Greece’s Halkidiki Peninsula is better known for its beaches than for its cuisine. Nevertheless, the intrepid traveller can escape the touristy tavernas and fast food to sample some of Halkidiki’s unique offerings as Chris Deliso discovered.
Just east of Thessaloniki, Greece’s fun-loving second city, Halkidiki’s three peninsulars point southward into the sea: first is Kassandra, most known for its summer nightlife and packed beaches; second, Sithonia, a more laid-back place with small fishing villages, idyllic coves and camping grounds; and finally, the ‘Holy Mountain’ of Athos, where Orthodox monasticism has flourished in unspoiled nature since Byzantine times.
I set off on a culinary tour
It’s a fine May morning, and I am setting out once again for Halkidiki; this time on a culinary adventure with Lefteris Eleftheriadis, a gourmand and culinary entrepreneur from Thessaloniki. His robust love of local food and drink once led him to travel Greece to research a book on the top 500 producers of ouzo, that anisette-flavoured firewater.
Nowadays, Lefteris and his small team of dedicated food experts and food scientists introduce foreign visitors to Greek cuisine, through special culinary tours, ranging from a day to a week, across Greece.
It was unclear where we were heading. Lefteris referred to it cryptically as a surprise. But then again, a surprise is what I had been expecting, knowing full well that wherever Lefteris would take us, good food and drink would surely be.
First stop – Marianna’s Products
After one hour, our van veered off towards Kassandra, Halkidiki’s more built-up leg. Soon the road narrowed into a country track, vineyards outstretched on either side along rolling hills. We stopped at Marianna’s Products, set in a handsome stone-and-wood house in the middle of nowhere.
This veritable cottage industry is unusual. As owner Sakis Kazakis tells us, ‘we do everything with grapes, except for making wine’.Now, I had thought I had a firm grasp on the humble grape and its uses. However, not only can grapes be used inventively, but for some, their leaves are actually where the money’s at.
Chiefly leaves rather than grapes
This is because of the insatiable demand for dolmas - grape leaves stuffed with rice, vegetables and sometimes ground meat in Greece and the Middle East. Having a much larger grape cultivation than the region’s Muslim countries, Greece, and Marianna’s, is well-positioned to export these popular snacks. Because of their strategic focus on plucking leaves, the Kazakis family ends up with a grape yield 11 times less than other vineyards.
We sample the tasty dolmas brought in by Sakis’s mother, Marianna. They are delicious - complemented by e delicate homemade tyropita (feta cheese pies in crunchy phyllo dough), one of the 11 different pies Marianna’s produce, among its 65 products. We try another product, a lovely rich grape juice that is intense and thick and refreshing.
It’s good for the blood
The enterprise all began when four local women formed a co-operative, using the harvested organic grapes and leaves from 15 acres of vineyards. Their creative products include ‘vine tops’ -, trimmed rounded vine stems, pickled in vinegar, and useful for sauces (somewhat like a caper).
There’s also petimezi, a thick grape syrup that can be spread on snacks; or drop a tablespoon of it into a glass of tonic water for a refreshing juice. Made without sugar, the petimezi needs 12 kilos of grapes to make one kilo. ‘It’s very healthy, full of iron, magnesium and other minerals, good for the blood’ comments Sakis.
‘We take only the best’
Making this syrup is a 24-hour process, and we go downstairs to where it happens. Despite being small, Marianna’s has a surprisingly modern setup. The long table where dolmas are crafted is lined by special machines used for checking leaf quality.
Such activities are taken seriously- indeed. Marianna’s frequently hosts specialists from Greek agricultural faculties and the long-established American Farm School, located near Thessaloniki.
Finally, we traverse the vineyards. Like many local villages, Nea Gonia (literally, New Corner) was Turkish-inhabited before the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchanges. Greek émigrés from eastern Thrace (now part of Turkey) came, bringing with them their viticulture tradition.
‘Leaf-picking starts at the end of April, and runs into May and June,’ says Sakis. ‘We take only the best; they should be soft and whole.’ No preservatives or pesticides are used on the vineyards.
