Greece: Melbourne Radio Show With Graeme Kemlo
Greece Adventure Part 1
The following is the outline used for two radio segments produced in July of 2014.
Odysseas Elytis, (Odysseus Elytis) winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature, was a major poet in the Greek language. Possessed of a highly original and lyrical voice, he was an international figure of 20th-century poetry. Here a favorite quote of his:
“If you deconstruct Greece, you will in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine, and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you reconstruct her.” ~ Odysseas Elytis
Greece is many-faceted. It has a rich history, varied terrain, and great natural beauty. Consisting of many islands and multiple seas, it was birth place to a great conqueror, philosophers, and writers. Here, ancient ruins if not deemed important enough are simply built around or over. In early summer the scent of climbing jasmine and intoxicating perfume of the elegant flowering Flamouria trees perfume the courtyards and climb over the gates. I went to Greece in early June before the hot spell. The term “hot” is relative, as it was getting really hot for me as I hopped from shade tree to shadows walking the streets. Here the locals just go on with grace.
IFWTWA and our Assoc. member Sofia Bournatzi, Marketing Director at Halkidiki Tourism Organization had a press trip going. We were each to fly in from our respective home base and meet in Thessaloniki to take off for the beaches and attractions of Halkidiki.
Five Best Spots in Thessanoliki
1 & 2) Start by walking along the promenade to the Lefkos Pyrgos or the White Tower. The Tower was built in the late 15th century over a Byzantine tower by the Ottomans where the eastern wall of the city and the seawall meet. Originally the White Tower was said to be red because of the executions that took place here of the prisoners it held. A prisoner was given the chance to paint it white to gain his freedom, so he took it. The inside is a well – curated museum. It starts at bottom level with the beginnings of the city showing the layers of houses built upon houses from the culture before it. As you walk up the tower and climb up to each level; practical and creative exhibits tell Thessaloniki’s story of collapsing empires and shifting populations, a great fire and other events molding the shape of the cosmopolitan city it is today. At top there is a small food museum display of sorts and a terrific view of the port below, seaside apartments and the walls of the Byzantine acropolis (castle) of Thessaloniki rising way up in the hills. From up at this acropolis there is an incredible view too. Take a taxi up.
3) Wander over to The Makedonia ( Macedonia) Palace, the only waterfront hotel that was built on the promenade directly on the sea. Go into The Symposium Restaurant with views out to the prom and the sea. Ask for the “Business Lunch”. At 16 Euros it is a huge deal as lunch is a large meal here in the city but it is eaten after 2 pm or later. Choose from soup of the day, Manouri cheese salad with sun dried tomatoes or traditional “ Greek” salad with feta. Then select from a sizable entree like marinated chicken in yogurt and herb crust or fresh fish or pasta. For dessert opt for the Yogurt Cheesecake with berries, which is more of a bombe with a pavlova crust. Order some local Greek wines (all good).
4) If you are headed to the central square of Thessaloniki there is great shopping. But at some point you have to hit the famous pastry, candy, gelato and savory pie shop right on a corner fronting Aristotle Square called Terkenlis. If it is earlier in the morning, be sure to walk further down the square heading to the hills and make a left and you will be nearing the old Market. Fish mongers, butchers,vegetable stands, flower stalls and a coffee seller all line the walls and interior of this market. Stop at my friend E. Ampazoglou’s coffee shop for a chat and some coffee he roasts right there.
5) Go for a coffee, snack, lunch or dinner to the lovely Electra Palace Hotel’s terrace deck called Orizontes Roof Garden for a fine view of the Aristotle Square and out to the sea. Aristotle Square is still the place anyone can demonstrate or speak on their own soapbox. It is the historical, practical and democratic heart of the city.
A person living in Thessaloniki explained that they all go to summer houses in Halkidiki and explained by telling me, ” the smell of thyme cooking, bees and honey, jasmine blooming at night, for every person in Halkidiki these are the first memories of summer.”
