Greek Cuisine - A Lesson from General George
by Elizabeth Willoughby
"Eating is all about memories," says chef George Palisidis. "General George", as he introduces himself, is a man whose passion for food is almost tangible and whose enthusiasm is electric. As he talks about pairing and enjoying and what makes a good meal, it makes me wonder what I've been doing all these years at the dinner table. Indeed, when one looks at wine and cuisine the way George does, it's as if experiencing them for first time.
Greek servings are small, beautiful and numerous. Here, according to chef Palisidis, is the way to eat. Raise your plate to your chin, close your eyes and swirl the dish while breathing in deeply through your nose. Pause and savour whatever memories waft your way. Then, in typical Greek fashion, eat, chat and wash it all down with the local varietal recommended to accompany the dish. Science agrees with George, by the way. Smell connects to the part of our brain associated with memory and emotion. From an aroma, the brain can reconstruct a memory that includes sounds and visuals.
Over dinner George talks about the Chefs Club of which he is a member. The club is responsible for the implementation of the "Greek Breakfast" certification standards in Halkidiki, northern Greece. Any establishment serving a morning meal with the official "Greek Breakfast" lable must use culinary products sourced from within 115 kilometres (with documentation to prove it), the dishes must be creative and stylish in presentation, and they must taste good, naturally.
Try this tour of General George's Halkidiki, a region known for its wine, seafood, mountain game, herbs, honey, olives and oil, and where the "three legs" of the Kassandra, Sithonia and Mount Athos peninsulas jut into the glistening Aegean Sea. Halkidiki's 1,500 beaches along 550 kilometres (342 miles) of coastline top the Blue Flags chart for Greece with 37 environmentally pristine beaches and marinas.
1st stop: Kassandra Peninsula
±74 kilometres/ 46 miles from Thessaloniki International Airport "Makedonia" (SKG) to Blue Bay Hotel
Prearrange your car rental timed for your arrival at SKG airport and head straight towards family-friendly Kassandra laden with beach resorts. Byzantine remnants and ruins are here, there and everywhere, so stop and peruse whenever it suits you, but do make time for a wine tasting at Tsantali. Today one of the largest wine producers in Greece, the Tsantali family has been making wine since 1890 and manages its privately-owned vineyards and supervises its cooperatives. See if it is possible to tour their wine and ouzo production facilities as well as the smoother tsipouro, an anise-flavoured spirit made with the pomace of the red grapes after vinification. For some generations-old atmosphere, ask for a peek at the musty, oak barrel wine cellar; cool and dim, it's made extra spooky by the density of cobwebs.
In Potidea, just past the narrow canal at the thinnest stretch between the mainland and peninsula, Marina and its palm, pine and chestnut trees overlook a tiny fishing port and the Thermaic Gulf. Don't let the "tavern" tag mislead you at this multi-award-winning restaurant. Seafood is the specialty here; think fish egg tarama, shrimp and orzo, octopus and tiny, deep fried calamari for starters. Come hungry.
Blue Bay Hotel is a family-owned hotel that overlooks the Torean Gulf from 60 metres (197 feet) up and 75 steps down to the beach. Spacious suites combine natural materials and colour tones in luxurious comfort. Walk the 600 metres (under half a mile) into Athytos, a settlement that can be traced to the 1st century. Overlooking the sea and well stocked with restaurants, cafes and tourist offerings, the compact village is a colourful hodgepodge of homes and shops set along hilly stone alleys, stairways and streets without sidewalks.
Alternatively, if you can sustain a minimum five-day stay, consider the Sani Resort, named after the nearby Sani Wetlands bird sanctuary and reserve that guests can visit on foot or by bicycle. Sani Resort contains a marina and four distinct resorts within. Developed according to customer feedback over 35 years, if you plan it right, you could dine in a different restaurant every night. Each May, since 2011, Sani holds a "New Greek Cuisine" fest, where every day over one week a different guest chef gets creative with traditional Greek dishes. Even before a dish reaches your nose, it's a piece of art on the plate. Don't miss the Sani Music Festival (July through mid-August), whether or not you stay in this all-encompassing luxury resort.
2nd stop: Sithonia Peninsula
±75 kilometres/ 47 miles from Blue Bay to Ekies
Plan to arrive at Ekies All Senses Resort in time for lunch. In this eco friendly resort on Vouvourou Bay, you won't want to miss a single meal at its beachside restaurant. In typical Greek fashion, small servings combine local ingredients in delightful ways: ink squid risotto with shrimp and krokos kosani saffron sauce, followed with sea bass and eggplant salad, followed with Greek yoghurt and wildflower honey, then panacotta and halva...
Afterwards, drive over to Domaine Porto Carras for a wine tasting. It's the largest organic vineyard in Greece. The vineyard, port and resort complex were created by eccentric jetsetter John Carras in 1970, so it comes as no surprise that it was a playground for the big names of the day, including Jackie Onassis and Salvador Dali, whose sketches of his friend John are framed on the wine tasting room's wall. Today (2013) the resort retains the aura of its former grandeur along with some wear and tear in tired suites, but the wine tasting room is modern enough. Porto Carras' Limnio wine uses an ancient grape native to Limnos Island – it was the favourite of Aristotle (the philosopher, not the shipping magnate).
