Wild food paths
* Tinos-Food-Paths is something more than just a gastronomic festival. It’s about the place, its people, and of course its food.
It was again in the middle of a Monday in May, when the boat reached the port of Tinos.
After disembarking, I encountered once more the local farmers having set their selling point just a few meters from the dock. The dried tomato necklaces were hanged under the sun, exactly as last year. But this time something else caught my eye. Tinos is known for its artichokes but last year I couldn’t get them in the market. Now, two different kinds of them were inside two plastic crates waiting to be sold. Inside the first crate, I recognised easily common, green-violet artichokes. The second crate was filled with something I haven’t seen before. I guessed those should be wild ones. They were light green and smaller, but what stroke mostly my attention were the spikes on top of the leaves. They were long and considerably sharp, to a point that I felt reluctant touching the whole flowers.
Still, I couldn’t resist and I got a couple, even though I wasn’t sure at that time whether I would be able next days to cook something out of it. I greeted the farmers and continued my walk along the sea promenade. Already a few minutes later I felt something touching and scratching my legs. The spikes had ripped the plastic bag, pointing out, ready to cause pain. I realised that peeling wild artichokes it's not going to be an easy task and I started considering already alternative ways to deal with them.
Speaking about wilderness and food, Greece in this regard is the place to be. If it happens to wander into the Greek countryside (sometimes even inside towns) and you have your eyes open, you can always end up carrying some edible material back home. This endeavour can be much easier if you know where exactly to look for particular items or you have someone to guide you. Those days in Tinos, I and the other visitors of the Tinos-Food-Paths* festival were lucky enough to have the local volunteers to guide us through some wonderful food paths.
The main walking tour between the villages of Kalloni and Karkados, in the mainland of the island, took place on Tuesdays’ early afternoon. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day but even that fact couldn’t diminish my enthusiasm to explore the nature of Tinos. After a quick organisational meeting with Vangelis at the old fish market –the festivals' main cooking location- regarding my contribution to the event, we drove the short ride up to the villages and gathered outside Kalloni, where two old windmills were standing proudly on a hilltop.
The volunteers welcomed us offering some homemade biscuits and urged us to enter and explore the inside of the mills. It was a unique experience for me, taking especially into account my fondness for grains and flours. I observed the main milling device consisted of two stones that used to run antiparallel each other, grinding the grains and producing flour. While still inside the mill, we watched an interesting video explaining the mechanics of milling. At that moment, I remembered directly my small, electrical mill back home that works with the exact same principle and I use every week to produce my own flour and make my bread.
I was still into thoughts of grains and flours when we left back the windmills and continued by following a red thread that marked our path. We passed through a field with an installation of scarecrows that was made from small students using their vivid imagination. At some point, we reached 'katoikia', a small and basic construction made of stone where the farmers back in time used to rest and if needed to stay when working in the fields. It was time for another treat and we got a slice of bread, topped with some pork fat and sugar. This brought me memories from when I was small and my grandmother used to prepare similar snacks for my brother and me.
We carried on with the walk and shortly after we ended up in the beautiful garden of Mosses, a local man that felt the need to commemorate his daughter by creating this beautiful place. The volunteers had prepared another small treat from tomatoes and cucumbers plus some flavourful tsipouro to drink. That was a nice moment to take a short break chatting with each other and enjoying the beautiful environment.
I left Mosses garden recalling my grandfather having the same snack every afternoon while my grandmother was complaining that he is going a bit too much with the tsipouro. As we were walking through some narrow paths inside fields heading to Kalloni, I saw suddenly a lemon tree on my right side. I went close and smelled the lemons. They were fragrant and I cut off a couple.
Just a few meters after, one of the guides waved at me pointing to a kind of wildflower.
She named it artichoke and I couldn’t believe that I was looking at one growing in the wild. If she wouldn't had told me, I wouldn’t be able to notice it. It was obviously not in a harvesting stage plus perfectly camouflaged inside the green environment. I stared it for a few seconds and then I thought of my artichokes waiting still back in my room to be cooked.
At some point, we reached the first houses of Kalloni, a very beautiful (as its name translates in Greek) village with white houses and nice gardens.
There, we first visited a traditional café that was kept and run by Mosses wife, an adorable old woman that welcomed us by offering cookies and more tsipouro. We thanked her and strolled down the road to stop shortly after at a building with a wood-fired oven where the locals were baking everyday small bread rolls for the visitors. I thought it would be great to have at some point such an oven and to bake there my bread and pizzas.
I was very touched looking nearby on the street, the old and traditional wooden basin in which our grandmothers used to knead kilos of bread dough by punching it with their fists. We had also the chance to watch a short and beautiful documentary named ‘The Magic Circle of Life’ that depicted through the descriptions of local people, the whole process of grain cultivation, milling and bread making, back in old and poor times.
Soon after we ended up at the small, open-air theater of Kalloni and the time for a short lunch had arrived. I could describe what we were offered as our whole food tradition on a small plate. Some local cured products, a bit of nicely cooked food and a piece of bread coming out from that wood-fired oven. It was so simple and delicious.