Leaving the city of Thessaloniki and the Thermaikos Gulf eastward, Halkidiki forms three legs stretching into the Aegean providing this area with 500 Km of coastline and lovely beaches. Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos are the names of these peninsulas, each hiding discoveries in plain sight for the interested travele. Of its 3,000 year old culture, a cave in the area in Petralona includes a 200,000 year old skull and evidence of further habitation back about 700,000 years.
Some “Must Do’s”
1) Take the mountain route from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupolis to visit the 18th century village of Arnea. While replacing the stone floors of their church after a major fire, it was discovered that the church was built on an ancient Byzantine church. You can see these ruins through several glass floors in the church. What is remarkable is that the village families keep the buildings to the 18th century look, not by law or mandate but because they believe it is important to preserve the culture.
2) Ouranoupolis is an old village and gateway to visit Mt. Athos the land at the tip of the Athos peninsula. Mt. Athos is the private religious community of Orthodox monks from several countries that live a self contained holy life off the land here. Open only to men, a female is not allowed closer than 500 meter from shore. Men can petition to revive permission through their church and the governing body there. There are a only a certain number of visitors allowed. Women can see Mt. Athos from the ferry boat tour that leaves from Ouranoupolis each day.
3 ) Spend a few nights at Eagles Palace a luxury beach front full service all-inclusive resort and spa. Very near Ouranoupolis town, it caters to couples,but it is busier in summer with families. Fantastic food, breathtaking views indulgent wine cellar and expert pairing program.
4) For a completely different experience for the budget traveler I can also recommend. Skites Hotel just outside of Ouranoupolis. Breezes from the sea cool the simple rooms and many on the second floor have sea views. There is a large private pool and a party bar across the dirt road next to the sea. What is remarkable here is the slowing of time and finding a simple way of being, here. The rooms are clean and the place is very relaxed. You will love it here.
5) Heading towards the middle peninsula of Sithonia check out Plantanorema Farm for another stop along the way. Here the owner Yannis Papastergiou and family have created a place to show city folks how a farm works. Farm tours, horseback rides and pottery lessons (w/previous arrangement), making “ Tsipouro” the liquor from Greek wine, cooking demos, honey harvest process and lunch are avaialble. The secret here is that he has also built lovely stand- alone cottages that are available for rent and very reasonable. A really great family place.
6) Porto Koufo Hotel. The port is the largest natural port in Greece. The owner is the daughter of the man who started the hotel and is also an artist. She creates the soul of this place and has created a beautiful refuge and relaxing hotel right on the sand. Her son Giannis Petridis is now GM., and continues the “you are part of the family” atmosphere. Tremendous value and expect a lovely stay. Bonus: they have a beach bar and the best Frappe coffee. You feel very free here.
7) A delightful, modern greek holiday spot is the Ekies All Senses Resort a member of Design Hotels. Geared towards the upwarly mobile family, the resort is on Sithonia, on an unspoilt beach in the very cool beach town of Vourvourou. Owners also own Cocomat mattresses featured in many European 5-star hotels so you know you’ll sleep like a baby here. Very eco-friendly, highest honors as green certified hotel. The beachfront restaurant is awesome and they will serve you dinner on the beach for two for a special occasion with prior arrangements.
8) Porto Carras Wines. Within the Porto Carras Resort, there is a beautiful wine tasting room. After a short film on the history of the wines and vines distilling facts like “twenty-seven varieties were planted in various locations, 13 of these were French and 14 Greek,” and “French varieties were tested to see what would grow in the climate and the micro
climates on the hills and steppes of this land near the sea” you are then sent to the tasting bar. An indigenous Greek variety Limnio is poured and it is said to be the favorite of Aristotle, who was born not far from the area. In the vineyard, only sulfur and copper are used, grapes are organically grown in their estate vineyards,and ecological measures and practices are the norm here under winemaker and GM Yliana Stengou, Domaine Porto Carras S.A. whose family owns it.