A fire water called Tsipouro
Marianna’s doesn’t make wine, but it does make 35%, double-distilled tsipouro (another Greek firewater, similar to raki), aged in oak barrels. Their production doesn’t compare, however, to our next stop- the giant Tsantali company.
Long among Greece’s biggest producers of tsipouro, wine and ouzo, Tsantali is an industrial-strength enterprise, with an outside guard and big buildings. I can smell the fermenting alcohol before we even get out of the van.
Tsantali has an international reputation
We are greeted by a manager, who gives us a rundown of the company, its history and production, while escorting us through Tsantali’s massive interior. There is a certain charm to the serpentine coils of hoses, stepladders ascending vast steel tanks, and humming machinery.
We navigate the factory, as men steer palate trucks towards a merry carousel of glass, where other workers oversee the bottling process.
We stroll through the halls where wines are aged in 2800 French and American oak barrels. Tsantali’s international reputation is attested to by walls lined with medals from various competitions over the years, and letters with the official Russian letterhead. Indeed, Tsantali’s Kormolitsa brand (red, white and gold) is the Kremlin’s official wine.
Tsantali wines use grapes grown from several locations, including land owned by the Russian monastery on Mt Athos. Other grapes come from vineyards in Rapsani near Mt Olympus, and the swish isle of Santorini.
After watching a short film on the company, we try some of Tsantali’s signature wines in the tasting room, including the indigenous Mavroudi, and Assyrtiko from Santorini. There is a dizzying array of tastes among Tsantali wines, and added heat from its famous 38% tsipouro.
Porto Valitsa, our final destination
Now slightly merry, we continue to what Lefteris enigmatically calls our final destination. After a magnificent 45-minute drive through dense pine forests, we reach Kassandra’s south-eastern tip, near Paliouri. It’s a truly idyllic setting, where aquamarine waters lap gently against a protected cove.
A short walk uphill leads to Porto Valitsa, a boutique hotel discreetly set among trees, overlooking the water. With only eight rooms, it’s frequently full and popular with repeat guests.
The owners, transplanted Athenian couple Sotiris and Marianna, offer Greek coffee. When they first came, 20 years ago, there was nothing but forest and the cove; it was not even accessible by land. The steep cliff by the shore drops 70m into the sea, making Porto Valitsa popular with scuba divers. Guests can also enjoy grape picking on the last Sunday of each August, as well as visits to the local beekeepers.
Lunch starts with a big Greek salad…
It’s finally time for lunch. We chose a table on the elegant upper deck, overlooking the water, enjoying the soft afternoon breezes redolent of pine and sea salt. We start with a big Greek salad. As is my custom, I drown the hearty country bread in the salad’s pungent virgin olive oil. This first course is served along with fried golden dollops of cheese arranged with wedges of honeydew melon.
Then I sample what is easily the best kalamari I have ever had - some seriously large squid, multi-limbed and crunchy, yet incredibly soft. It is clearly very fresh, embellished perfectly by a rich Greek yoghurt sauce.
Next up is another of my all-time Greek favourites, roast melitzana (aubergine). Cut in half and baked in oil and herbs, this purple boat is heaped with feta cheese and flecked with rosemary and oregano. Unusually, it’s also topped with smashed sun dried tomato, a most intriguing combination.
…and concludes with a crunchy mint meringue
We are already well full when the mains show up, veal with basil and mint, emphasising the depth of the red wine. But the chefs at Porto Valitsa have still more surprises: a gorgeous grilled sea bass, light, and served with sweet red peppers.
This glorious lunch finally concludes with another unexpected dish for dessert- a crunchy mint meringue topped with sweet, syrupy figs and dribbled with yoghurt, ringed by fresh strawberries.
With a last wistful gaze over the darkening waters, we head back for the city, another unforgettable Greek foody experience achieved.
Thessaloniki-based Places & Flavors offers around 30 tailor-made day trips, short breaks and seven-day adventures across Greece. A day trip such as the one described costs approximately €110 pp and includes ground transport, food and drink. http://www.placesandflavors.com