Here, have an apple!
by Dimitris Rousounelos
just like a woman who offers her bed
and you may consider her yours,
is considered the Garden of Settlers»
The first Greek and foreign tourists arrived here back in 1925. The ruthless Athenian youth constituted an original, yet eminent, image of the island. Its reference points were hotels -Delos, Yalos-, paved alleys, Megali Ammos, Aghios Stefanos. Later on, they occupied positions in state sectors, their names appeared on theater signs, and their mark sealed the poetry of their generation. They were the celebrated personas of glory and money, the golden generation of Mykonos of the ‘30s. Later on, they shall join the exiled opponents of Metaxas’ regime; they shall be lost in the years of German occupation, in the struggle for survival after the World War. But they will be even more mature by then! The whole gang was here, powerful again: The gang of politics, money and art, new hangouts, new people, new roads, the same air of carelessness and “alegria”. They buy houses, they build their own. The mansions of Chora and Ano Mera are freshened up. Big halls open their doors again, yards are painted white. Housewives take care of the small rooms. Houses, locked due to immigration, get rented by tourists. All the people that are left without a room in overbooked “Delos”, “Apollo”, “Lito”, “Xenia”, get in our houses, share our family food. The first Rooms for Rent welcome tourists from all over the world.
Mykonos’ tourist Babel was built during the ‘60s. One could hear every single language of the world spoken on the island. The island called back its émigré children. Athenians found a spot to feel cosmopolitans, foreigners were bewildered; they found a refuge and let their hair down. The hippies wore necklaces and sandals, they rolled cigarettes on the sand, dressed up and round the Rock till their feet couldn’t hold them any more, as they kept walking from field to field, rock by rock, opening their way to heaven. Locals and visitors mingled.
Europeans -finally-, as if they had solved the problems they inherited after the war, could enjoy the money they had made, just a breath away from home, in heaven. Working-class people, businessmen, artists, homosexuals, ancient monument admirers, the international jet set, everybody lived their own private paradise on this place. The island started intensive foreign languages courses. Rooms to let with running water turned into serious hotel investments. Sometimes only after renovation, but sometimes they have been serious since the very beginning. Then the big pressure started. Ferryboats brought vehicles, machinery arrived, and roads were opened. The heavenly garden got equipped with lighting, water and telephone supplies, with restaurants and recreation areas, with buses and radio taxis. At some point, as it is usually the case in all sorts of heaven, the snake looked straight into Eve’s eyes and said: “here, have an apple”. She took it and hid it. The history, as we all know, is repeated only like a farce. Later on, some people found and bit the apple; some others didn’t. Meanwhile, settlers of the Garden became more and more. Some of them were brought here out of love, or out of their parents’ memories. Some of them were pushed ashore by an invincible urge deriving from irrational consumption of yellow papers and tv shows. They all kept coming. Just like a woman who offers you her bed and you may consider her yours, Mykonos was thus considered as the Garden of settlers.
At some point they noticed some guys: They were drinking coffee at Bakonias, Koiliabouris, Madoupas, eating at Mathios, Risopoulos, Limnios, having fun with sabuna, drinking their own wine, dancing in feasts, taking their children to school, owning a fridge and a television set. And all this –just ten years ago– was considered the “other Mykonos”. It’s like saying Mykonos of the “Others”. It’s oxymoron since “other” is considered as the one that was there before.
Being raised without separating the tourist clientele, we learnt to measure the island’s size as a single unit. We hurt for all that happens. We felt the same pain as when we were told that AIDS prefers specific groups of people, or when the stock exchange rate dropped, causing the twenty-centimeter Cuban cigars to become cigarillos. We care about the modest and humble Ministers who the snake monotonously calls “Here, have some almonds!” and yet “Caesar’s wife” deprives them from enjoying the delights of the Garden and the fear that takes control of the helpless. It’s all thanks to appearance. To non-exposure. In order to be elected.
And this is exactly how we stay totally exposed to the snake!
Published in «Mykonos Confidential» July 2007
WHO IS WHO: Dimitris Rousounellos was born in Mykonos in 1957. He studied Finance at the University of Pireus Financial Department. Since 1983, he keeps on Mykonos the store Scala Shop Gallery. He is co-founder and member of the editing team of the newspaper “Mykoniatiki”, and author of several books: “Mykonian Cooking – mosaic of culture” and “Taste of Sacrifice – pig feast on Mykonos” (Indiktos Publications).
PHOTO: Zahos Hatzifotiou’s personal archive
Mykonos: A Place of Robust Flavors
by Dimitris Roussounelos
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. In Mykonos, where tourism developed rapidly, nothing can 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, Syros – Turkish delight, Santorini – fava (a puree of chick peas), Samos – Moschato wine, Pelio – spetzofai (a stew of sausages with tomatoes and green peppers), Kalamata – olives, Crete – tsikoudia (a kind of raki), 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: prosciuto, 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 ‘30s, 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 tavernas 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 and 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 cafes – confectioners of high caliber, such as Fouskis and Skaropoulos who made almond cookies – made sweet-smelling candy in paper cones fragrant with cinnamon, as the Mykonos 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: “There is a season for everything under the sun …
“ 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 make 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 eggplants with tomato sauce
-Fried small fish (marithaki) with onionsOnion pie (kremithopita) with or without lard
-Pork ribs (paida) that has been 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 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, in 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 of 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 cured in salt or cured in the sun with local herbs, savory and oregano. Why? Well, because we don’t have wood in 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) are 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 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) and eat them in a fricassee with baby goat.
May our summers always be abundant in 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 in Mykonos was Dionysus, who can be found everywhere even today, in Hora, the main town of the island, at 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 Myconiats, … where they prepare siglina, sausages and louzes in a ritualistic way, will enjoy an 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)
– kremithopita (onion pie)
– louza (sun-dried pork fillet)
– mavromatika me tin tiganisi (a soup of black-eyed beans, rice and fried onions)
– melopita (honey pie)
– amigthalota (almond cookies)
Additional information and recipes can be found in my books, which are circulated by Indiktos Publications:
-“Cooking of Mykonos – Mosaic Tiles of Culture” and
-“Tastes of Sacrifice – Pig feast on 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 Mykoniats, 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 one’s self, one carries within one’s customs.
(1). I was asked to mention a few places where one can eat well – and I must say, we have good quality food in the restaurants of the island. Most of the places are well known and the visitor can access them easily. For this reason, I am suggesting only places that are off the tourist’s beaten track, and which opened the last 3 years:
–El Greco in Tourlos, a little before the New Port
–La Rosticceria on the way to the airport, and
–La cucina di Daniele, at Bassoula, just a little before entering the village of Ano Mera.
I hope these restaurants will keep the good quality they had when they first opened.
(2). Limonium sinuatum
Read all of this article where it was originaly published on 2004: