A Group of Villages That Smell of Oregano, Thyme and Wild Sage
Mani is the place for which my heart beats the most. It is a group of villages that smell of oregano, thyme and wild sage. Its landscape is so powerful and has a very unique energy that is indescribable. It is best to visit at the beginning of spring or the end of summer. Special people are drawn to Mani: people who are not afraid of isolation and intimacy. Architects and artists come again and again from all over the world to soak in its calmness, enjoy its scents and salty sea air, and explore the depth of their being. Mani feeds and satisfies their needs, and somehow completes them. Roads are only a recent addition to the villages and you can still walk the beautiful paths that once connected the villages to each other. People accuse Mani of being waterless and dry, but as you trek, you find amazing things to forage. You will not believe the type of products, people and architecture you come across there. You can feel the Renaissance.
Some Suggested Pre-Visit Reading
Before you visit, try to read Seyahatnâme (“excursions” in Turkish), a book written by the great Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi who turned his passion into his profession. When he was in the army, he convinced Sultan Murad IV to let him travel across the Ottoman Empire and write down what he observed, including the way people lived, the food they ate, what they cultivated and what they sold. He’s quite lyrical and the book is a wonderful fairy tale that shows how much he loved travelling. While he described Maniots as unfriendly barbarians, he praised the olive trees of Mani. Mani’s olive oil is a brand name on its own. You find bottles proudly labelled as “premium olive oil from Mani” in delicatessens around the country. Since Mani is dry, the olive trees are short and thin – like Maniot women – and produce small olives with a concentrated flavour. Maybe it’s their struggle to survive that gives them such an unmatched flavour.
The Start of a Deep Research Into Regional Greek Products
I was always drawn to the fact that the essence of cuisine is a reflection of time and place. When I returned from working in Turkey and before Annie, I was lucky to work with the guy behind Cherchez La Femme and the Il Baretto cafés and restaurants. He was working on a delicatessen project at the Golden Hall inside the Athens Olympic Museum and asked me to find him the best products from all over Greece. Almost every day for three months, I visited open markets, shops and farms, spoke to producers and called the mayors of islands, from the Cyclades all the way to the Ionian. I found great stuff like rose vinegar from a very old producer in Kefalonia. They have a very specific species of roses in Kefalonia and throughout the Ionian Islands that you can spot in people’s gardens. They’re harvested in May and are only available for a short time. You can make rose jam with the petals of these roses, distil them to make rose water, or use them in sweets. Unfortunately the producer doesn’t make the rose vinegar anymore, so I make it myself by infusing the same roses into a good quality white vinegar.
Laconia’s Love of Citrus
Laconia is famous for its citrus fruits, from tangerines to blood oranges. In Mani, every house used to have a wood oven and people would dry orange peel in these ovens and then crumble the dried peels into big pieces and use them to make Maniot pork sausages called loukaniko Manis or loukaniko me portokali: typical inner Mani products made from the flesh of a young pig enriched with orange peel. In northern Greece, you may find sausages with leeks, thyme and other spices like cumin or anise, but not with oranges. I use a version of this sausage made by Faskomilo that is based in an area of Mani called Areopoli.
A Traditional Cured Meat From Mani
Every Christmas, villagers in many parts of Greece slaughter their pigs and gather over meze. They fry the pig’s liver straight away and the rest of the meat gets cut into pieces and salted for about 10 days. The fat, however, gets stuffed with orange halves before being smoked over wild sage leaves and branches, giving it a unique scent that you cannot find in any other cured meat. This is syglino. And when you mention syglino anywhere in Greece, people always think of Mani. I buy my syglino from Faskomilo as well and use it when I want to add smokiness to almost anything. It fits beautifully with anything that comes from the sea and gives fish extra fattiness, savouriness and smokiness. It is my very own miso. I don’t use miso because when I’m cooking Greek: I only use products based on Greek tradition. It is very important that my dishes have a real identity and relevant story behind them. Miso is a unique product that’s almost like a drug, but it’s a product that defines the cuisine of another culinary planet. I’m not saying one cannot use miso in Greece, but I disagree with calling your cuisine “modern Greek” if half of the products used are from Japan or China. You simply can’t own it. I think categories and boundaries are very good in this aspect. Our land is very rich and syglino is a big chapter in inner Mani’s cucina povera (humble cooking). I also use syglino to make an open, warm sandwich inspired by Istanbul’s balık ekmek (“fish bread”).
