Thursday, 3 December 2009


“All religions must be tolerated for every man must get to heaven his own way.” - Frederick the Great

December 4th is St Barbara’s Feast Day. When I was young I used to really like our religious instruction classes as we were taught the lives of the saints. I used to especially enjoy those saints’ lives where a great deal of torture and adversity featured prominently, and the saint always used to come shining through like some superhero, foiling the torturers’ plans of wicked malfeasance. It was like a religious Batman and Joker episode. I used to retell these stories adding my own “sauce”, making the trials and tribulations of the saint more varied and lurid, the stories more adventurous, and the rescues more phantasmagorical through the intervention of angels, other saints and occasionally quite impressive acts of God where the almighty came in and through magnificent acts of deus ex machina saved the tortured saint. Really good boy’s own adventure stuff!

Well, here is the story of St Barbara, without any of my added sauces. St Barbara was a beautiful young princess who was imprisoned in a high tower by her father, so that her many suitors were discouraged from pursuing her (some authors inject a dash of incestuous jealousy on the father’s part). One of Barbara’s handmaidens smuggled in some Christian books to her and she embraced the Christian faith with much fervour.  When her pagan father learned of her conversion he handed her over to be tortured as she would not renounce her new faith. No matter what the torturers devised, St Barbara could not be harmed and her faith preserved her body. In the end, her father, became so incensed that he beheaded her himself, upon which he was instantly struck dead by lightning.  Therefore, St Barbara is invoked against tempests and storms and she is the patron saint of artillery men and gunners, makers of fireworks and explosives.

In Greece, on St Barbara’s feast it is a fast day (the Lesser Lent before Christmas) and a special sweetmeat is made, which is suitable for the fasting Feast Day. It is called “Várvarra” after the name of the saint, which is “Varvárra” in Greek. Here is the recipe and it is of very ancient (pre-Christian) provenance:


500 gr whole wheat grains
500 gr sugar (may be substituted by honey)
2 pinches salt
2 cups of sultanas
1 level tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 cup plain flour, sifted
250 gr chopped dried figs
250 gr chopped dried apricots
250 gr chopped walnuts
1 pomegranate
Icing sugar for dusting

Soak the wheat grains overnight and the next morning, rinse them and boil them in much water until the grains are fully cooked and split open. Add the sugar (or honey) and salt and continue to heat, being careful to add some more water if needed, to maintain the consistency of gruel. Add the sultanas when the mixture is fairly viscous and allow them to heat right through. Remove from the heat and allow to become lukewarm.
Heat a pan and add the flour and spices and stir until it becomes golden brown. Remove from the heat and add the flour mixture to the wheat mixture slowly, stirring all the while until it all has been incorporated. Heat the mixture over low heat, until it becomes fairly viscous (no too much as it will become firmer when it cools – if it is too viscous add some hot water to the mixture). Add the chopped figs and apricots and stir through.
Put in a large serving bowl and allow to cool. To serve, prepare the topping by separating the pomegranate seeds, mixing them with the walnuts and spreading all over the top of the dessert. Spoon into dessert bowls and just before serving, dust with icing sugar.


  1. Enjoyed the tale of St Barbara, I don't think I will be making Várvarra, but it does sounds like something I do with oatmeal in a much simpler way! :)

  2. Poor Barbara!!!

    It's true though that those types of religious stories are very appealing to children...everyone loves a hero ( or heroine )..I mind of having a book about heroines as a child, and got totally engrossed in their stories.

    Children are also fascinated by horror and gore ( even though it scares the wits out of them ), though I imagine these days some of the details would be omitted for younger children....( and probs less exciting for them, because of it..wot? No heads getting chopped off? ) :D

  3. It's my day. I purchased a very old print of Frederick the Great at Rheinsburg. He is standing up in a boat with a lot of prominent people--I think, Catherine the Great, Voltaire, Mozart and maybe his sister etc. Nicholas, do you know anything about this picture?
    Here is a link to my husband's place on the web: Names really do mean something.

  4. Wow, poor Saint Barbara! Our Barbara is a passionate woman as well, I think. :) Delicious menu on her day as well. TY for the education, Nicholas. And tomorrow is your namesake in Holland and Belgium as well, when the Saint takes a ship from Spain to deliver toys to all the Dutch and Belgian children. What a guy! ;¬D

  5. Today is my Name Day which we always celebrated when I was a young child in Austria. As I grew older, the celebration dwindled but my mother always remembered it. \

    I always thought that St Barbara was the patron saint of masons/architects - something to do with the building in which her father imprisoned her.

    Now I quote:

    "St. Barbara is a patron saint to artillery gunners, masons, mathematicians, miners, military engineers, stone cutters, against lightning, anyone who works at risk of sudden and violent death."

    I'm having a bit of a problem with mathematicians as none of those I ever came across were able to do anything with me!!

    My aromatherapist who believed in reincarnation once told me that in a previous life I had been beheaded or hanged because of neck problems. "Now I now why" she says with tongue in cheek - very much in cheek!

    My dear Shers - are you referring to me???? So they say!

    Barbara: Greek/Latin origin
    strange, exotic, mysterious! Whatever................

  6. Well Happy Name to all the Barbaras!

    Certainly in traditional Greek culture one's name day was much more important than one's birthday. It was a time for going to church and participating in the special mass for the saint, then much celebration at home with all one's friends and relatives. Much merrymakign and eating and drinking!

    My name day is tomorrow, Sunday, 6th of December :-)

  7. What an interesting blog Nic. I didn't know the story of St Barbara and the recipe is something that I would like to try as it looks so exotic.