Next day, join Nikitas Stratos on an inland tour of Sithonia by jeep. Bounce along coastal roads and up into pine forest with stops at lookout points for views of the Torean Gulf to the west and Singitic Gulf to the east. Stratos knows the back roads well, even when they're furrowed by streams and encroached upon by grass and ferns. Stratos is full of fun anecdotes of Zeus and his offspring, and makes a mean Greek coffee at break time, but it's up to you to read your fortune from your cup's coffee grounds.
3rd stop: Mount Athos Peninsula
Mount Athos Peninsula
±106 kilometres/ 66 miles from Sithonia (including the 55-kilometre/ 34-mile winery detour) to Eagles Palace
Head inland from Ekies to Domaine Claudia Papayianni in Arnea for a wine tasting before making your way to Eagles Palace. Claudia began her venture into wine-making in 2003, when she purchased some wheat fields and turned them into vineyards. Not a typical vintner, Claudia is young and female. She only gained respect from other vintners once her wines began winning industry prizes. Do a wine tasting in her cellar, designed to look and feel like old caves despite her state-of-the-art facilities.
While in Arnea, take a peek into St Stephanos Orthodox Church. When it was destroyed by fire in 2005, the church sought to keep the main pillars to rebuild on, so dug around them to test their strength. In doing so, they discovered a Byzantium church underneath. The new St Stephanos, completed in just over a year after the fire, contains Plexiglas windows in the floor to view graves and parts of the original church. Arnea is also a centre for preserving traditional art, song, dance and customs. There are museums of 18th-century textiles and utensils and unique house facades in the old neighbourhoods.
The elegant, family-owned Eagles Palace resort (in Greece only a five star hotel can use "palace" in its name) has achieved an unexpected sense of seclusion to complement the beautiful ocean views and impeccable level of service. The wine cellar includes the Tornivoukas family's own wines and the kitchen uses the family's own olive oil. You can try both at the Kamares restaurant. Or, have chef Elias Gotsis pair a five-course meal for you, which could include sea bass Carpaccio flavoured with lime and served with Moschofilero Skouras white wine, and lamb fillet cooked with rosemary and marjoram served with aromatic potatoes and Agiorgitiko Skouras Nemea.
Since females are not allowed on Mount Athos and since males need to apply for entrance well ahead of time, take advantage of being so close to Ouranoupolis, the small port village from where morning boat tours depart to view the monasteries along the coastline. The closer you are to the front of the line on the dock, the better your chances of getting a table on the lower, covered deck, though most people head to the upper deck presuming it will have a better view (it's the same as below but with less sun/rain/wind protection). Refreshments and souvenirs are sold on the ferry, as well as in the mainland shops leading towards the dock. The three-hour cruise reveals details and historical facts about the coastal monasteries the boat passes, which are relayed to passengers over the sound system (don't sit under a speaker).
Last stop: Thessaloniki
135 kilometres/ 84 miles from Ouranoupolis
14 kilometres/ 9 miles (45-minute drive during rush hour) to SKG
Drive northwest along the east coast to Olympiada and stop for lunch at Germaniko, nicknamed for owner Dimitris Sarris because he'd spent some years in Germany. Dimitris runs the seaside tavern and hotel with his sister, Loulou, who, incidentally, is flown into Athens every now and then to appear on Greek television cooking shows. She also gives cooking lessons to their guests. "We support our grandmother's cuisine," says Dimitris, which includes dishes such as stuffed pastry with pastrami, stuffed pepper with rice and aromatic herbs, zucchini minced with herbs and potato, and steamed mussels in mustard and lemon sauce with pepper. Try their retsina, the family table wine, after a tsipouro, and end your meal with a piece of Loulou's walnut cake with nutmeg, date and sesame seeds.
To wrap up your tour, drive west to Thessaloniki and check in at the well-located Excelsior downtown. This elegant boutique hotel restored as much original turn-of-the-last-century features as was possible, including the facade, marble staircase that squeezes around a tiny elevator, and Art Deco balconies. Dinner in the Bistro Bar Restaurant is a wonderful experience. Ask for wine recommendations to go with your souvlaki appetiser, tirokofteri fish filet with feta cheese and yoghurt, and Greek mushrooms with lemonpura.
Give yourself at least one full day to get a taste of what Thessaloniki has to offer before flying home. It is, after all, over 2,300 years old. Take a stroll around the downtown core's streets, where the Modiano meat and vegetable market, Aristotle Square (especially during a festival), the boardwalk, White Tower and Archaeological Museum are all within close proximity. The Museum of Byzantine Culture has a notable collection of Byzantine art, and the old walls provide the best views of the city. Consider hiring a certified English guide for a few hours, such as Foteini Lykisa (firstname.lastname@example.org), who has a good knowledge of the city's history.
Ask at the hotel reception to reserve a mid-day table for you at Myrsini (Tsopela 2) for some creative Cretan cuisine. Said to be the healthiest diet in the world, a salad with artichokes, strawberry, almonds, walnuts, spinach, soft cheese, seasonal vegetables, grilled mushrooms and a vinaigrette sauce of orange, honey and balsamic is just the beginning of another memorable meal.
Don't forget General George's advice: raise your plate, close your eyes, swirl, breathe and remember. Whatever memories come to mind while you linger over the aroma of your dishes, you won't be short of new memories of Halkidiki's cuisine scene.
Images and article ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2013
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