Additional Culinary Uses for Orange Peel
Dose Gefsi makes a dried powder from whole oranges and sells it in jars. You can use it in so many things. You can make kokkinisto, a Greek beef stew that’s like a red pho. You can make a vinaigrette with it and mix it into salads. You can leave it for a few days in sea salt for the orange aroma to infuse, then use it as a rub. You can add it to dough, cakes or pies. We use it so much in Mani, especially in flatbreads. Mani used to grow unique, high-quality wheat but after Greece joined NATO, flour started to come in from the USA and we lost some of these varieties. Despite women growing all the wheat in Mani, they had no rights: not even to their properties. They made sure to stay thin and fit to bear all the hard work as it was their only salvation in a highly patriarchal community.
A Small Olive Producer From Laconia
The olive oil harvest has become exceptional in recent years. I work with two olive and olive oil producers, both from Laconia. One is Nomia Estates of Mani, a small organic producer in Cavo Grosso that doesn’t water or spray its trees. The flavour of this olive oil is botanical, like freshly cut grass. Guests often inquire about it. The producer’s name is Vasilis Kalonaros and he studied civil engineering in America. I hope that he will continue to succeed without becoming too commercial. I love that he produces olive oil from his own trees and doesn’t use other people’s olives. He has a wood oven that’s 300 years old that’s still in use. People who harvested their olive trees always had their own wood ovens to warm the water needed in the process. My great grandfather used to have an olive oil press and I remember the sweet noisy atmosphere when we went to Mani every Christmas. People from nearby villages would stop by with their harvest and the room always went quiet in anticipation for my grandfather’s verdict on the first drops of that year’s oil. He gathered it in a plate, sprinkled sea salt on the oil, broke some fresh bread and dipped it in before placing it in his mouth. I remember the oil was so green and had such a vivid smell.
A Bigger Olive Producer From Laconia
Sakellaropoulos in Sparta, is my other olive oil producer from Laconia, but is much bigger. Still, you won’t find it at supermarkets or even delicatessens. Your best bet is to order it directly from the maker. He has created outstanding olive oils that have won many awards in contests. He waters his olive trees, so it’s not the wild stuff, but he experiments with varieties and times of harvest. This gives me the luxury of having multiple uses for one product. I can make a whole menu based on his different olive oils: a raw fish with one olive oil, a fruit with another, a salad with a third and latheros (sweet pea stew with carrots and potatoes) poached using a fourth.
Introducing Kydonitsa, an Indigenous Laconia White Grape Variety
Farmers and winemakers in Mani recently revived a local white grape variety called kydonitsa. This wine grape of Laconia is very special and will gain more interest in the future. I can compare it to Spanish albariño, although I think kydonitsa is better. It is crisp, acidic, has beautiful aromas and goes very beautifully with seafood, fish soups and fruity salads. You can also drink it by itself. It’s a happy wine that’s stronger than sauvignon blanc. There have been notable efforts to attract the right people to kydonitsa. In my opinion, the challenge is that Greece doesn’t have appellation of origin on its wines. Tsimbidis is a family-run winery that has developed technological facilities on its domain close to Monemvasia and is doing a great job with kydonitsa. Many other newcomers are also producing wines with kydonitsa, often blending it with assyrtiko or mavroudi, another grape variety from Laconia.
Mani’s Answer of Gnocchi
I discovered a product four years ago that people throughout Greece should be using as a replacement for gnocchi. In outer Mani, they call it “goges”, in Monemvasia it’s called “gogles” or “goglies”, and around villages in Thessaly it’s known as “tzolia”. It comes in various shapes, but the ones I use really resemble gnocchi – right down to their fluffy, chewy texture. They’re made with sheep’s milk, eggs and semolina: potatoes aren’t used. They’re delicious and have the capacity to absorb the stock they’re cooked in. Goges is one of my favourite ingredients to use because of its versatility. I feel very safe and proud when I serve it in my kitchen. I make a chutki with a small twist using brown butter, fried goat anthotyros cheese (dry sheep or goat cheese similar to mizithra), a sunny side up egg and a little bit of grey bottarga mullet powder for umami. I buy goges from Adamantina, very close to Gytheoi in Laconia. When you boil them, they produce a very nice, thick broth that you can use as a thickening agent to give body to your soup, sauce or broth.
