The Blue Has Begun
A trip to the Ionian Islands. A different kind of holiday. A few thoughts and observations and a reading list. It’s a lengthy newsletter, so get yourself a cup of tea or glass of wine before you start.
Tales From Topographic Kitchens is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
To paraphrase Lawrence Durrell, the Ionian Islands are where “the blue really begins”. He wrote this as he sailed from Calabria to Greece back in the 1930s, and I started writing this newsletter in Poros, Kefalonia, earlier in May as the town prepared for its summer season. The locals seemed really pleased to welcome tourists back, and we were greeted with genuine warmth. The Greeks are famous for their hospitality, but this was next-level. As was the blue, which makes my eyes well up every time I remember it.
The port town of Poros is unusual in that it attracts very loyal, independent travellers. Many of the people we met have been coming for decades and most are Italian and German. There are comparatively few English tourists here. Once upon a time, Poros was block-booked by quite a few travel companies and in the eighties, it was part of the regular mass-tourist beat. And then nearly all the companies pulled out, which meant the town and its businesses had to reshape itself. There are no clubs and loud pulsing music here. We noticed that quite a few of the travellers were older (and by older I mean 50+) and it was a bit of a shock after commenting on this to realise that I am one of them and closer to sixty than I am to fifty.
The months before our trip were dominated by illness. Nothing ‘serious’, just colds, coughs, chest infections and a kidney stone. Several of the grandchildren, my husband’s ex-wife and my husband Ed landed in the hospital. I had a bad fright when Ed had a turn. I can’t talk about it other than to say for a few minutes I was very scared. Your training kicks in after a second, but it was tough to process. When I went to my GP and expressed surprise that a cold and chest infection could poleaxe us for so long, he gently reminded me that I was no longer 30, and neither was my husband. I’d kind of forgotten.
Epicurus said it’s not what we have, but what we enjoy [that] constitutes our abundance. I had started to lose my enjoyment of everyday things. So had Ed. Either there was little abundance, or I had stopped noticing it, which may be a legacy of COVID lockdowns and their emotional aftermath. I wasn’t depressed; just jaded and tired. I mention Epicurus because of my half-hearted reading of Travels with Epicurus by Steven Klein before my trip. “How should I grow old?” asks Klein as he visits Hydra to spend time with its older residents. It’s quite a mellow book even as it repeats a few cliches, but the underlying message, that we embrace this life stage instead of running from it, resonated with me. It helped me prepare for a different kind of holiday. I don’t mean that I envision a future sitting on a bench in a Greek village, shaded by olive trees in the company of older people but instead of worrying that the clock is ticking, I am considering how I might ease myself into the next decade. How do I move past the feeling that the last two years of confinement have wasted precious time and that, as a result, I have to cram more stuff in? And how can I continue doing what I want to do without it always being contextualised by memories of every other time I did it in the past? Nostalgia can exert such a retarding force on emotional growth.
My husband and I tend to be busy on holiday: we drive all over the place, walk, make lots of advance plans and rarely just….stop but this time, we had to. A traditional resort-based holiday was needed. For the first few days, we remained short of breath and leaden in the legs but being ‘confined’ to a smaller town and the surrounding countryside and sea, relieved of the stress of driving, meant we slowly began to feel absorbed into the blue. We started to feel stronger. It was quite a sedate way to spend a holiday (even our pace of walking was slow), and a part of me fought against this but as the time passed, I started to feel content with what was in front of me instead of hungering for whatever lay beyond the headland. At the very end of Ragia Beach, the road we were staying on petered out into a dusty track that wound its way up and around the coast. This felt significant and an excellent boundary to have. I stopped worrying about not ‘seeing’ Kefalonia. Staying still felt less like a waste of time, especially in the context of the last two years of enforced pause. But next year I will hike it.
This is all that was next door: us, rocky, Karst escarpments, smallholdings cultivated and uncultivated, a few boats stranded on land, beehives and a cockerel, a small cat with a heart-shaped face, the headland bisecting the sea and a mountain crowned with a monastery. As dusk fell, the plumeria released its scent to attract moths and other bugs. It was intoxicating.
