Beyond the Peel

Kyra Mathews

(UAE)

1.

I didn’t know it then, but this trip marked when a polite colleague became one of my closest friends. On a work call for a new brief: “I’m travelling tonight, so don’t really know why I’m here,” I said. “Athens is one of my favourite cities, by the way,” Noor replied. We spent the rest of the meeting talking about where I should go and what I should eat, forgetting the three other people on the call. 

I thought that was the end of it, but a few days later, lying in bed in Athens, each shadow a fleeting guest on white cotton sheets, being newly charmed by cicadas that had creeped me out before, she’d sent me an elaborate list of personal recommendations and anecdotes. 

It was the beginning of an intimate friendship; years of keeping track of vacation dates, visa appointments, experiments in food (her face as she bit into a gulab jamun for the first time is in my most treasured mental bank), personalised maps, edible souvenirs, and travel journals that mirrored each other. But even she hadn’t mentioned Portokalopita. 

2.

Serendipity. When unfamiliar tongues echo, then click. Lost, you find yourself, hand in hand with a stranger, guided only by the compass of chance and where friendships can take us. We meet. We part. We taste. We encounter newness, and we yield. Perhaps we even peel old selves away.

There are two signs I remember reading in Athens, both of which I can still see clearly, five years later. The first: Poet, Sandal Maker. The second: Portokali. 

Golden slices gleamed under the glass display case, each a promise of summer captured in pastry. Portokalopita, the name sings on a handwritten label: “portokali” for orange, “pita” for fold. My husband eyes the flaky spanakopita. Behind the counter, a man with hands like weathered maps, his English laced with the warmth of the Aegean sun. He explains how leftover phyllo, once destined for the bin, was transformed; resourcefulness born from necessity. 

Back in India, oranges are winter treats, shared under starlit skies. Here in daylight Athens, they’re everywhere. Bursting from vibrant street stalls, plump and juicy. Dotting sun-drenched groves. Dried on balconies, pressed into juice that stains hands gold, an ubiquitous scent in the air. Adorning altars in religious ceremonies, symbolizing abundance and fertility. Woven into wedding crowns, signifying purity and new beginnings. Homer’s epics sing their praises. 

3.

Overheard: at a literature festival, a woman talking about a novel on perfumery: “It smelled so good.” I understand the sentiment but for me, it’s usually about taste. In novels, food is routinely delicious, a siren song of flavors and textures, yet real life rarely lives up to the imagined feast. 

Dickens, I suspect, is partly to blame for my kipper debacle in London—a too-fishy pungency at breakfast before coffee, when even dry toast can overwhelm the senses. Kippers seemed more appropriate for lunch, perhaps, when the body was more prepared for its assaults. Thankfully, this hasn’t always proven to be the rule. In 2024, the first thing I ate was a crumpet, something else I’d only previously tasted from a novel I can’t remember. “What’s it like?” I asked old friend and ex-bridesmaid Zara in Newcastle, where I had brought in the new year in the warmth of her kitchen. “We don’t have any clotted cream but I’ll make you one,” she volunteered, proceeding to produce a standing-at-the-counter masterpiece, proving that sometimes, simplicity—and generous slathers of fresh English butter—reigns supreme. 

Two years of lockdown and work-from-home later, I was hungry for the taste of summer, and nothing tasted better than Greek mythology. So, while the kippers remained firmly in the realm of literary cautionary tales, the myths promised a different level of edible intrigue. I devoured stories, prepping my palate for a feast of symbolism. 

Hades, the gloomy god of the underworld, forever bound to Persephone after she tasted a pomegranate seed. Just one bite, and her fate was sealed—a warning about the power of food, its ability to bind us to places, people, and even deities.

The golden apples of Hesperides, whispered to be oranges, sparked Hercules’ legendary labor, suggesting a citrusy reward. These weren’t your average supermarket fare. These were mythical fruits, their taste rumored to grant immortality. 

Ambrosia, the food of the gods, promised agelessness and divine status. A dish so potent it could elevate you to the heavens. 

Then there were the offerings: pomegranates to appease Demeter, grapes to Dionysus, honey cakes to Aphrodite. Each bite, a bridge between the mortal and the divine, a plea for favor, for blessings, for a taste of something beyond.

Armed with this knowledge, I embarked on my Greek adventure. Each dish, a potential portal to myth and meaning. Would a single olive hold the wisdom of Athena? Would a bite of baklava unleash the passion of Aphrodite? Would a sip of retsina unlock the secrets of Dionysus’ revelry?

The reality, of course, was more nuanced. The olives were salty, the baklava sweet, the retsina…well, an acquired taste. Each bite, I anticipated, a divine echo on my tongue. But travel, like food, rarely follows a script. None of the gods seemed to have tasted portokalopita, and for them, I felt a twinge of sympathy. Or could it be where Ariadne’s golden thread ultimately led? 

4.

First bite: A flaky shard melts. Orange zest dances with the echoes of cinnamon. The syrup, a shimmering cloak, soaks into the layers, humming with notes of honey and orange blossom. Phyllo, impossibly thin, shatters like whispers on the tongue.

