That’s NOT Baklava!


Traditional Greek Baklava – walnut and cinnamon, The Sweet Spot. Patisserie, Randwick

“That’s NOT Baklava!”

I don’t know who was more mortified – the bakery serving Sydney traditional Greek baklava since at least 1962, my mother-in-law who was the recipient of the, to-her-mind, transparently absurd suggestion, or me.

Non-plussed but armed with the fortitude that the costumer was always right even when they were wrong, the baker was very politely going to right her customer’s wrong.

“This is how baklava is made all over Greece.”

“But is not real Baklava. Real baklava is from Mytilene.”

“Of course Mytilene makes delicious baklava but isn’t it just local variation?”

“Hmpft…” My mother-in-law pointed to a box. “Has butter?”

The baker subtly tilted her head.

“Pft… Walnuts?”

Another tilt of the head.

“Pfffffft…That’s not Baklava!”

Authentic Turkish Baklava with Pistachio, Mastika Ice Creamery, Belmore

At a family gathering a close friend with a fine nose for flavour and a passion for postmodern cuisine brought over her latest culinary accomplishment – hazelnut and rose water baklava. Oops! I forgot to warn her not to offer said mother-in-law any.

“That’s NOT Baklava!” rang through my kitchen. Profuse apologies, red faces and awkward silence followed. Unfortunately the discomfort wasn’t memorable enough for the offense not to be repeated or me to issue warnings at the front door. The next time almost caused an international incident.

Armed with the only true baklava, my mother-in-law offered her signature dessert to another baklava aficionado.

“Baklava!!!! That’s NOT Baklava. Real baklava comes from Turkey, from the town of Baklava!”

“Not Turkey, Mytilene!!!@!@!!”

That was it, I had to hit Google. I had already enjoyed the light delight of Lebanese Baklava, or more correctly, Baklawa as it’s pronounced in Arabic, but I wasn’t aware of its spread across the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. I found surprising mention and recipes for Egyptian Baklava, Bulgarian Baklava, Jewish Baklava, Morrocan Baklava, Iranian/Persian Baghlava and Armenian Baklava.

Traditional Lebanese Baklawa with Cashews, Ibrahim Pastries, Rockdale

Historical hearsay is rife regarding where it originated. Was it Armenia? Persia? Greece? or in the Ottoman Empire? Local stories and cultural beliefs are full of bias fueled by modern day nationalism, but is there any truth to any of them?

Armenia, the first kingdom to install Christianity as its state religion claims baklava as a sweet tied to its Christian Easter lent – 40 layers of filo for the 40 day fast. 49 CE is the date of Armenia’s conversion and also its inception of Baklava. Did it enter Armenian cuisine the same way the Gospel’s did – via Jerusalem? If so, then logically baklava originated in Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that it’s a dessert found throughout the Arab world without determining an origin. This makes sense when Morocco and Egypt are brought into the equation. Does this then make it a Persian sweet? The Persian Empire extended throughout the Middle East but didn’t quite get to Morocco, but the Caliphate did. Perhaps baklava isn’t as old as Christianity.

Clearly the bulk of websites discussing the matter favour the Ottoman Empire with its origin. One website credits the kitchens of the Turkish Sultanate in Istanbul with the development of a similar Ancient 8thC BCE Assyrian sweet into Baklava. However, with apologies to my guest, the internet wasn’t able to produce a town called Baklava in Turkey but the sound of the word, Baklava brings Turkish to mind.

Could the Ottoman Empire be a short odds guess? The repetition throughout all of the recipes and websites of the Greek word for leaf-thin layered dough, filo, led me to ask whether it may have a Byzantine origin? That Empire did reach Morocco but not since the 6thC C.E.

Wikipedia tells us that the oldest recorded origin sweet for baklava was made by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. Placenta is mentioned by Cato and is believed to have developed in Roman/Byzantine kitchens before being refined by the Ottomans. It goes further in saying that on the Island of Lesbos there exists a baklava type sweet that is still called Placenta…Lesbos. Of all of the Greek Isles, why Lesbos???@!!@! Lesbos, aka, Mytilene, my mother-in-law’s home island! I ran it past my mother-in-law. Yes, there are some villages on the island that call baklava, placenta.

Just because the Romans documented a ” juvenilia” version in the 2ndC B.C.E. does the present day sweet without its key ancient ingredient, cheese, make it true Baklava? The Mytileneans have kept the Roman name for it alive but removing the cheese shows that it’s undergone some development,

If I had to pick a culture that has embraced this sweet and really celebrated its variety it would have to be Turkey. They will offer you pistachio, cashew, walnut, tahini and molassas, chocolate, sour cherry, apple and cinnamon, rhubarb…etc. varieties. Can they all be considered baklava?

