South Aegean Gastronomy: flavors from a unique place
Being the “European Region of Gastronomy” for 2019, is a great opportunity for the South Aegean to promote its unique and multicultural cuisine, making itself a global gastronomical destination.
The Cyclades and the Dodecanese are linked with a sea and a common history. The ultimate dependence on the sea in order to communicate with the rest of the world had an impact on the culinary habits of the islands. For centuries, South Aegean has been a place where merchants, travelers and conquerors gathered their knowledge and their gastronomy resulting in a cuisine with an unprecedented identity.
That is why all South Aegean islands share common elements, but have also some key differences. Some islands have a cuisine with clear marine orientation (based mostly on fish), while others have an explicit tendency in meat. Greens, vegetables and legumes were always present in the cuisine.
Eating habits that characterize the islands gastronomically
Despite all the differences in food, there is a large group of similarities in many islands in the South Aegean, which makes the gastronomic unity of the place obvious. We can easily list:
Salted pork, sausages, salted fish are a delicacy found in many different ways and names in all the islands. Slow roasting of meats and legumes in ceramic vessels or vines in the wood oven is common in the Dodecanese and the Cyclades. Stuffed lamb or goat is common in many islands of the South Aegean, especially during Easter.
Pig carcasses, the ritual of slaughter and on-site preparation of all pigs in a feast, are centuries-old customs, still preserved in some Cycladic islands, albeit on a limited scale.
The roots of the South Aegean cuisine
Grasping the chain of gastronomic history of the islands of the South Aegean from the beginning, we find that it is unbroken today, even though its links are sculpted and interspersed along the way. Whatever people left behind, the quintessence of food in this place is still a creature of the sun, the sea, and the barren land which is trying to nourish its fruits, and produces unique flavors. This is the great South Aegean cuisine
The effects that shaped tradition
Before the Venetians and the Franks settled in the Aegean, Byzantine maritime trade rarely brought spices from the West and the coast of Africa. Cinnamon, cumin, cloves flavored mainly the dishes of the Dodecanese.
The Venetian or Frankish domination of the Aegean lasted for more than three and a half centuries (1207-1579) and in some islands, such as Tinos, lasted even longer. Its marks will often be traced in the names of certain foods. Savory fish comes from the Venetian “saor”, the Naxian pork roast is from the Venetian “arrosto”, the Rhodian pilaf with cuttlefish is similar to the Veneto cuisine, fish or pork, “tsiladia” also appears to have a Venetian effect. Many handmade pasta appear to have their roots in the Venetians and the Franks.
The Turkish conquerors have also left some strong marks, especially in the Dodecanese cuisine.
The role of tourism and the trend of seeking quality and authenticity
In the late 1960s, some islands began to become a major tourist destination for local and foreign populations. Beginning in Rhodes, Kos, Mykonos and Santorini the Aegean became sought after for its uniqueness. Putting aside some negative aspects, this has created a large (due to tourist population) market ready to accept and support this unique culinary tradition.
The lack of gastronomic culture and the easy profit brought to light the famous "emblematic" Greek dishes (souvlaki, moussaka, etc.), putting the local cuisine behind.
But now, the tendency to return to our roots and our tradition is constantly increasing. The revival of local food is expanding rapidly. Young cooks are moving towards this direction more and more. All of this has led to the targeted promotion of traditional gastronomy and created an ongoing trend.
The promotion of this rare taste of wealth through the proclamation of the South Aegean region as Europe's Gastronomic Capital of 2019 is valuable.
Gastronomic tours of the islands
The South Aegean cuisine expresses in the most representative way the Greek taste. It is the image of the Greek terroir. There is no other place where you can find the land and the sea on your plate with so much purity and immediacy, along with flavors sprinkled with aromas that tell its evolution over time. Let's stop in some ports, for a smell from the delicious richness of the South Aegean:
Its cuisine is characterized by the intense use of sweet spices and complex dishes, with many ingredients. Despite the touristic development, the island has managed to maintain a vibrant local gastronomy and the visitor can taste traditional dishes. The "long smell" (cumin) is its most characteristic spice. You will find pies (onion or chickpeas), various stuffed vegetables and groats in the form of cartilage, which accompanies many meats. Soup rice, cuttlefish pilaf is a heritage from the Venetians, while one of the most interesting dishes is “lakani”, found in some inland restaurants: beef or goat, cooked overnight, with chickpeas (or chickpeas) and spices in the homonymous ceramic utensil, in the wooden oven. Snails are commonly used with many onions or with kale.