A Pasta I Love From Thassos Island
Every corner of Greece has its own pasta. Another great pasta discovery for me is from a very traditional pasta-maker called San Allote on Thassos Island. He makes beautiful pasta that’s very specific to the island called yioufkades (“yufka” is Turkish for phyllo pastry). He cuts the dough into a long, large shape that resembles hilopites (a traditional Greek pasta made from flour, eggs, milk and salt) or Italian fettuccine. When he first showed it to me, I was really amazed and I now use it very often and people love it. The atelier follows the owner’s old recipe to make this pasta. It has a very nice texture that slips into your throat so beautifully – almost like rice noodles, although it is made with eggs. It’s good on its own but also fits perfectly with crayfish, meat or dairy. The common recipe for yioufkades on Thassos Island is to cook it until it’s only a little bit softer and serve it with some of its broth, yoghurt, crumbled feta or Anthotyros cheese, with burnt butter. The burnt butter can also be mixed in with the yoghurt which is typical in dishes of Ottoman origin.
For the Love of Peasant’s Caviar
I love trahana so much. People compare it to frumenty (Mediaeval western European dish made from boiled cracked wheat and milk) but it’s not exactly the same. To make trahana you mix wheat flour or cracked wheat with eggs and yoghurt, and dry the mix into something like a pasta. The history of this dish is complicated and much debated. People in different regions of Greece will fight about what trahana actually is. Some call it xinohodros, others argue that it’s not the same dish. There are different kinds of trahanas: when you make it with fresh yoghurt or milk, it’s called sweet trahana, but when you make it with fermented yoghurt, buttermilk or sinoghalo (sour milk) it becomes sour trahana. Generally, the milk used is that of goats or sheep, rarely cows. We typically make sour trahana by leaving yoghurt out for a few days then mix it with wheat. I love the fact that even if milk expires, you can still produce tasty food with it. The fermentation itself adds so much flavour and it’s why I usually prefer sour trahana. I recently discovered a great sweet version however. It was sent to me by a very small pasta atelier called KastAl, run by a sweet family, originally from Arcadia, a mountainous region of the Peloponnese famous for its trahana.
Cheese From the Ionian Islands
I am so intrigued by everything that goes into cheese-making. Greece is very strong in this artisanship but needs to build a better name for itself. My favourite cheese is lazareto from the Ionian Island, Ithaka. It’s a yellowish cheese, with a texture that resembles Parmesan. I prefer it over Parmesan because it’s made with sheep’s milk and not cow’s. Lazareto’s flavour is hence very sharp so for some people it might be a difficult cheese, but I like wild flavours and this one absolutely blows my mind. It’s spicy, it’s sweet, it has a sourness, it has an earthiness, and a “caveness” from being aged in caves. It’s produced in small quantities so it’s really special. The one I buy comes from a great producer in Ithaka, and is oddly sold exclusively at Karamalitika Tou Fani in Athens. This charcuterie shop has two locations and would seem like the last place on earth that could convince a small producer to sell him all of his cheese production.
A Hotel in a Historical Building in Mani
Kyrimai Hotel in Gerolimenas is among the historical hotels of Europe. It used to be the most important establishment in inner Mani and was initially built as a trading port and functioned as a depot for tobacco and other goods from the region. Every year 300,000 live quails used to go from Mani to Marcia, one of the destinations the trading port would service. When Kyrimai was built, many people from the surrounding villages – including mine which is five kilometres away – started to come to the port and opened places to trade from. The building was restored wonderfully by one of the wealthiest and most powerful Maniot families and people come from all over the world to stay here.
Bonus: The Best Markets in Athens for Fresh Produce
The best atmosphere in cities is at open-air produce markets. Since I worked in Athens, I was out all week hunting for the best fresh produce from such markets, often with my little son Robin. Of course I have my favourites. Voula has one that’s quite short but with much better produce than other laikis in the city. On Thursdays there’s another great one next to the Agios Konstantinos Church. Everything about it is different, including the vendors, a few of whom sell organic produce without labelling it as such. Their ugly-looking vegetables are delicious and were the basis of the kitchen at Annie. I cannot cook without them. If you want to find the good stuff you have to rummage. I do it even if I’m sick. It’s very rare that you find great quality local things delivered to your doorstep. When you run a small restaurant, you have to buy enough to last you a couple of days. I always try not to throw anything away. It is our job as chefs to reinvent how we use leftovers, whether it’s feeding our staff or making a velouté soup for guests.
Photography Credit: Clairy Moustafelou
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