Instead of driving to restaurants and cafes all over the island, we returned again and again to the same ones. One day was spent sailing to Zakynthos, where I managed to find Kouneli (rabbit) Stifado on the menu at La Storia, a little sea-lapped taverna at Agios Nikolaos. Most of the tavernas back in Poros were yet to put it on the menu because it is not worth their time braising and stewing and baking on the larger scale these recipes require at the start of the season. There aren’t enough visiting mouths to eat them. It was hard to find pastitsio, Kefalonian meat pies, and Kόkoras krasάtos (rooster cooked in red wine, Florina peppers, cinnamon, cumin and cloves) despite their being listed on menus. This was frustrating until I calmed down and acknowledged a different kind of abundance- the food the local businesses knew they could sell with minimal waste.
We returned to the Octopus Mezze Bar in Poros and ordered cheese saganaki with Greek honey and black sesame repeatedly. A supermarket assistant told me how best to cook the Kefalotyri cheese, saganaki-style. (“Soak it then dry, dip into olive oil, then flour before frying.”) I bought a small jar of fir and thyme honey made by Michalatos Panagaggelos, whose hives are found in the little village of Vlachata, south of Poros. We ate aliada (a local potato, garlic, olive oil and lemon dip similar to Skordalia), a salt cod and pumpkin pie traditional to the island, perfect charcoal-grilled frilly mushrooms, fish soup, and cinnamon-flecked cuttlefish at Romantza Taverna, a beautiful open-fronted restaurant set against the headland at the other end of the town beach. We bought boxes of baklava from Panificio Manentis and Gelato Patisserie Giannakis, which leaked honey and syrup over everything. Gelato-stuffed baklava, milk puddings, Bougatsa and Galaktoboureko were sold everywhere and made with the milk from sheep and goats whose bleats and bells were part of our mountain soundtrack. Nespole grew on trees along the gorge that bisected the town’s seafront, and we sliced them into halves to serve with the thickest of yoghurts, fir honey, and bananas for breakfast. The tomatoes were starting to come in, as were small dark green cucumbers. The delis sold jars of pickled caper leaves and olives, dried beans from huge buckets, and bricks of feta. We bought wine made from the local Robola grapes and drank Tsipouro and cocktails made with mahleb, vodka, sweet peppers and lemon from Zanza Bar on the seafront. The Ouzo turned cloudy as we added water; the skies remained clear the entire week. We had all the bread we could eat. We could pick oregano and marjoram, wild fennel and Horta from the mountains behind us and cook with them in our tiny kitchen whose door opened onto the shore. The hot white light poured through the doorway and across the floor, burning the back of my knees as I made lunch, and the baby housemartins called out in a series of electronic beeps that sounded like early Kraftwerk as their parents dipped and swooped nearby. Their mud nests were everywhere.
Legend says the gorge at Poros was created by Heracles when he stood on and flattened this part of the mountain. Dry in the summer months, winter sees the river Vohinas in full spate along the gorge, exiting into the sea. (The word ‘poros’ in Greek means ‘crossing’ or ‘ford’.)
We walked deep into the gorge which bore the ruts, pebbles and stones wrought by the river's turbulent winter journey before returning to watch the housemartins swoop and drink from the puddles of freshwater that were all that remained of the river. Towards the end of our holiday, workers arrived to temporarily level the river bed, turning its mouth into a seasonal car park and piling the pebbles onto the beach. This is what you see in the photo above. I had a disappointing lamb kleftiko nearby. The fat hadn’t rendered.
We talked fishing, winter season jobs, Brexit and harbour cats with the owners of Hello Bello, which enjoyed a prime position on the seafront. The cats descend en-masse as soon as your meal arrives. Hello Bello’s FOH told us vets treat them if they appear ill or injured and can be caught. We fed one old cat anchovies; he had COPD and had to take large gulps of sea air in between slow mouthfuls. His post-meal grooming was very slow, but he seemed to luxuriate in the pleasure of being able to reach a furry haunch still, although his movements were that of a cog-wheel instead of the seamless uncoiling of a younger cat. He reminded me of Thomas, an old stray cat who once moved in with us. I ordered orzo with chicken and shared that with him too. One needs nourishment to overcome illness. I was reminded of Nigella’s chicken in a pot with lemon and orzo and told the FOH about it. He did not throw up his hands in horror, which shouldn’t surprise me because Hello Bello’s legend of a chef turns out immaculately-blistered pizzas with feta which is not terribly Italian. That was a lesson in not assuming other cultures are as obsessed with culinary purity as some food writers are. However, it is always easier to alter a recipe when it is not culturally your own. There’s less baggage to contend with.
