Today is the day I have been waiting for. A large part of my passion for traveling includes tasting and understanding the food in which each part of the world experiences it. Food, for me, is the conduit for connection. It is through food that we share time and space with one another, celebrate our unique culture and traditions, and connect with the land beneath our feet. Food is my love language. To receive an invitation to my table means you matter to me. It means that in some small or big way you have left a stamp on my life and it is my pleasure to leave the same in return. I have moved too quickly in my life. It has taken me over 40 years to realize this. But food has been the one thing that has slowed me down just enough to be present in the moment wherever I am and whomever I am with. I was eager to learn what this beautiful country had to teach me about its food and in turn about its people.
I was very selective about the cooking class I chose for this trip. I chose Narlis Farm, because not only would I learn some authentic dishes but I would also learn how they grow the food in what seems largely on dry and barren land. Not far from the village of Apollonia, I drove down the dusty bumpy path and was promptly greeted by George (pronounced heorgeos) with a slight tongue roll I could never master. Every time I attempt to try this my tongue stalls midroll and I just end up spitting. Truly on my list of things to master in life. Heorgeos is stocky and strong. The lines around his face tell a story of a long, arduous, but well enjoyed life. He guides me into a hobbit-like stone house in front of his farm.
I duck and walk down the steps to what was the original farm house. He explained that in its origin the house only had one bedroom and the rest was a kitchen. My kind of house. Centered in the kitchen was a long wooden table filled with marmalades (rose petal, pear, plum, quince), fresh breads and manouri cheeses (some plain and some with red wine rind-both made by George’s wife).
There was a large stone wood oven decorated with ceramics, aged metal tools, and photos of his father and mother. An original cookbook from Nikolas Teslementes (1878-1958; considered to be the most influential cookery writers of modern Greece) was protectively encased like a shrine above the table. Two women arrived before me. They were sisters from Milwaukee, both pleasant and poised. We said our cordial hellos and I sat waiting eagerly as the others spilled awkwardly through the small door frame.
Once seated George provided us with a jovial introduction to the farm and the day we would soon embark on. His wife who scurried about silently and efficiently around us continued to stock the table with food for breakfast (slices of zucchini omelet, fruit, sweets). George expressed that everything on the table was made there on their farm. George pulled himself up to the table with one elbow anchoring his other arm that waved around empathically as he told his family’s story. The farm had been in his family for three generations. He himself left in his early 20’s to join the navy and once back he changed his focus – “My mom… she learned me how to cook, she learned me how to cook all the dishes she had learned and her mother had learned. Today I will share with you some of these dishes.” Not long after his return home George had opened a restaurant in his village but then became disenchanted stating- “with all the people I fed not one ever came back in the kitchen interested to know what I was doing back there”. And so he passed on the restaurant to his son and began these classes. He proudly noted he even provided a class to Scarlett Johannson “but I don’t think she ever cook these dishes” – I will George, I assure you.
After a delicious breakfast we all followed George to the table as he began the lesson; chopping, mixing, spreading and invited us to join. He taught us to make honey pie – a traditional and common dessert consisting of ricotta (which was much firmer than we have back home and less watered down), honey and cinnamon.
It resembled a light, less sweet, cheesecake. Then Fava Sifne-iki, a spread made with lentils, onions and oil (lots of oil) which of course George made from his olives on the farm. Then Briam usually cooked in the summer from veggies that have lost their moisture. Brian is a mix of potatoes, zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, onions and garlic slow cooked in their natural juices. Then Taramasalata – fish roe dip. Don’t let the name turn you off. This creamy, tasty spread was delectable. And for the finale-Mastelo. Slowly braised (for at least 4 hours) legs of lamb with wine, onions and chopped dill.
While the creations were cooking we took a walk around the farm. George explained that they continue to cultivate the fruits and vegetables exactly the same way people used to cultivate them on the islands many centuries ago-without the use of water.
Some of the seed varieties are over a 100 years old.
He stated that those grown without water were smaller, tastier, and less watered down than his crops that were watered. I can attest to this. We wandered about the farm tasting the crops learning about the age-old farming techniques. He showed us the large slab of concrete laden with grape skins used to make his wine.
One of his sons was a potter and offered classes on the farm but sadly the classes were booked up and I was not able to attend.
Back to the table to enjoy the creations of the day.
George poured his homemade white wine from ceramic jars while he continued to share stories of his life. The wine continued to flow, shots of Greek liquor entered the scene. I held back as I was driving and offered the two sisters across from the table a ride back to Kamares. The table began to come alive with Greek liquor running through everyone’s veins and our bellies full of warm meat and vegetables. I was sad it had to end. Sharing food and stories over a long wooden table in a stone farm house is in fact how I envision the next chapter of my life. But sadly every meal must end.
Back in the dusty tercel we ventured off down the windy road-Kamares bound. We giggled and chattered and shared our favorite travel experiences thus far. With the cordial guards dismantled we connected as strangers do in a faraway land as though we had known each other much longer. Party-girl Peggy (previously known as poised Peggy) had sensed my disappointment upon learning I could not join the pottery class. She abruptly told me to do a u-ey and follow the long-crooked path up the hill on the left. She had heard about this potter and suggested we go check it out. We emptied out of the car onto the dusty ring of road around a small concrete building. Dogs barked and chains clanged and it seemed to be desolate. There was a bit of a ‘Deliverance’ feel to it that left me apprehensive.
A younger man with a rather large stature sauntered out of the building. We asked to see the pottery. He guided us to one room filled with a colorful array of impressive ceramics. I let him know I made pottery back home and was curious about the kind of wheel they used here. He tilted his head back slightly, paused and then cued me to enter another area. I felt like I just gave the secret code to some underground club. And I kind of was! I could hear the wheel spin as I looked over to see the potter whipping through balls of wedged clay onto the tiny metal form. He threw clay to the side so his back could comfortably rest on the wall behind him, his foot on the wooden foot rest, and the kick wheel spun. It was his father’s wheel. His father’s picture hung boastfully behind him. Right beside the sultry poster of a half-naked woman leaning against a hot rod. This was not the zen-like pottery hub I was familiar with back home. It was more like a mechanic’s man cave. I didn’t mind it, it was a tad unsavory but also kind of charming. He asked if I wanted to try his wheel. This could not get any better. I quickly took off my jewelry and, just as quickly, his comrade took out a bottle of liquor with 5 shot glasses. Ok I see where this is going. And so it was. A clay flinging, tsipouro shooting, full belly day of bliss. Yamas!!
I have said this before and I will say it again. The most memorable days, in my opinion, are days that abandon the agenda and we find ourselves in the epicenter of some unforgettable, spontaneous, thrilling moment of time.
Amendment- the ladies emailed later the next day to tell me they found one of the potter’ studios in Gialos. He is a magnificent artist.
You would think the day would be enough but once home after a quick siesta I meandered back to the causeway for some Italian.
Because I do that.
Until tomorrow my friends.