We have our younger daughter’s semester abroad to thank for our fabulous foodie foray to Lyon, France, in January but our older daughter gets credit for initiating what had to be the grand caldera of foodie adventures for moi in 2014. (Caldera is geologic-speak for the caldron-like shaped remains of an ancient volcano). Said daughter, Sydney, was to be on a long and tedious work assignment in Greece so she invited me to join her afterwards for a week in October for some mother/daughter bonding on Santorini’s famed black beaches. In my head I was thinking, “You want me to fly 5,000 miles, a day going and a day getting back, for five measly days in paradise?” But I only said, “I have to sleep on it.”
I dreamt up a doozy of a plan. Leave a week early – just me and a backpack – Athens to Piraerus to Santorini, where I will alternately hike and eat my way across the breathtaking volcanic “backbone” northwest of the island in Oia. I will stay at cheap but respectable Airbnb’s so I can spend lavishly on food and wine. Of course, I will document it all with my camera. The fabled blue domes atop sun-blinding-white buildings perched on towering cliffs overlooking the rich jewel that is the Aegean Sea; Nea Kameni in the distance, a sleeping volcano that I will conquer and celebrate the victory with char-grilled but oh-so-moist lamb smothered in Heaven (aka tzatziki), a helping of tender potatoes seasoned with olive oil, lemon, and fresh oregano all washed down with a cold Greek beer . . .
But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. After seven days solo, I will catch a bus to Kamari, on the eastern, less mountainous side of the island – it’s only 25 miles at its widest point – and meet Sydney for a week of the beach life, Santorini-style. Miles of sundrenched black beaches, so-called because of the small lava rocks smoothed by eons and lapping waves. And miles of restaurants, hundreds of them. Open air, large, small, cheap, expensive, all hawking their seaside menus on a boardwalk reminiscent of my youth in Ocean City, Maryland. Whole, grilled cod with olive oil and tomatoes, octopus simmered in vinsanto – the local wine, squid stuffed with spinach and feta, skewered shrimp with dill.
There I go again . . .
I departed for Athens on September 25, took public bus #98 to the port city of Piraerus the next morning where I caught the massive hydro-foil ferry, Seajet, bound for Santorini. Picture a 747, twenty seats abreast and forty deep, on two floors. The trip took six hours. En route I ogled the glossy Greek Isle travel zines oozing with high-end food spreads. Salivating, I checked my iPhone for the time. I wouldn’t make my first culinary destination for another eight hours. While I loathed to extract yet another Luna Bar from my back pack, I gnawed the chocolate covered particular board nonetheless and day dreamed about stuffing my pie hole morning, noon, and night with all things authentically Greek for the next 12 days. κάποιος πρέζα μου! (Translation: Somebody pinch me!)
Roughly speaking, Santorini is shaped like a backwards “C.” The drop-dead gorgeous village of Oia (pop. 3,400) drapes like a fine Byzantine earring from the top of the “C,” the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera, some 300 feet above sea level. Quintessential domed Greek churches adorned in brilliant blue and white punctuate the main plaza beside charming shops, homes, hotels, and restaurants – all polished white in the sun – and stacked willy nilly like geometric building blocks one on top of the other, half buried in the craggy face of the volcanic stone, like Mediterranean pueblos.
I arrived in the afternoon just after an autumn shower. Still, it was 70 degrees and the harbor, almost surreal the blue so blue, was empty of cruise ships. Off-season, the best time to come, I was told. And the prize? Comfortably strolling, not jammed shoulder to shoulder with 8,000 day trippers. Starving for my very first Santorini taste sensation, I navigated the narrow marble walkway and chose an open-air, traditional restaurant with a killer view. I ordered the seafood salad: steamed octopus, squid, cuttlefish and mussels lavished with olive oil, lemon juice, and capers on a bed of greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes; a side of sfougato, zucchini soufflé with onions and dill served with a dollop of the ubiquitous tzatziki – creamy Greek yogurt, macerated cucumber, and garlic with a little olive oil; the Greek rendition of “ketchup” as in, they serve it with everything. Pure utter joy. The realization that I was finally there after so many months of planning, that I beat Stage 3 breast cancer and could call the world my oyster, that I could drink in the same panoramic view that mesmerized the seafaring heroes of Homerian epic. My heart and my taste buds were SINGING.
