This dish comes from the time of the Greek revolution, when bands of Greek guerrillas, called Klephts, hid in the mountains. In Greek, “kleftiko” means “stolen meat”. In order to survive, the klephts would steal a lamb or a goat from a flock as it grazed on a hillside. The thieves would cook the meat over many hours in a hole in the ground, with red hot stones and glowing embers, sealed the hole with soil so that no steam could escape to give them away. They would go on their missions and come back after hours to find a cooked meal. No other ingredients were added except maybe some salt or herbs, if they had any.
Traditionally, kleftiko was baked in clay ovens all households had in their yards. My mother used to cook it in a terra cotta pot but would prefer the meat to be of aged stock and would seal it with a lid, by mixing flour with water and seal the lid with this mixture so that the steam would not escape and cook it for at least three to four hours in the oven.
If you don’t have an oven proof vessel with a lid, you can cook it in the oven, you can wrap it in parchment. Nowadays, of course more ingredients are added to make it tastier. The extra herbs I have added, rosemary and bay leaves, which my mother did not use, but which are used in other parts of Greece, made it very tasteful. It is very easy to prepare and you don’t have to be in the kitchen all the time to watch over the meal.
The recipe is included in my cookbook Mint, Cinnamon & Blossom Water, Flavours of Cyprus, Kopiaste!