The rocky mountains surrounding Athens, especially Mount Hymettus, don’t look like they could produce much of anything. The crags and crevices are sparsely dotted with a few hyacinths, crocuses, lavender, or savory, but the only plant that truly grows well there is wild thyme. Feeding on those thyme flowers, Greece’s gentle cecropia bees produce a honey that is among the most prized in the world: Hymettus honey, also known as Greek thyme honey.
Honey’s flavor and aroma vary, depending on the flowers enjoyed by the honeybee. Orange blossom, clover, buckwheat, or tupelo honey are common; most grocery store honey is a mixture of types from many seasons and locations.
Greek thyme honey, however, is like no other. It is pale in color, boasts a savory hint of herbaceous thyme flavor (even though it doesn’t contain any actual thyme), and offers a deep, unique perfume. It costs more than ordinary honey, but it’s worth it for special occasions when honey really matters—like Rosh Hashanah.
The Jews of Greece are divided into two groups. First, the Romaniote Jews who first arrived during the Byzantine Era more than 2,000 years ago; they spoke Greek and lived primarily in cities like Ioannina. Second, the Sephardim who arrived from post-expulsion lands more than a millennium later, who spoke Ladino and aggregated primarily in Thessaloniki (aka Salonika), the major seat of commerce in Macedonia and in the Aegean Islands. Greek Jews of all backgrounds were decimated by the Nazis, and today there are few Jews left in Greece.
Greek Jews had plenty of honey-rich desserts that were served at many religious occasions: the Yom Kippur break-fast, Purim, and in some communities, Rosh Hashanah.
One of the country’s oldest Jewish communities was on Rhodes, and according to Stella Cohen, author of Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes From the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes, several special desserts were served to make the New Year “sweet, bright, and light”: a chewy almond-and-sesame brittle (boulukunio); almond-filled, honey-drenched crescent biscuits coated in sesame seeds (travados); and pale-colored shamali, a twist on the classic Sephardic soaked semolina cake, tishpishti.
In ancient times, Greeks sweets were most often “spoon sweets” consisting of fresh fruits like figs, semi-preserved in honey. The Jewish ritual of dipping apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah is most likely rooted in medieval Germany and was not common in traditional Greek Jewish celebrations. But eventually, over the centuries of movement and commerce, the many foodways of the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans, the Arab world, and Central and Western Europe seeped into Greek Jewish cooking. There are even recipes in contemporary Greek cookbooks explicitly for apples or quince dipped in honey, which may be a result of the many culinary influences or perhaps is simply a modern, raw version of the ancient spoon sweets.
Baklava—perhaps the most famous Mediterranean pastry, of Greco-Turkish-Arab origin and the go-to dish for every holiday but Passover from Uzbekistan to Egypt to the Balkans—was certainly on the tables of Greek Jews of every heritage along with spoon sweets. Many sweet dishes, like baklava, were actually more associated with the break-fast of Yom Kippur, perhaps reflecting the Muslim influence of eating such foods at the end of Ramadan. Whether you’re making it for Rosh Hashanah or saving it for the break-fast, sesame-filled, thyme-honey-soaked baklava (recipe here) is inspired by the past and uses ingredients authentic to the Jews of Greece, while also pleasing a modern palate with an amped-up thyme flavor that gives the dish its deep, savory notes.
Tami Ganeles Weiser is a writer, food anthropologist, culinary educator, trained chef, corporate caterer, and recovering lawyer. She is a columnist for The Weiser Kitchen and ZesterDaily.com and contributes regularly to The Forward, The Nosher, Moment Magazine, and more.