In the pureness of Mount Athos – World Meanderings (n°86)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Greece will soon slowly reopen its doors to foreign tourists. From June 15 international flights will be able to land in Athens again while hotels, restaurants, archaeological sites and beaches will welcome eager visitors. Until then we can look ahead to our coming holidays and discover famous Mount Athos through its wonderful cuisine.
Better known as Chalcidice, “Halkidiki” is a Greek region located in the eastern part of Greek Macedonia in northern Greece. It has 3 peninsulas looking like “legs” bathing in the Aegean Sea. Its easternmost one shelters the well-known Mount Athos area and its fantastic monasteries. According to the legend the giant Athos failed to throw a big rock at god Poseidon. The stone missed its target and fell into the sea next to the two first peninsulas thus becoming the third “leg”. Much later when the Virgin Mary travel to Greece after her son’s death she went to Mount Athos and liked it so much that she asked for God’s protection over this beautiful land. Since then known as the Holy Mountain it is a privileged place for monks and worshippers.
Greeks call the Mount Athos area “the Greek secret paradise”. With its beautiful and varied landscapes mixing mountains and sandy beaches, its preserved nature and wonderful food, it well deserved to be called so. Through the centuries Halkidiki has been dominated by the Byzantine Empire and then by the Ottomans until 1912 when it was incorporated in the Greek Kingdom, just after the Balkan Wars. Of course the local cuisine is a result of all these influences and you will soon find out that Greek food is not only about moussaka, meat gyros or Greek salad!
Sun -kissed wines
Here Mother Nature has always been generous with its people who in return treat it with respect and organic farming is widely spread. Wine making is the number one production. For ages Mount Athos has welcomed monks and for more than 1000 years the orthodox monasteries were the place to grow vineyards and make wine. But the monks have neglected this culture for decades and since the 1970’s a new generation of wine growers are reviving the vineyards. Today Mont Athos wines are among the flagship wines of Greece and are drunk by advanced amateurs worldwide. They make many different wines with local and international grape varieties. White wines are made with Athini, Assyrtino, Chardonay…and red and rosé with Limnio, Xinomavro, Cabernet, Syrah…
Among this new generation of wine makers Claudia Papayianni who was born in the area but not in a wine maker family, is one of the most remarkable ones. She started setting up her vineyards in 2003 and her hard work was rewarded in 2007 when she was able to put her first bottles on the market. Since then she won many prizes in Greece and abroad. Her vineyards and winery are open to visitors in the village called Arnea, and you are welcome for a wine tasting in the underground beautiful wine cellar.
Fruity olive oils
Next to vineyards olive trees are to be seen almost everywhere in the area designing harmonious landscapes filled with the song of the cicadas! The local olive oils have a protected designation of origin and their fruity fragrant is a must to add a certain zest to your cuisine. Don’t miss a new produce made with olive oil and essential oils. It was developed to combine the olive oil qualities and the healing virtues of the essentials oils made with organic local plants, whether used as massage oil or in salads you will easily find it in local organic shops in Ouranopolis or Thessalonica.
Local products, a women’s business
The vitality of the local people shines through the efforts of Halkidiki women who have created feminine cooperatives in order to use local produce. Their “homemade” jams are their flagship product and are a great success. In Varvara, north of Halkidiki, the “Dryades” cooperative is one of the best. A handful of local ladies gathered their culinary talents and savoir-faire to promote traditional cooking: Trachanas made with dry grains of wheat and whole milk, jams made with figs, apricots, fruits from the nearby forest, salted tarts and pastries stuffed with wild herbs from the mountain, honey cakes, breads… Anything you would like to bring back home or to put into your picnic basket!
Wonderful seafood and fish
Thanks to its crystal-clear waters spared of pollution the seafood quality is exceptional in Halkidiki. There are no rivers flowing into the Mount Athos gulf and no fish farming sites on its seaside allowing the waters to be as clean as possible and rich with plankton. There are still many fishermen working in the area who bring back a wide range of fish and seafood to local markets and restaurants. The local restaurants’ menus offer fresh fish from the daily fishing. In the Mount Athos area a fish can only be said “fresh” when fished the same day you eat it! No frozen shrimps or bass from the day before would be allowed in your plate. Who could ask for more?
A great way to discover this seafood quality is to visit a farm where mussels are bred in a very natural way. Hung on 3 meters long ropes dipping into the clear blue sea, the mussels are not artificially fed to grow faster as it is usually done in traditional mussel farming. Here breeders give them time to grow at their own pace, feeding on the natural plankton. It takes 3 years instead of 2 to be able to harvest the mussels, ensuring the best way to get a fleshy and tasty mussel. And believe me you can feel the difference when you eat them raw just handpicked from its rope or simply cooked with mustard, olive oil and Tsipouro, a local brandy made with raisins marc.
“Sea Bubble”, a rare delight
Sea bubble is a well-kept secret reserved for insiders. There are few restaurants, such as “Kritikos” in Ouranopolis to serve this rare treat locally called Fouskas. It’s a shellfish better known as “sea bubble” or “sea fig”. Sheltered in a soft shell it lives fixed on the rocks where fishermen handpick them in shallow waters. Considered as a superfood some people also call it the Viagra from the sea! But even if you’re not interested in such a dubious effect, try to taste this orangey and iodized flesh simply marinated in lemon juice. A real treat for seafood lovers!
Need one more reason to go to Halkidiki? This is one of the few places in Greece where you will be able to eat another rarity: wild oysters. Thanks to the good water quality it is safe to eat them here. You may not find them on the menu but when asked a few chefs in Ouranopolis will get them for you ‘You will find them at Kritikos restaurant). If you dare ask for them you will be served a plate of round oysters of different sizes (from 1 to 3 inches wide), with a unique and wild sea aroma far from the one of cultivated oysters. Something to try at least once in your life!
Let’s hope we all we soon be able to travel again and taste again all the beauties of Greece. Be sure that Greek people can’t wait to see us again in their wonderful country.
More information: www.visitgreece.gr
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes