Greek Island Cuisine: Journey with GreekGastronomyGuide.com
by Georgios Pittas
Cuisine of the Aegean Islands
The islands of the Aegean archipelago are distinguished for both their diversity and uniqueness. Each island has its own distinct character, its own cultural characteristics and has developed its own unmistakeable culinary identity.
The olive tree, cereals and wine are the main crops, along with fruits, legumes, vegetables, and honey. The islanders’ diet is supplemented with small amounts of livestock, dairy and fish. Only a few islands have successfully created cultures of trade to send their crops beyond their borders, such as Santorini and Samos’ wine, Lesvos' oil and ouzo, Chios mastic and Lemnos’ wheat and barley.
Livestock was raised mainly for cheese and each island has produced and still produces its own type of cheese; the number of varieties of cheese counts in dozens.
Local products and special recipes include tomatoes, beans, white eggplant from Santorini and chickpeas, a key cooking ingredient on the islands of Sifnos, Serifos, Syros, Paros and many other islands. The Dodecanese cuisine combines legumes, such as lentils or chickpeas with pasta. Another common feature of the cooking of the Cyclades and the Dodecanese are varieties of meatballs made from vegetables, herbs and legumes, namely “pseftokeftedes” (“fake” meatballs - without meat), the most renowned are made of tomato, zucchini, chickpeas “revithokeftedes”, mushrooms “amanitokeftedes” etc. Kassos and Karpathos islands have local pasta dishes such as “makarounes”, Kos distinguishes “Pasha-Makarouna” as its speciality dish. Finally, oatmeal is the staple food throughout the southern Dodecanese.
On Lesvos, salted fish from its shallow bays, Gera and Kalloni, predominate (mackerel, anchovies, anchovy, sardine), and especially the sardines of Kalloni. Typical regional recipes are “chachles” (frumenty), the “sogania” (stuffed onions) and “platseta” (cake with almonds).
The rain-fed almond tree is one of the most important crops in the Aegean islands. The “sweet" island tradition of famous macaroons dominate many joyful occasions. The art of making “loukoumia” and nougats is a tradition belonging to Ermoupolis of Syros island. The tradition is shared with Chios island and Smyrna.
Santorini dominates the wine culture. Archaeological evidence shows that viticulture and winemaking have been a tradition there for 3500 years. The most widely cultivated white varieties are Assyrtiko, Athiri, the Aidani, and the red varieties include Mandilaria the Mavrotragano and Voudomato. Paros island mainly cultivates the Monemvasia and Mandilaria varieties.
Rhodes and Kos grow the Athiri, the Amorgiano and Mandilaria varieties whilst Rhodes produces the unique sparkling wine. Lemnos island cultivates the fragrant variety Muscat of Alexandria, Ikaria grows the Begleri variety and Samos is proud of its internationally recognized Muscat.
As for spirits and liqueurs, the key products are the world-famous Ouzo predominantly from Lesvos, Chios Mastic liqueur, Citron of Naxos and “Psimeni Raki” from Amorgos.
Crete is world famous for its ancient civilization and its unique natural beauty making it the first tourist destination of Greece, with more than two million visitors a year. Still, it retains an important population of local producers, engaged in the primary sector. The main products of Crete include olive oil and vine and dynamic cultures (garden starts). This large island is also the region with the highest number of PDO and PGI products in Greece (18 of the 101 throughout the country).
The major products of the Cretan land are olives and olive oil, grapes, citrus and fruit in general, wine and raki, dairy, apaki, vinegar sausages, breads and nuts, thyme honey, stamnagathi, wild asparagus and vegetables, the sultanas, locust beans, herbs and aromatic plants.
The Cretan diet is now known worldwide. It has attracted the interest of the scientific community since 1948, when dietary research was conducted by the the Rockefeller Foundation in Crete. This became the prototype for “Mediterranean Diet”, and was recognized by UNESCO in 2012 as a Cultural Heritage of Humanity. "How much oil they eat, dear God," commented Ancel Keys, as he watched the green salad swimming in oil.
Olive oil is actually the biggest secret of the Cretan diet and the Cretan longevity in the region. In Crete especially high quality olive oil is produced. In fact, 90% belongs to the category Extra Virgin. Significant findings confirm that in Crete, the olive has been cultivated since the Minoan era. Nowadays there are 35.5 million olive trees —mainly of the Koroneiki variety— which occupy 65% of agricultural land, and yield around 90,000 tons of olive oil grown from about 100,000 rural families.
Cretan earth is a botanical paradise with approximately 1700 species of plants, of which 159 are endemic. The Cretan cuisine uses herbs, such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, cumin and fennel, and Cretans love to brew the “malotira” (mountain tea), the “eronta” (burning bush), sage, marjoram and chamomile.