Domaine Port Carras is the only winery in this region. Yields are deliberately kept exceptionally low. Harvesting is carried out by hand, and usually begins in mid-August and lasts for four weeks. The vines are still considered “young” so the winemakers skill must be great.
9) Before you leave Porto Carras Grand Resort, or better before you get there, inquire as to a tour (rare) or book a stay in the vacation home “Villa Galini” of the resort creator. Yiannis “John” Carras, a shipping tycoon, was on his yacht with friends and saw the property leading up to Mt. Meliton. He bought the entire property, built a resort on it and saved the high rocky side of the mountain with the ocean view for himself. A bathroom by his often guest Salvador Dali, and two Dali bronzes remain. The best part ? You can rent the house and stay as a guest too, like Prince Albert of Monaco, Melina Mercouri, Queen Juliana of Holland, the Aga Khan, Rudolf Nureyev, President Francois Mitterrand of France, Konstantinos Karamanlis, Joan Baez,various Rockefellers, Margot Fonteyn, President Vladimir Putin, and Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The story of what went on here during the fabled parties is left untold and has likely faded into 1960’s party-land playground jet setter history.
Part 2 Culinary Highlights: Hakidiki, Santorini, Corfu and Athens
What to Eat and Drink There
Ti Kanis Graeme? How are you?
In Cofu I attended the “Trip2Taste” festival at the beautiful MarBella Resort. www.marbella.gr The hotel is very relaxed and a large property. Breakfast included, it is a huge but efficient buffet affair run like a cruise ship. At the festival a collection of the best Greek products and chefs, demos and dinners, food products and special tastings filled the three days. On the final night I attended a very special wine pairing dinner. Here is a highlight from an article I am working on:
“We were seated at a long table at the water’s edge. Here we feasted on courses of seafood and wines so thoughtfully orchestrated and masterfully paired with the food and environment, one might think it a marvelous set of coincidences or perhaps sorcery.
I knew was experiencing the convergence of natural perfection. I was in an ethereal, floating world creating a blurred line between earth, water and heaven. The largest moon I had ever seen rose up out of the Ionian Sea and climbed slowly to hang red- yellow in the night sky. And when it was completely dark except for the red moon and our wine glasses reflecting the twinkle of candle light; the sky was one with the sea.”
(This week we look at Halkidiki, Santorini, Corfu and Athens through its gastronomy.)
Halikidiki, you remember from the last time we talked, is a beach-y area, where many Thessonaliki city inhabitants come to spend summer. It is also a favorite of the English, Russians, Ukrainians, French, and Germans for their holiday each year.
One place to mention again in our culinary context is the luxurious Eagles Palace Resort. Once a year the owners host an Orthodox monk from Mt. Athos to come and hold a cooking class to demonstrate his techniques. He presents his recipes and explains the ingredients for a cuisine that began in antiquity. He has written a cookbook available there. The monks eat only what they can grow, fish for, barter, sell or derive from the land. No meat is consumed. The monk, Epiphanios of Mylopotamos has the job of feeding the monks and any male visitors to the monastery.
Around the corner a few miles past Ouranoupolis (where you catch the ferry to see the monasteries of Mt. Athos) on the Athos peninsula, I told you I discovered a gem for budget travelers and those wanting a very low key holiday. The place is called Skites. What is remarkable here is that you immediately feel the slowing of time and find a simple way of being. The restaurant has a chef who cooks fabulous food from local ingredients including fresh fish which complements the easy and authentic lifestyle.
Before we leave Halkididi for Santorini, I want to mention another gastronomic gem : The Horizon Restaurant at the Anthemus Sea Beach Hotel. At the helm is Exec. Chef Euripides Tzinopoulos an award-winning chef of superior caliber. His inventive menu using local Greek ingredients, superb Greek wine pairing and the open terrace restaurant setting here is a lovely way to spend the sunset hour and an evening appreciating his inventive cuisine with fresh ingredients.
