Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
The island of Santorini supported a very sophisticated civilization more than 5,000 years ago.
Excavations of the ancient town and harbor, now called Akrotiri, on the Southern coast of the island that was destroyed by volcanic action approximately 150 years before the major volcanic explosion and tsunami of 1630 BCE, prove that the people that lived on the island had an advanced mercantile economy that included trading with, not only Crete’s Minoans and Peloponnesian Mycenaeans, the main trading partners of the Santorinians, but also buyers and traders from the Near East – Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine – plus Egypt and North Africa, as far South as what is now Sudan and as far West as the Atlas Mountains.
Multi-colored frescoes found on the walls of some of the more important buildings ranging to 1780 BCE, show not only images of daily and/or religious life as expected from an affluent group of residences, but also such iconography as merchant fleets (now at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens) and monkeys, which, as an animal, were not found anywhere on the Aegean, but were plentiful in Southern Egypt, North Sudan or even as far west as the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. A number of the frescoes and other finds at the site are an extraordinary window in the life of sophisticated peoples of the Bronze Age and can be seen at the new Archaeological Museum of Firá.
The classical Greek names for the island were Kallisti (in Attic Greek “The Most Beautiful One”) and Thera. The last name was revived in the 19th century, after the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire, as Thera or Thira; the name Santorini is a corruption of a name given by the Venetians, during the island’s occupation by that city/state during the thirteenth century, Island of Santa Irene.
Today, Santorini is one of the most successful Aegean islands on the cruise boat circuit. The caldera rising straight up off the blue sea, with the whitewashed buildings of four villages, now almost joined into a single larger town – Oia, Firá, Imerovigli and Firostefani - precariously clinging to the rim of the chasm, is one of the most awe-inspiring views in the Eastern Mediterranean.
But Santorini is not only a tourism paradise. The fertile volcanic soil of the island creates some of the best white wines in the Mediterranean, with three ancient indigenous varieties – Assyrtiko, Aspro Athiri and Aidani – growing on the windswept hillsides. The vines produce fewer berries and need to dig deep for nutrients, but the wines produced from those grapes are exceptional. The Assyrtiko varietal produces dry, full-bodied whites with floral, lemon and citrus aromas and a mineral character resulting from the volcanic soil it is grown in.
In addition to the dry wines that are made mostly by 100% Assyrtiko grapes, a lovely sweet wine is also produced, from blends of all three white varietals or from blends of Assyrtiko and Aidani.
I tasted a number of bottles of VinSanto, as the wine is called, and I liked the Roussos VinSanto version, a blend of all three varietals (but slightly low in residual sugar); I also thought that the cooperative SantoWines that also creates an excellent VinSanto, makes a very good wine - a blend of Assyrtiko and Aidani. But the one I liked the most, and had it with dessert at any opportunity, was the Koutsoyiannopouls VinSanto that was sweet and unctuous and had beautiful aromas of honeysuckle, jasmine and tropical fruit with lychee predominating.
Santorini is also a thriving agricultural center where such specialties as fava beans, capers, olives and olive oil are cultivated, processed and shipped to the rest of the world. In addition, mariculture facilities in some of the remote coves are successfully raising sea bass, gilthead bream, large red porgies and blue fin tuna - which is caught in the wild, fattened in the fish pens and then harvested. These fish are then flown overnight to markets in Italy, Spain, Turkey and the East Coast of the United States as well as being consumed locally in the island’s restaurants and tavernas.
But tourism is still the number one industry. A large variety of hotels, resorts and guest houses dot the landscape, with the majority in the towns mentioned above, as well as near the airport and the port, on the southernmost end of the island. Hospitality is a very ancient tradition in Greece, and Zeus was its patron god. Everyone, whether you are staying at a five-star property or someone’s home, is still treated like an honored guest; that’s one of the reasons that Santorini is such a successful and sought after travel destination.