Wine has cheered the heart of the Cretans for 4000 years, dating back to Minoan Crete, where wine was a main product. The oldest wine press in the world —3500 years old— was discovered in Vathipetro. The Venetian sweet Malvasia was much sought after in Europe. Today the island cultivates native varieties such as red Kotsifali, Mandilari, Liatiko, and white Vilana, creating OPAP wines of Archanes, Peza, Dafnes and Sitia, while other local varieties are Romeiko, Vidiano, Plyto and Thrapsathiri. The most ancient and productive vineyards in Europe—if not the entire world are on Crete. Vacationers in Crete— especially on the northern main part of the island— will almost always have vineyard tours as part of their itinerary. The vineyards lay in perfect harmony with olive trees and olive groves (although common cultivation in the same field is not usual, as is the case in Italy). The many wineries that exist (mainly in Heraklion and Chania), and the recent proactivity of Cretan winemakers promises a bright future for the wine tourism of the island.
Of the many local island recipes, the most typical local dishes are “dakos”, a special delicacy: the “bourbourista snails” (the snails are also cooked in many other ways), lamb (on the spit or facing the fire - a method called “antikristo” - or oven roasted or fried or fricassee with “stamnagathi”), boiled goat with pasta, the “gamopilafo”, the “mizithropitakia”, the fennel pies, the “sarikopites”, the Hania and Sfakia pies, patties, fried eggs with “staka”, artichokes with broad beans, “kaltsounia”, “xerotigana” and “petimezopita”.
Ionian Island Cuisine
The Ionian Islands were under Western occupation for eight centuries. The Venetians, French and English conquerors left their strong stamp on the culture of these islands.
The Italians —particularly the Venetians— influenced the arts and architecture art, especially music, language, education and, of course, the local cuisine. The French, under Napoleon, may have stayed on the Ionian Islands for a short while, but they nevertheless contributed their aesthetics to the the local architecture. More importantly, they influenced the political consciousness of the people with their revolutionary ideas. The British ruled for fifty years, building schools, building a dense network of roads and leaving the locals their love for cricket, cake and pudding.
When the foreigners left, the Ionian Islands had developed a culture deeply influenced by the West, in contrast to the rest of Greece and the Balkans, which had been conquered by the Ottomans.
The Ionian cuisine is fundamentally Mediterranean, with strong influences from the Venetian cuisine. It is based on oil (during the Venetian era, Corfu boasted its 2,000,000 olive trees), lemon, much garlic, tomato (“pomodoro”) and preferably aromatic herbs instead of hot oriental spices. Other important products of the islands, are the raisins mainly from Zakynthos and Kefalonia, cheese of Kefalonia (“barrel white cheese” and “kefalotyri” cheese) and Zakynthos (“ladotyri” and “pretza”), many special cold cuts and sausages, and fish and seafood, which is always plentiful and available in the open seas and the Lefkada lagoon.
The Venetian influence on the local cuisine is not only reflected in the flavors, but also in the names of dozens of dishes. “Bourdeto” (spicy fish stew), “sofrito” (veal cooked with vinegar, garlic and parsley), “pastitsada” (rooster with macaroni, tomato sauce and many spices), the “bianco” (white garlicky fish stew), the “polpetes” (meatballs) of Corfu, the “sartsa” (chicken or guinea fowl with tomato sauce and garlic), the “skartsotseta” (rolls of beef with peppers and cheese in tomato sauce), “savoro” fish, sweet “fytoura” (fried dough sprinkled with sugar) in Zakynthos, the “aliada” (garlic sauce with garlic and potato) in Kefalonia, the gnocchi of Lefkas and the “manestres” of Corfu which are none other than orzo pasta.
Other known specialties of the Ionian Islands are the pies of Kefalonia, which always contain rice. The sweets are delectable too, there are the “mantolata” nougats, the “mantoles” nougats, the sesame honeybars, puddings, the “sykomaides” (dried fig base) and kumquat of Corfu.
The favorite drink of Corfu, besides the local wine and traditional kumquat liqueur, is “tsitsimpira”.
The best wines of the Ionian region come in Kefalonia, where the variety Robola —of Italian origin— was successfully grown to give excellent PDO wines. Other known varieties of the island are the white Muscat, the Mavrodafni and Goustolithi. The latter enters the “Verdea”, considered the oenological bouillabaisse of Zakynthos varieties, where the Skiadopoulo, the Pavlos, the Asproudi predominate, while of the red wines, the Avgoustiatis variety prevails. Corfu found the white varieties Kakotrygis, Robola, Kozani, white Muscat and red Petrokorythos and Mavrodafni, struggling to preserve the reputation of the wines of Conte Theotoki while Corfu Brewery in Arillas area was established as one of the best Greek microbreweries.
Greek Gastronomy Guide aims to inform our visitors about all the merits and aspects of our culinary heritage. Places and landscapes, products and people, history and traditions, happenings and rituals, markets and enterprises, tastes, recipes and local cuisines, unfold before you in such a way that every place will come to life as a gastronomic destination.
by George Pittas