko meat waiting to be popped in the oven

The oven used to cook the Kleftiko

The butcher slid the meat and potatoes into the oven and we could see the fire rising in the top. It would be 8 hours before it was ready so we couldn’t exactly wait around, but I was excited to know I would get to try Kleftiko at our final meze!

Putting Kleftiko in the oven

An oven full of Kleftiko!

The fire inside

It is so interesting to me the lengths the older generation of Cyprus go to keep things as traditional as possible, while striving to meet modern expectations. It is sad to think that eventually these ways will die out because the younger generation is far from interested in keeping them around. Kleftiko is such a good example because it is a dish that came out of harder times. It was created due to a generation trying to survive under suppression. Respect is shown to the ancestors who created Kleftiko by this generation’s effort to use the traditional ways of cooking they were taught. We always want things bigger, better, faster, stronger .. but is that really always what we need? I’ll leave you with that thought, and until next time .. stay tuned!

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