Move over moussaka and hold onto your plates. On a gourmet odyssey to the Cyclades, Cathy Howes finds Greek cuisine is hitting dizzy new heights.
Who knew that the humble cherry tomato could become a national hero? During Santorini’s 1956 earthquake, when many people were out in the fields early for the tomato harvest and safely away from collapsing buildings, this little fruit saved countless lives. The legacy of the quake can still be seen in the dramatic views over the lagoon at Fira, the modern capital, where white roofs and balconies cling perilously to the cliffs and amaze a million visitors a year.
Equally amazing is the local food and wine. Forget souvlaki and chips or plate-smashing: the most exciting chefs are catering to a more discerning palate. Our guide warns us to bring hearty appetites..
He wasn’t joking. It’s not long since breakfast, but Yiannis, the owner of Nomikos Estate, is keen for us to try his wares. He’s a major player in local produce, growing split pea-like fava, pink peppers, white aubergines, and prickly pears, and we feast on home-baked bread, tomatoes and fava dip. The fresh produce bursts with sunshine – you can taste the care that’s gone into growing it.
Fine dining is now as easy to find on Santorini as fabulous produce, and at the hilltop Selene Restaurant in the village of Pyrgos, dishes are big on theatrical presentation. The ‘Seascape’ concept delivers an intriguing medley of sea urchin, clams, mussels, Greek coffee-scented bottarga and a vial of oil. Rabbit stifado is the pick of the mains, featuring black swine prosciutto and liver mousse with a biscuit of dried black olives.
Dimitris Papadimitriou, chef at the Ifestioni Restaurant in the stylish Aressana Spa Hotel in Fira, describes his style as ‘nouvelle but not molecular’. From an olive oil bonbon presented on volcanic rock to seabass carpaccio served smoked in an upturned glass, his menu is pure culinary art. His enthusiasm for his ingredients – down to the best way to soak capers (in milk) – is infectious. Santorini has clearly worked on its gastronomy, but at its heart is local produce lovingly grown by characters like Yiannis Nomikos.
Bounty of the sea
Paros – Santorini’s quieter, equally-stylish cousin – lies just two hours away by Seajets ferry. Travelling on winding roads from the port of Paros, we pass sun-baked white buildings with iconic blue shutters to arrive at our next base, Naoussa, often called the most beautiful fishing village in Greece.
Unsurprisingly, local menus groan with seafood and fish. At the pretty harbour of Piso Livado, 12km to the south of Naoussa, we seek shade in the waterside Halaris Ouzeri, whose owner suggests a meze of typical dishes. A succession of excellent specialities follows: cheese-stuffed sardines, stingray with spring onions, creamy herring dip, sea urchin eggs. We finish with traditional spoon sweets – Greek yogurt with home-made black grapes, orange rind, sour cherry and walnut compotes. In a clear case of greed over need, our return journey is broken with a stop at Hamilothoris Pastry Shop to sample karydato – a sugar-coated mixture of walnuts, orange rind, cinnamon and vanilla.
Forging new footpaths
Another day, another breakfast – this time on the terrace at hotel Porto Naoussa, a charming new collection of boutique bedrooms and, this time, just omelette and fruit in order to leave room for the day ahead.
A couple of hours more at sea take us on to Tinos where we check into the peaceful, sun-baked Anthea Hotel. The unspoilt island is home to just 10,000 inhabitants, but what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in passion, evidenced by projects like Footpaths of Tinos. Founded in 2015 by a few likeminded folk, this network links farms to restaurants, and showcases local producers.
One of its ambassadors is Alexandros Kouros, founder of the Nissos Brewery.
‘If my job was just about brewing beer I’d be in Athens, where 80% of the business is,’ he says flipping the tops off ice-cold craft beers. ‘But here I can see dolphins playing in the sea from my office window.’
The fact that Greece is not a hop-growing region doesn’t bother him. ‘You Brits own the tea culture with tea from Sri Lanka, and it’s the same with Italians and coffee,’ he explains. ‘It’s about added value and perception. At the European Beer Star awards in Bavaria, we won the Silver Beer Star for our Pilsner!’
With the beer, we snack on strips of pork called louza, made by Yiannis Kritikos, our next port of call. He makes 200kg of the stuff a week and is, we’re informed, far too kind to be a butcher. His pork is soaked in wine with fennel and cloves and dry-cured for 40 days, and, because it would be rude not to, we try some – along with his garlic sausage.
The setting for lunch is beach restaurant Mariatha at Agios Fokas. Given the morning, ’picky bits’ are just what’s called for, and owner Marinos brings out a fine spread of cheeses, chutneys, and bread… plus menus. I scan mine for the lightest choice. Fish soup. Brilliant. That I can manage. But it comes brimming with scents, seasonings, and a side plate of a whole grouper head with steamed veg. As our guide said; you don’t go hungry in the Cyclades.
Lunch digested, we head into the villages built in the mountains in the days of pirates, calling on yet another Yiannis. This one is a civil engineer turned cheese-maker whose yield is 50-70kg a week. Like the others who subscribe to Footpaths of Tinos, he believes creating something is the future for Greece.
Just a few hours later, we sit down at Metaxi Mas in the busy (by Tinos standards) Pallada area of Tinos Town. Whole squid comes stuffed with cheese, served with a mustard sauce. Want beer battered sun-dried tomatoes with that? Why not. With cooking this good, anything other than an empty plate would be an insult to our hosts.
Make it happen
Aressana Spa Hotel & Suites, Fira, Santorini (doubles from £155 with breakfast, visit aressana.gr to book)
Porto Naoussa, Paros (doubles from £109 with breakfast, visit portonaoussa.com to book)
Anthea Hotel, Tinos (doubles from £60 with breakfast, visit anthea-tinos.gr to book)
Hellenic Seaways (visit hellenicseaways.gr to book)
PLUS: For information on what to see and do, visit visitgreece.gr.