It was during a particularly frigid cold spell this past winter that warm and sunny thoughts of Greece began swirling around in my head. It was our fifth consecutive day of sub-zero temperatures in Vermont and I was working, holed-up in my kitchen, attempting proficiency at making homemade phyllo dough. I’m a cook, I actually enjoy that sort of thing.
On that freezing day, I was craving a jolt of glittering Aegean blue, and longing for a taste of something sun-kissed and exotic; something with figs or honey. Naturally, I took a break to watch the movie, Mamma Mia. That day, I made due with 109 magic movie minutes of unadulterated Aegean eye-candy, and a loud Abba soundtrack. But the idea of something more tangible had taken hold.
Fast forward six months to the small, rocky Greek island of Ikaria and the smoky scent of rock-rose and wild oregano wafting through the hot, dry air. The island was named for mythical Icarus, son of Dedalus, who with wax wings and bad judgement, flew too close to the sun and plunged into the ocean nearby. (On our plane’s approach to the windy island, we almost met the same fate, but that’s another story.)
I was there to participate in a week-long cooking workshop led by Diane Kochilas, who’s depth of knowledge of Greek food, history and cooking is unparalleled. Diane is a guru of Greek cooking and her cookbooks have long held an honored place in my kitchen. I wanted to immerse myself in Greek food traditions, to learn more about the food of my grandmother and great aunt, who came to the United States as immigrants from an island close to, and very much like Ikaria. I was interested in understanding what their daily life may have been like and what they might have eaten.
Ikaria lies about 30 miles off the coast of Turkey and has been called by the New York Times, “the island where people forget to die”. In 2012, National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner identified the island as a “Blue Zone”; one of a number of regions in the world where people often live to advanced age, 100 years or more, and where rates of dementia, cancer and other physical ailments associated with aging are well below the average. It’s believed that the very specific diet of the place, along with daily physical activity and strong community and social bonds (as well as local wine, mountain tea, regular naps and sex!) contribute to the healthy longevity of the people on this small, isolated island.
Whether or not one buys into the Blue Zone label, the magic of Ikaria cannot be denied. It exists much like it did 50 years ago. The island is stunning with evidence of ancient civilization along every path. There is very little flat area, save for the airport landing strip on one far end. Huge rocky outcroppings dramatically plunge and fold into valleys and sparkling sea below. Ancient stone terraces wrap every hillside, some of the oldest dating back to the Bronze Age, and some of the ruins to the neolithic era. Scramble down one of the many steep goat trails and you’ll likely come upon ancient stone dwellings overgrown with vines, and carved rock hiding places, where Ikarians hid from pillaging pirates during much of their history.
Silvery olive trees and lush figs grow from every available notch in the rock and wild mountain herbs flourish on every rocky outcropping. On mountainous Ikaria, people live and garden vertically. A walk to the nearest neighbor or village often requires a slow, steep climb, and you will see all ages plodding slowly along the roads, leaning into the incline, hands clasped behind them. Most everyone has a garden, fruit and olive trees, and often a few grapevines for making their own wine.
Ikarian gardens are a marvel in space conservation, making use of every square inch with layered, vertical cultivation. Vines are trained to grow up trees and low plants are grown under the shade of taller ones. The food is fresh, simply cooked and plant based. Eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, beans and peppers are veggie staples along with fruits like citrus, plums, apricots and figs. Fish, octopus and squid are widely eaten, and while goats and sheep are raised for cheese and meat, meat plays a secondary role to plants in the everyday diet of the island.
But it could be argued that wild greens, “horta”, that are the backbone of the diet there. Dishes made from wild, foraged weeds like amaranth, wild fennel, purslane, nettles, arugula, dandelion and mustard greens are eaten in some form everyday and are considered one of the foundations of longevity and health. Famous Mountain Tea is made from a variety of wild herbs, primarily ironwort (Sideritis) which has been proven to have significant health benefits and is still taken daily by many.