Many local recipes are handed down or somehow absorbed via the kind of culinary diffusion that goes on in kitchens. Still, locals are interested to know how Greek food translates abroad and how their diaspora cooks and adapts and innovates. Pitta bread stuffed with chips and doused with vinegar amused them. We debated the merits of Pastitsio-stuffed subs (which I encountered in the American South). They seemed particularly interested in cookbooks by authors with Greek and Cypriot heritage who live in the UK and USA.
On my first day in Poros, I met a monk from the nearby Monastery of Atros, which can be found on the eponymous mountain behind the town (you can hike there). Like Kefalonia itself, the monastery of Atros is described as a survivor, having been rebuilt some seventeen times because of earthquakes and fires. The earthquake of 1953 flattened nearly all of the island’s older buildings and Zakynthos’s capital town. The monk was standing by a meat-ageing fridge and several cheese counters in an upmarket deli, so it was safe to assume that Lent was well and truly over.
Above all, my abiding memory of Kefalonia is of my husband striking out into the blue. Pure freedom. If you travel to Kefalonia make sure you swim- a lot.
This isn’t the newsletter I thought I’d write before we left. There aren’t many recommendations for places to visit and where to eat from me, but I do have a list of some of my favourite books about Greek food instead. And I asked the locals about their favourite places in Kefalonia and they're listed below too.
The Potistis Falls can be found between Skala and Poros. A hike there is recommended. Walk or drive from Poros Port along the Skala road. There you’ll see ‘mushroom beach’ named after the rocks Cyclops is said to have thrown at invaders, and the coves of Limenia. The locals go spearfishing on this virgin beach.
Visit Petani beach on the western Paliki peninsula. 2km of white pebble shores, not many tourists.
Buy wine from the Robola Cooperative in the Omola Valley, which abuts Mount Aenos. Tastings are offered. The Saint Gerasimos convent is nearby; it’s charming.
The Botanical Gardens at Argostoli opened to preserve and study the island’s plants. It has a good reputation for education and research.
Walk the Ridge of Enos, a 7 km trail near Vlachata Ikossimias which takes you to the summit, the highest point in the Ionian islands.
A trail leads from above the Poros gorge to the Mycenean Tomb at Tzanata and returns to Poros and a lovely route that passes through the hills between Old Skala and Poros Paleocastro.
If you’re fit, walk the 17km route between Antisamos and Poros with spectacular views of Ithaka and mainland Greece. It’s a rough track that eventually becomes a road.
Agios Eleftherios to Agrapidies trail runs through the Enos National Park. The walk between Koulourata to Sami takes you through ruined monasteries, villages destroyed by the earthquake and buildings damaged by German troops.
You can hire little boats from Poros port, catch the ferry to the Greek mainland (Killini) and book day trips to Ithaka and Zakynthos from the businesses around the harbour.
A word about Navaglio Beach on Zakynthos: in high season it receives over 4k visitors a day. It was pretty busy when we visited in May and we spent ten minutes litter-picking because, unbelievably, people go to one of the world’s most striking beaches and leave their crap there. (Literally- Iannis our captain told us that despite the boats having toilets, tourists shit on the beach.) Don’t take glass objects, remove your litter and remain continent. It’s an incredible place; the water is like something from another planet and I am glad I went, but it was also bizarre to see boats lined up, gangplanks down like some kind of peacetime invasion.
Spiaggia Taverna, Vatsa Bay: relaxed and beachy, sandy vibe where the fishermen unload their catch next door. Just good, local food, gorgeous location. If you’re a hippie, this is your spiritual home.
Taverna Drosas at Porto Atheras: another beach location, well off the tourist beat, owned by a fisherman and goat farmer.
Platanos restaurant, Assos: village square location in one of the loveliest little towns on the island with a Venetian fortress. They have their own farm where they raise animals but they offer vegetarian alternatives and will go out of their way to accommodate non-meat eaters. Order the rabbit tagato dressed in lemon juice, beef sofigido, okra, and (if you are lucky) wild boar kleftiko. You will need to book.
Ampelaki restaurant in Argostoli. Try the Kreatopita- a Kefalonian pie stuffed with marjoram-infused minced beef, crab croquettes, Bakalaos skordalia, and the chicken with honey.
Il Borgo, Castle of Saint George, Travliata: grand views from its hilltop location out to the sea.
Captain Nikolas in Vatsa: surrounded by pine forest and overlooking the sea, this is a place well out of the way of the tourist beat.
