Sesame Seeds from Northern Greece

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

A tiny ingredient makes the leap to star status

As I have found far more times than I can count over the last forty years, I “discover” that ingredients to which I had generally paid little or no attention have actually existed all along in hard-to-find and exceptional levels of quality. Once I eat them, I almost never go back to the old offerings. That is the case with these very special sesame seeds, grown in the village of Didymoteicho, in the far northeast of Greece, up near the border with Bulgaria and Turkey. We get them through the good graces of Evangelia Koutsovoulou and her small, quality-focused firm of Daphnis and Chloe. Everything we get from Evangelia is exceptional and these seeds are most certainly no exception. They are grown by Thanasis Polyzoidis, of whom Evangelia has exclaimed enthusiastically, “He is an amazing man!” He works the farm with his wife, their three daughters, and a handful of nephews and nieces.

The sesame seeds Thanasis and his family grow are an old variety that had almost completely disappeared in modern times. The first records of the seeds go back to 300 BC. They were grown in goodly amounts in the region up until the move to standardization and mass production in the 1960s. This project is an effort to bring them back. Evangelia shares:

This is an heirloom variety and the seeds are passing from one generation to the next. Everything is done manually and according to the principles of organic agriculture, as a result we have a very high quality sesame that doesn’t get wounded in processing and is 100% free of contaminants. Sesame is a delicate crop often affected by many diseases. It is a whole sesame, meaning that it hasn’t been decorticated. It is raw, meaning that to release its more intense aromas, you should toast it before use (unless you’re baking it on bread).

It’s also a very important cultivation on a social level, as we’re talking about an isolated corner of the country with very few job opportunities. Thanasis, the farmer, is a source of inspiration for a whole generation of local farmers. His endeavor to produce a forgotten, high-quality local crop which can get a good price on the market due to its qualitative characteristics.

The process, Evangelia has explained, is beautiful—the branches are piled up for the seed cones to mature, and then, when they’re dry and ready, they “explode.” This, she shared, is the origin of the phrase, “Open sesame!” Speaking of opening, when you take the top off the jar, be sure to appreciate the amazing aromas.

What do you do with these magical seeds? Sprinkle them on pretty much anything. Use these special sesame seeds to sprinkle on green salads, roasted vegetables, and fish. Great on pasta with olive oil and black pepper. I made the dish the other evening with the linguini we get from Rustichella d’Abruzzo. And they’re outstanding for all sorts of baking!