We finished our lunch, had another zip of tsipouro and went ahead for the last path towards the village of Karkados. I was looking right and left and I could find always something edible, products that define at best the Mediterranean tradition. Even though I could recognise them, I still got some big surprises. For instance, I’ve had never seen before such a gigantic bush of rosemary or such abundant plantations of wild fennel.
I arrived home in the afternoon, I looked at what I have picked during the tour through the food paths of Tinos and I thought that with the addition of just some olive oil and garlic I could make a wonderful mix to fill and cook the artichokes. It would had been a delicious meal. Unfortunately, it was already time to head to the old fish market for the festivals’ main cooking activities. Therefore, home cooking needed once more to be postponed.
The plan on Wednesday was to visit some of the local producers. Tinos and many other islands in the Aegean Sea are particularly known for a great selection of artisanal cheeses. The first stop was at the ‘San Lorenzo’ dairy in the village of Kechros, just a few minutes drive from downtown. I’ve heard already about the passion that the owners of this unit put on the production of a great variety of milk products, always with respect to the environment and having as priority the resilience of the ecosystem. San Lorenzo produces fresh and shortly matured cheeses, mainly from cow’s milk. For instance, the protected-designation-of-origin Kopanisti, a type of creamy cheese that goes perfectly as a spread or dip, or the ball-shaped Balaki that matures for six months and can be eaten as such or grated. I was particularly intrigued by a rather gummy cheese called Kastelano. Its freshness and texture reminded me a bit of Italian mozzarella and I decided to get also a piece and test it on a pizza.
We left back Kechros village and after a couple of kilometers we reached the village of Steni, the biggest in population on the whole island. There, we visited another dairy that it was situated shortly after the village, on the slope of Tinos’ highest mountain, facing the neighbouring island of Mykonos. I was very excited to be there and get another piece of the wonderful Malathouni cheese, a piece of which it was given to me last year and it accompanied my pasta dishes for a couple of weeks. Mrs. Roungeri welcomed and guided us in her small unit. She took us briefly through the whole process of cheese making starting from milk obtained from her own herd of cows. The milk after mixed with rennet and salt coagulates and is let to drain for 24 hours inside little wicker baskets that give the final shape to the cheese. The shaped Malathouni is left hanged, inside cheese bags to air-dry and mature.
However, Roungeri’s dairy is mostly known for a cheese called Kariki. What is particular about Kariki is the maturation process that takes place inside the bodies of gourds. The cheese, while ages, acquires deep flavours and tastes and develops even molds like Roquefort or similar, properties that I haven’t found before to any other Greek cheese.
After sealing under vacuum few pieces of Malathouni and Kariki for us to take back to Germany, Mrs. Roungeri guided us to the rest of her establishment that contained also a guesthouse. We left that beautiful place enjoying the magnificent view towards the sea while some drops of rain had started already falling.
Back to the main town of Tinos and the last stop on that day was at the meat laboratory of Ioannis Kritikos, who produces and sells traditional products from pork, mainly fresh sausages and cured meats like Tinos’ trademark, the Louza. I was astonished learning that he is not using at all preservatives, something that is hard to find nowadays in cured meats. For the Louza he uses the pork sirloin that he lets for few days, first in salt and after in red wine. Then, he sprinkles the meat pieces with a mix of spices such as pepper, fennel, and clove, he passes them through a large intestine tube and lets them to air-dry and mature for almost a month. The resulted product is eaten usually after being cut into thin slices.
I got some Louza plus some pieces of the more fatty, side part of the sirloin that he cuts off and sells it as such to be used as a substitute of guanciale or pancetta for recipes like the carbonara.
Looking for fresh mint
Thursday came together with a blue and sunny sky. My pasta workshop was scheduled for the late afternoon of that day. In the morning, I had a final meeting with Vangelis to organise the workshop at his establishment in Dio Choria, a picturesque village consisted of an upper and a lower segment, on a mountain slope, on the southeast of Tinos. I reached his café-eatery located at the village square, overlooking the sea. In the middle of the square, a big berry tree provided shade for the people sitting and enjoying both the fantastic view and the food.
We sat under the tree and thought about the ingredients needed for the pasta recipe. I wanted to make a pesto sauce and for that I needed some fresh mint. I was sure that it wasn’t necessary to go to a market to buy it. It should be relatively easy to find it somewhere nearby in a garden or a flowerbed. Vangelis pointed me where to go. I followed his directions and just a few meters up on a narrow street, inside the garden of an old house, I spotted the typical mint leaves. I cut off some and I returned back happy.
I spent the rest of the day at the sea before going to the old fish market to teach fresh pasta to some culinary students and local cooking enthusiasts.
I woke up Friday morning and at noon I had to take the boat back to Athens. I saw the wild artichokes on my kitchen bench, still waiting to be cooked. Fortunately, my neighbour offered to get them. I gave them to her, I packed my stuff and I left Tinos delighted for the great moments.