By: Vivienne Pearson
Food and family are topics that are often strongly linked, especially at this time of year, and even more so within cultures with strong food traditions.
Ilias Katsapouikidis, better known as Ilias the Greek, has seen this link grow further over the past month. Visiting his grandparents, two of whom are in palliative care, has brought many elements of his life into focus.
Ilias’s story of connecting food and family is, in some ways, straightforward. He makes traditional Greek sweets and savoury dishes to sell at markets and festivals, as well as a few select stores. In everything he makes, there is a direct connection to his childhood in the far northwest of Greece (near Kastoria). In a village of only 250 people, everyone knew everyone and food was central to life. ‘My grandmother would be up from first light thinking about what she was cooking,’ recalls Ilias. ‘There’d be a pot stewing in the background, always yogurt brewing and filo pastry resting.’
His journey took two unconventional turns. The first was to Coober Pedy (via Adelaide after his whole family emigrated). As a young adult, Ilias followed his paternal grandparents on their quest to become opal miners. Ilias immersed himself in mining and the multicultural community. ‘We lived underground and I was a member of the mine-rescue squad,’ he says. ‘I got to see the dark and light sides of that life.’
Food featured strongly, supplementing the limited range of produce available in the remote desert location with a garden of olives, lemons, figs, capsicum, tomato and kale. ‘We had the best underground dinner parties!,’ Ilias says, recalling how his grandmother would eagerly await the miners’ return in order to serve them tables full of homemade food, including dolmades, yemistes (stuffed peppers) and fassolia (green beans).
The dark side of mining hit Ilias literally when he was injured in a mining accident. ‘I was at the bottom of a 25-metre shaft, about to light an explosive fuse, when everything went black,’ says Ilias. It seems that a rock had fallen, knocking him out. ‘Luckily I hadn’t lit the fuse,’ he says in a moment of quiet understatement.
This second unexpected turn brought Ilias to the Byron region. The accident led Ilias to become a yoga teacher and then discover the ‘sweet medicine Sundance path’, a shamanic practice developed by elders among the first people of northern America. This has altered his approach to life, food, business and family.
How does his traditional Greek family view his shamanic ideas? ‘They know I’m loopy,’ says Ilias in a typical self-deprecating response, before adding: ‘My calmness and solution -seeking is imperative, especially in amongst family drama.’ His wry smile indicates just how dramatic Greek families can get, though he adds that there is also a lot of love within the drama.
The recent family drama has been the admission of Ilias’s grandfather into palliative care. This is the same grandfather whom he mined with in Coober Pedy and the one who resuscitated him after the mining accident. ‘I didn’t realise at the time how much my accident affected him,’ says Ilias. ‘He’s a warrior with a big heart and his blood pressure rose upon discovering me lying unconscious in his mine.’
Ilias visited his grandfather, or Papou, in order to fully reconnect with him in this last chapter of his life. ‘My intent was to bring love into the space,’ he says, speaking of the laughs and stories they were able to share. ‘It is a time of loss and grief but also gratitude and acknowledgement.’ He reflects further, adding: ‘After spending years searching for elusive rainbow-coloured opal gemstones, I recently discovered that the real gem is within.’
Certainly there would have been lots of hugs. Ilias specialises in hugs, offering them freely at his stall at markets and festivals, which he is at most weekends. The same shamanic ideals that guided him through visiting his Papou guide him in his interactions with all. ‘The reason we do festivals is to connect with the people,’ he says.
His customers certainly taste the beauty in his authentic Macedonian-style tahini halva and baklava. ‘We make it with love – making awesome halva demands full presence,’ says Ilias, giving credit to his production manager Matt O’Brien and others in his team, including the ‘goddesses’ who join Ilias in dressing in traditional Greek attire.
Ilias is moving towards a focus on savoury options, simply because his customers kept asking. Time was spent developing a way of making spanakopita (traditional spinach-and-cheese in filo pastry) in a way that suits markets and festivals. ‘Mum is famous in our family for making the best spanakopita,’ he says. The outcome is a ‘strifto’, a coiled version that is easy to hold and eat in festival environments. Salt-and-feta balls are the other ideal option – great for sharing.
And sharing is what family and food are all about. For Ilias, family has been the flavour of the month, in all meanings of the word.
Get a hug from Ilias at a festival near you or markets in Bangalow/Byron/Bruns. Buy retail from The Farm, Fundies or Mullum IGA. Or drop in for a chat (and a hug!) at 4/18 Bonanza Dve, Billinudgel