Now in November

I have been doing many things over the past 6 weeks, but one of them hasn’t been writing this blog. I have been distracted, open mouthed and furiously plotting. I picked up my old copy of Now in November by Josephine Johnson on Saturday as I sat down to write. Having not read it since university, I was overwhelmed as these lines really centered my thinking.

Now in November I can see our years as a whole. The autumn is both like an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with a blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now. It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.”

Johnson’s first person narrative tells the struggles of a poor white tenant farmer family battling with nature, religion and social class in the Great Depression. Although only 24 when it was written, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and fair to say coming 5 years before Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Johnson was ahead of her time.  It is an emotionally raw and illuminating read, written from the daughter’s perspective in the landscape of the dust bowl. It felt like a good opener to remind me of the power words can have. 

The 11th month of the year marks my birth month, so it also calls for beginnings as well as endings. I always think of November as a reflective brooding time, the shorter days slowly folding itself into Christmas and then a new year. There has been a lot of catching up and family time in the past few weeks, and generally aligning ourselves back into a rhythm that we had lost. I have relished being back in a fully operational kitchen, I even baked a Greek honey and almond cake. As well as trying to replicate the souzoukakia recipe from Stou Zaloni’s. They weren’t bad!

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Now in this November I found myself walking along Regent’s Park with a dear friend in the biting cold on a Sunday afternoon. We walked and talked. Catching up conversations about work and ambition, life, love and all the stuff that chatters around our brains in-between. I hadn’t felt that absorbed for a long time, as we crunched golden leaves beneath our feet and squinted in the sunlight. It was nice to be out in the fresh air, breathing it all in and bathing in daylight. After our taxing walk we found a cosy pub and shared more long conversations over pints and stodgy food. Proving that this is a time for reflection, we managed to put the world to right over kind words and ideas.  This is autumn loveliness at its finest.

I am lucky to have been able to walk through St James Park on the way to meetings. Dawdling a while to stare at the ducks around the lake, admire the tourists posing and see how the fig trees are getting on. One of which is reported to be the biggest specimen of Ficus carica (brown turkey) in Britain. I always wonder if the figs are tasty from that big old tree. One day I’ll check them out in season. 

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I didn’t really appreciate how glorious fig trees are before with their deciduous vast flat leaves. I always thought of the fruit first rather than the tree. How the overripe figs would fall and collect in sad splatted piles, smelling sickly sweet while they rotted. Often they were pillaged by giant ants marching in a line of military precision. I ate dried figs at my parent’s house a few weeks ago when they opened the box of Kini figs from Theresa. They had been sun-dried in the traditional way with sesame seeds with a bay leaf on each layer and wrapped in tissue paper.  Their sweet taste made me feel sad and happy all at once thinking of summer.

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I do miss the fig trees that leaned over our garden in Syros. By now their leaves will have also turned into shades of golden rust. I keep seeing pictures on social media of northern Greece where the forest leaves are aflame in all the radiant hues of autumn. A November walk in the Greek hills sounds about perfect right now.  In Greece the olive harvest is always traditionally done after the first rainfall. Spreading out the nets and raking through the tree branches to make the ripe olives fall, it’s back breaking work. I might sit in an office all day but that’s no comparison to the hard labour of the olive farmers.

I had got used to having a lot of freedom over how I spent my time, which manifests itself in getting frustrated over the constrained time squeezed into work.  I relish snatches of time being alone on the train and staring up at the sky whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I miss the sky , the big ol’ blue Hellenic sky – the sheer expanse of the horizon. You don’t get big horizons like that in London… even from the top of the Sky Garden it looked pretty grey. 

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I think it is the light and colour I miss the most. I leave in the dark gloom of dawn, a train ride through terraced streets with hues of brown and mud coloured buildings flashing by. If it’s cloudy all day before getting dark at 4pm, a whole day can go by in this strange wishy washy landscape without seeing anything bright and inspiring.

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Compare that London grey smudge with the palette of Ermoupoli in its candy coloured houses and pale blue domes, bright skies and sea of turquoise, dotted with terracotta, bright pops of pink and  emerald green. I have been cheering up the dark nights by sorting some of my pictures from walks around the town. These are just a few of my favourites.

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The weather certainly won’t be as nice there now as I remember it, but everyone will be starting to hibernate for winter as  the grey skies and stormy weather sets in. But I can look over these pictures to remember the light and hope it keeps me going through the dark days of November. 

Ferry survival tactics!

