Father Epiphanios of Mylopotamos, the monk who first brought Mount Athos cuisine to the world, passed away on Friday morning at the age of 64, after a long battle with cancer.
The author of the book “The Cuisine of Holy Mount Athos” made monastic cooking — based mostly on fish and legumes — an important addition to the healthy Mediterranean diet, and very popular all on its own. The book, which contains 126 recipes prepared by Mount Athos monks has been translated in English, Spanish, German, Russian, Romanian and Bulgarian.
Epiphanios, an excellent cook by any measure, even outside monastery walls, had traveled all over Greece and Europe, bringing his ideas, expertise and recipes to Britain, France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, winning international distinction. Well-known chefs had invited him in their kitchens to learn culinary techniques and ingredients from the the man of God.
The Mount Athos monk was also a skilled winemaker as well, producing exquisite wines from his vineyard at Mylopotamos, a dependency of the Holy Monastery of Megiste Lavra. His Mylopotamos wines — which also won international awards — are now exported to several countries around the world. Epiphanios also produced his own olive oil.
The son of a winemaker, the polymath monk was born in Nikisiani, in Kavala, northern Greece, in 1956. His father had a sizeable vineyard in an area that has been renowned for its wine production since ancient times.
The ‘holy’ food
Since Greek Orthodox monks are not allowed to eat meat, they subsist mainly on legumes and vegetables, while they are allowed to eat fish only on Orthodox holidays.
However, as Epiphanios had explained in interviews, the fasting limitations only served to make him much more inventive as a chef. Perhaps the most difficult of all, however, for about 200 days every year, the Orthodox are not allowed to even consume olive oil. So, monks continually alternate between fasting and non-fasting foods.
Since all monasteries grow their own vegetables, herbs and fruits which are completely organic, the basic ingredients are already first-rate. The monk also used fennel, parsley, mint, red pepper, cinnamon, allspice or cumin commonly in most of his recipes.
While fish is reserved for Easter and other Christian holidays, for the most part monks subsist on vegetables, pasta, fruit, grains and other types of seafood, such as octopus. Again, the seafood limitations often spark the creation of original recipes.
Another secret of Mount Athos cuisine is slow cooking in stone ovens using wood, or even cooking directly over open fires. There is no real need to rush the cooking procedures because, after all, monks have all the time in the world to prepare a meal.
According to Epiphanios, good food needs time.
The benefits of monastic cooking are invaluable. The alteration between fasting and non-fasting foods allows the entire body to rest and also to take in all the proper nutritious elements needed. Diseases that are associated with excesses of the diet are rare on Mount Athos.
Intestinal or stomach cancers are very rare among monks — while heart diseases and strokes are even more rare.
Epiphanios and Mylopotamos
Epiphanios went to Mylopotamos in Mount Athos in 1990 after spending a year at the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai. He acquired lifetime ownership of Mylopotamos from the Holy Monastery of Megiste Lavra for 2 million drachmas, or roughly 6,000 euros. He was allowed to not only build on the site, but also be responsible for maintaining and restoring it.
Once there, he put a great deal of work into restoring the wonderful Byzantine complex of Mylopotamos, which had been burned. The monk literally brought the monastery back to life.
The vineyard next to the sea which yields the marvelous Mylopotamos wines surrounds the complex and boasts the state-of-the-art winery. The dependency also has an impressive library, with 4,000 ecclesiastical books, manuscripts and works by modern writers and historians.