Highlights from a sixteen-day exploration of the culture and gastronomy of the two wonderful, diverse ends of the country.
PART ONE: The North and Northwest
I arrived in Kavala one day before the official beginning of the trip. What a wise decision that was! It gave me more time to spend in Imaret.
This incredible, five-star hotel, is housed in an historic, 1817 building, a masterpiece of late Ottoman architecture. Hardly a place for those expecting a Ritz-like accommodation, its 26 charming rooms are full of character, one different from the other. Their appeal is original and uncommon, but quickly grows on you as you get immersed into the charm of this structure which was originally a religious school.
There are pools and serene inner gardens, long marble verandas and arcades that offer spectacular views of the bay of Kavala and the Aegean beyond. Looking at the bay, I enjoyed my exquisite breakfast as the golden morning sun sparkled on the water, an experience I will never forget!
Caught up in all sorts of everyday chores on Kea, even when we don’t prepare for a program or cook with our Kea Artisanal guests, I haven’t had the chance to travel within Greece for a very long time. The invitation of Georgeann Morekas and the Baltimore Women’s Guild of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation to accompany them as they explored parts of northern Greece and Crete was a most welcome change. It was a lively, wonderful group of twenty, mostly women, several of Greek American origin, but also from diverse backgrounds –from Eastern Europe to Asia. Our sixteen-day trip was wisely organized by Dimitri Galani of Nomad Hill, and gave us the chance to explore the rich cultures and sites of the north and the south of the country. My role was to pinpoint, choose, and focus on traditional, as well as new and creative, local foods.
We arrived in Thessaloniki the second weekend of September, right at the start of the annual International Trade Fair. At the Fair’s opening, the prime minister delivers an important speech about the county’s economy, and his visit coincided with ours. The city —often referred to as ‘synprotevousa,’ the co-capital— was packed with cabinet ministers and dignitaries.
During our first lunch we occupied almost every seat of the small Mia Feta bar/restaurant, both inside and outside, on the narrow pavement on Pavlou Mela street, in the heart of the commercial part of the city. As we were enjoying our Italian-inspired involtini (eggplant slices rolled around feta and kefalograviera cheese, then baked in a spicy tomato sauce), we suddenly noticed a commotion. Our waiters, clearly troubled, were trying to explain to a group of people that there were no tables available; but the newcomers didn’t seem to take no for an answer and pointed to one of our tables that was half empty. The waiter nervously came to me asking if we could, please, sit a bit more closely together to make room for the deputy prime-minister, the minister of agriculture, and their associates. Only then did I notice the black chauffeured cars, and the plain-clothed security men, and realized that these constantly smoking men and women were, in fact, high ranking members of the government. A similar scene, involving different ministers, was repeated the next day during our meze lunch at Igglis tavern, behind the ancient walls, in the old part of Thessaloniki. These two, very different, small restaurants, seemed to be the locals’ best-kept secrets.
Selecting and suggesting restaurants for our meals was a lengthy process that started early last summer. I spoke to many friends, both up north and down south, journalists and writers –not necessarily experts in food– as well as old acquaintances that live in the areas we visited, whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to for many years. I read reviews, looked at pictures, and got some idea of this or the other restaurant my friends had mentioned. Then I drew lists that I discussed again with my ‘advisers’ before making my final decisions. I wanted to give my group a sample of good traditional as well as innovative foods, getting as far as possible from touristy places, or the ephemeral TV chefs’ trendy spots.
At Mia Feta we tasted creative dishes based on feta and the other cheeses produced by the Kourellas family, a creamery that has been operating since 1960. We started our meal with a delicious, refreshing cucumber-yogurt soup adorned with thin slices of smoked octopus, and ended with a lovely fresh mint panacotta with watermelon gelée. In-between, besides the eggplant rolls everybody loved, we had our first soft and mild, sheep’s milk cheese saganaki (shallow fried cheese) one of the many we sampled throughout the trip. We also had skioufiko pasta with keftedes, the Greek version of pasta and meatballs in a tomato sauce, scented with cinnamon and bay leaves. At Igglis, a more traditional 1950’ies tavern, not easy to find in the maze of Ano Poli —the upper part of the city— the saganaki was spicier, as were the soutzoukakia (oblong cumin-scented ‘meatballs’), while the imaginative salads, the fried mushrooms, and the mushroom risotto were all delicious.
The hunkiar (unctuous eggplant puree) topped with meat ragu, the tavern’s specialty, came unfortunately late, when we were almost full and couldn’t appreciate its perfect taste. Igglis offers some of the best examples of the cooking of Prosfyges, the Greeks who came from Asia Minor –the Aegean part of Turkey– as refugees in 1922, after the defeat in the last Greek-Turkish war, and the exchange of populations agreement.
