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Kosmidis – Gavrilis Halvas Drapetsonas: Greece’s Legendary Delicacy
by Kelly Fanarioti
The first thing you think when you hear ‘Drapetsona’ -a neighborhood of Piraeus- is undoubtedly the handmade halva “Kosmidis – Gavrilis”.
It’s a traditional Greek pastry, a favorite during Lent, made from sesame paste (tahini) and sugar, that in addition to its specific taste, is closely connected with the history of the neighborhood where the artisan workshop was founded in 1924. People of all ages flock every day to Agios Dimitrios in Drapetsona to buy this popular halva—including visitors from all over Greece and literally all over the world.
In fact, the line for the halva is half a mile long every year on Clean Monday, when the Lent commences: a scene captured by TV and newspapers as a local custom.
From 2002 until today, at the helm of the business is the 64-year-old former shipbuilder, Nikos Gavrilis who by a strange twist of fate worked since 1986 at the workshop in Drapetsona’s halva.
The history of the company’s halva goes back to the Asia Minor Catastrophe when Costas Mezardasoglou came to Drapetsona as a refugee and began to produce halva in a shed. As the years passed, he left the company to his son, George, who in 1984 met Eumorphos Cosmidis, the brother-in-law of Gavrilis, the other owner, and offered to help in the laboratory.
George at the time worked elsewhere because he could not make ends meet only by producing and selling halva. There he met Kosmidis. “So we met each other through my brother-in-law,” explains Gavrilis in a interview with NEO.
Two years later, George Mezadarsoglou retired and left the company to Kosmidis and Gavrilis. Both, with their employees, have maintained the tradition and made the product popular all over Greece and beyond.
“I had absolutely no idea how to make halva,” says Gavrilis. “Until 1986 I worked successfully as a shipbuilder. However, because of Greece’s participation at the European Union my industry suffered a huge blow, so when this opportunity showed up I decided to take it up and I think I made the right decision!”
Indeed, his passion to learn was so great that he almost immediately learned the art of making halva, which may seem simple, but requires skill. “What we learned in 20 years, it took you five months to master. Bravo!” the original owner, Mezardasoglou told him when he visited the place.
Now at 64, Gavrilis continues to work with the same passion as he did when he started his career. “I spend more than 12 hours a day in the laboratory,” he told me and his face glowed like a candle in the dark.
As he pointed out, the process of making halva may seem relatively simple: however, it demands a particular technical difficult to meet and for this reason all of the staff is trained exclusively by him. “Firstly, we make caramel with water and sugar and then we mix it with tahini. The ingredients, the cooking and the handling initially show that this is a simple process but it is a complex product, which is difficult to be copied. It is like the painter who takes over a brush and paint. How difficult it is for someone else to copy what the painter does? So something similar is happening with halva”.
When you enter the shop there are many things to see. But you can’t fail to be impressed by the liveliness of the customers who pop in to buy the various handmade goodies. So I asked about the “secret” of the company’s success. The answer: “My passion for creation and development has played a key role.”
At a time when most producers sell products of low quality in order to make them more competitive, he chooses to give his customers the most natural ingredients, and judging from the demand they seem to appreciate it. “Perhaps the fact that in my previous job as a shipbuilder I constructed with great accuracy and rigor, helped me as something similar happens with halva. I want the best product, without allowing myself a mistake or deterioration of quality.”
This principle has guided him through the Greek economic crisis, as well. Instead of curtailing the business, it has expanded, by offering new products, including sugarless halva which is much tastier than it sounds.
Fame brought demand to sell the product to new venues within and outside of Greece. The online shop also ships directly to many places, making the product within reach even in the remotest areas. In New York City, Titan Foods carries Halva Drapetsonas and people can order it online as well.
However, “the way our pastry is made is such that does not allow us to do massive production. There is a great demand from abroad but we prefer to stick to our quality production instead of giving out mass quantity of a lower value product.”
Speaking with a really successful businessman, I cannot resist asking his opinion on the difficult period we are currently living in Greece, the period of Memoranda and unemployment.
He says those responsible for all these difficulties are the Greeks themselves. “Times are hard and things are happening that should not be happening. When the tax rate in tahini and in a gold watch is the same, 24%, you understand that the country is moving towards catastrophe. But we are responsible for the politicians we vote!”
Another obstacle in Greece’s growth, according to Gavrilis, is that the majority of Greek people are still dreaming of a public sector job and consider entrepreneurship an enemy of their homeland. “There is generally a distorted impression of many things and this makes it very difficult for us to develop and move forward as a country.”
He believes, however that young people can make a difference. “We can’t lose our confidence in the new generation. We will die as a nation. We need to support our young people to believe in them, but they must take personal responsibility.”