The South Aegean gastronomic richness
South Aegean, European Region of Gastronomy 2019: rewarding the quality of Cycladic and Dodecanese products
The recognition of the South Aegean Region as European Region of Gastronomy 2019 is a highly significant achievement...
A unique springboard that may contribute effectively, if seized properly, to the promotion of the food product quality of the Region and thus, all over Greece.
The great work of the Regional Governor Mr George Hatzimarkos and Mrs Heidi Lazani, Head of the Executive Committee Board, needs to continue so that to achieve the next ambitious goal: the inclusion of the Aegean Diet on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. If succeed, it will be a powerful development tool through the promotion of the island gastronomy and its products and through the connection of the local production with tourism.
In an effort to approach the subject broader, we will first make a brief reference to the geographical and climatic conditions (ecosystem) of the islands in the region, which have a significant effect on the products quality. We will then present in short the most typical products of the Region. This “food geography” is a useful informative supplement and may provide an occasion for a trip in one of the islands or even make more tasteful any scheduled vacations.
The unique environment and climate of the South Aegean Region
According to scientists, since the crucial event of the Santorini volcano eruption about 3,000 years ago, the Aegean natural environment has not changed much, except trees and crops (vegetation), which saw a dramatic reduction, and the alteration of the marine ecosystems mostly by human activities. The same applies for the climate that remains unchanged over the millennia: strong winds and bright sunshine throughout most of the year and few rainfalls.
Finally, regarding the primary production over the last 50 years, the temptation of tourism activities made the cultivation unprofitable so that many products have disappeared.
We have to underline that, along with the island agriculture that has almost been abandoned, especially in the Cyclades, the stone walls (pezoules) to stop soil erosion have also been abandoned. Regarding the products quality, which are produced nowadays in small quantities in the islands, the xeric crops are a type of agriculture that give over time high nutrition value and high quality products with exceptional taste.
The small producers of local standardized products
Over the last 20 years, the emergence of small producers of local standardized products in many islands, mostly at Cyclades and Dodecanese, is a positive step in at least three directions:
- Brings to life very often products of high quality in danger of extinction. An example is the fava (split peas) from Schinoussa.
- The cultivation, standardization and placing on the market of local products from small producers is a motivation for local food service sector and food retailers to use them, creating a high profile for the gastronomic products of each island.
- Their classification as delicatessens and their sale in an extensive range of stores –from tourist shops to airport duty-free shops–, all over Greece and in many supermarkets, makes them widely recognized, increases demand and enhances the visibility of each island.
In other words, the presence of small producers with these products may create a clear gastronomic identity for any island and could help making a new place image that can lead in creating a brand name with gastronomic character, since the competent institutions will see the importance.
The products of the South Aegean Region
The South Aegean Region consists of two areas: Dodecanese and Cyclades. By researching the traditional cuisine of the islands, it is quite clear which product each land produces, since until the mid-20th century the locality and seasonality were the culinary factors for the remote places. In general, although both Dodecanese and Cyclades are surrounded by sea, the produce of the land dominates their cuisine. This is not strange. It was just at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th, when piracy ended. Therefore, the land was the safest way to survive… After all, this is why the Horas (main towns) are always located up in a hill, somewhere in the centre of the islands.
The main categories of South Aegean food products are as follows:
It is quite easy to understand the love and the capability of the islanders in making cured appetizers, since the access to fresh fish has not always been an option due to weather conditions and piracy. Until now, in many islands, they make cured sardine, in Amorgos and Irakleia cured whitebait, in Paros sun-dried Spanish mackerel, in Kalymnos the unique “spinialo” (sea squirts in bottle with seawater). In Kalymnos after all, the Kalymnos Sea Food company produces now a wide range of exceptional cured fish, such as paste from cuttlefish ink, cured tuna fillet Alalunga, cured-smoked swordfish fillet etc.
