Basically, it is anything that is either wrapped or simply enclosed between one, two or more layers of dough - made of flour and water - spread so much that after baking it is as fragile, thin and crisp as an extremely dried leaf. Hence its name “filo”, that means “leaf” in Greek.
Inside this folded “leaf” or between two or more of them, you get practically anything from cheese, to meat or sausages and from vegetables to small fishes, all combined with olive oil and eggs; or a compilation of all these; or simply custard cream if you want to make a kind of dessert. Then you put the complete ensemble in the oven and bake it until crisp on the outside, but still moist inside - a savory set of flavors within flavors.
The most famous and widespread pies are the “tyropitas” (cheese pies) and “spanakopitas” (spinach pies), as well as a combination of the two.
The history of pies is long; to cut it shorter, people first started making plain ones some thousands of years ago in Carthage, then ancient Greeks came along and offered their own edition, the “mytlotos” pumped up with wine, oil, honey and garlic and then the Romans upgraded the thing adding eggs, meat etc. This way, around the middle ages, you could expect to find anything, when biting into a pie while traveling the Balkans.
“Why do that, instead of eating the food along with some bread-like thing made with flour and water?” is a very valid question. But the answer is not a simple one.
The first reason is that because if you go the “pita” way of cooking, anything you have as a leftover or as surplus, combined with what you can find around, in your garden, field, farm or chicken house, could be easily turned to a dish without the fuss of cooking everything separately. Quite a convenience when women in the old days had little time for cooking, as - at certain times of the year- everybody was called to offer an extra hand in the fields.
The second reason is that food back in the old days -before the arrival of refrigerators- could this way be preserved for longer.
And the third and most characteristic reason for the “pita” charm, that still makes them a hit, is that they are the most practical of Greek foods. Weather you go to dig your field away from home or facing a long day at the office, you throw a piece of “pita” in your bag –homemade or bought from the bakery on the way- and you are set. You can have it for breakfast or for dinner. As a main course, or for starters. Sitting at the family table or walking around while window-shopping. And there are so many different versions depending on what you put in it that you will never get bored of it.
These are the reasons “pita” became the Swiss army knife of every housewife’s culinary arsenal. Now various factories provide readymade “filo”, especially “choriatiko” (rustic style, or as they used to make in the old village times). But back in the days before fridges, women who knew how to make a good “filo” by hand (thin, yet strong and equally tasty, made at blurring speed) were considered a “catch” as they could provide a nice meal using , technically, left-overs.
Oh, and the “plastis” (the rolling pin) that the housewifes used to spread their “filo” with, was considered the weapon of choice against ill-mannered husbands. A kind of multipurpose-hanging-around-women-only beating club.
Making the “filo” by hand:
Spinach pie with readymade “fylo”:
Martha Stewart’s Edition:
Galactrobureko (sweet custard pie with syrup):
Boogatsa (sweet custard cream pie):