Last year, one of the stops during my vacation to Greece was to Kastoria. Kastoria is the capital city of the Prefecture of…Kastoria. It’s located in northern Greece, northwestern Macedonia. This region of Greece is located on fertile, elevated plateaus and the economy is centered around its long history of fur trading, tourism and agriculture.
Kastoria is said to have gained its name from the beavers (kastores) that used to exist in the area. Wealthy (guilds or clans) of furriers were based here and to this day, the fur trade is integral to the area’s economy. Those same wealthy merchants were also part of equation in northern Greece’s struggle for independence (Macedonian Struggle). Kastoria and the region was a base from which the Hellenes of the north based their resistance to the double threat of the Ottomans and nearby expansionist Bulgaria. Bishop Germanos of Kastoria sparked this struggle for independence, Ion Dragoumis and the freedom fighter Pavlos Melas are well known for their integral role in northern Greece’s (Macedonia’s) independence.
Kastoria has been in existence since 880 BC and to this date, many Byzantine churches can be found in almost every town and village surrounding the capital. Tourists visit the area for the the beautiful green surroundings, lakes, rivers and mountains. Kastoria also is an architectural wonder with it’s many Macedonian still in tact and well kept throughout the city. It’s one of the few Greek cities to resist the blight ofÂ apartment blocks. Kastoria is another popular destination during Carnival and in the summer, the youth of the nation heads to the nearby town of Nestorio for the annual River Party and concert festival.
Kastoria’s local restaurants will offer you traditional Greek dishes of pork, lamb, veal or wild game. Also offered on the protein side are local trout and catfish. A thriving apple industry also exists but the most well-known agricultural industry is centered around legumes. Lentils and beans.
The most famous product of this industry are the Gigantes or elephant beans. The region of Kastoria and nearby Prespes has been cultivating legumes (pulses) since the late 17th Century. This region is ideal as it’s micro-climate of abundant water sources and humidity make it an ideal area for this crop. Kastoria produces a thin-skinned legume that is coveted by cooks who dread the thought of having to tame a tough, dried legume.
The Gigantes or Elephant beans of Kastoria are planted in the Spring to avoidÂ the cold winter of the region. The sowing of seeds begins in April and continues until early June. The beans from Kastoria/PrespesÂ are recognized as products of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).
In order to preserve and protect traditional foods of each country, the European Union in 1992, released by Regulation 1208, which establishes the terms and conditions under which a product can get PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin) or PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).
The farming of the legumes in the Kastoria/Prespes area has largely remained in family hands with traditional farming methods being passed down from generation to generation. The use of farm machinery is kept to a minimum.
Beans are members of the legume family, meaning the fruit grows in pods. With some 13,000 species, the legume family is the second largest in the plant kingdom. Plants of the legume family provide food, pharmaceuticals, oil, dyes, timber and ornamental plants. Legumes contain protein in larger quantities than any other cultivated food.
Gigantes beans, navy beans, lentils and chickpeas are enjoyed all over Greece and recipes vary from region to region and from home to home. The ingredients in the recipes will vary according to local ingredients, custom or just plain tastes.
The version I’m providing here is my family’s recipe, a northern Greek recipe. Most recipes throughout Greece will contain a base of onion, celery and carrots but after that, the flavourings can (and do vary). Bay, cinnamon, clove are some of the spices used and herbs such as parsley, dill, mint or thyme may be used.
This particular recipe uses bay leaves, parsley and dill for the main flavours. Some recipes call for the gigantes to be soaked overnight. This recipe doesn’t require this step. Instead, a quick boil plus a simmer in a court bouillon are suffice to soften the beans. After that, the beans are finished in the oven and on the dinner table just a couple off hours. It’s important to note: add your salt (seasoning) just before mixing your final ingredients before going in the oven. Adding salt early on will cause your beans to be tough.
My family likes Gigantes on their own as a vegetarian main or as a side with a baked fish (Plaki) or some grilled or fried sausages. Just yesterday I had some beans with some grilled Macedonian sausages.
Gigantes sto Fourno (Γίγαντες στο φούρνο)
450 gr. dried Gigantes or elephant beans (look for butter beans as well)
1 large carrot, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large stalk of celery, diced
2 large onions, diced
4 cloves of garlic, smashed
1/2 cup of olive oil
3 bay leaves
1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup of fresh dill, finely chopped
1/2 cup tomato puree (or 3-4 very ripe tomatoes, passed through a box grater)
1 heaping Tbsp. of tomato paste
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 Tsp. of sea alt
1/2Â Tsp. black pepper
squirt of ketchup (optional)
- Place the beans in a large pot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the beans. Bring to a boil, simmer for 2 minutes and drain (this step reduces the beans from causing flatulence).
- Place the beans back in pot along with the carrot, celery, bay leaves and garlic and fill the pot with enough water to cover the contents by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for approx. 45 minutes or until the beans are soft (taste one). Take off the heat and reserve (including the liquid).
- In a large skillet, add your olive oil and onions and saute them on medium heat for 10-15 minutes to soften. Add the tomato sauce, paprika, salt, pepper, ketchup, parsley and stir in together. Set aside.
- Using a slotted spoon, place your beans, celery, carrot, bay leaves into a large baking casserole. Now add all of the contents of your skillet to the bean mixture in the casserole.
- Pour in enough reserved bean liquid to cover everything in the casserole. Mix well and adjust seasoning.Â Place in a pre-heated 375F oven and bake for 30-35 minutes.
- Remove the baking vessel from the oven and add your dill (I add the dill at this stage so it doesn’t darken too much). Stir to mix in well and place back in the oven and bake for another 10-15 minutes or until most of the liquid is gone and the top is nicely browned.
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