Meat - Cold cuts
Beef is only available in Naxos, Kos, Tinos, Kea (Tinos and Kea cows) due to the soil conditions, as expected. Pork is in any island, since pigs can eat anything and need no special care. The necessity of preserving and using its valuable meat has led to a whole range of cured meats: “louza” in Mykonos, Syros, Tinos, sausages in Andros, Syros, Tinos, even the “petsia” (pork ears) in Rhodes that give flavour to legumes when cooked together. In general, the Dodecanese tradition in cold cuts is limited: semi-wild goats are everywhere, eating grass, licking salt and drinking brackish water from springs by the sea. An excellent meat, which competes for some the famous French lamps de pré-salé in Mont Saint-Michel. Sheep is also appreciated, although is found in smaller proportion since it costs more and is less easy to preserve. Cooked stuffed in wood-fired oven, is the traditional Easter food in almost any island of South Aegean Region. Finally, one would expect backyard poultry to have a special presence, but like everywhere in Greece, they used to keep them for the eggs that enrich a poor daily diet.
Sheep and goats, which dominate the region, give many good cheeses all around Cyclades and are made from mixed goat and sheep milk. There are soft, sweet or sour cheeses: “Chloro” in Santorini, “Xinotiri” in Paros, “Kopanisti” and ‘Tirovolia” in Mykonos, “Elaiki” in Kasos, “Manoura” in Sifnos, “Skotiri”, “Armexia” and “Malaxia” in Andros, “San Michali” in Syros (PDO), “Skoriti” and “Xino” in Ios. This is just an uncompleted catalogue of the unique Cycladic cheese products. In Tinos and Naxos, where there is cow milk, we have a fabulous Gruyere and “Kefalotyri” , such as the “Arseniko” in Naxos, “Petroto” and “Volaki” in Tinos. In Dodecanese, there is the famous “Krassotyri” (Possias) of Kos (PGI) and the exceptional “Sitaka” from Kasos, a soft cheese in buff colour and slightly harsh taste, for which the proceedings for a PGI certification are expected.
As about the vegetables, it is needless to say that their presence is limited, especially in Cyclades (the few water resources cannot help their cultivation), except samphire and caper that grow everywhere (and standardized successfully). Also, some famous vegetables from Syros, such as the small artichokes, and the small Santorini tomato (ntomataki), which is standardized for a while by the Union of Santorini Cooperatives (Santo) as sauce, juice and more skilful preparations like marmalades. Dodecanese, of course, has much more vegetables and especially in the big islands of Rhodes and Kos – the latter has already a big primary production.
Honey, Legumes, Saffron
The saffron of Astypalaia is quite interesting, also grows in Small Cyclades, in Sikinos, Santorini, Folegandros, Anafi etc., and gives scent to handmade pasta (makarounes), bread, Easter bread, Astypalaian cheese pies and rusks. Found almost in any island, the honey is the basic element for Rhodian “melekouni” (PGI) and there is a discussion to start the proceedings for its certification as PGI product for the Rhodian, Kalymnian and Cycladic one. Legumes were always one of the basic local products of the South Aegean islands. Chickpeas in Sifnos and Nisyros, which were always connected to the survival of the locals, fava in Santorini, “katsouni” (a kind of fava) in Schinoussa, “lopia’, a kind of small bean from Rhodes. Especially for the “lopi” of Kattavia, an effort will be made in order to receive a PGI certification.
The South Aegean vineyard is famous. Santorini and Paros are the islands with the greater wine tradition, while Sikinos is on the list, which it was known as “Oenoe“(Island of Wine) for its excellent wines. The PGI Cyclades shows the potential of the region accepting many wine varieties. In Dodecanese, the vineyard of North Dodecanese is the most prominent, with extensive cultivations in Kos and Rhodes and in a smaller scale in Leipsoi and Kalymnos.
Breads, rusks, “trahanas” and groats are the basic local products of South Aegean islands. Wheat and barley, which do not need much to grow, have been for centuries the base of the diet. Rusks and sea biscuits were always an important supply for sailors and every island has its own recipe. Especially in Rhodes and Kos, the groats and the tahini have a significant role –15 ha of sesame is grown today in Rhodes –, while in Kalymnos, they produce until now a huge variety of breads. “Apolloniatisses” make a great work on the field of bakery products, at the mountainous village Apollonas of Rhodes, which is the first and sole Women's Agritourist Cooperative at the Dodecanese prefecture. The cereals, especially barley, had the same unique role also in Cyclades.
Obviously, the involvement in South Aegean food production and the features of each island could become a book. If only it could happen, it will be a precious tool. It will definitely help to recognize their value, promote their production and create conditions that will make Gastronomic Tourism a strong brand name for the Aegean islands.