For History Buffs
Travel west of Thesonaliki to the ancient towns in the Vergina region (Naousa) in the prefecture of Imathia. This is the capitol of the ancient civilization of Macedonia. At Vergina Museum, walk into a hallway under the immense mound that covers the burial tomb of Phillip II the father of Alexander the Great. The treasure, gold crowns, actual burial tombs and mosaics are enough in themselves to make me return to Greece.
In town just a short walk away is a lovely jasmine covered restaurant “Filippeion” serving the best local fare: soft cheese coated in toasted sesame seeds with a drizzle of honey, fresh sliced tomatoes baked with cheese. Meats like wild boar, pork, rabbit and lamb, fish and a local dessert, “ Revani” a semolina cake with honey and yoghurt. This area is worth an overnight and the accommodations are very traditional, simple and very affordable. Tourism head is Giorgos Saliagas.
In Greece in general and in Halkidiki especially, there is a push to offer visitors a traditional Greek breakfast. In fact they have a designation for it. The Greek breakfast at Athena Pallas Village Resort Hotel is especially great. Cold meats, Greek kafe, (Turkish really), spinach pie, fruit, fresh yoghurt, local honey, eggs and all kinds of delicacies, jam and bread are served. I learned to prefer this breakfast to the American or European. In this resort the presentation is most inspired.
Food and Wine Products: Where To Try Them
Marianna’s Vine Leaves in Nea Gonia, Hakidiki, is a small company run by a family matriarch Marianna Kazakis and her family. They grow special types of grape leaves for culinary uses. Their leaves are tender; no biting into a woody stem. Her product is the gold standard in Greece and made in a very small factory using organic and green certified practices (ISO 22000). She has developed products that use every part of the plant from ready made vine leaves stuffed with rice, a grape vinegar, medicinal grape syrup, raisins, frozen Phyllo pies, and marmalade and jellies. Marianna is a warm and delightful person and she offer tours with a shop stop with great prices. www.vineleaves.gr
I did a great deal of food and wine exploration on Santorini this trip so let’s hop over to Santorini. Do you want a great connection I have for an honest and delightful English speaking tour /travel booking agency in Greece? Dolphin Hellas in Athens. Ask for Uli. Top notch and she will find the best deals for you on air. www.dolphin-hellas.gr
The caveat to some island hopping is by air you have to go to Athens for a stopover and then catch the flight which, because this is Greece and if in mid- afternoon may be about an hour late. Hotels and places to stay are numerous as both the local population and visitors soar April to Sept. Rooms along the sea-filled caldera in the caves from village of Oia to Fira (City of Thira) tend to run in luxe range, my favorite is a boutique hotel Iconic Santorini which is truly exceptional and has a fab chef. (More on him later), while hotels and pensions are available in Megalochori or elsewhere.
Once you have your hotel booked, go to YourGreekFriend and book a tour day with partners Dimitris and Ruth. They do any type of excursion, hike, adventure you want but their friendships and knowledge of the hidden culinary Santorini makes the difference. They say, “ The customer is the owner of his time.” So you get to decide what you want to do. When I asked about the name, they said, “ It is like you are visiting your friend and they take the day off work to show you around, all the best spots the things they know and like. That’s what we do.”
We explored a few of Santorini’s famed foods. The small Santorini tomatoes became my favorites. When dried thy impart a strong flavor to food. Once the plant is established they don’t water it. The plant struggles and produces a flavorful fruit says farmer and retail store owner Anna AliFragi of “ The Good Heart.” A local farmer, personality and cook, she has been featured on Food Channel show with Giada De Laurentis.