That first lunch proved the epitome of island cuisine. Simple, fresh, locally sourced as much as possible, and slow – as in the opposite of fast food. Seafood, of course, is abundant and the variety mind-numbing, although octopus and squid are definitely the rock stars on many menus. In general, islanders let the “main attraction” speak for itself without undue influence of complicated sauces or over-powering herb and/or spice profiles. Even the lowly sardine is treated like royalty in Santorini and enjoyed numerous ways. My favorite was char-grilled on a bed of pureed fava, another Santorini specialty I fell in love with and could drink like a milkshake. It’s smooth as velvet with a touch of herbs that I couldn’t quite discern, but very delicate and with a nutty finish.
And that bed of greens with tomato and cucumber? Unless you’ve eaten maters and cukes from Greece, you have no idea! The taste is astounding and yet, you’ll look around – as I did – at the arid, moonscape of an environment and think, “How the hell does anything grow here?” Mother Nature, that’s how. Vegetables planted in the island’s volcanic soil, benefit from extreme sun and heat by day which is absorbed by the lava stone, keeping the plants warm through the night; then, at dawn, condensation from the lower temperatures and ocean/air currents are absorbed by the lava stone which simultaneously waters and fertilizes the plant. This miraculous process, for physiological reasons I’m still bewildered by, keeps the fruit skin thin, further enhancing the flavor. Vintners often talk about the role that soil characteristics – terroir – plays in giving wine its distinguishable taste. Likewise, the veggies in Santorini. (No wonder veggies from industrial farms in the U.S. are tasteless; her soils are barren and without natural enrichment.)
Before hoofing it with my 30-pound pack a mile and a half to my studio Airbnb apartment, Ecoxenia (a mere $40 U.S. per night), a lush, quiet retreat of a bungalow, all palms and succulents situated in the valley between Oia’s caldera ridge and the sea, I spotted a pastry shop and in the window was a glorious concoction. Deep-fried phyllo rounds layered with fresh, raw whipped cream, a symphony of dried apricots and dates, toasted pistachio/hazel nut/almond brittle, drizzled with a deep caramel sauce. I carry the delicacy in my arms like a newborn baby to the apartment, ditch the pack, and sit on my balcony overlooking the Aegean just as the sun is setting. The party in my mouth is sweet and salty and crunchy and creamy. A tad sharp one second from the apricots then mellow from butter in the phyllo; the toasted nuts a splendid foil for the rich caramel. I was so exhausted from the jet lag and yet so high from the sugar rush and that indelible sunset practically in my lap that I started laughing uncontrollably. A deep, loud belly laugh that lasted a solid minute. κάποιος πρέζα μου!
The next morning I ate (real) Greek yogurt for breakfast and headed east for an easy two-mile walk to the local winery, Domaine Sigalas, notebook in my back pocket, camera on my shoulder. The temp was a balmy 68, the sun was on my face, and a train of eight donkeys – all with elaborate bells jangling – led by a local farmer riding side-saddle, greeted me with a smile. I felt guilty. My expectations were low. Come on. When – if ever – have you had good Greek wine? Mind you, I’ve got lots of good Greek friends in Nashua who can make moussaka like nobody’s business, a spanakopita to rival anything in the Old Country, and I’ve been blessed to be invited for a savory lamb dinner on Greek Easter but good Greek wine? Never.
The estate was rather ramshackle with equipment of the trade filling most corners of the parking lot: steel tanks, holding tanks, tractors, stacked pallets. But the retail shop and tasting room with an adjacent patio restaurant was minimalist chic: terra-cotta tile floors and high-end café tables. A handsome, hand-crafted pergola covered the patio; fig trees woven through lattice work. The vineyard – so close you can touch it – wrapped around this part of the building, behind it, views of the sea.
