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Fyllis: Rhodes, Greece
Appolonia Bakery: Where History Never Tasted So Good
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block

hen most people think of Ancient Greece, they conjure up a civilization whose zenith dates back to the 4th Century B.C. when Greek culture and political advancement were pre-eminent in the Mediterranean.

So when during a recent trip to the island of Rhodes I heard about a bakery in a small rural village making breads and cakes mentioned even earlier in The Iliad, Homer's epic poem about the Trojan War, I had to go there. This was an allusion to history even sweeter than any trip to the Acropolis.

And it is just that preservation of history that so appealed to the nine owners of the Appolonia Bakery, winnowed down from the 40 women who originally gathered in 2000 wanting to do something for their community. But the history they wanted to preserve at that moment was of a more recent vintage -- that of the recipes handed down for generations for traditional foods prepared by their grandmothers and other community elders. All the cookies, breadsticks, cakes, muffins, pretzels and other baked goods are made from recipes culled from native villagers -- and long-ago memories.

preparing rose petals for cooking at the Appolonia Bakery, Rhodes, Greece

But transcribing recipes, none of which could be found in any cookbook, from those that fed a family into those that served a community, was no easy task and was mainly accomplished through trial and error. Even more of a problem was the issue of accountability: because the ingredients were never written down, accurate measurements weren't available. The recipes did not come with instructions on how to assemble. A handful of flour had to be translated into a cup, a touch of honey became 2 T, a sprinkling of water had to be quantified into something -- anything -- measurable.

And there were other growing pains, as well! Human frailties occur at any age and when two women had recipes for the same baked goods, the co-op was forced to take part of one and part of another to come up with something that appealed to all and superseded the jealousies that might have ensued.

In a few instances, a proprietary attitude prevented some from sharing their recipes. They baked the bread or cake in secret, refusing to disclose all the ingredients. Eventually, the petty jealousies and individual resentments passed and all the recipes are now written down and available to all nine owners -- but they themselves zealously guard them from the general public.

Still, other hurdles arose. By the very nature of old-time recipes, the tasks are very labor-intensive and are not subject to wonders of modern technology.

sesame being dried on the porch, Appolonia Bakery

For instance, the bread requires an overnight process involving the mixing of flour with a hand-made yeast concoction that acts as a natural preservative. The next day the loaves are put under four blankets -- literally heavy wool blankets that clearly once adorned someone's bed -- to create the right amount of heat for them to rise before baking.

Another specialty is melekouni, a sweet pastry made from sesame, honey and spices that is a time-honored part of Greek wedding celebrations and especially revered in Homer's texts -- that probably can't be said of Little Debbie's Tasty Kakes.

But the honey relies on a local bee supply, the sesame is hand-washed and dried on-site, and the pastries hand-rolled, using a secret process handed down from generation to generation to make sure the honey is sufficiently caramelized. Just pressing the mixture into their individual shapes is a manually intense project. There are no mechanized advantages to be found. Cuisinarts had no place in Greek mythology.

Appolonia baker picking roses from a bush

The Merry Bakers also concoct a famous Greek dessert called spoon sweet flavored with lemon, strawberries, oranges and other fruits grown in their home gardens. But those are not the only home-grown ingredients -- the bakers add fresh-picked rose petals from bushes around town. They just bring the ingredients from home as needed. Saves on shopping and storage space.

And that's not all. The ladies of Appolonia also make liqueurs from Souma, a grape similar to that used for Ouzo to which they add their own flavors, such as orange, lemon, and pomegranate. They heat it on the porch in the sun for a month before bottling. Adds a whole new dimension to aged wine. Did I mention that the loom in the front of the shop is used to make custom-made rugs?

weaving on a loom at the Appolonia Bakery

It took three years before the bakery started turning a profit. At that point, sales had expanded as far as Scotland after a tourist came by in 2007 and was so impressed he began importing the products to his own wholesale food business in the Emerald Isle. A little closer to home, demand from people in Rhodes Town inspired them to open a shop in the main town in 2008, which also is doing well.

Appolonia Bakery products on display at shelf

Their notoriety is growing, bakery manager Katerina Palazi wistfully acknowledged. Greek journalists are coming to do stories; they take pictures: "We're not used to such intrusions. We have too much work to do," she complained. I cringed a bit as I tried to hide my note pad and waved away my travel-writing husband wielding his camera.

There are about 120 communities throughout Greece that are promoting local products such as traditional clothes, ceramics, and other handcrafts all representative of their individual villages but the Appolonia Bake Shop is the first and only in the Dodecanese island group, comprised of 12 islands including Rhodes, that is preserving historical recipes.

They make a total of about 25 products -- breads, cakes, cookies, muffins, olive oil, zouma. Most popular are the breads, sesame seed cookies and melekouni. They have standing orders from local churches for breads and cakes, melekouni for weddings, cookies for Christmas and Easter and spoon treats for other special occasions. On the walls pictures of local and national politicians mix with pictures of grandchildren.

preparing cakes for a church social at the Appolonia Bakery

The women are in perpetual motion in and out of the small bakery, covering and uncovering the breads, drying the sesame seeds on the porch, boiling the rose petals, churning the liqueurs, taking cakes in and out of the oven -- and, oh yes, waiting on customers. No wonder they don't have time for journalists.

waiting on a customer at the Appolonia Bakery

Irini Platsi, proprietor of the Rhodes Town store, points out that most products last for three months without preservatives; and because of the special yeast in the breads, those last for three weeks. "People really like buying home-made products made with all-natural ingredients," she enthuses. The fact that they have an historic back story is just a bonus.

specialty products from Appolonia Bakery on display

I could feel the pride in her voice. These women have done something many thought would never work, they love the products they produce and are thriving on their success because it reflects upon the village as well, which - like it or not -- is beginning to garner its own 15 minutes of fame.

I don't think, with the possible exception of the nightlife of Amsterdam, that I've ever had so much fun researching a travel story. Sampling a sweet syrupy concoction that tantalizes the taste buds whether flowing over ice cream or indulged in straight from the jar; a crunchy slightly sweet Biscotti-like substance that blossoms especially when dipped in milk or coffee; a thick brown bread that when slathered with butter or honey could potentially serve as a whole meal. You know the old Trojan War-related homage: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts? Well, when laden down with items from the Appolonia bakery, you will instead be welcomed with open arms…and mouths.

And despite the recent journalistic intrusion, the bakery still does not have a website of its own. Homer would be proud!

Related Articles:
Athens; Kos Island, Greece; Crete; La Mancha, Spain

(Posted 7-23-2012)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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