By Frederic de Poligny
For decades, Greece was promoted as an attractive destination for its white villages overlooking the deep-blue waters of Mediterranean Sea, for its pristine beaches and for its countless magnificent archeological sites, not forgetting its wonderful climate. But now some have recently decided to take advantage of the wealth and the diversity of local Greek cuisine. In Eastern Halkidiki, the border region of Mount Athos, East of Thessaloniki, the Municipality of Aristotles was among the first ones to promote its local food.
Ten years ago, the famous Greek Chef, Dina Nikolaou, created the first Koutzina Feast, a culinary event in this Municipality of Aristotles. Since then, every year, during a few weeks around May, many restaurants of the region, mainly in Olympiada, Ierissos and Ouranopolis, join the Koutzina Feast, each one creating a special menu highlighting the local products and the traditional local recipes for a fix price, available one day. So, tourists can try one different restaurant each day during the event.
This year, Stylianos Valianos, the Mayor of Aristotles Municipality, and Dina Nikolaou, the Head Chef of this culinary event, invited me and Gilles Pudlowski, who is for sure the best French gastronomical expert, for a special discovery trip of the region and its tasty cuisine.
We landed at Thessaloniki airport where we joined Dina Nikolaou and Christos Panaretou, the owner of Yalos Tours, maybe the best Greek travel agency, who managed the whole trip. After a two hours transfer, we arrived directly at the tiny fishermen harbour of Stratoni Port on the banks of Akanthios Gulf for a private Mediterranean diner under the stars. A timeless and spaceless moment, a divine surprise.
On this very little embankment, a simple and gourmet feast awaited us, prepared by the fishermen wifes using the products of their gardens, while the fishermen themselves were cooking fishes, their catch of the day, on a huge barbecue. The fishes were mainly Orkyni, a tuna-like fish, only found in the region. All together we sat, drinking (what tempting local wines!), talking (wine always help to understand unknown foreign languages…) and enjoying a great tasty food prepared with the heart.
Good things have always to end, and later after midnight we had to leave to get to our hotel, the Mount Athos Resort, a very new 5-star hotel, on the seaside overlooking the small harbour of Ierissos. After this long day, we greatly appreciated the comfort of our rooms.
Then for the next three days, we shared our time, visiting the region and testing gastronomic local cuisine in different restaurants partners of Koutzina Feast. The Chef of our hotel, the Mount Athos Resort, was also part of the challenge and he showed us his talents with delicate seafood dishes
We visited the site of antic Stageria, the city where is born Aristote, the famous philosopher who was also the preceptor of the young Alexander the Great. Built on top of two verdant hills of a small peninsula close to the little seaside village of Olympiada, Stageira offers beautiful view over pristine waters. On this coast, no big city, no factory, no pollution. That the reason why the sea water is so clear, sheltering in great quantity high quality fishes and seafood. A must for fishermen who catch them, and a must for tourists and visitors who eat them with great pleasure.
The next day at Ouranopolis harbor we boarded the Calypso, for a cruise along the coast of Mount Athos, the monks’ territory where no woman is allowed to enter since centuries. During this lazy cruise we admired dozens of monasteries, built like fortresses, our boat staying at a minimum distance off the coast. Back to Ouranopolis, the border city, we went to the luxurious hotel of the region, the Eagles Palace, that now also offers some high-end villas. Lunch there was like a concert with a long succession of incredible dishes prepared in front of us.
Original Greek salad with feta, delicious fresh tuna tartar, anchovies and lemon, octopus on a bed of fava, and many more … and at the end mouth-watering desserts like that divine strawberry mousse on ice. Great Greek wines were served, but I have been seduced by a delicate local dry white wine Assyrtiko 2017 (100% Assyrtiko grapes) from Akrathos winery, a delicate and complex aroma of lime, citrus blossom and peach.
Then we visited a very interesting local shipyard that built from generations only traditional wooden boats. And the lucky male part of our little group was authorized to enter the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos for a private visit of the second most important monastery, the Great Monastery of Vatopedi. Father Timotheos, a monk of Cypriot origins, was our guide and shared with us this very spiritual time, even for non-orthodox.
We also get to Olympiada, a very charming village along a nice beach to visit the Liotopi Hotel, a clear and bright charming hotel with a very nice atmosphere. The owner, Mrs Louloudis Alexiadis, is very proud to serve a different breakfast every day of the week, with home-made cakes, marmelades and jams… The rooms are not too big but they offer all what you need with private shower and comfortable bed. The decoration is elegant and guests immediately feel at home. Average prices are like the breakfast, not to be missed, around 100€ for the room and breakfast for 2 people, including the diner for two at the restaurant Akroyiali right on the beach at 50 meters from the hotel.
We tested the restaurant and you will not be disappointed. The same lady, Louloudis Alexiadis, was in the kitchen, using some recipes from her grand-mother who created the place, while her brother Dimitris Sarris is in charge of the service. The menu is based on local vegetables coming from next door gardens and on fish and seafood caught by fishermen of the village. For both of them, guests are more real friends than simple tourists.
And when you travel with a chef like Dina Nikolaou, you always expect to taste her cuisine. And she loves to do that, being inspired by the moment. When we take a small boat to get to the mussel farm of Vasilis Anastasiou, Dina decided to prepare on the spot three different mussels’ recipes of her own. During half an hour we visit the farm learning how the mussels grow while Dina was cooking in the middle of nowhere on that rocky coast. But when we came back, it was one more time a real feast. Mussels with orange and lemon -a marvel- or just cooked with feta cheese, or with olives and herbs drizzled with large swigs of Samos wine. Impossible to find the best recipe, we ate all the mussels until the last one. Beautiful unknown place, extra-good food, good friends, what a great souvenir!
For your next Greek holidays don’t forget to look after real local cuisine, and if you want to have a full culinary experience, don’t hesitate to visit Eastern Halkidiki. Many direct flights to Thessaloniki are available from lots of UK airports.
Text & Photos ©Frederic de Poligny