I’m was told it was harvest time and no tours were being offered. “But I’m going to be a famous wine and food writer someday and I’ve come 5,000 miles for this wine tour,” I protest, nearly in tears. The owner’s daughter said she’d see what she could do and disappeared behind the tasting room bar. Moments later a smiling young man, Elias, the sommelier for Sigalas, extended his hand and told me it was a pleasure to give me a personal tour.
Founded in 1991 by the Sigalas family in Oia, the award-winning winery has long dedicated itself to cultivating and producing those grape varietals native to Santorini including Assyrtiko, the prominent grape in the vineyard, bottled both exclusively and found in 90 percent of white varietals; Aidani, which, according to Elias, is a floral-scented variety, with relatively low acidity that is also bottled at 100 percent, but additionally added to Vinsanto, Santorini’s renowned sweet wine, because of its somewhat sweet bouquet; and Mandilaria and Mavrotragano varieties as well.
Elias, a charismatic host, directed me to the vineyard, a blistering hot stretch of rocky, contemptible – I hesitate to call it soil – and pointed to what appeared to be a dead, curled up grape plant. “This,” he said kneeling by the plant and lifting a shriveled vine, “is a miracle.” He went on to explain that, in these harsh conditions, native grape varieties actually grow in concentric circles forming a kind of tee-pee which acts as a shield against the sun, protecting the roots, which are close to the surface, from drying out. Far from dead, the grapes are teaming with life and flavor. Just as Greek maters and cukes are flavorful due to absorption of volcanic minerals and, self-watered through permeability, Santorini’s wines exude a taste all their own. And they’re delicious, I have to say. My favorite – after a very long and thorough tasting of 12 signature wines – was Nychteri, 100 percent Assyrtiko, a chardonnay-like body with a finish unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a wine. Dry but with a slight kick of honey when swallowed and an earthymineral quality that I truly appreciated.
Before buying several bottles at 47 Euros each, I asked Elias, which of Oia’s two legendary restaurants he recommended, 1800 or Ambrosia? He said for the view and creative Santorini cuisine, he’d vouch for the latter. Drunk with anticipation, and Sigalas, I floated back to Ecoxenia and took a nap in the garden hammock, the sea breeze rustling the palm fronds made the sweetest lullaby.
So it’s 3 in the afternoon and there’s still a lot I hadn’t seen in Oia yet so I put on something dramatic what with my dramatic dinner reservation for 5 at Ambrosia and hit the road again. It takes a good 25 minutes to reach the summit of Oia’s town square and on the far end of it is stands that famous windmill seen in Conde Nast and National Geo and Lonely Planet. Also on my list of must-sees is the famous Atlantis Bookstore.
But let’s cut to the chase. Ambrosia is for lovers, a romantic, terraced, white linen affair with no more than 12 tables for two; all of which peer over a 330 foot precipice into that dazzling deep blue harbor on which giant catamarans and sleek yachts are but mere toys in a bath tub. I can’t resist a flute of French champagne. I raise a glass to the view and ask my handsome waiter about the specials. To start, medallions of roasted eggplant layered with roasted sweet red pepper and an herbed sauce of cream and melted Kasseri cheese topped with pink peppercorns. The entrée, caught that morning in nearby Ormos Armeni is dill and lemon grilled rock fish fillets served with a light Assyrtiko wine and cream sauce on a bed of locally grown zucchini and fire-roasted, vine-grown tomatoes.
I order both, of course, and it really did melt in my mouth. All of it. The eggplant was so tender and had a nice bit of char flavor from the grill. The sauce brought all the flavors together and the light heat of the peppercorns gave it a savory, smoky finish. As for the fish, perfectly cooked and seasoned. The white wine sauce with lemon, a little pedestrian perhaps, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I, too, enjoyed the ambiance, absolutely; the honeymooning couples from Brazil and Hong Kong; the charming owner who introduced himself and tactfully asked why a beautiful woman like myself was alone and could he offer me a complimentary dessert. I replied that I was having the time of my life with myself, thanked him profusely for a most memorable dining adventure but that I needed to get to bed early as I was hiking Nea Kameni volcano early in the morning.
By now you’re thinking, “write a book already.” It’s only day #3 of my two-week Greek foodie sojourn and I’m well past seven pages so I’ll conclude this edition of the “Barking Tomato” regardless after describing just how cool it was to climb Nea Kameni on a hot day in late September.
Needless to say, lots of volcanic activity in this part of the world. While Santorini itself is the ancient rim of an “imploded” volcano or caldera, Nea Kameni and its smaller “cousin,” Nea Palia, situated about 7 miles and in clear view from Oia in the harbor, are actually deemed active volcanoes still venting sulfur. Boat excursions to the nationally protected “islands” are one of the most popular tourist attractions. The ride itself is glorious and once there visitors can climb to the top of Nea Kameni – at 328 feet and walk completely around the crater.
It was about 83 degrees the end of September so, hard to imagine the heat in the dead of summer, the barren black lava “moonscape” emitting a fiery heat as hot as Hades. But, goodness gracious, what spectacular view. The city-scapes of Oia and Fira in the distance as if floating on on a cloud. I twirled like a crazed ballerina, my arms extended to the sky in ecstatic abandonment. Some guy from Germany asked if I wanted him to take my picture. Heck, yeah, for prosperity.
Our merry but exhausted group boarded the ship once again and headed for the tiny island of Therasia for lunch. The land mass was once part of Santorini but when the Aegean filled the sunken crater of the ancient volcano, it was separated from the rest of the land mass. Only 200 islanders live here today, their livelihoods largely dependent on the daily excursions that bring visitors to the half dozen restaurants that surround her picturesque coast.
I figure the second or third restaurant from the dock has to work harder to make a buck – and hopefully, one would think – through its food, so I follow my nose to a huge charcoal grill at #2. A burly man in a flannel shirt and U.S. Navy baseball cap is busy tending foot-long skewers of all manner of Greek cuisine: lamb kabobs, octopus, swordfish, squid, and frankly, quite a few things I can’t identify. Looks good to me.
I take an empty seat and a pleasant woman, around my age, asks what I’d like to drink. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I stammer out loud, eyes bugging out of my head. Her accent sounds like a strange hybrid between Jersey Shore and Grecian Shore. “Me thinks you’re from my neck of the wood, hon!” I say in my exaggerated Maryland Shore twang.
She laughs and says I guessed right. “I was born in Atlantic City but my parents are from Therasia. I moved back here when I was 12 and haven’t been back to the States for 35 years.” She sighs and surveys the little port. “I just love it here.”
I can see why. It’s her father stationed at the grill. I ask what his specialty is and she says the lamb is very good today. Indeed it was. With plenty of tzatziki on the side. κάποιος πρέζα μου!
1 medium cucumber
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill
2 ¼ cup whole Greek yogurt
1 ½ tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
Pinch ground pepper
1. Peel the cucumber, cut it in half, then scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Grate the cucumber using a box grater, then place the shreds in a fine mesh strainer and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Sprinkle with kosher salt, then let stand for at least 10 minutes to drain any remaining water. Squeeze once more to drain.
2. Mince 1 clove garlic and chop 1 tablespoon fresh dill.
3. When the cucumber is ready, mix cucumber, garlic, dill, 18 ounces Greek yogurt, 1 ½ tablespoons white wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt, and a few grinds of fresh ground black pepper. Refrigerate for at least 1 to 2 hours so the flavors can marry. Keeps up to 1 week in the refrigerator.
4. To serve, drizzle with olive oil; if desired, garnish with olives and a sprig of dill. Serve with pita, crackers, or vegetables.
About The Barking Tomato: Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on Pinot Noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Carolyn’s day job is producing local affairs programming for WYCN-CD. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.