I started writing this blog post about Greek ferries 10 months ago. I know, crazy, 10 months and still only sat in the draft section of my blog. Lazy, probably. But also I had unshakable desire to travel on more ferries. I feel in a better place to write this now than when we were just back from Sikinos and I couldn’t describe how much I loved the Greek ferry system; but I am still learning to love its quirks and mysteries. We had travelled on Zante Ferries ‘Adamantios Korais’ on a midnight sailing from Sikinos to Santorini and I was mesmerized her bubblegum pink and mint green leather seating reminiscent of a down-beat disco bar. It was built in Japan in the late 1980s and has this futuristic interior that was a wonderful reminder of the lost glamour of sailboat travel.  When we were home G encouraged my ferry interest by buying a random book from Amazon which captures a little slice geekery called ‘5 Days in Greece: the Greek Ferry Industry at a crossroads”. This book is something of a gem as it is written by a couple of ferry fanatics who capture a key time in Hellenic maritime history. It has amazing photographs of ferries and detailed descriptions before several of the older ships (often ex-cross-channel boats) were about to be retired following the change in legislation in the aftermath of the MS Express Sanmina disaster in 2000. If you don’t know the tragic tale, the Sanmina sank outside Paros in September 2000 – it was due to end its service after 35 years the following year. 82 people lost their lives in the disaster and the cause of which was not only the ship shunted into rocks and let in water, but the crew failed to lock nine of the ships eleven watertight doors. I saw some underwater photos of the wreck at the Kini Aquarium last week which prompted my thoughts on it.  As a result Greek law was changed to ensure that all boats retire at 30 years and are subject to extra safety procedures as well as voyages now having ‘black box’ recorders. This meant that in the 2000’s many of the older characterful ferries that had metamorphosed from one country route to another shipping company altogether, were taken out of service. But there are still some wonderful boats on journeys across the islands, charting between major and minor ports. It’s not just the boat that plays a role here but also the voyage and the views, as well as the stories that people bring with them as they travel.

Last week we stood waving my parents off at Ermoupoli port as they took the Blue Star Naxos to Mykonos to catch a flight– little did I know there had been a mix up at the ticket agency and I’d mistakenly managed to buy them tickets for July travel instead of June (I can’t even blame my bad Greek, the whole transaction was done in English!) Although afterwards they reassured me all was sorted quickly and the ship staff shrugged when realising that someone must have let them use the incorrect tickets for their outbound journey. Meaning that no one knew they were on-board, contravening the basic sea-travel law of having a passenger manifest!  Some things never change.

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Whilst we waved we watched two glamorous looking young American girls disembark the Blue Star and stand around on Syros port – they ambled over to the store to buy beers and stood waiting around. Like most ports the accommodation owners are allowed to tout for passing trade when a boat comes in – as the girls had been standing around for a while the lady who runs a hotel in town asked the girls if they had a place to stay in Syros. I didn’t over hear the exchange but we certainly started watching when the Greek lady started pointing to the Blue Star ferry and shouting “No, this is Syros! After here is Mykonos…Quickly! Run! Go”. The girls screeched some expletives and then started running back towards the ferry they had just left, arms flailing, wheelie suitcases falling over and bouncing over the perilous concrete, one lost a wedge heel shoe…all the while they both miraculously held onto their beers! It was quite a commotion for the port in the midday sun, but too late for them to hop on the Blue Star, as the harbour master had unhooked the ropes and it had started reversing out of port. Luckily, the old faithful Aqua Spirit was still tied in and from what I could see the Greek lady helped negotiate them onto the ferry  and off to Mykonos without too much fuss! I imagine that will be quite the story for those travellers, but I also think it must happen all the time – perhaps if you’ve arrived on a 10 hour flight and are jet-lagged, it’s could be plausible to mistake the venetian hills of Ermoupoli for the sugar cube houses of Mykonos. But they do always make announcements in English as well as Greek…and Mykonos and Syros don’t even sound similar…

Sometimes it seems like you need a Rubik’s cube to figure out the timetables – believe me I do spend a considerable amount of time looking at them.That being said the ferry network confuses most people, myself included. Sometimes it’s easier and quicker to go to the main islands on a slow boat overnight like Crete, than it is to go shorter distances to smaller places! The ferry timetabling is much part of the local news media here, Cyclades24 has news stories dedicated to timetabling, which boats ran late, which failed to run at all. Things like the fast connections to Syros from Athens only started late in June, so people think they don’t bring enough tourists out of the peak season – then connections to close by islands like Sifnos are badly served by the boats.

The boat service throughout the year is a life-line, yet we travellers often forget it isn’t just there for Greek island hopping and zipping between beaches. It isn’t so as much a complex method of travel for tourists to navigate and understand– it’s a complex industry which primarily is designed to move local people and goods to keep the islands functioning! They need regular heavily subsidised routes for locals to access basic services – when we were trapped in Tinos in May due to the union strikes – the only boat going back to Syros took 4 hours and went via Andros, which any you look at the map is a four hour detour. But that network has an obligation to provide at least a bi-weekly accessible route to Syros, as it has hospitals, law courts and tax offices.