Sour Cherry baklava with baklava ice-cream on the side - Hakiki, Enmore Rd Enmore

Sour Cherry Baklava with Baklava Ice-cream on the side – Hakiki, Enmore Rd, Enmore

Ok, so my mother-in-law’s baklava may have the earliest recorded roots. I’ll admit that. It doesn’t mean that everyone else’s baklava isn’t real baklava – just different. I’ll have them all with my Greek, er, Turkish, er, Lebanese, er….. extra short, black, muddy coffee.

Which is the real baklava…baklawa…baghlava? Aren’t they all unique as the variations in their name? But where did it originate?


And the moral of the story is, don’t ever argue with your mother-in-law. Er, maybe, just don’t argue with mine.

A big thank you to my fb friends and friends general with their suggestions of what baklava should be and where to find the best baklava in Sydney – Eleni, Costa, Cindy, Heidi, Sophia, Theo, Esen, Stella T, Georgia, Daniela, and Nic.


Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Pericles’ Voyage -Pt 3

To retrace Pericles voyage today would be like doing an archaeological tour of the Mediterranean. From the previous post in this series, we can assume that Shakespeare kept the historical pretext for the play accurate, despite changing the name of the main protagonist. There was a historic Tyre, Tharsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mytilene. Although he makes contemporary references e.g., the Spanish naval commander, Pedro de Valdes, who was imprisoned in London from 1588-1593; the Antiochan, Thaliard, having a pistol; and the existance of a Transylvanian in the market town of Mytilene, the world of the play is firmly set in the Graeco-Roman world in the time of the Seleucid Empire. Looking at how probable the journey he embarked on was, we can judge whether Shakespeare indeed meant the Aegean island, Thasos, when Tharsus was printed

I must apologize in advance for the crudeness of my map. Making it was an excursion into my school days, before computer graphics and scanners. Something, necessity forced me into, and a little curiosity as to whether it was do-able. Probably unwise, but I couldn’t find the necessary map in cyber-space. I hope it gives the idea of the journey in its jalopy way.

hippodrome from distance 1

The Hippodrome, Tyre (Sour), Lebanon

When Pericles flees from Antioch he is persued by Thaliard, an Antiochean lord entrusted with poison to kill him. Immediately, he returns home to Tyre. He loads his vessels with ample provisions and leaves quickly. Thaliard, not finding his wake, returns to Antioch.

Map of the journey of Pericles after fleeing Antioch

Pericles’ Journey, with apologies for the naivete of the map

Reason 1 – Why Tharsus was Thasos and not Tarsus – Distance

Looking at my crudely drawn map above, Tyre and Antioch are situated on the banks of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Tarsus is situated, north-west of Antioch, in modern-day Turkey. Tarsus is built about 20km inland from the Mediterranean Sea along the Berdan River. In trying to escape Thaliard, Pericles’ fleet would more likely have sailed in a direction away from Antioch and the local coast. He was particularly concerned not to embroil his people in a military conflagration with imperial Antioch. Sailing deep into the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean he had many islands to hide on. From Thasos, in the North Aegean, he could head up the Dardenelles (ancient Hellespont), through the Marmara Sea and into the Black Sea.

Reason 2 – Proximity to Troy

When Pericles arrives on Tharsus, he offers the provisions of his ships to the Governor of Tharsus. News of their famine had reached faraway Tyre, so Pericles had come prepared. He allays their suspicion over his intent by saying,

“And these our ships, you happily may think

Are like the Trojan Horse, was stuff’d within

With bloody veins, expecting overthrow,

Are stor’d with corn to make your needy bread,

And give them life whom hunger starv’d half dead.”

(Act I Scene IV lines 92-96)

Troy was situated in the Dardenelles, just off the Aegean Sea on what is today,Turkey’s west, mainland coast. On my map, it is north of Mytilene on the southern shore of the strait of water heading into the bodies of water to the top right (Marmara Sea.) Troy was a neighbouring power. The inhabitants of Thasos would have heard the stories from Troy before Homer would have finished writing them down. In Pericles time, Trojan history was local lore. Pericles words then, are not merely allegorical but straight-forward.

After news from Tyre, Pericles sets off for home. His ships are caught in a storm from which only he survives. He is washed ashore in Pentapolis.

