The thing that excites me most about travel is the cuisine, hence the title of my blog! A big part of my pre trip research is always to find out what the local specialties are, and where to find them. My main memories of Greek food from my visits in the 1980s & 1990s were kebabs and oily moussaka, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the islands have a lot more to offer!
Santorini is known as the ‘tomato island’, with cherry tomatoes being its most famous product. At one time there were a number of tomato canning factories on the island, processing these firm skinned, juicy delicacies. It’s no surprise that tomatoes are utilised in a number of dishes, including the must try ‘Tomatokeftedes’ or fried tomato balls. These are often served as an appetiser and are an ideal accompaniment to a Santorini sunset.
Another popular Santorini dish is Fava, which is a pureed version of yellow split peas. This is often eaten as an appetiser, dip or accompaniment.
Capers are another product of Santorini and are often added to the island’s version of a Greek salad.
Santorini pudding is a dessert made with semolina and milk that is topped with a sweet vinsanto wine sauce.
Another dish for the sweet toothed is ‘Baklava’, a dessert of honey, filo and ground nuts. This is often served warm with cream.
Honey is widely produced and eaten in Greece, with local thyme honey being particularly popular. Greek yoghurt topped with honey and nuts formed part of my breakfast each morning on the islands.
Greek wines are up and coming and I was particularly impressed with the crisp dry whites made from the Assyrtiko grapes of Santorini. The vines of this indigenous grape variety are trained to hug the ground to withstand the strong Aegean winds and sunshine. The volcanic ash rich soil produces wines reminiscent of my favourite Sauvignon Blancs. Best served chilled, these wines perfectly pair with any sort of Greek seafood.
Speaking of seafood, fresh fish is in plentiful supply on the Greek islands, with Red Snapper, Red Mullet, Sea Bream and Whitebait being amongst the most popular dishes. Fish is mostly served in a no frills way, simply grilled and accompanied by a lemon and oil dressing, rice and vegetables. Such quality, fresh produce doesn’t need any gimmicks.
Naxos is a more fertile island than many of the other Cyclades. Local produce includes olives, grapes, figs, citrus fruit, corn and potatoes. It’s also known for its cheese. One of my favourite meals on my Greek Island travels was a Naxian Cheese platter, served with ‘Melimilon’ marmalades at the Naxaki beach lounge on Saint George Beach. Perfectly washed down with a Naxaki Cucumber signature cocktail!
Speaking of signature drinks… the local liquer of Naxos is Kitron, a strong liquer made from the leaves of the citron fruit (which looks like a large, lumpy lemon). There are three types of Kitron. Yellow is the strongest, green is the lightest and sweetest, with the clear version being somewhere in-between. I sampled all three at Kitron Cafe.
Paros is the perfect island for foodies. Every restaurant boasts a menu of delicious mezze and freshly caught seafood, as well as Greek staples such as Moussaka. For those of you that don’t know what moussaka is, it comprises layers of fried aubergine, minced meat, potatoes and creamy béchamel sauce. It’s probably the most famous Greek dish.
It was on Paros that I sampled ‘Saganaki’ which is a slab of cheese tossed in a searing pan, drizzled with lemon and pepper, and in my case coated with almonds.
Whilst waiting for our ferry from Paros to Crete, I sampled a ‘Koulouri’, a large soft bread ring covered in sesame seeds. My youngest Son thought these were great!
On a day trip to the adjacent island of Antiparos, I indulged in a ‘Galaktoboureko’, a custard filled pastry sprinkled with cinnamon. Just my sort of treat!
Of course, you can’t visit Greece without sampling at least a few Greek Salads or ‘Horiatiki’. Traditionally a Greek Salad should contain Feta cheese, cucumber, onion, tomato, olive oil and oregano. Simple yet so tasty.
Other must try foods are ‘Dolmades’ (vine leaf parcels stuffed with rice, herbs or mince, baked in the oven), ‘Kolokithokeftedes’ (courgette balls) and ‘Gemista’ (stuffed vegetables).
When in Greece you must sample a kebab! There are two types, ‘Gyros’ which is meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie and ‘Souvlaki’ which is small pieces of meat grilled on a skewer.
It was on the island of Crete that I sampled probably my favourite meal of my travels….. Lamb Kleftiko. Slow cooked Greek lamb wrapped in parchment paper, with potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Simply delicious! We enjoyed this meal with fabulous views over Elounda bay, from ‘The Hope’ restaurant. The trek up the mountainside was well worth it!
Another traditional Cretan dish is ‘Dakos’, which is similar to Italian Bruschetta. It is a barley rusk topped with tomato, cheese, olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper.
No visit to a Cretan restaurant would be complete without the local brandy or ‘Raki’, an acquired taste! I much prefer a Greek gin and found two of my favourites, ‘Grace’ and ‘Old Sport’ at Rudi’s Bar in Elounda.
So my Greek Island Hopping adventures of last summer opened my eyes or certainly awakened my taste buds to the flavours of Greece. What the Greeks do so well is to showcase their local produce in the best possible way. Simple home style cooking where the flavours are allowed to speak for themselves.