Ladokolla Stin Plagia in Damoulianata: tucked away in the hills of Kefalonia’s interior, twin brothers cook a menu beloved by locals, albeit heavy on the meat. There’s pork cooked in orange, honey and beer, spit-roasted pork, and kreapita. There’s little fish. You’ll need to book.
Galera in Skala: friendly, excellent fish.
Tassia Restaurant in Fiskardo: this town was spared by the earthquake, and its Venetian influences make it a popular destination. A lot of resorts offer sailing trips here. It’s owned by TV chef and cookbook author Tassia Dendrinou. Tassia is the oldest restaurant in the town, I am told. The orzo with scampi, ouzo spaghetti, chicken soaked and cooked in Robola wine, pork and prune kebab, and local almond cake were recommended to me.
Phaedra in Lassi: extremely friendly, I am told. Lively, filled with families and the place to go to celebrate. They sell beer from local microbreweries and enormous plates of souvlaki.
Tzivras in Argostoli; popular with locals. Try the goat. It’s not a glamorous location, but it is not a tourist restaurant, more canteen-like.
Kyani Akti in Argostoli: overlooking the sea and mountains and built on a wooden pier, order anything fish while you watch the loggerhead turtles that breed in the harbour. Their Horta (tsigarídia ) are said to be excellent.
Look out for a soft drink made with almonds and mandoles, candied almonds and quince spoon fruits (Romantza taverna in Poros serve the latter).
Ryzógalo (rice pudding), Amygdalópita (almond pie), Mandolato (almond, sugar, honey meringue), Loukoumádes, Moustópita (cake made with wine must), and Galaktoboúreko (milk pie) and stafidopsomo (raisin bread made with locally-grown dried fruit) are not difficult to find and are specialities of the Ionian region. Check out the tiny handmade choc ices and mini-Magnum-like ice creams too. Buy apoxiraména sýka (dried figs) to take home and look out for the dates. They are sublime.
I ate Bakaliaropita at Romantza Taverna in Poros. Handmade filo pastry encased salt cod and pumpkin is a local speciality. It’s big enough to share.
Breakfast on strapatsada (eggs with tomatoes), and if you can get it with village sausage (The Octopus Mezze Bar in Poros offers this), go for it. If you are somewhere that has an omelette made with Kalogiria on the menu- order it! Kalogiria is a bulb we know as Muscari Comosum, and it’s served alongside sparrowgrass in egg dishes. Kalogiria is called lampascioni in Puglia.
Kefalonia is famous for its thyme honey (méli thimaríou) and pine honey (méli elátou) made from the Black Kefalonian Fir. All the food stores sell a good variety of brands and if you are walking in the interior, keep an eye out for doorstep sales. Dias Apiary in Domata is open to visitors.
Early in the morning in Poros, a fruit and vegetable seller drives around the villages and town outskirts. His loudhailer will tell you he is coming. It saves you having to lug a watermelon home.
Buy dried bunches of Kefalonian marjoram. It is extraordinary.
The Foods of the Greek Islands: Cooking and Culture at the Crossroads of the Mediterranean by Aglaia Kremezi. (Recipes are generally incredibly local, so you may not be able to replicate them outside of Greece, but it is an excellent book to read before your holiday.)
MAZI: Modern Greek Food by Christina Mouratoglou & Adrien Carré. (Modern Greek small plates approach by the owners of the eponymous London restaurant.)
Taverna by Georgina Hayden. (One of my most-used books. Her fave is incredible.)
Nistisima by Georgina Hayden. (An immersive exploration of Greek - and other communities- Lenten fasting traditions. The recipes are naturally vegan, and the stories and research are incredible. Stunning food too. )
Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from the Eastern Mediterranean by Yasmin Khan. (Lots of geographical contexts, including essays about the experiences of refugees who have arrived in Greece.)
The Complete Book of Greek Cooking by St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church. (I adore this book written by female congregation members from Long Island’s Greek community.)
Ikaria Lessons by Diane Kochilas. (A cookbook containing essays and interviews about the famously long-lived residents of Ikaria.)
Food from Many Greek Kitchens by Tessa Kiros. (Tessa is Cypriot, and her books are always so pretty. Good recipes too.)
Prospero’s Kitchen by Diana Farr Louis, June Marinos. (A book to read before your trip. Lots of historical and cultural context, intensely local.)
Aegean: Recipes from the Mountains to the Sea by Marianna Leivaditaki. (Contemporary Cretan cooking by an author who grew up there.)