Makaronia tou fournou (baked macaroni pie) – as it is known in Cyprus – or Pastitsio – as it is known in the rest of Greece – is the most delicious dish in Greek cuisine.
In her encyclopaedic book, The Olive and the Caper: Adventures in Greek Cooking, Susanna Hoffman says that: ‘Pastitsio… is the first word that springs to a Greek’s lips when discussing Greek food. The first dish that springs to mind when talking of home, the first dish that springs to heart when lonely. Pastitsio holds the Greek soul.’
Ms Hoffman is being hyperbolic, but her enthusiasm is admirable and not inappropriate.
Pastitsio obviously comes from the Italian word pasticcio (pastiche), which I always thought referred to the dish’s varied combination of ingredients – long macaroni, meat sauce, béchamel sauce – but Ms Hoffman reveals actually means ‘made from pasta’; adding that the dish probably came to Greece from Italy as Italian influence spread through the Greek islands following the dastardly Fourth Crusade (1204) and the dissolution of Byzantine sovereignty and hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean.
However, regarding the migration of pasta dishes to Greece from Italy, Ms Hoffman makes clear that the Italians in Greece were merely reintroducing food Greeks had passed to them centuries before.
For instance, lasagne – closely related to makaronia tou fourno/pastitsio – Ms Hoffman says, is a dish with Greek origins – mentioned by Homer no less – which Greek colonists (from 700BC onwards) took to southern Italy; while stuffed pasta – now known to us as ravioli – was another Greek invention.
‘By Byzantine times,’ Ms Hoffman says, ‘the Greeks had become great “stuffers”, and stuffing pasta is not something they missed. In particular the Pontians [Greeks from the Black Sea] created many sorts of stuffed pasta, their preferred shape being the crescent moon.’ (The crescent moon – now associated with Islam – was for centuries a state symbol of the Christian Byzantine Empire).
Makaronia tou fournou is simple enough, layers of long macaroni, meat sauce (minced pork or lamb, onion, parsley, cinnamon) and béchamel sauce; although what makes the Cypriot version superior to versions from elsewhere in Greece – the magic ingredient, if you like – is the Cypriot halloumi cheese used to sprinkle on the macaroni, meat sauce and, generously, grated and stirred into the béchamel sauce. Halloumi is unbelievably good with pasta, irresistible when melted, and an aphrodisiac, apparently.