The distant Kassos has maintained its unique. Local dishes can be found in every tavern of the island, while every morning one will find pies filled with green vegetables, spice and rice. The famous, very small stuffed leaves are being found everywhere on the island. The pasta with the local cheese “sitaka” is well known outside the island. The pilaf is boiling in meat broth and then it’s being sprinkled with cinnamon. Kassos has a unique ritual during its festivals, where men and women participate in cooking and serving traditional dishes.
Kalymnos is very dependent on the sea and its gastronomy praises the ocean. Fishermen provide fish and scallops to the island. It is famous for its octopuses, its calamari, its tuna, its “dolmades” (stuffed leaves) and its “mirmizeli” (salad with tomato, cheese and rusks).
The volcanic island is endowed with a unique natural landscape. This favored the development of concentrated dry vegetables in the area. Venetian and Cretan influences co-exist with local flavors and influences from traders and sailors. Foods such as garlic, marzipan, ravioli and pasta are Venetian memories. The Cretan influence is the pinecones, scallions, lamps, reddish snails and much more. The variety of pastries and pasta is also great. The famous “ladenia”, a dough covered oil, tomatoes and onions, is as common here as in neighboring Kimolos.
The case of this island is remarkable. Situated at the forefront of global tourist destinations, it receives hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, features high-end modern gastronomic restaurants and yet retains much of its gastronomic tradition, from which it is increasingly inspired.
The poor, volcanic land creates delicious wonders that don’t require a lot of gimmickry to make delicious food. Kitchen based on humble materials and the gifts of nature.
The most popular dishes are the P.O.P (Products Protected Destination) fava made of sturgeon, pure or with sautéed onions, capers and tomatoes, with the aroma of small, anhydrous tomato from Santorini.
The ‘psarolia’, small fish salted and dried in the sun, still accompany the locals' wine and the smelt becomes a pie with onion and flour in the pan. Salted cod is a favorite material of the kitchen: it is fried in Venetian origin ‘brantada’ and then gets in the oven with a spicy garlic sause from potato. Often,is served raw – relaxed version in a tomato salad. The rabbit is cooked in the pan and poured with a sauce of eggs, cheese and rabbit broth. The local summer dish ‘sfougato’, is an omelette with zucchini, potatoes and tomato, stuffed with rice, zucchini, onion and herbs, which they call ‘poulia’. The caper, which abounds on the island, is also steamed with tomatoes and onions. Some of the most popular pastries from Santorini are ‘melitinia’, a delicate dough filled with a mixture of myzithra cheese, eggs and spices and the ‘koufeto”, a sweet spoon of almonds boiled in honey.
But the treasure of Santorini is undoubtedly the world's only Assyrtiko variety from local vineyards, which brings out great dry wines and the famous sweet wine Vinsanto.
The largest and richest, locally produced, island of the Cyclades has a gastronomic tradition, with several influences from the Venetian occupation. The islanders breeds cows for its famous cheeses, but the pork gives the flagship dishes: roast pork cooked with wine, tomato and garlic with spaghetti and pork with ‘provatses’, a winter vegetable. Some of the dishes that can be easily found on the island are the rooster with spaghetti, the boiled goat and the ‘kalogeros’, eggplant stuffed with roast beef covered with cheeses from Naxos in the oven. Traditional Easter food is the ‘patoudo’, lamb stuffed with its sliced liver, rice, cheese, onions and dill, cooked in the oven. ‘Sefoukloti’ is a pie filled with chalk, rice and a variety of herbs and ‘bouleria’eggs, fried eggs boiled in water with Naxos butter and served with their own juice.
In the seafood kitchen of Naxos we find a rich kakavia, with lots of vegetables, ‘gouna’ fish (which is also common in the near by island of Paros), a greasy fish (usually mackerel), which is fried for several hours and then baked on charcoal and ‘salahouri’, boiled ray salad with lemon and onion. Naxos citrus liqueur is a unique distillate of citrus fruits grown on the island from the ancient years.
The journey to the tastes of the South Aegean neither stops here nor is limited to just six islands. Gastronomic archipelago of the South Aegean has around fifty islands. Fifty islands that are capable of captivating the foreign visitor and ready to tell their own story full of traditions, particular products and flavors. These local flavors and tradition were the great endeavor managed by the South Aegean Region and they achieve to win this great cultural distinction for Greece and this is just the beginning. Both Regional Governor, Mr. George Hatzimarkos and his staff, led by Ms. Heidi Lazani, have shown that they can produce work that will highlight our country, enhances tourism and produces economic results. Undoubtedly the Southern Aegean deserves more and this staff is the most appropriate team to make it all real.