Pentapolis, in modern day Libya

Pentapolis in modern day Libya

Pentapolis in ancient times could mean a group of five cities. I have taken it to mean those of the north African coast, Cyrenaica, now in Libya. These cities  were Cyrene, Berenice, Apollonia, Ptolemais and Taucheira. In keeping with the idea that Antiochus referred to a monarch descended from Alexander the Great’s generals, I believe that the story is probably referring to a kingdom once ruled by descendants of another of them, Ptolemy in Egypt.

Reason Three – Thasos is closer to ancient Pentapolis than Tarsus is. From Thasos, Pentapolis is a detour on the way to Tyre. It is more likely that the fleet was misdirected descending out of the Aegean from Thasos than being blown there from Tarsus.

In Pentapolis, Pericles wins the hand of the daughter of the King in a tournament. They then set sail for Tyre. Another storm causes calamity.Thaisa, Pericles pregnant wife, delivers their daughter on board. She is believed to have died in child-birth. She is placed in a sealed container and thrown overboard. Her make-shift coffin lands off the coast of Ephesus where she is miraculously brought back to life by Cerimon. She enters the Temple of Diana (Artemis) there as a proselyte.

a temple in the Ruins of Ephesus, Turkey

A Temple in the Ruins of Ephesus – The ancient Temple of Artemis/Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world has not survived.

Reason Four – The Proximity of Ephesus to Thasos.

The make-shift coffin would have had to float up into the Aegean, passing by Crete, the Cyclades Islands, as well as several others to reach Ephesus from Pentapolis. At the same time Pericles ship had to be close enough to Tharsus to harbour there. The ship was more likely to have been near or in the Aegean when this storm commandeered it. Being in the vicinity of Thasos, floating to Ephesus, is a more direct route for the coffin, and quicker for Pericles to obtain aid for his newly born daughter.

Thassos - Limenas

Aerial shot of Thasos. The ancient theatre is visible up on the hillside on the left. The ancient marina is submerged off the coast on the right of the shore. The ancient and modern city co-exist in the same locality

Coming into shore at Tharsus, Pericles leaves his daughter, Marina, in the care of the Governor. He returns home, abandoning her for years. In the interim she grows to be a pious beauty. She excels at all she does, be it needlework or philosophy. Her stepmother, envious that her own daughter is not similarly graced, arranges for an assassin in kill her. Before Leonine has the chance to perform his duty, Marina is kidnapped by pirates bound for Mytilene.

Moria - Late Roman Architecture - Aqueduct

The Late Roman aqueduct that took fresh water from Mt Olymbos to Mytilene in late antiquity. Moria, Lesvos

Reason Five – the Renaissance association of Mytilene and Thasos and their geographic proximity.

Why Mytilene? Mytilene is the port and capital of the ancient island of Lesbos. During the Renaissance it was the seat of a Genosese dynasty who governed the islands of the north Aegean, including Thasos. The founder, Francesco Gatteliusi (1355-1384), was a pirate. He earned the governorship of the island by aiding a future Byzantine Emperor attack Constantinople.

Eventually Pericles is reunited with his daughter in Mytilene. He then sees a vision of the goddess Diana. She sends him to Ephesus where he is reunited with his wife, Thaisa.

The strongest reason why Thasos was meant for Tharsus is geography. It is more plausible than Tarsus.


The Hippodrome, Tyre

Photo credit: stevendamron / Foter / CC BY


Photo credit: weesquirt / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


Photo credit: neilalderney123 / Foter / CC BY-NC

Thasos – Limenas

Photo credit: Visit Greece / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Late Roman Aqueduct supplying Mytilene with fresh water



Menander, the Mytilenean Mosaic

Mosaic portrait of Menander from the Mytilenean mosaic floor

Mosaic portrait of Menander from the Mytilenean mosaic floor

It’s inevitable when you travel in Greece that you will find yourself at an archaelogical site. They are everywhere. Now, how fulfilling the experience will be depends on your expectations. It’s probable that you will find yourself in a bizarre grid of knee high “walls” that you could easily walk over – no scaling, no hurdling, necessary. They were once barriers for privacy, indicators of ownership, providers of shelter – structural components to house a family, a company of players, a committee of civic officials, a communion of ancients. Now they define a bare necropolis. Who for, or why each square was occupied is lost not only to the recalcitrant gait of time but also to the process of their rediscovery and conservation. You see these squares are bereft of ornamentation. If you are lucky the little vases, the palm-sized votive statuettes, the misshapen, worn coins, the fragile, foil jewels – these little glimpses into the ancient reality of the living spaces you are standing before are behind glass in the local museum. Often they are in Britain, France, Germany, the United States or wherever the country of origin is of the archaeological school that is responsible for the dig. A healthy imagination and some background reading will help fill in your enthusiasm.