I also have a favorite food made with the tomato: the ubiquitous Santorini Tomatokeftedes (tomato balls). I first tried them at the restaurant under the pergolla at the Iconic Santorini prepared by a young, talented native-born Santorini chef Konstantinos Avgoulis. Fresh tomatoes are chopped, combined with onion, mint, flour or farina and Kefalotyri cheese, formed into patties and fried crisp. The recipe will be available on my website soon. www.iconicsantorini.com www.mantiscollection.com
In Santorini they plant the vine stock and train it to curl around itself forming a basket that protects the fruit and young leaves from the winds and relentless sun. They don’t much water it either. This is called “Kouloura” or basket style.
Memorable wineries: Your Greek Friend took us to the winery of “ Estate Argyros” a 4th generation family winery on Santorini. Their Assyrtiko 2012 with expressive minerality has gained international attention. The secret is the Santorini terroire: no water, extreme sun, extreme wind, lava “soils” and this heritage grape is indigenous so it has developed its unique qualities for centuries here. All the vineyards are planted with indigenous heritage grapes: Assyrtiko, Aidani, Athiri, and Mavrotragano.
In addition to their reds and beautiful structured whites, a famous wine is mentioned by the Venetians in the 1500’s. It is called Vin Santo and made from sun- dried white grapes, a mix of the various indigenous grapes, aged a minimum of 4 years in oak barrels and up to 20 years for the smoothest ones.
A large Santorini wine collective known as Santo Wines has 1,200 members and a state of the art production facility. Look for P.D.O. designation telling you the wine is completely grown and produced in Santorini. Located in the village of Pyrgos, an educational tour is offered, large retail store and spectacular views on the shaded terrace overlooking the caldera. 100% lemony, with mineral notes, the Assyrtiko is king or try a blend of Arssyrtiko, Athiri, Aidani that shines. They make a quality Vinsanto. My fave is sitting with friends and bottle of the chilled bubbly overlooking the caldera.
Two more places here to mention are a food education, culinary cultural village museum and cooking classes at top notch Selene restaurant owned by Yiorgos Hatziyannakis. Presented by Georgia Tsara who is also a sommelier and restaurant manager of Selene, she talks about the indigenous products; the grapes, fava bean, caper plant, and the influence of Egypt,Turkey, France, Venice, Libya, Persia. The plantings of sesame, cotton, olives and saffron that did not survive the volcano eruption of 1800’s and which crops did and which were planted after. There is also a short wander through the cultural museum. A pairing at Selene in Georiga’s hands is the way to educate the palate and learn the nuances of the Santorini wine.
Specialty Greek Products
As Graeme mentioned in the opening quote last week, “if you deconstruct Greece, you will in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine, and a boat remain.” It is the olive tree that provides so many things, much like a coconut tree to Pacific Islanders. The wood can be used to built a simple hut or shed for the animals, or dried to fire an oven or grill. From the olives, cured or pressed, one can also make soap like the fine soap made by the monks at the Monastery of the Prophet Elias in Thira. There is also olive oil margarine.
Historically, the best olives come from Pelopenesos (Kalamata) and in central Greece from Amphissa. Their economic importance was recorded as far back as 3500 B.C. When Minoans traded oil for dyes and textiles with the Phoenicians.
Oil is produced commercially in Greece, but most families where olives can grow have their own trees and take the olives to a communal oil press. Relatives in the cities get their oil from their country cousins as this is a custom here. Olives don’t grow everywhere; none on Santorini.
In Corfu in the Ionia Sea across from Italy, olives are planted in the hills on slopes. When asked, a local said, “ That is our way in Corfu because we don’t have to pick any; we create a wall at the bottom of the steep slope to catch all the olives that have rolled down.”
Two of the amazing olive oils tasted at Trip2Taste festival were Gaea from PDO Kalamata and Bonum Terrae from PDO Mylopotamos, Crete. Both are extra virgin from Koroneiki olive variety and took Gold Medals in 2014 Olive Oil Competions in NYC.