Gastronomically, the island has numerous outstanding restaurants that offer local produce, fish and seafood, cooked either very traditionally with time-honored recipes or by chefs and cooks that understand the strategies of modernist cuisine.
During my recent visit to the island to attend the Gastronomy & Tourism Conference sponsored by the Municipality of Thira, I had the chance to taste the results of the labors of two chef/owners and one local cook; two modern practitioners at Assyrtico Wine Restaurant and Nykteri Mezedopoleio/Estiatorio, and one very traditional “magerisa” (female cook) at Taverna the Cave of Nikolas.
From Nykteri, a sea-side restaurant at Kamari Beach, where we had lunch the first day, three dishes were absolutely spectacular: stewed octopus on a bed of fava purée – octopus stewed in a fresh tomato and red-wine-vinegar-sauce untraditionally placed over puréed fava - and a charcoal grilled large calamari body over smoky eggplant salad. Plus, a dish of deep fried phyllo pastry, stuffed with a local semi-hard cheese, topped with a honey sauce, fresh sesame seeds and dried fig slices, cooked in the honey sauce, was superb. Another of the desserts was also unusual, a square of halva made with semolina (not ground sesame seed paste, as a traditional middle-eastern halva would be) sprinkled with ground nuts, with a slice of quince paste resting on it, and topped with a heavy cream ice cream.
At Assyrtico, we had a lovely dinner, plus an outstanding view of the crater from our location high on top of Firá town, with also interesting dishes. Excellent were domatobakaliarokeftedes, a mixture of fresh tomato slices and desalted codfish, blended in a batter and then deep fried. Another tasty dish was baked orzo (medium rice-shaped pasta) baked in a meat, tomato and herb broth with slices of tomato. The fresh salad of radicchio, arugula, and cabbage leaves as a bed for a wood-grilled white semi-soft cheese similar to halumi, was exceptional; and so were the tapas-like thin slices of smoked pork loin, topped by pickled caper-buds on a bed of fava purée over a slice of white baguette, accompanied by raw spinach and pickled caper leaves on the side.
Both restaurants served exceptional bottled local white wines, a 2012 Atlantis and a 2010 Nykteri (Nykteri is a Greek word that means “night-work”, because during harvest, Assyrtiko grapes are picked in the middle of the night, at the coldest time, to retain aroma and acidity). During my stay, I also had the chance to taste the 2011 Hatzidakis Santorini, 100% Assyrtiko; the Gavalas 2011, and from Estate Argyros the 2009 100% Assyrtiko that is fermented in New French Oak, and I liked them all; especially with the charcoal grilled fish and seafood that are the basis of the local diet.
But the “Taverna, the Cave of Nikolas”, at the beach by the Akrotiri site, was the most interesting venue. Not only because of the quality of the dishes which were traditional, authentic and outstanding but also because of the history of the Taverna. Dug at the bottom of the cliff by Nikolas himself expanding natural caves in the volcanic tufa, there are now a series of cave-rooms fronting the kitchen. The owner, Uncle Nikolas, is an old seafaring Santorinian that in the past worked for Spyros Marinatos, the Athenian archeologist that started excavating Akrotiri in 1967. The cave was initially the home of Uncle Nikolas and Aunt Efstathia, his wife, whose "magical recipes” impressed Marinatos and his wife so much, they suggested that the caves be used as an eating hall for the hungry workers excavating the site.
In 1981, the "Cave of Nicolas" went on to their daughter, Margarita, who learned the art of cooking from her mother. But Unkle Nikolas still comes around everyday to “supervise the kitchen” and visit with “his guests”, regaling them with stories of Akrotiri, the excavations and his personal archaeological finds.
Awesome: the smoky eggplant salad sprinkled with fresh parsley, the charcoal grilled calamari salad and the baked orzo with mussels. And the Kallisti, an excellent Assyrtiko wine from one of the better producers, Boutari! A feast fit for the ancient gods!
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