When I arrived in Mytilene I was determined to see the House of Menander even if it meant foregoing many of the touristy sites on the island to find it. I didn’t just want to imagine it. Travelling with children always means a trade off. Having shared the misadventure of looking for the HIppodrome in Istanbul with my husband and children, I was a little anxious about our prospects of finding the House of Menander. Would my children have patience for the search? or would their droning pleas for the beach sap the enjoyment out of the experience?

We began our search at the New Archaeological Museum of Lesvos. As I approached the reception desk, doubts troubled me. What if they had no idea what I was talking about? It was a possiblity, Menander is not that well known and I had come across the mosaic’s existence through social media platforms. The mosaic’s images seemed credible at the time. But I had also come across an image of the restored Hippodrome on social media. The restored Hippodrome. What Hippodrome! How should I pose the question of the mosaic’s existence and whereabouts without being insulting, condescending or presumptuous?

The plays of Menander as depicted in the mosaic floor found new the Ancient Theatre of Mytilene.

The plays of Menander as depicted in the mosaic floor found near the Ancient Theatre of Mytilene.

The lovely tour guide, Toula, listened to me finish my waffling, prattle patiently. “It’s just here,” she said as she led us across the foyer and into the first room of the museum. She then took us through all of the rooms regaling us with anecdotes. Apparently the archaeological team responsible for the dig were Greek which explained why the mosaic floor has remained in a local museum just blocks away from where it was found.

One story left me asking whether it was a modern-day fable of sour grapes. Apparently, when the mosaics were found there were voices of doubts from the international community. It seems the brightness of the tiles had brought into question the authenticity of the mosaics. Tesserae tiles were often made of glass or ceramic and as such had to be coloured. Why hadn’t the tesserae tile’s pigments not deteriorated if the floor was actually dated to the 2nd century C.E..?

Right side detail of the Mosaic floor depicting in individual square cells, Menander, His plays and Thalia the Muse of Comedy

The right side of the floor – Thalia, the muse of comedy. The square directly above her doesn’t depict a play but three ancients including the philosopher Socrates. The rest are plays written by Menander, mainly lost.

Was this a fair question?

In the ancient theatre district of the island of Delos there are a number of ancient mosaics. A colourful, outdoor example shot in situ is the image of a winged messenger astride a tiger. From the state of conservation of the mosaic, it can be safely assumed that the tesserae tiles have not been restored to their original colours. Of all of the photos on this post, this is the only one that I have increased the intensity of the colour, purely to bring out the detail of this ailing artwork. The intensity of the colours of both mosaics are comparable.

Mosaic from the Island of Delos depicting a messenger on a leopard

A messenger or Nike (Victory) astride a tiger, Delos in 1999.

Tellingly, the Mytilenean mosaic of Menander was also found in a theatre district. Both mosaics deal with theatrical themes. The Delian mosaic is symbollic. It seems to be concerned with a theatrical contest, hence Nike astride a tiger, the symbol of Dionysus, god of theatre. The fallen vase to the side, a trophy perhaps, may indicate a defended title lost or a disregard for the results of the contest.

Other considerations arise at the archaelogical site of the ancent town of Olynthos in Chalkidiki. Its mosaic floors bask under the heat of the sun. They depict images in black and white that are said to be of the oldest in Greece. They were excavated in the early 20th century. To look at them closely you cannot fail to see that each building “block” is not perfectly tesserae – a four sided tile –  but a water washed pebble. Did the designer have a black and white image in mind and collected only black and white pebbles or have the pigments in the pebbles deteriorated over time regardless of having been underground?


Bellerophon (background); 2 griffons devouring their prey (foreground) Olynthos

I would suggest that the simplicity and boldness of the design requires the contrast of black and white to achieve the designer’s goal. That they are black and white by intent. That no pigment deterioration has occurred here. The mosaics are of naturally occurring mineral materials.

Bold black and white floor mosaic from the archaeological site at Olynthos.

Black and white mosaic –  Olynthos.

Toula’s answer to the sceptics was simple. The tesserae tiles making up the mosaic floor on Mytilene are not glass or ceramic tiles but naturally occurring rocks that have been cut and shaped. Their colours hold faster than man made pigments for this reason. Evidence for the existence of these rocks on Mytilene is abundant. I photographed some when the kids got their wish and we took them to the beach.

Pebbles in the seashore at Vatera, Lesvos

Beaches near Mytilene – more pebbly than sandy. Vatera, Lesvos

To Toula, I send thanks for a great tour. For the international detractors – a case of sour grapes it would seem.