Sunlight paints the pastry with amber warmth, a reminder of the sun god Apollo himself. A portal to a culture where oranges were offered to appease gods, where orchards flourished under the watchful gaze of Mount Olympus.

Each bite feels like a communion, a connection not just to the food, but to the land, the people, the sun-kissed spirit of Greece. The masses can line up for gyros and souvlaki, I’ll take a slice of orange phyllo pie, please.

5.

Did you ever sleep in a field of orange-trees in bloom? The air which one inhales deliciously is a quintessence of perfumes. This powerful and sweet smell, as savoury as a sweetmeat, seems to penetrate one, to impregnate, to intoxicate, to induce languor, to bring about a dreamy and somnolent torpor. It is like opium prepared by fairy hands and not by chemists. ― Guy de Maupassant 

Beneath the watchful glare of a fearsome dragon, nestled the forbidden treasure of the Hesperides: golden orbs rumored to be the first oranges, brought by whispers of distant Phoenician merchants. Their forbidden allure, solidified by Hercules’ daring theft, etched their legend deeper than any dragon’s claw.

One tends to associate Italy with tomatoes, India—unfortunately and incorrectly—with butter chicken, and Greece with olives. It was only when I got to present-day Greece itself that I started associating it with oranges: the hues, the fruits, and the delight of protective selves being pulled away, revealing the core relationships hidden from ordinary view.

6.

I had first seen a painting by Mark Rothko at the Tate Modern in London. I continued to seek his work in galleries and museums, wherever I went, the universe always gifting me an empty seat in front of his large blocks of colours so I might stare to my heart’s content, entering a meditative state I usually find difficult even with guided assistance. The painting Orange and Yellow remains my favourite; my iPhone wallpaper for years, with its illusion of self-illumination, hinting at an unfathomable space, it demands immersion, to be absorbed by its light. It offers an invitation to be swallowed by its warmth, to contemplation, while unlocking your mind to the unknown, to the intimate, a journey into what it means to be human. 

7.

I was living in a London suburb when Kate Middleton became Princess Kate. Reveling in the anticipation of a bank holiday, with celebratory signs on all the shop windows, I remember reading that she had insisted on scenting Westminster Abbey with Jo Malone candles in Orange Blossom for her wedding day. The detail stuck with me, a dreamy delusion, like discovering a perfume sample card in my pocket on a hot day; a waft of memory that takes me back to a place I loved to be and am always packed for. 

The scent of sun-ripened oranges, a fragrant aria unique to Greece, mingles with history—an echo of pioneering Phoenician traders who introduced the fruit, or grandmothers who safeguarded the intricate art of phyllo dough. But the tide of globalization threatens this delicate equilibrium. Uniformly cultivated oranges, stripped of their local character, find their way into mass-produced replicas, devoid of the original’s soul.

Is the orange, then, a lesson in balance? To hold fast to the core, the essence that defines us, while embracing change, allowing evolution to nourish in different ways? Maybe, since it’s connection that matters most. To the land, to the hands that nurtured the tree; where the orange, in all its manifestations, reminds us of our origins, just waiting to be peeled open.

8.

A handwritten recipe for Portokalopita, compiled from mutters at tiny bakeries perched on winding staircases and “authentic” food blogs; Filling: Zest & juice four oranges, whisk with sugar, olive oil, eggs, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. Pastry: Brush phyllo dough with melted butter, layering half in pan. Add filling, and top with remaining buttered phyllo. Score, bake for 45 min at 350°F. Enjoy warm, drizzled with orange blossom honey or syrup. 

9.

Back home, I attempted to recreate the magic, channeling my inner Greek goddess. I failed. Perhaps the Aegean Sea breeze was a secret ingredient, unavailable in my landlocked kitchen. Perhaps some things are best savored in their original context. Or maybe the oranges, imported from South Africa, held grudges against their Greek counterparts. But even failed attempts held a glimmer of hope—a reminder that some experiences, leave an indelible mark, waiting to be tasted again, even if only in memory and the pages of myths. 

10.

My favourite childhood treat can still transport me to the bench behind the Mumbai home where my mother was born and raised. It was the bench where I had my first cigarette, the first fight with the first boy I loved, and at nineteen years old, I sat there again, wondering where I would go next—both literally and metaphorically. I devoured orange ice candies, one after the other, the concept of brain freeze losing all meaning as I licked the sticks clean. Laying them next to each other in neat, sticky rows. I held up the last clinging fragments of the orange ice, dripping against the slowly dipping sunshine, and for a moment everything was golden. 

How lucky I am to be here, contemplating the wide expanse of what’s next, in this time, in this space, where my mother and I became women, and my friends and I became family. And when I run out of change, the man at the Anand Bazaar corner shop will hand me another one and smile, “No problem, you’ll be back tomorrow, na?”

Kyra Mathews

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Kyra Mathews has been a senior copywriter for 10 years writing films and crafting an identity for brands from Nestlé to KFC to The Louvre. She is in possession of one husband, 3,800 books, one Masters in Creative Writing & Publishing, an always-packed suitcase and two imaginary Labradors. She is originally from Mumbai, India.

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