Opa. Say it. Oh-pah. The Greek word translates loosely to "yee-haw!" in English, and it's what you'll be hollering if you land at the Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church this weekend, where they're hosting their fourth annual Greek Festival. This is the first of two festivals in southern Colorado; so if you're looking for ethnic merrymaking, here's the drill.
Admission is free, but bring some money so you can sample the food and fun. The basic elements of the festival are Greek food, Greek music, folk dancing, an import shop and legendary hospitality.
The aromas of the lamb on the grills -- garlic, oregano and hints of cinnamon -- tease your nose as you approach the food line. It's a tough decision; those who crave lamb can choose between the lamb sandwich with yogurt cucumber sauce (tzatziki) and the gyro, both served with a Greek salad on the side. The salad is a simple toss of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, olives and feta cheese with olive oil and vinegar. The pastitsio is another good choice -- similar to lasagna, but the spices and sauce give it an unusual twist. A tomato and ground meat mixture (seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg) is sandwiched between two layers of long buttered noodles and topped with a cream sauce, sprinkled with parmesan cheese and nutmeg, and then baked. One slice is almost too big for one person if you want to eat anything later, so split it with a friend.
Other menu items include chicken souvlaki (marinated chicken, skewed and grilled), soutzoukakia (Greek meatballs with sauce and french fries with Greek seasoning,
Vegetarian choices include tiropita (small cheese bites wrapped in phyllo) and spanakopita (feta cheese, onions and spinach in phyllo).
After eating, take a break before you dive into the desserts and head to the gift shop area. Expect a selection of grocery items -- several types of olives, jars of grape leaves or dolmas and a small selection of cheeses. If you're lucky, you'll snare a can of halvah, a pressed tahini and sugar confection that has a texture a bit like the inside of a Butterfinger candy bar.
Then, head over to check out the selection of Greek wines and coffee. If you've never had Greek coffee, be sure to try it. Powder-fine grounds are boiled in sugar water over a flame and poured into a cup. The coffee has a little froth on top and sludge at the bottom. Let the grounds settle, then sip away. Oh -- and don't drink the sludge.
The 400 years that the Ottoman Empire occupied Greece created the desserts we think of today, including the best-known Greek pastry, baklava -- a heavenly layered confection of nuts, honey and phyllo pastry soaked in a honey syrup. A kissing cousin of the baklava is the kataife, a similar sweet nut mixture wrapped in a web of angel-hair pastry and then toasted and dunked in honey. The remaining dessert selection at the festival will depend on what's on hand when you arrive. Choices might include melomakarona (a Greek cinnamon shortbread dipped in, you guessed it, honey and sprinkled with nuts) or galatabouriko, a custard dessert with a phyllo pastry crust. The fresh loukoumathes are a special treat, described as Greek doughnut holes dipped in honey and sprinkled with nuts. They taste a little like a sopapilla in the form of a ball.
Take some time to wander into the church to see the traditional icons and altars. There is usually a priest or knowledgeable volunteer who will tell you about the symbolism and history of the architecture and decorations.
The second Greek festival takes place at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Pueblo, a beautiful church in a historic building, built in 1907 and recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior, filled with icons, also houses two marble plaques with the names of the people who helped start the church in 1907 and those who contributed again in 1909. Note the mix of Greek and Arabic lettering, a snapshot of the little community that built a church in the Wild West without even having a common alphabet.
The prices are reasonable, especially considering that these events are fund-raisers. Food and drinks are purchased with $1 tickets. Prices for food plates and desserts run from $2 to $6. The highest ticket item is a bottle of Greek wine for $10.
Before you leave the festival, check the stage area for a dance exhibition or an open dance, which usually happens in the evening. Watch the demonstration or jump in and try some of your own. Either way, you'll need some time to assimilate the experience before you wobble back to your car, marveling at the way the Greeks really know how to throw a party. Opa.
-- Gina Schaarschmidt
Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church
2215 Paseo Road (just west of Patty Jewett Golf Course)
Saturday, July 10, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday, July 11, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Free admission; call 634-5678
St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church
1010 Spruce St., Pueblo
Saturday, Sept. 11 and Sunday, Sept. 12
Free admission; call 719/544-8554