Ikarian honey is a treasured product of the island. It is a food that people eat often and it is incorporated into many dishes, sweet and savory. The island is blanketed with thousands of hives, both modern and ancient, and beekeeping families proudly go back generations. During a hike one afternoon, as we scrambled down a large rock formation, a companion came upon an old, traditional beehive. It was a long, horizontal clay pot with a notched slate cover, hidden among a cluster of stones. Long abandoned, what a thrill it was to come upon this unexpected connection to another time.
Ikarian honey has gained almost mythic status among the wellness community. The honey is very thick and dark and is believed to contain nutrients and healing properties unique to the indigenous plants and medicinal herbs that grow on the mountains. The bees feed year round on what is flowering, creating unusual honey from heather, herbs and weeds like oregano and rock-rose, and also from pine trees, where the bees feed on the secretion of a specific sap-eating ant, giving the honey a rich and deliciously resinous flavor. We bought an additional suitcase just for the honey we brought home. Food for thought if you make the trip.
Our weeklong cooking workshop began early every morning with a van ride up the rocky cliffside to Diane’s beautiful home and kitchen. Each cliff-hugging switchback unfolding into a jaw dropping vista of the sea and valley below. Diane is an intuitive chef and a fun, easy-going teacher with a wealth of information and stories at her fingertips. Our group of 12 spent our days prepping, cooking and learning about Greek ingredients, methods of preparation, and chatting about food traditions in Ikaria and other parts of Greece. (fast friends are made when you’re cutting up octopus together.)
We made simple and rustic dishes like Ikarian Lentil Salad with Fennel, Onions and Herbs, a silky Soufico of Summer Vegetables, and Roasted, Stuffed Eggplant with Onions, Raisins and Grape Molasses (Petimezi – a unique Greek specialty). We made Ikarian versions of meze classics like Phyllo Wrapped Feta, Zucchini Fritters with Oregano and Mint, fresh dolmathes and grilled octopus. We practiced the proper technique for making and rolling out homemade phyllo dough and we learned that greens-stuffed pies go way, way beyond my usual Spanikopita. After mornings spent cooking, we all sat down to a long, delightful, wine-lubed lunch under the dappled shade of the grape arbor. After that it was back down to the hotel for a food induced, coma-like nap and then a refreshing swim in the sea, just in time for dinner.
In between cooking and eating there was exploration. We tasted wine and homemade dishes at an organic winery, and suited up for a visit to a beekeeper and his hives. We climbed the stairs to the stunning and ancient Theoktistis Monastery, carved into a massive rock. We hiked with a local forager, a tech engineer from Athens who relocated to the island to raise his family closer to nature. His wife showed us how she makes natural balms and soaps from wild herbs, olive oil and beeswax. Our small group milked goats and made cheese, and chatted about Greek pastry with the ladies from the local village cooperative. And one evening, we drank Ouzo late into the night on the village square. Where incidentally, there were more than a few very elderly, very happy looking villagers (possibly those famous centenarians?) laughing, chatting and enjoying their Ouzo as well.
Since returning to Vermont, I’ve been cooking from the recipe booklet I took home from Ikaria, adapting the recipes to reflect what is growing around me in the current season, and I’ve been energized to dig deeper into the rustic food traditions of my heritage. All too often, the magic moments we experience during travel fade to memory quickly after we return home. It’s food that can transport us back to a place and it’s the flavors of a place that can stay with us and inspire a new perspective. For my part, I’ve dug out that bottle of 12-year old Ouzo from the back of the liquor cabinet, and I’ve even attempted to stay up beyond 10pm! And come February when the temperatures plunge to sub-zero, I’ll surely be found back in my kitchen rolling phyllo dough, boiling greens and listening to Abba.
If you’re interested in Greek food and cooking or want more info about cooking classes in Ikaria, check out Diane’s website dianekochilas.com