Monday, May 12, 2008

My Big fat Greek Feast

We do like our food, we like to eat it , cook it, and above all share it with our friends and family. While on the Island we decided to put together a feature about the food of Ithaka, It appeared in the February issue of Horizons Magazine in South Africa. Here follows the text and the Images in a Pdf lay out. Enjoy. If you are interested in publishing the story please drop us a line.

My Big fat
Greek Feast
Looking beyond the warm seas,
secluded beaches and chatty locals for
which the Greek Islands are usually
celebrated, there is a land of exotic tastes
and textures where a little culinary
competition never hurt anyone
Text and photographs Robbert Koene

This was not our first time
on a Greek island-hop.
We were quite familiar
with the Mediterranean,
with sailing from beach
to beach, sipping drinks
on deck or sharing ouzo
with the locals in small
kafenios as goat bells
rang in the distance. We had explored most
of the ‘touristy’ things these blue-and-white
islands had to offer, including foods that ranged
from traditional Greek souvlaki to kalamarakia,
made with freshly caught fish and fried at the
local beach café.
What we didn’t know was that we had only
scratched the culinary surface, only nibbled on
the vine leaf that is the dolmade of truly traditional
Greek cuisine. But one night in a small
restaurant on Ithaca in the Ionian Sea, ancient
home of Odysseus, showed us how much we
still had left to explore.
Ithaca is the cousin island of Kefalonia, the
setting for the film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,
and ancestral holiday home of our good friends,
Savas and Anita Couvaras. The Couvaras home
is in the small mountain village of Exoghi, to
the north, with a spectacular view over Aphales
Bay. There are no restaurants here, apart from
a small kafenio that is hardly ever open. The
attraction is a beautiful church and graveyard
with the best view in the world. (Savas often
jokes that when he’s old, he just wants to sit
there next to a hole amongst the beautiful
gravestones, taking in the view until his last
breath, after which we should just tip him in and
cover him up.)
So we would eat at the many restaurants
peppered along the coast at small harbour
towns like Frikes and Kioni, and further inland,
at the restaurants found in larger hubs like Stavros,
the kind of town one goes to find a bakery,
butcher or pharmacy. Penelope’s, Spavento and
Calypso are a few eateries that come to mind.
We had also visited Cemetery Beach where,
in a makeshift shed, Savas’s friends, Panaghi
and Brigitte, dished up freshly caught calamari,
lamb liver and fried melanzane (eggplant) from
their own garden. Home-made feta, olives and
tomatoes were staples on their ever-changing
menu, and if we came too late at night it was
‘Sorry, try again tomorrow, today it’s finished.’
Don’t get me wrong. The food we enjoyed at
these places was fresh and succulent, delicious
every time. When we ate kalamarakia and freshly baked bread
from Stavros on the beautiful, white-pebbled Poli beach, we were
more than satisfied with the quality of our fare.
Thirty minutes’ drive from Exoghi, on the south side of the
island, Vathi, is the capital of Ithaca. A charming town with many
quaint little shops, this is the business centre of the island, the
place to go to find a lawyer or an architect or to refuel or restock
one’s yacht in the bay. Vathi has its own little mountain village
higher up, Peraghori, where many xeni (outsiders) buy and settle
in for the ‘slow life’.
Delicacy in the Rough
It was on our return from a visit to one of Vathi’s beaches that we
stopped at a new restaurant called Chani, situated where North
and South Ithaca meet and where you can see the Ionian Sea off
both the east and the west coast of the island. We discovered that
the word chani means ‘halfway house’, and that this restaurant
was once a small inn dating back to the 18th century. Travellers
would stop here for coffee and loukoumi (Turkish delight) on their
way to either end of the island while their horses quenched their
thirst from great-grandfather Dimia Doriza’s water tank.
As is often the case with old families in Greece, the Doriza family
still owns the land today. In recent years Kostas Dimia Doriza,
grandson of the Dimia, renovated the halfway house into a glorious
restaurant, its walls decorated with pictures of his forefathers
and of Kostas and his wife as small children, working the land.
The Dorizas were eager to share their knowledge of their family
history and traditions. We discovered that they still make their
own cheese from the milk of their sheep, serve olives and oil from
their own groves, and best of all, serve meals authentic to the
