Ok, chef hat is on. It´s been a while and I´m a bit rusty to be honest. In fact, I have not approached a stove or a cooking utensil for over three years. Not even at home. It´s that bad. I left hospitality feeling, let´s just call it, a little ¨saturated¨. But when it comes to Greece and much of the Mediterranean, (and I know it sounds like a shameless cliché) food is such an intrinsic part of life, that I thought I had no choice – if I was going to talk about Santorini, it was not going to be about the most celebrated sunsets in the world or the most photographed cliffs and villages in the planet. It was going to be about its produce and the enjoyment it brings locals and visitors alike.
But let´s rewind.
A few million years back.
Santorini sits in the most active volcanic centre in the South Aegean Volcanic Arc, a region which, first became volcanically active around 3–4 million years ago. But precisely 3600 years ago, at the height of the Minoan civilization, the island was subjected to the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The power of th Minoan eruption changed the face of the island leaving a large precipitous caldera with a drop of more than 300 m exposing the various layers of solidified lava on top of each other (and encouraging imaginative minds to fuel the myth (or not?) that suggests that Santorini was the inspiration for Plato‘s Atlantis).
The combination of millenia old rich volcanic soil and the island´s unique ecology and climate has provided a fertile ground for Santorini´s unique and prized produce, even despite the water scarcity that afflicts this island paradise. The climate, though damp is perfect for producing the now renown Santorini fava beans, white eggplants, katsoúni (large, sweet cucumber), and its extremely tasty cherry tomatoes. A fertile ground for grapes as well, Santorini’s volcanic soil and high daytime temperatures and humidity at night are ideal for creating a strong red wine which is well-respected and sought-after around the world.
If you are someone who appreciates good, organic produce, you’ve got to picture yourself starting your day in this blue and white labyrinthine paradise, straw basket in hand, navigating your way through the narrow alleys from the town square in Fira to buy some Santorini “fava”, white eggplants or bright red tomatoes in the daily produce market across from the Anemomilos Hotel. Just as you do. And then back to your cave -style hotel to enjoy your fresh acquisitions with a little bit of olive oil, fetta cheese, pitta bread, kalamata olives and why not?, a glass of chilled rosé – all of that facing the stunning blue tones of the Aegean sea. I personally can’t imagine anything better than that.
And then, moving on to your culinary/viticulture activities of the day.
First, the fluid that makes the world go round (no, I’m not talking about petrol).
Wine tourism in Santorini
When it comes to wines, Santorini knows a thing or two. Not only is there evidence of viticultural activities in the island as far back as the era before the great volcanic explosion (1.500 BC) but the island can also proudly claim the oldest known un-grafted vines in the world, curiously pruned in ground hugging basket fashion. So, if you are a wine aficionado, this is certainly a very attractive option you can’t miss.
As hinted earlier, Santorini has a unique microclimate that results in a relatively limited production, early ripening and good hygiene conditions for the grapes – the temperatures are lower than those of the surrounding Cycladic islands, rainfall is rare and winds blow at a great speed. For all these reasons, the plants are pruned low, in the shape of a basket, with the grapes grown in the center, protected from the strong winds. The grapes absorb and maintain humidity from the dense night fog. And voilá! Some of the most precious wines in the world.
But in order to find how the science of wine-making in Santorini really works, nothing better than to join a wine tour. For instance, Santorini wine tours will introduce you to at least 15 different styles of wines produced by three different wineries from the expert hand of Sommelies Vaios Panagiotoulas.
If you prefer going solo, though, this is what you can’t afford to miss:
The Santo Winery, a highly modernised winery which opened in 1992 in Pyrgos . Built on five levels that harmonise with the environment and layout of the vineyards, the Santo Winery enjoys spectacular views of the caldera and the Mediterranean Sea.
The over 80.000 tourists that visit the winery every year are treated to a tour showing them the process of vinification and aging of wines. But, in this case, looking and hearing is not good enough, so visitors can also taste the Santo award-wining dry whites: Santorini Assyrtiko and Santorini Nykteri.
Open in 1989, this modern winery offers organised tours in five languages that include a visit to the facilities and the wine-cellars, wine tasting, and a multimedia show that takes you through the history of Santorini and the winery. Covering an area of approximately 6 hectares, this privately-owned vineyard is located in the southern, warmer side of the island and it’s surprisingly sparsely planted, with only about 2500 vines per hectare.
Established in 1836, this traditional family winery, prides itself in faithfully following traditional wine making methods, like the “treading” and then “‘boiling” of the must in subterranean cisterns and huge barrels.
Located outside the village of Pyrgos, on the road to the monastery of Prophet Elias, this winery hides in a peculiar, small undercover cave. The Hatzidakis family has been applying organic methods to every linear vineyard that has been planted since 1997. Remember to book as you can only visit the Hatzidakis Winery by appointment.
Culinary tours in Santorini
And then onto the filling stuff! Even if you are not one of those that swear by the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, simply the colours and the enthralling simplicity of it all has to be captivating. You can find fresh fish, vegetables, and meat dishes at several moderately priced restaurants (average 40 Euros for two) in Imerovigli, Oia, and Fira. As always, and if you are on a budget, stay away from places that are overtly commercial and go to the family run fish taverns located nearby the smaller beaches and communities.
