Late one afternoon this August, with two American friends, I set off on foot from the island’s chora, finding our way through sleepy stucco villages, past goat herds and groves of eucalyptus, into the wilder less inhabited heart of the island. Gradually we merged with our fellow Sifnians, all of us following the monopatia toward the panigiri at Agios Ioannis Mavro Chorio, a ceremony and celebration in honor of Saint John.
For the foreigner or unaffiliated, a panigiri feels part pilgrimage, part church supper, part folk concert and part pagan festival. My friends and I came for all these things, though after a two hour hike—coming up over that final peak, spotting the church cradled above the Aegaen— the dominant force driving out final steps was hunger.
Of course each island offers its own feast day recipes. For example on Sifnos one eats revithia and lamb braised in wine. Though familiar to all Sifnians, the repetition of this menu does nothing to diminish the pleasure in eating it.
Arriving at the monastery we were greeted with healing cups of lamb broth, which we sipped slowly as we weaved through the crowd, embracing our fellow pilgrims. Shots of Greek coffee and teacups of ouzo could be found near the mouth of the kitchen. As the sun set we watched the blessings and received the holy bread or antidoran, some slabs devoured on the spot and some saved for desert. Plastic cups proceeded volunteer wine maidens in charge of hydrating the crowd.
Finally, the dinner bell rang and we filed inside, taking a seat at a long wooden tables set with olives, wedges of lemon, bread, wine, and water. The revithia arrived immediately, a simple stew of rich nutty chickpeas, absent any coarseness or grit, and finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Wild and inspired graces and “thank yous” were called out from both the kitchen and table, each followed by the drumming of silver wear and stomping feet. Empty bowls of revithia were replaced by heaping plates of spaghetti and lamb, a sweet collapse of tender meat over pasta soused in its winey juices.
With full bellies we rolled ourselves out from the table and under the moonlight, where local music eased us back to life, and back to the wine.
Panigiri, while not exclusive to the Cycladic islands, are a particularly beloved part of their culture. For the name day of each church or monastery, a chosen family hosts the evening, and all are invited. For interested travelers, logistics are best understood when on the island, by inquiring with natives or the local travel agency!
All photos taken from the book of George Pittas - Simadia tou Aigaiou