Christópsomo, literary the Christ’s Bread in Greek, is a fragrant, festive loaf, a tale of abundant harvest shared on the Christmas table. From the islands to the highest mountain peaks of Greece, each region enjoys its own variation. Below I’m sharing my own, not very traditional Christópsomo, it’s a sourdough loaf with walnuts and fennel seeds.
The modern Athenian kitchen, doesn’t always allow for bread making. Truth to be told with so many good bakers, we have left it at the hands of the experts and for good reason. We are cooking a storm for the day, so we trust our bakers to bake. In our household it was most often reserved and arrived fresh on the day or also very commonly as a present from one of the guests we would be celebrating with.
Christópsomo is a tradition that still lives vividly in almost Greek Orthodox households. Even if you don’t bake your own bread as much – the sourdough craze being an exception – this would be the time of the year to do so. It’s a special bread, as the nuts and spices kneaded in the dough are uniquely chosen for the day. In the loaf you will find aniseed or fennel seeds and nuts, walnuts or almonds, or both, some broken and kneaded in the dough; some shelled and unbroken decorating the top of the loaf. These make the most common ingredients. You can also find dried fruit, such as raisins or dried figs. In some places Christopsomo has a much sweeter version. This Christmas bread is a symbol as well as a hope for prosperity and abundance with strong religious pedigree.
In many places they use for the levain mint flavoured water, acquired from the church, agiasmó. In fact, this was the first tip mum shared when I told her of my sourdough starter. Although, she is not up to the fuss anymore, for Christmas day her go to decorations will be simple: two strings of dough will run across the round loaf and intersect in the middle, to form a cross and double in for the letter X for Christ, Χριστός in Greek. The center will be secured with an intact shelled walnut or almond, the symbol of an abundant harvest; sesame is sprinkled on top for prosperity and a few nigella seeds to tease and scoff any evil.
Across Northern Greece, think the mountain ranges of Pindus and travel with your mind all the way to Thrace, your heart will warm up by the large fires. They are lit as part of the many traditions during the twelve days of Christmas. Their breads also go by the name of Cristokouloúra and the decorations follow their pastoral traditions, think of sheep and their pens. Cristokouloúra is often eaten with honey. In Macedonia, they call it sekótourta, a fig cake if you like, as dried figs and raisins are in the spotlight. This bread might remind you of stafidópsomo.
In mainland Greece, Christopsomo is semi-sweet with walnuts and many pastoral decorations find their way on the decorations. One of the most interesting, and older decorations is that of a snake. In rural households, the snake was to be protected. As it was considered a guardian of the house, they often left a bit of water outside of the house for them. It also found its way on the Christ’ bread, linking the decorations not only to the household habits, but traditions that have managed to slip through time.
In Peloponnese, specifically in Mani, the bread is simple without the spices or nuts you come across the rest of the country but ornate. Their decorations again depict the family’s traditions, inspired by their animals and crops. Normally its shape is round and less often a wreath, still bearing the X of the cross and you can often see depictions of birds or grapes.
Christópsomo on the islands
Ιn Lefkada, the bread is semi-sweet and has a small cross on top, the rest of the patterns follow abstract floral designs. They also press the dough with the seal you use for Prósphoro, an offering, the bread for Divine Liturgy that is prepared at home. Kids are never forgotten during baking. There are little antropomorthic breads for the girls, mpaloúles and small cross shaped breads for the boys.
In Zante, the bread is called kouloura again, and as with the New Year’s cake they add a coin in the dough prior to baking. Kouloúra is a wonderful semi-sweet, spiced bread with all the nuts and raisins. Their bread is cut on Christmas Eve and on the table is also served a zesty, broccoli soup along with olives and onion. It is still a Lenten meal and they will break the fast after church on Christmas day.
In Mykonos, the bread Dimitris Rousounellos shares is sweet and Lenten. Olive oil and wine are in the dough along with an array of wonderful spices such as clove, cardamom, aniseed, cinnamon, mastic beaten in with the sugar and let’s not forget the citrus. In older days, before every household acquired its very own electric kitchen, the ladies would gather and prepare their loaves at the bakery, in large stone ovens. The strings that decorate the tops with crosses would be stuffed with raisins. To tell them apart, they relied on decorations, it could be a different nut to secure the cross at the top, walnut, almond or hazelnut or a simple dough ball to the side. Twelve small loaves were baked then, one of every day of Christmas.
In Crete, the bread is semi-sweet we often see much more elaborate decorations. The cross of the dough will always take center stage and many smaller decorations adorn the loaf according to the households toils. It could be their animals, such as sheep or donkeys that helped carry their goods or tools they worked the land with, nature and harvest motifs such as flowers or ears of wheat. It could be an annotation of social status, too.
If a girl was to be married there would be a nest in the middle and birds to each side, with small dough balls to represent the eggs for the couple’s prosperity. Often smaller breads were baked for the kids, a string of dough was shaped to mark the first letter of their name. Perhaps the first, very personalised presents. At the mountain tops of Psiloritis mountains, the villages of Anogia the bread is highly embellished with flowers and leaf patterns. There are some wonderful long loafs that carry very special sculpting of trees on the dough.
The cut of Christopsomo is also ceremonial. No blade should touch the sweet dough, lest it hurts it. It is after all a bloodless offering kneaded with hope, prayer and well-wishing for the new year. The breaking of the bread is done by hand, the first morcel to Christ, the second for the poor, the rest for the family members, from older to younger.
My recipe is not traditional, it is my go to sourdough recipe enhanced with fennel seeds and walnuts to follow the traditions. To get started on sourdough & a sourdough starter check this.
Christopsomo (Christ’s Bread), sourdough loaf with walnuts and fennel seeds
- 800 gr hard wheat flour bread flour
- 10 gr salt
- 1-1 ½ tbsp fennel seeds
- 250 gr sourdough starter
- 420 ml warm water
- 3-4 tbsp crushed walnuts
- 3-4 tbsp sesame seeds
- 1 walnut in its shell
- Wake up your starter and allow to form light bubbles on top. Normally it needs 20-30 minutes depending where you store it.
- In a large bowl mix the flour with the fennel seeds and salt. Follow in with the levain and the water. Knead for 5-6 minutes and let it rest under a clean towel. You can return to it after 2-3 hours.
- In the second round, you can fold in the walnuts. Lightly dust a clean worktop with flour and transfer the dough. This time you will knead lightly knocking off the air bubbles and folding in the walnuts a spoonful at a time. Cover and rest for 6-8 hours.
- Before you bake, transfer the bread on the worktop. Tear apart a small portion of the dough. Then again cut in two to form 2 strings and place them across the top of you loaf.
- To decorate, lightly brush with water and sprinkle the sesame seeds on top. Place your shelled walnut in the middle and cut with a sharp knife the side of the cross to help the loaf rise.
- Bake for 15 minutes at 220C and lower the oven at 200 for 30-35 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool down on a clean towel or a rack.
Below you can find the sources I used to put together to write this articles. There are many pictures and further reading, although mostly in Greek.
The recipe I share is not traditional but very much my own sourdough. Feel free to make it your own and share with your loved ones.
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas from London,