If you, on the other hand, are in for some serious learning, a culinary tour is, again, highly recommended. Santorini Wine Tours go a step beyond the wine tasting tours and do provide cooking and tasting experiences that focus on teaching how to identify and combine the freshest Santorini ingredients to bring the most intense flavours out of them. You’ll be visiting a traditional taverna, learn from the hands of an experienced chef and culminate one sublime day savouring your own cooked meal and and a glass of wine. If that is not a feast for the senses, nothing is.
American culinary expert Phinex Gilbert started Safowi to share her passion for the island. She offers four hour adventures starting with 2 award winning wineries, a visit to local vineyards to move on to a local kitchen for a hands on cooking class taught by a renowned chef in his own restaurant. And after the class, the reward: your own cooked meal paired with local wines in a lovely al fresco setting by the sea shore.
How about some practicing?
You can start familiarising yourself with some of the traditional dishes you are sure to taste in the many local eateries. Of course, it will probably be hard getting hold of some of the Santorini produce in your Australian or British green grocers, but a bit of imagination will help you achieve an “approximation”.
Fried tomato balls or Tomato Keftedes
Ingredients for two people:
– 3 big tomatoes
– 1 onion julienne
– 1 cup of flour
– 1 gm of baking powder
– 1 gm of oregano or peppermint
– some olive oil for frying
– salt and pepper
Cut the tomatoes in half. Remove the seeds and cut the tomatoes in very small pieces (you can cut them yourself or use a scrub). Empty the tomato mix into a strainer and leave them for an hour. Then, empty the tomatoes into a bowl with the rest of the ingredients and blend. The mixture should be thick. If it is not, add some flavor. Do not put oil in the mix. Put the oil into a deep, non-stick frying pan and heat it well. Cut the mix in small spoonfuls and drop them into the hot oil. Fry them until they grow rosy. Tomato keftedes are served when they are still hot.
Eggplants with mozarella
Having been brought originally from Egypt, the Santorini white eggplant is sweet, juicy and needs no watering. To friends of the white eggplant, she is known as the ‘apple of love’, while her enemies insist on calling her ‘that crazy apple’. To everyone else, she is known simply as the ‘melitzana’ (eggplant). Chefs love it as it does not absorb oil unlike her sister the aubergine!.
– 4 medium Santorini eggplants
– 350 gr mozzarella in shims
– 100 gr tough mozzarella grated
– 1 medium onion chopped
– 2 cloves of garlic chopped
– 800 gr mature tomatoes peeled and chopped
– 1 small skein of mint chopped
– 1 small skein of basil chopped
– salt and black pepper
– olive oil
Put two spoons of olive oil in a casserole, saute the onion and the garlic, then add the tomatoes and let boil for 20 minutes until the sauce is thick. After the sauce is ready, shed the basil, the mint, salt and pepper and blend them together. Cut the eggplants in slices about 1.2 cm. Spread with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake them in grill until they melt and roast. Preheat the oven in 180oC. Lay some sauce in the pan and cover it with eggplants and continue with mozzarella slices. Repeat this process until there no ingredients left (you will make 3 or 4 layers). Lay the remaining sauce onto the last layer and sprinkle the grated mozzarella. Bake for 30 – 40 minutes.
Melitzanosalata me Piperies Florinis (White eggplant dip)
Melitzanosalata is a dip made with eggplants which have been grilled with skin on, on open flame until the skin blisters. The skin is then removed, as well as the seeds and the eggplant is pureed by using a fork to puree them, preferably. he garilc is pounded with the salt, adding vinegar, olive oil and black pepper . The roasted red peppers (piperies Florinis) are also pounded with a fork and finally all ingredients are mixed together.
Roasting time: 10 minutes
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Ingredients for four people:
- 2 eggplants, roasted
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 Grilled Piperies florinis
Santorini Fava Purée
In Greek, the word “fava” can refer to either the dried split peas or the appetizer spread that is made from them. Although fava is grown across Greece, Santorini fava are slightly sweeter than those grown elsewhere and are widely considered to have superior flavor.
Ingredients for 4 (as appetizer)
– 1 ¼ cups dried small fava beans or yellow split peas
– 1 small onion cut in quarters
– ½ cup extra virgin olive oil (preferably Greek)
– 1 tsp. salt - fresh ground black pepper (to taste)
– a generous handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
– juice of half a lemon
Rinse the beans under cold water, and pick out any stones or other bits of debris. Put into large saucepan and cover with 2 ½ cups of cold water. If you are finding that the water looks murky, re-rinse the beans.
Bring slowly to a boil. You’ll notice foam forming on the surface. Remove it with a wooden spoon as it builds up.
Add the onion quarters, salt, and half of the olive oil. Simmer uncovered on low heat for 40 – 60 minutes, stirring periodically, until the peas are good and mushy.
If there’s water remaining, drain off most of it (you’ll need some water for a moister purée). Use a food mill or blender to purée the beans.
Add remaining olive oil, parsley, and lemon. Stir and season with black pepper and more salt, if necessary.
Serve with the crustiest bread you can find, with pita, and/or with raw vegetables.
Makes about 2 cups. Refrigerate unused portions and bring to room temperature and moisten with more olive oil before serving again.