Greece is the Word by Arlan Hess
I have just returned from two weeks touring the Greek islands with my mother and sister celebrating my mother’s seventieth birthday. Admittedly, I had very little interest in going to Greece on my own. Yes, somewhere deep inside I held a Homeric fascination with sailing “the winedark sea,” but I neither speak Greek nor is anyone in my family Greek, so I had very low expectations of easy communication or paradigm-shifting culinary surprises. I was wrong.
In a country full of pre-Christian pottery shards and marble columns, a tourist could easily find herself consuming only the Greece which is prepackaged for her approval. However, if our trio had relied only on guidebooks for advice, we would have suffered an utterly soulless experience of one of the oldest cultures on the planet. Instead, outfitted only with a great pair of walking shoes and a seemingly bottomless hole in my stomach, I discovered hospitality and exotic gastronomic delights worthy of the great Odysseus himself. The best meals I had weren’t in the tourist-packed towns of Oia, Naxos, or Mykonos, but in the mountain and fishing villages in which we got lost where meals cooked to order and personalized service changed the way I think about preparing and eating food in my own kitchen.
In my teens when I first started cooking, I used the ingredients my mother used; later, I began to incorporate more exotic elements into my meals. On the island of Santorini, I learned that it’s not necessarily what innovative ingredients I use, it’s how I contextualize the traditional ones that matters. For example, buried deep within Finikia, a traditional hill-side village only about a mile outside of Oia, hides a fresh-produce and local wine-based taverna called Krinaki. The only restaurant in the village, Krinaki is the Greek word for lily. Like a mother waiting for her children to return from the fields, utterly without self-consciousness, Krinaki serves vegetables and wine grown within walking distance of the restaurant. Among the three of us, we ate a light lunch of wheat bread with olives, capers, tomatoes and virgin olive oil; fava; eggplant salad; tomato fritters with fresh spearmint; and a large Greek salad (redundant as that phrase is). Essentially, we were eating comfort food, Santorini style.
Nothing on our plates was distinctly “Greek”; except for the olive oil and the cheese, I literally could grow it all in my own garden. The bread with olives, tomatoes and olive oil would be called “bruschetta” in Italian. Tomato fritters are traditional Southern American fare. But, rather than taste like the over-salted, greasy comfort food I am used to eating in the States, this meal was exhilarating. I had always thought of comfort food as palate limiting, never palate stimulating. Having grown up with fried green tomatoes as a regular summer feature on the table, my mother admitted even she had never considered adding backyard mint to her recipe. It was enlightening to be so far from home discovering cultural similarities in food that, though initially surprising, seemed so instinctive in the end. Comfort food is comforting no matter where one finds it.
Similarly, the best restaurant is rarely the most accessible. On Naxos, like on Santorini, tourists are encouraged to spend money in the seaport town. Like in most urban restaurants, the food travels to the diner, not the other way around. As a result of this transportation, the taste of the land disappears from the flavor of the final dish. Though I live in a culture with a McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner, I had to travel a long way to learn this lesson applies to slow food, too.
After having wandered on a moped through the cold, damp mountains and marble quarries of Naxos for nearly an hour, my sister and I finally stopped for directions in a small village called Kinidaros. There isn’t much in town besides a taverna and a toilet, which were all we really needed anyway. The taverna didn’t have a menu and the only English words the young girl behind the bar spoke were salad, cheese, potato, and Coca-cola—so that’s what we ordered. What we received were two large Greek salads with slices of feta on top, and two large plates of French fries. Disappointing? At first, yes; I can order the same meal in any gyro diner in Pittsburgh. But in a little Greek mountain town, very far from everything I know to be true, I sampled the best olive oil and feta cheese I have ever tasted.
The oil was so thick it could have lubed my car, but it wasn’t greasy nor did it taste tinny. The feta was creamy, though still in its squarely sliced shape, but not salty—one of the features that has made feta one of my least favorite cheeses. Although I will never know for sure, I suspect both the olive oil and cheese were house made. Had either element been preserved for travel to Naxos town or Athens, or for further export, complexity of flavor would have been sacrificed for stability and uniformity. I buy “imported” olive oil at home, but it sure doesn’t taste like the stuff I had in Greece. I shudder to think what I might have eaten that afternoon had I decided to stay in town and go to the beach. But, instead of being satisfied with what was in front of me, both geographically and gastronomically, I took the mountain pass less traveled by tourists, and had a meal that has made a lasting difference in the way I look at food. From this point forward, I am going to try harder to eat locally grown and raised produce throughout the year, not just in summertime.
Likewise, I had a similar experience on Mykonos, but this time, in a fishing not a mountain village. On Wednesday, when my mother, sister and I rented a car to tour the island, we followed the map until our road ended in a coastal village called Kalifati on the eastern edge of the island. We had passed several places that looked perfectly fine for what we needed—again, a toilet and some lunch--but we kept driving until we reached the end of the village where at the top of the dock stood a shack with a hand-painted sign reading “fresh fish” surrounded by goats and chickens and stray cats. My mother, who doesn’t particularly like fish or cats, was mystified but willing to look beyond the surface and let her tastebuds be the judge. Once we got inside, we were pleasantly surprised by the décor; the dining room looked freshly painted. The place was spotlessly clean, and the long oak tables and polished bar lent the room a feeling of celebratory anticipation. Outside appearances aren’t everything: a message we all took to heart.
In Greek, the name of the restaurant is “Aνεμοθύελλα” (pronounced: anemothýella, meaning “windstorm”) named for the fishing boat that brings in the day’s fish every afternoon. The whole enterprise is run by a woman named Flora who prides herself on being the only female fisherwoman in the Cyclades. Because Flora, 60, had knee surgery last month, she is confined to shore, limping in her housecoat and apron between the diners and the kitchen making sure her guests are sated and smiling. For now, her son works the boat on his own and her daughter, Joanna, waits tables in the restaurant.
Everyone who orders fish gets to select her meal from among one of the many coolers and ice chests scattered on the floor. Flora digs out the fish from under the ice, holds it up, and then estimates the price of the meal based on 50 euro per kilo, but as Joanna is quick to point out, one serving of fish isn’t nearly a kilo, so the price is actually much cheaper.
When our meal was over, Joanna wanted to bring us a small dessert on the house, but we had stuffed ourselves so full, we said no. Or, at least, tried to say no. When we saw that refusal was pointless, we agreed on one small dessert that we could split three ways. Joanna brought a dish of thick yogurt topped with red grapes soaked in aged brandy and honey. At first, the grapes dominated our compliments, but then we began to taste the creamy bite of the yogurt. When we asked what it was, her reply sounded something like “goot yogurt.”
“Yes, yes,” we replied, “delicious yogurt. So good.”
“No, no. Goot yogurt,” she smiled, pointing over our shoulders out the window just as three grey goats trotted around the side of the house. Goat yogurt. They make their own yogurt on site. Our eyes rolled back in our heads with ecstasy. Had we chosen to stop at a more traditional-looking taverna, or one that outwardly catered to tourists, we never would have discovered such spectacular delicacies. So often in the States I have avoided a restaurant because I didn’t like the look of the building or it bothered me that it did or didn’t have tablecloths or someone else told me he didn’t like it. After visiting Kalifati, I’ve learned that every palate is different and no one can tell me what or where I should and should not eat.
I never expected so much from Greece; I especially didn’t count on life-changing, foodie experiences in fourteen days. My sister and I have always referred to a pleasant surprise after initially low anticipation as the “Expectation Differential,” clearly a phrase I repeated often throughout our trip. Jettisoning guidebooks was one of the best things I could have done; besides, once the “best kept secret” restaurant is listed by Lonely Planet, Time Out, or Fodor’s, it fills with loud, pushy people and becomes impossible to enjoy.
The best restaurants we found were weren’t in the glitzy, over-toured towns of Oia, Naxos, or Mykonos, but in the small villages where we found ourselves at odd times of day with dire urinary anxieties. But, it was in those remote locations where I discovered the most universal truths about preparing and eating food. Traditional comfort foods can be extraordinary when they are prepared in innovative or multicultural ways. Selecting fresh, locally grown produce will add more character to a meal than any imported spices could ever do. Don’t judge the recipe by the photo in the cookbook; looks can be deceiving. I’ve been cooking and eating for a long time, but after my trip to Greece earlier this month, I think I finally may have begun the transition from cook to amateur chef.
I found the following recipe for Greek tomato fritters on About.com, NOT from the restaurant where we ate:
“The combination of herbs can be adjusted to include dill, parsley, basil, mint, or oregano, depending on taste preference. The recipe calls for self-rising flour.”
4 ripe medium tomatoes, finely chopped
2 medium zucchini, grated
1 medium onion, grated
1 1/2 - 2 cups of self-rising flour
1/2 bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
1/2 bunch fresh mint or fresh basil, finely chopped
sunflower or canola oil for frying
Combine all ingredients except flour in a bowl. Add enough flour to make a thick batter.
Heat 1/2 to 3/4 inch of oil in a nonstick frying pan. When the oil is hot, drop the batter by tablespoonfuls into the oil and fry until browned. Turn once to brown on both sides.
Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper towels.
Yield: serves 4-6