The folks at St. Philip Greek Orthodox Church hope mid-May in the greater Nashua area is synonymous with spending a weekend enjoying Greek food and tradition at their annual festival — but really, it’s all about the food. The baklava. The souvlaki. The koulourakia.
The St. Philip Greek Food Festival began 31 years ago as the Grecian Fair, run by the Agape Society, the women’s organization at the church. The Grecian Fair was a biannual event until its focus turned to Greek cuisine and it became an annual festival overseen by the parish.
“It’s always basically been primarily a food festival,” said Rev. Tom Chininis, who has worked at the church for nearly 18 years, adding that in the event’s Grecian Fair days there was more emphasis on activities for children and the selling of yard sale-type items and flowers. Imported Greek clothing and jewelry are still sold at the food festival.
The festival became an annual rain-or-shine event in 1999, which Chininis said works in favor of the parish.
“It takes a lot less energy to advertise something that’s annual … people know in Nashua that in May there is going to be the St. Philip Greek Food Festival rather than think about which year we are going to have it.”
The festival, Chininis said, has grown with the capabilities of the parish. Church volunteers continuously work to ensure there is enough food to serve over the two-day festival, “which is not as easy as people may think it is,” Chininis said. “We don’t want to have a lot of food left over, but we don’t want to run out in the middle of Saturday afternoon, either.”
Volunteers at the parish start cooking for the St. Philip Greek Food Festival in February, and the church has already outgrown the walk-in freezer installed in its kitchen in 2001. Homemade pastries line rolling racks in the freezer to make best use of the available space.
“By starting earlier, it’s not as taxing on the volunteers,” Chininis said. “You aren’t making 10 items in three weeks; you’re maybe making 10 items in three or four months … it still requires a huge number of volunteer hours to prepare all the foods.”
Lamb and chicken souvlaki will be among the savory traditional Greek dishes served fresh at the festival, as will spankopia (cheese and spinach pita) and pastichio, a Greek-style meat lasagna topped with bechamel, that Chininis noted as one of his favorites. Gyros at the festival have grown in popularity to a point where they will be sold from their own booth this year.
Another table at the festival will be dedicated to traditional Greek pastries, including baklava (layers of phyllo dough filled with honey and walnuts), koulourakia (Greek butter cookies), kataifi (shredded phyllo soaked in honey and layered with nuts) and galatabouriko (phyllo dough layers filled with custard).
Rice pudding, baklava ice cream, Greek coffee (a strong coffee similar to espresso, with grounds still in the cup) and chocolate-dipped strawberries will be sold at another dessert table. The strawberries have become one of the most popular treats sold at the festival, Chininis said.
“We get just as excited as people do that come to eat the food,” he said. “The Greek grandmothers love feeding people and they get great joy when their grandchildren come or guests come, to be able to feed them.”
“It’s a lot of work, but we carry on that tradition,” he said. “We’re willing to put in the time because it brings great joy to us, as well as providing a great, fun and delicious opportunity for the people of the greater Nashua area.”