I know, I'm like the worst blogger ever. No posts in over a month! I hope you haven't forgotten about me. Where have I been you ask?!? Sailing through the Cyclades islands of Greece on a catamaran of course, silly. Oh, and then there was also the trip to Istanbul tacked on because, might as well right? It was an epic vacation to say the least. Stunningly beautiful islands, good friends and tons of great food.
|coming into the port at Paros|
|our ferry from Athens to Paros|
We flew to Athens and caught a ferry to the island of Paros where we picked up our boat and met our captain, Dmitrios. Now, when I say ferry I don't mean a little dingy like the Riverlink that goes to the Aquarium in Camden. I'm talking about a ship that can take several hundred passengers, a couple dozen cars and even a few tractor trailers. This thing was no joke. Several cafes, a restaurant, three or four lounges, a big open air section on the back to watch the sunrise over athens and drink your coffee. Such a lovely way to travel.
We picked up a few snacks from a cart while waiting to board the ferry. A super sweet ring of soft, chewy dough completely covered with cinnamon & sugar. Kind of a Greek donut thing. The other was a similar ring of dough, not as chewy though, and this one covered in sesame seeds. Really nice and a very cheap breakfast. We are off to a good start.
|breakfast on the ferry|
There were nine of us in total on the sailboat - four couples each with their own cabin and Dmitrios in a smaller cabin at the bow. We were told by the rental company to buy provisions at the local supermarket to last us the week. Our plan was to cook breakfast & lunch on the boat each day and dinner each night on the islands. Getting 8 people to agree on a grocery shopping list is not easy. I think we pulled it off pretty well though, considering none of the labels are in English, one person doesn't eat vegetables, another doesn't eat olives (that could be an issue in Greece), and we had only two small fridges to store everything. Three lessons learned when shopping in a Greek market - 1.) prepackaged hummus doesn't exist (shocker, right?); 2.) feta cheese comes in 2lb tubs and is ridiculously cheap and amazingly good; 3.) wine in plastic bottles is even cheaper than the feta and surprisingly not awful.
|the boat...we are ballers...|
|dinner on the boat...|
Cooking on the boat is a bit of an adventure given that it's never really stable. Having a pot of boiling water on the stove in 3 foot swells keeps you on your toes. Although it was pretty fun using straight sea water to boil pasta in. The noodles take on an amazing flavor from the sea salt. Add in some olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and cracked pepper and you could serve it as-is. Dmitrios took over the stove one morning and made a big omelet with chopped bacon and red onion. He cut it into slices and stuffed it inside pitas with a good schmear of tzatziki. Wash it down with some Greek coffee (Nescafe instant crystals and boiling water) and you've expelled any ouzo hangover demons.
Speaking of tzatziki, you also buy this by the tub at the grocery store. However in Greece they only serve this with meat. Usually lamb or chicken souvlaki. It's more of a condiment to them. We put it out as an appetizer with pita and olives one night and Dmitrios gave us a funny look. Heathens.
Our first dinner was one of our best. Exploring the main town on Antiparos, we stumbled into the most adorable looking restaurant. Perfect white washed walls, bouganvilla vines and bright pink flowers trailing lazily overhead, smells of fresh fish and souvlaki grilling in the kitchen. We ordered about half the menu. The Greeks call this meze style eating. Lots of little dishes that everyone nibbles at and just continue to magically appear on the table. Right up my alley.
|dinner in Paros|
|the streets of paros|
Octopus is on every menu and we ordered it every day. It is almost always served grilled, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, salt & pepper. It's generally a little tougher than we are used to. The flavor is certainly more intense but you have to get over the extra chewing. Totally worth it though. The freshness factor can't be overstated. On one occasion in Sifnos we saw a little old man pulling an octopus out of the ocean, beating it on the sand of the beach to tenderize, give it a quick rinse, then chop it up and throw it on an open charcoal grill. It's the kind of thing you see pictures of in Food & Wine magazine.
|octopus hung out to dry in the sun|
|grilled octopus at a waterside cafe|
Have you ever had ouzo? No, it's not Sambuca. And it shouldn't taste like firewater. It should be relatively smooth going down, with a distinct anise flavor. But not like you're drinking black liquorice. It should be much more subtle. It turns a cloudy, milky white color when you add ice cubes and a dash of water. It is a most uniquely Greek liquor and I have a new favorite happy hour cocktail. Now I just have to find it here. Mythos is the most popular beer here and basically the Budweiser of Greece. It's a very light pilsner that is good on a hot day, but not for much else. Much better though are the "Donkey beers" - Red Donkey, Yellow Donkey and Crazy Donkey. They're brewed on the island of Santorini and available at a lot of decent bars throughout the Cyclades. Leaning much more towards the ale family, they are nuanced and interesting with complex flavors in each bottle. Everything that Mythos is not. Worth the extra few Euros.