Thessaloniki has always been a cosmopolitan city, a vibrant melting pot of various ethnic and religious groups. Many of the Jews who fled the Spanish inquisition in the fifteenth century moved to Thessaloniki “the only known example of a city of this size that retained a Jewish majority for centuries, until the middle of the Second World War.” Unfortunately, very few Jews have been spared from the Nazi exterminations. Some of the foods of the Sephardic Jews have been incorporated into the local cuisine, like huevos haminados (eggs slow-cooked with onion skins) while the delicate agristada inspired avgolemono, the most elegant of all Greek sauces. In his wonderful book The Cooking of the Jews of Greece, Nickolas Stavroulakis, an old friend who recently departed, has recorded everyday and festive recipes of Jewish home-cooks from Thessaloniki and other parts of Greece. The names of dishes may be different, but the similarities between Sephardic and Christian Greek dishes are many. In Chania, Crete, I had the chance to visit the beautiful old synagogue of Etz Hayyim, in ruins since World War II, which Stavroulakis helped restore.
Many Pontians, descendants of the refugees who fled from the Black Sea, live in Thessaloniki and in other parts of northern Greece. To get an idea about their renowned foods we drove to Monopigado, 30 kilometers north of Thessaloniki, to dine at the spectacular estate Ktima Perek.
Besides the eponymous perek (a skillet pie stuffed with the local white cheese) we enjoyed various meze, salads and spreads, before feasting on succulent meats, roasted in the wood-fired oven. The dense, home-made, sourdough bread baked in the same oven was incredible, while, for the first time I tasted the Pontian syron, rolled, pre-baked pasta ribbons that are served topped with a sauce of garlicky, home-made thick yogurt and butter. Among all these delicacies, the group seemed to have particularly loved the humble potato salad, a side dish of coarsely crushed boiled potatoes, dressed with fruity olive oil and plenty of chopped scallions, parsley and dill!
Yanakohori and Metsovo
The next day, after admiring the site and the exquisite exhibits at Pella museum, and before our visit to the breath-taking Royal Tombs of Vergina, we drove to Yanakohori to see up close the famed old Xinomavro vines at Kir-Yianni, one of the oldest wine producers in Greece.
On the surrounding rolling hills, nestled in the slopes of mount Vermion, the area’s many vineyards offered an incredibly beautiful backdrop for the wine tasting we had as we were getting acquainted with the Boutaris family legacy. Yiannis Boutaris, currently the mayor of Thessaloniki, is the first who had updated Greece’s outdated winemaking tradition, eventually putting Xinomavro, Assyrtiko, and other ‘exotic’ indigenous varietals on the international wine map.
After tasting Akakies, the crisp rosé from Xinomavro grapes, we savored the red Ramnista, the Kir-Yianni iconic label produced exclusively from the vineyards that surrounded us in this unique part of Greece.
Outside Naoussa, the area’s main town, we lunched at Tesseris Epoxes (four seasons), where we enjoyed delicious local charcoal-grilled trout, before hitting the road towards Metsovo. Remembering the old winding roads, I was amazed how the new Egnatia highway made the drive up to the Pindos mountains so comfortable and fast.
Grand Forest Metsovo, our five-star hotel on the slope across from the picturesque village, charmed us from the minute we set foot in the contemporary, yet warm and airy building. In the morning, at the vast breakfast buffet, we enjoyed crunchy cheese and greens’ pies made with home-rolled phyllo, and an incredible butter churned nearby, at the Tositsa-Averoff Dairy, which also produces some of the best Greek cheeses. Wandering around the stores of Metsovo, besides some lovely wooden plates, bowls and spoons carved in the area, I came upon a large pan of Sapouné Halva, a translucent, amber-colored pudding made with cornstarch, butter and sugar. Usually sold at village fairs all over central and northern Greece, Sapouné Halva was never a favorite of mine, until I tasted this one in Metsovo.
I am now experimenting with various recipes and shortcuts, as I will never be able to imitate the paddle-tossing of the professionals who continue this ages-old Ottoman tradition. I hope to come up with a recipe everyone will love, even without the goat’s or sheep’s milk butter that is traditionally used.
Metsovo, and the whole region of Epirus, is in the northwestern corner of Greece. Inhabited mainly by Vlachs —descendants of a very old nomadic people inhabiting the southeastern Balkans— the small town, is renowned for its traditional pites (pies).
Pites are not flat breads, but thin pies made with home-rolled phyllo, and the Vlachs, who made them for us in Metsaovo, are famous for their pies. A crunchy, delicious crust encloses a stuffing of greens, herbs or any available seasonal vegetables, complemented with cheese. At Galaxias restaurant, we watched a young cook roll sheets of phyllo from scratch, and make a galatopita (milk pie), which we had for dessert. Our dinner included blatsaria, an unusual leek and greens’ pie with cornmeal crust, and rooster stewed in wine and tomato, scented with cinnamon and allspice; in its delicious broth, hilopites (homemade pasta ribbons) were cooked. It was a variation of youvetsi, the dish made all-over the country with lamb, veal or poultry, and any kind of pasta.