Bottarga or “Mediterranean caviar” made since 1856 by the Trikalinos family. It is a cured product of Grey Mullet Roe. No preservatives, nutrient rich, it is shaped into a bar and coated in natural bee’s wax. Try a piece on a perfectly cooked egg on toast as my friend Chef Lila Kourti does; sort of a Greek Eggs Benedict using Bottarga in place of the salty ham, so richthat no sauce is needed. International chefs in NYC, London, Paris, Singapore, Hawaii and Hong Kong already know about this special food. One chef in Greece serves it with a bit of butter on a small bruschetta, finished with a drizzle of olive oil. Chef Tsanaklides touts “minimal invasion of a raw product if it is of superb quality.”
Cheese, Fava, Tsipouro, Mastica, and Honey
I won’t go into too much detail but yogurts and especially cheeses are different everywhere and are like a tasting map of the topography and vegetation of the country. Sheep and goat cheese are made, no cow cheese here. Try them everywhere you go.
Fava comes in different colors from yellow to dark brown and looks to me like a large dried split pea. The best of them are cooked and pureed, served alongside a grilled fish.
Tsipouro and Ouzo are both commercially made from grapes. Tsipouro which does not have anise flavor is traditionally made at home in Greece. It is served in the Thessaloniki, Halkidiki area before the meal as an aperitif. Serve with a salty fish “ Skoubri” some lemon and grilled vegetables mezedes like the Hyatt Regency ‘s Ambrosia restaurant. Or pair with octopus in lemon and olive oil, or sausages or saganaki (fried cheese). It is never served without food. Greeks sip, eat, reflect, speak, repeat.
Masticha or Mastica comes from the resin of a tree of the same name. An ancient tree, it is not very clear when the cultivation and use as a crop of these trees on the island started, but it is known that Herodotus was the first to notice their resin, around the 5th century B.C.. Mastica gum is processed for medicine, cosmetics, a type of brandy served after dinner as a digestive, a micro-nutrient food, and used as a spice or flavoring in cooking. I found the taste to be very pine-like. www.greeka.com
All along the backroads of agrarian Halkidiki there are roadside stands. Stop and buy the honey enjoying the many different flavors from the oregano, jasmine, pine, lemon and other plants grown here.
I spent one fantastic night in Athens with my friend Effie Gialousi. A fabulous chef, she moved from Greece, lived in Melbourne with her family after high school and attended university there. She is an effervescent spirit who has owned many restaurants. Now she has what she calls “my work shop” kitchen where she and her staff prepare delights to fill her beautiful boutique eatery ” Oti Kalitero” or “only the best”at Kolonaki Skoufa 56. She specializes in Pavlova, an egg white based puffed shell of a sort of meringue. She then fills with sweet whipped cream and tops with sweet fresh strawberries or lemon or many other delights. She also offers a beautiful array of traditional foods, so you should make this a stop for lunch or an early, simple dinner after wandering the streets of this exclusive area of Athens.
Another Athens delight is the new “Varoulko” seaside restaurant Michelin-starred chef and restaurant owner Lefteris Lazarou has built in Pireaus. Along this stretch of trendy restaurants and tavernas, his relaxing and stylish restaurant respects its roots and heritage. It is all about the seafood here and they serve only the best. “ Try that olive” Chef Lazarou tells his guests at dinner “it is special, you will not taste it anywhere else.” He is right, it is fleshy, but shriveled like a fat prune. The taste is sharp but with no bite, just a concentrated mouthful of olive taste.
Two more things to mention:
Marina Boutari from a 4th generation wine making family, has a tour company and a Greek product PR company. She holds intimate events in Greece that you can attend via her Trip2Taste company. Here you get a real background on the products and foods of Greece.
And finally if you want an immersion into Greek culture, food and lifestyle, contact the Hellenic Culture Center and my friend Ifigenia at firstname.lastname@example.org . One recent program in Santorini included a Greek language crash course, art, poetry, excursion to the unexplored Santorini, singing lessons, a boat trip to the volcano and cooking.
I wish you a great trip in Greece and Kali Orexi ! Bon Appetit!