Sweets+and+Smalti


By Steven Paul Magstadt

In September of 2011, I and four other Americans chosen to participate in Rotary's Group Study Exchange Program left familiar things behind to travel to Greece—starting in Athens and touching seven other places—to meet other professionals in our fields and see first hand how their businesses were run in a different culture from our own. My own areas of interest were food (in any form) and art (focusing on religious art forms and mosaic, in particular).

Dora was my host in Athens. Upon stepping into her her family's warm, welcoming apartment with its artwork, soft rugs, blend of inherited furnishings and Dora's quiet introduction, all of my travel jitters were put to rest. We left the house one morning and Dora drove me to a bakery (Top Bakery, to be specific) nea rher home in the district of Kiffisia in order to meet the owner and see how he organized his business. While waiting for Dimitri, the owner, to arrive I had the chance to look about the shop and counted over 130 different baked products, including varieties of breads, cakes, tarts, cookies, rusks, sandwiches, sweet and savory pies, as well as gelato and espresso.

Dimitri arrived and over coffee explained to me that the bakery makes and sells something like 500 loaves of bread each day aside from other goods. The bakery makes gelato in house, and we discussed specific types, including one called Kaimaki made with sheep’s milk and mastic (a substance whose production is unique to one Greek island—Xios—in all the world and which has a fresh, delightful flavor somewhere between citrus and the scent of a pine forest), thickened with salepi (Dimitri explained this was a type of grain used instead of dextrose), frozen and topped with a “spoon sweet” of sour cherries.

Aside from learning to make phyllo dough and about 8 other dishes, I had a very interesting discussion with Dimitri about the economy in Greece and how it impacted his business; the intriguing thing was how similar the economic challenges to service businesses in Michigan and Greece seemed to be.

In both of our economies "extras" have been on the decline, but spending on products deemed more sensible rose almost enough to compensate for losses of income in other areas. As an artist in one part of my life and a then-partner in a café, I could see this development more and more each month.

I was picked up from the bakery by a Rotarian contact and spirited to meet an effervescent woman named Maria and her daughter, Aggie, in another part of Athens where I was allowed to visit the studio of a mosaic artist working in the Byzantine style on a piece of the Madonna for a church commission.

We discussed favorite images for converting to mosaic, and as we explored the studio. we each looked at the other's photographs of past projects and compared favorite materials to get specific effects.

One entire wall was lined with shelves of tesserae and smalti (the building blocks of a mosaic), while another was lined with cubbies of larger pieces of materials. Mosaic is a smaller part of what I do, so I was a little awed at the amount of raw material in the studio since many mosaic artists must convert pieces of stone or rounds of glass (tortillas) into strips, then into brick- or cube-shaped smaller pieces in every color and shade needed to complete an image. The repetitive process of rendering the materials usable takes as much or more time as creating a image that can outlast most other forms of art.

We left the studio, and with Maria and her girls as I sat at a French-themed café over sandwiches and an incredibly sexy cup of chocolate (yes, as it needed-a-cigarette afterward), I had a chance to reflect: The world might be a tad uncertain, but when darkness or economic depression dominated our collective past, it was in the church that more art survived than any place else, pastries gave way to loaves of crusty bread, and we managed to survive with this simplified concentration of good things until the world became a more stable place. 

© Steven Paul Magstadt, 2013