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Essay: “Mykonos: A Place of Robust Flavors”

Essay: “Mykonos: A Place of Robust Flavors,” By Food-Author, &Mykonos & Delos
Mykonian, Dimitris Roussounellos (Translated By Vicki Politis)

Dimitris and Francesca Roussounellos

“Many perhaps first heard about Mykonos as a vacation spot when the first travelers on organized tours returned home to Europe and America. This was probably in the 1960s, the golden decade of the island, the landmark decade. On Mykonos, where tourism developed rapidly, nothing can now be considered to be as it was in the past. New habits, new perspectives, new aesthetics, a new culture that brings new friends and retains some of the old ones, and chases away others—Mykonos is a place that you love from the start. It’s a place you return to. A place of robust flavors!

In the gastronomic geography of Greece, there are places that are defined by the products they produce: Messolonghi–avgotaraho (fish roe); Mytilene–ouzo; Chios–mastic, that aromatic resin; Syros–loukoumi, or ‘Turkish Delight’; Santorini–fava (a purée of chick peas); Samos–Moschato wine; Pelion–spetzofai (a stew of sausages with tomatoes and green peppers); Kalamata–olives; Crete–tsikoudia (a kind of raki); and Mykonos–kopanisti (a spicy cheese) . . .

The same goes for the rest of the world: Modena–balsamic vinegar; Caesarea–pastourmas (smoked meat); Cyprus–haloumi cheese; Russia–caviar; Spain–hamon pata negra; Scotland–whisky; Portugal–Porto wine . . .

And when we think of certain foods, we associate them with specific places: prosciutto, parmesan, champagne, goulash, falafel, guacamole, sushi, couscous, pudding, fried chicken, fish and chips . . .

The designation of regions identified by their flavors! Today, touristic Mykonos no longer has need of kopanisti, nor its excellent almond cookies, which were awarded a prize at the Thessaloniki Fair in the 1930s, in order to be included on the map of the world.

On the islands, and if I may say so, especially on Mykonos (fate and luck are common to all), houses were once filled with the fragrances of food prepared according to regional customs. Restaurants and tavernes had no reason to deviate from the path that they knew. Piperias, the taverna keeper, could make a savore sauce for you with a little garlic, oil and vinegar, serve you yesterday’s fried fish and you would end up licking your dish. And Alekos, that other legendary taverna keeper, from the other side of Yialos, could make a regular out of you with fragrant meatballs; some fava and onion that brought tears to your eyes. And in the pre-war cafés, confectioners of high caliber, such as Fouskis and Skaropoulos, who made almond cookies, made sweet-smelling candy in paper cones fragrant with cinnamon, as Mykonian writer Melpo Axiotis confirms for us.

If there is something magical about island cuisine, it has to do with the ingredients. Dishes are characterized by their simplicity, sometimes carried to the extreme, as well as their seasonality. As the saying goes: ‘To everything there is a season.’

If anything has survived to this day, it is because people resisted convenience and the bombardment of flavors:

• Because it is a resistance against convenience and it is a passion for taste that makes one gather coarse sea salt for the year directly from the hollows of the rocks . . .

• It sounds odd to speak of that particular recipe that takes the dry tomato and transforms it into a sun-dried treat . . .

• And the tireless old women who each year dry figs in the sun, dry mint and oregano, make quince sweets, put capers into vinegar . . .

• And our mothers, gentle as the Virgin Mary, who make our life more beautiful with smells that creep into our souls and, alas, chase us like the Furies of taste as we grow up: fried eggplant with tomato sauce; fried marithes (small fish) with onions;  kremithopitta (onion pie) with lard; and pork ribs cured in the sun with herbs, then fried with onions.

Today there is a promising dynamic at work. New businessmen of Mykonos, restaurant owners and hoteliers, have embraced the flavors of the island. They have resurrected ingredients. They have brought into the professional limelight flavors which most of us had on the table in our homes. Some, even, are very successful. They have searched among the abundance of ingredients, created new dishes and blended different flavors in harmonious ways.

It is the ingredients that make the cuisine of each region different. Especially the basic ones, but also those that, through some centuries-old processes, people have learned to prepare and incorporate into their diets.

The basic ingredients do not differ from island to island. The earth, be it arid like that of Mykonos, or fertile, yields the same products: pulses and garden vegetables. It nourishes the same animals, mostly domesticated and, now and then, some game: rabbits and migratory birds. And the open seas nurture the same fish.

What, then, is it that makes the difference? It is the method of cooking. And, primarily, the method that became custom. The method that became a part of the culture. It is in this way, or something like it, that the daily diet of a community of people, in time, becomes familiar and is eaten with pleasure.