|cold ouzo, hot sun, salt water...|
The Dakos salad. The salad that makes all other salads feel inferior and like less of a man. Yes, I'm assigning gender to salads. Start with grilled brown bread as the base. Add in a generous mix of the brightest red tomatoes you've ever seen, whole kalamata olives, chopped cucumbers, capers the size of small grapes, sliced red onion, maybe some green peppers if they happen to be lying around. Drizzle all this with olive oil & lemon juice, healthy dash of salt and pepper and then serve a massive slice of the crazy good feta on top. You could eat this as a meal all on it's own and finish with a smile on your face and a full belly. This is one of the few officially sanctioned FoodBaby salads out there. Get on it.
Fried anchovies (smelts) are also on just about every menu here, and they were standard at most of our dinners. Tender and salty, just barely battered and fried to a crunchy golden. They're like little fishy french fries. Taking their place as the Yang to the Yin of the anchovies, grilled sardines are also ever-present on taverna tables. Larger than the anchovies, but still a small fish, they are gutted and de-headed so as to be slightly less upsetting for the squeamish types. They are marinated in olive oil and oregano, grilled up over charcoal and served with lemon wedges. Luscious, rich meat and salty tangy skin cooked just crisp. Delicious.
Wine is served by the kilo here and is very cheap and very good. Fun fact for the day (thanks Josh!) 1 kilo of wine = 1 liter. It's true! Ah, that fabulous metric system! Most of the wine produced in Greece is made locally (like in that town or specific restaurant) and consumed on the spot. I suppose that's why we don't see much exported to the US. A shame really for all us schmoes over here missing out on such a wonderful product.
Grilled sea bream is the standard barer for fish here. It's local, it's fresh out of the water, and very tasty. Similar flavor to a black bass with a flaky white flesh that is remarkable tender and almost never dry. I loved being able to point out the fish we wanted from the day's catch and watch it being cooked over the open grill. The smells wafting past the table as we nibble on olives and smelts and saganaki.
|grilled sea bream, head to tail|
|the high tech grill...|
|filleted and ready to go...|
Tomato fritters are a specialty in Santorini and it was the only island where we saw them on the menu. Basically a ball of tomato, zucchini, onion, flour and herbs, they are quickly fried and served as an appetizer. You could taste the fresh veggies through the golden brown crunch of the batter. Really good.
Eggplant is another big ingredient here. It's usually roasted somehow, with layers of melting cheese, filo dough, ground lamb, tomatoes and/or other ingredients making for richly flavored lasagna like constructions. Moussaka is on nearly every menu and consists of that same eggplant and ground lamb combo, but topped with a bechemel sauce spiced with cinnamon, allspice, onion & garlic.
|eggplant with lamb and "local cheese"|
|eggplant, tomato & "local cheese"|
Yes there is saganaki, thank Zeus. I was afraid it was just a lame invention for Americans eating at Greek restaurants. They don't really do the "Opa!" thing and light it on fire, but they certainly do like their fried cheese. Usually served on it's own with just a lemon wedge it is simplicity perfected. Crisp outer edges, warm and melty inside. It makes you do that little happy dance in your chair. At a restaurant in the tiny meandering streets of Ios, we had a version that was wrapped in filo dough, baked in the oven and then drizzled with honey and sesame seeds. It wasn't chilly out, but you could have cut glass with my nipples. I was very excited.
|feta wrapped in filo, covered in honey and sesame|
Dessert = watermelon. You never see baklava or even a dessert menu. The restaurant just brings out chopped up watermelon that is a beautiful deep ruby color and perfectly sweet. Light and refreshing after grazing on grilled fish, lamb and eggplant all night.
The food in Greece is deceptively simple. Most dishes consist of only a couple ingredients and a few minutes worth of preparation. But the Greeks have been cooking these same dishes for millenia. They know how to get the best out of what the earth and sea will give them. Like the islands themselves, it is a rugged cuisine that is stunning beautiful.
|lunch in Santorini|
|dinner on the beach in Sifnos (Dmitrios on the left)|