history of the island.
First was tserepa, a slow-cooked dish of chicken flavoured with
sapsycho, a kind of oregano that only grows on the island. The
word tserepa actually refers to a kind of pot
with a lid that allows the cook to put coals on
top. The entire pot is then buried underground
until the meal is cooked. It can be used to cook
any meat but chicken is the most common.
Next up was makaronatha Ithiakia, a pasta
dish normally is made with veal and tomato
sauce made in the Mediterranean style.
Makaros is Greek for ‘happy’, and traditionally
this hollow pasta was served at funerals to wish
someone a happy journey into the afterlife.
The Dorizas were keen to let us taste their
riganatha, a dish of bread soaked in red wine,
olive oil and oregano (or riagni) that is either
eaten alone or topped with feta, olives, tomatoes
and salad. In some parts this dish is known
as zuppa, which means ‘to soak’. (The local
dialect of Ithaca also uses the word to describe
when a person has ‘soaked up’ too much wine.)
Riganatha is traditionally made from a specially
baked hard bread called paksimathi, although
these days people often use old bread.
Chani’s in-house chef, also named Kostas,
serves revithatha – a warm, sweet-and-salty
salad that combines chickpeas, raisins, rice, cinnamon
and pecorino cheese – as his signature
dish. It was superb, a combination of new tastes
not often associated with Greece.
Kostas the Chef then served us tsipoura sto
charti, which directly translated means ‘bream
cooked in paper’. And this is exactly what it
was: bream – a popular, locally farmed fish –
delicately wrapped in baking paper with onions
and tomatoes on top and seasoned with rigani,
olive oil, salt and pepper. Mouthwatering.
For dessert we were treated to black chalvas
and thachtili, traditional dishes that are usually
only eaten on religious festivals – black chalvas at
Easter, and thachtili at Christmas. Black chalvas
is made from sugar, oil, water and semolina
flour and gets its name from the dark colour
the sugar goes when it is baked. Thachtili gets
its name from its resemblance to ‘small fingers’
and made out of wine, olive oil and simigthali,
a type of semolina flour. The batter is then fried
and served with cinnamon, honey and sesame
seeds. Just add coffee for a taste of heaven.
Pleased with our finds, we returned to our
old hangouts to explore what else was being
served that we didn’t know about. At the zaccharo
plastio (‘sugar shop’) in Stavros we met
Maria, who bakes rovani, an old Ithacan dessert
dating back to Venetian period on Ithaca. This
is the island’s ‘signature dessert’ and is made
entirely from staple foods such as rice, honey,
oil and water. An acquired taste, yet delicious.
Back in Frikes, we mentioned the foods we’d
discovered to Stathis, owner of Penelope’s. Not
to be outdone, his wife, Dina, invited us to taste
her home-made dolmades, created using a
top-secret recipe that has been in her family for
generations. We delighted in this spontaneous
display of rivalry. Such is life on a Greek island:
full of surprises, rich in tradition – and always
something tasty and new for the adventurous
palate to discover.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The discovery..

Who gets up early in the morning for a jog when you are on holiday in the sweltering heat?
Well, my crazy husband does..and on this particualar morning, the ONLY morning he chose to jog, (he found out pretty soon that its not an activity he would indulge in after some late night party tricks) he runs into this beautiful old gate. Some time, long ago, someone spraypainted a for sale sign and a tel number on the one pillar and Robbert stopped to investigate.
The old ruin was barely visible from behind the gate. barely has he set foot inside the path, when the neighbour from across the road toddled over and from what I can understand, the conversation went something like this: You like? Ne (yes) You wanna buy? Ne. I hav paper. Ne. You wait. Ne.
And so the neighbour produced a complete topographical site plan (!), which Robbert simply took along. Next stop was Stathis, Savas' friend and owner of Penelope's, one of the tavernas in Frikes. Stathis was one of the few Greeks on the island we can communicate with in more than just pigeon English. Yes, he knew the neighbour, and the price he mentioned seemed a bit stiff, but so we were advised to cantact Alexandros Taflambas, according to all, the best, and possibly the only lawyer in Vathi.
This all happened 2 days before we were leaving for Cape Town, and we literally signed a power of attorney to Alexandros in order to buy the property for us in our absence a couple of hours before the ferry departed.