Therefore, on Mykonos we learned to eat string beans with garlic sauce, thick with garlic, vinegar, oil and bread crumbs. Why? Because that’s how it is! And if we delve further into the matter, it may be because we had lots of garlic, or maybe because the string beans needed to acquire a ‘personality’ with the breadcrumbs or the garlic sauce and become a main meal. There, now you have an improvised explanation!

And we don’t eat most of our pork smoked, but cure it in salt or cure it in the sun with local herbs, savory and oregano. Why? Well, because we don’t have wood on Mykonos but we do have sea salt! Preservation was an important matter. Centuries after the discovery of curing, the extravagant magic of the freezer arrived which was destined to supplant the magic of sun-drying, curing, smoking. Fortunately, for now, it hasn’t touched pork products. And so, sissera are pieces of pork fried in their own fat, paides (pork ribs) are loaded with pepper, savory and oregano, and louza (cured pork with herbs) is caressed by the sun and dried by the north wind, as are our sausages.

We pray for strong rains and, therefore, for snails and wild mushrooms. What riches in the edible fauna and flora of the island! And what joy to gather by yourself wild greens and taste their rugged flavor, boiled and served with oil and lemon, or in pies that are a new revelation each time you taste them.

During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the houses smell sweetly of cinnamon, orange zest and rose water. Ah, to eat leg of pork with cabbage leaves for dinner on New Year’s Day! To find those first, almost flavorless wild greens (the provasia, or Limonium sinuatum) and eat them in a fricassée with baby goat.

May our summers always be abundant with tomatoes that ripen without being watered so that we can make sun-dried tomato paste.

The cooking of Mykonos has to do with religious belief as well. During the cycle of the year, the canons are mostly observed even in our day. And I don’t mean only fasting. There are also liturgies in the chapels, with an abundance of special treats. There are fairs that have preserved in an undiluted form their basic elements of open invitations and offerings. Boiled meats, steaming hot broth with lemon. Flavors of ancient Greece. The flavors of the worship of a god, of Poseidon or Demeter, St. Nicholas or The Virgin.

In 1973, Aris Konstandinides wrote in his book ‘On Architecture’: ‘. . . and whoever finds the time to stay and live for a few days on the island (and not just to pass through hurriedly like a ‘tourist’) will taste other joys, other delicacies and other treats: good pork, unique sausages and siglina and louza and kopanisti, the flavorful spicy cheese (which is called niari when it is fresh) and barley rusks, together with a good wine (probably retsina) in the company of local islanders who know about drinking and eating and having a good time, and treating each other and singing, perhaps because since ancient times the principal god that was worshipped on Mykonos was Dionysos, who may be found everywhere even today, in Hora, the main town of the island, on the port, in the countryside. And finally, whoever has the good fortune to find himself at the ‘pig slaughter’ that is celebrated every year by the Mykoniats . . . where they prepare siglina, sausages and louzes in a ritualistic way, will enjoy a Homeric, I would dare to say, atmosphere . . .’

The gastronomy of Mykonos can boast of at least seven stellar dishes, which every visitor to the island must ask for: kopanisti (spicy cheese); kremithopitta (onion pie); louza (sun-dried pork fillet); sausages; mavromatika me tin tiganisi (a soup of black-eyed beans, rice and fried onions); melopitta (honey pie); and amigthalota (almond cookies).

Additional information and recipes may be found in my books, which are circulated by Indiktos Publications: ‘Cooking of Mykonos–Mosaic Tiles of Culture’ and ‘Tastes of Sacrifice—Pig Slaughtering in Mykonos’ (see also www.scalagallery.gr). They offer a tour of the gastronomic soul of the island, the world of strong flavors, the wise handling of pork. They refer to a simple island cuisine without magical decorations, just the absolute necessities so that a family can live, not just survive. Perhaps this also explains why it was the Mykonians, about two and a half centuries ago, who undertook to supply the Russian fleet with rusks, plain barley rusks toasted on tiles in a wood oven. That is how a family-type industry was established that helped develop this land a small step further.

That’s when the first bourgeois class on the island, offspring of commerce and shipping, came to be. Some had Frankish roots and others were from the hearths of captains. Goods came and went, people came and went. Many of them came from foreign lands and established themselves here: people from Chios, Crete, Smyrna, Constantinople. Others, our own people, found an anchor for their lives in Trieste, Odessa and Alexandria.

Above all, wherever one finds oneself, one carries within one’s customs . . .”

By Dimitris Roussounellos © Dimitris Roussounellos, 2003.