In the peak summer there are countless potential routes to get you across island groups by hydrofoil or highspeed line from Piraeus to Santorini or Naxos and Mykonos – all the most popular islands have the best connections (which again is a source of grumbles for Islands trying to attract tourism as they are tied by the ferry companies desire to be commercially viable). But come Winter the ferry’s reduce to a slow skeleton service connecting island networks at the mercy of being cut off by weather, and for the smaller and remote places the weekly ferry is a lifeline. They don’t have sources of food and supplies – a simple fact on some of the rocky outcrops in the Cyclades, communities have self-sufficiently existed there for years without deliveries of goods and services – small populations with enough farming and livestock for their villages. Now when these small islands like Tilos, Halki or Paros started attracting tourists from the late 60s onwards they needed roads building, construction, cabling, electrical supplies, and transport – every single thing has to be delivered by boat and that sometimes includes its water supply, although many now have de-salination plants thanks to the wonders of EU funding.

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Wherever you arrive or depart it is brilliantly orchestrated chaos.  If it’s a big boat it is chaos on a grand scale, huge swathes of passengers swarming on clambering for seats, cars and motorbikes revving their engines, trucks of goods, tankers and parcels being loaded on by people with endless clipboards and labels running on and off the boat. It is a feat of ingenuity that only the Greeks could master. If this was the UK there would be too many forms to complete and dockets to sign that a boat would never get out of port!

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There are a few good rules to follow: pay attention to where they ask you to leave bags when you board on the car deck and remember where it is, they usually have signs for each destination, but sometimes the man will just point and shout! If you really do want a seat and the option on bigger ferries tend to be deck or economy or the next class is airline seat, do pay the few extra euros for the airline seat. Some of the time you can just sit wherever you want on deck, in the cafes or in the air-conditioned lounges – but sometimes on busier ferries people reserve all the seats with their luggage and just leave their stuff, meaning no one else can sit down. Sometimes the staff ask people to move or the ticket inspectors check everyone should be sitting there. Most Greek people like to rush on and set up a spot for their families, but I do like to roam around the boat, perusing the café’s (usually for a decent spanakopita and espresso) and viewing the islands from the deck as we pass by. Its best to always wrap up warm even if its hot outside, once on-deck in the meltimi winds or in an air-conditioned cabin the temperatures can plummet. I safely take travel calm tablet on longer journey’s, I’ve never been sea-sick but its just insurance against it happening. But they do sell tablets on board.  It’s usually a lot simpler on shorter journey’s like the ‘Despina’ from Corfu to Paxos, or the aptly named ‘Meganisi II’ from Nidri on Lefkada or a personal favourite was taking the 70s aircraft-esque Tilos Sea Star from Rhodes Harbour in which they showed episodes of Blackadder with Greek subtitles. We recently ventured on Golden Star’s latest boat the highspeed SuperRunner to Paros which despite being in the middle of a storm was a smooth and swift journey in relative luxury!

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Travelling by ferry should always be seen as a big part of the holiday, whether you are there for a few weeks or just a short hop from Piraeus in Athens. One Easter on a small Dodekanise Express I left my luggage next to a crate full of live chicks on the hydrofoil to Patmos which was utterly cute to see the little bundles of yellow feathers chirping away, although I fear their destination may have not been so nice. We have seen herds of sheep, crates of tomatoes, fresh flowers and even prisoners being transported by armed police.  I spent 5 blissful days on Halki and actually enjoyed waking up at 3am to watch the towering Crete bound Anek ferry arrive into the tiny port, watching the chaos ensue on the sleepy harbour from the balcony as it unloaded trucks and passengers blinking bleary eyed. It’s lights on deck lit up the dock like Christmas!

I didn’t travel by ferry until I was about 6 years old on my first holiday to France, we would have driven all the way down to Dover to get the ferry to Calais. I have very little memory of being on the ferry, but it obviously stuck a cord somewhere. Now I see the ferry is a big part of the adventure in Greece, and we have lots of mini-trips that should incorporate more routes and boats. Although I have a feeling that the Aqua Spirit may become a ship we know too well this summer, and Hellenic Seaway’s Artemis, as they seem to be the only two boats covering most of the smaller Cyclades Islands.

Luckily getting my hands on some ‘Ferry Swag’ is a new hobby. So far I’m the proud owner of Blue Star Ferries cap which when I wear (mostly for gardening or running) I secretly want people to ask me about timetables…go on, I might even know the answer!

Sikinos, Cyclades August 2016

Sikinos is a little off the grid. And I think i’m safe in saying that it’s okay with that. In fact I think it would rather stay that way. When you are an island with only a population of less than 300 permanent residents, why ruin a good thing?

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It felt like being let into a secret, feeling bleary-eyed and weary after a 7 hour ferry journey on the Artemis in choppy seas. As we stepped off into the port, the tiny village of Allapronia stood shining in the night as Mr Lucas greeted us and a rambunctious Italian family, proudly whisking off our luggage to his harbourside apartments. Once the ferry departed the lights disappearing to the dark horizon, the engine noise, chaos and hum of arriving vehicles all dissipated, so we walked in silence, only serenaded only by the cicadas and wind rustling the trees as we walked along the path.

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After a late dinner of gyros pita at one of only two harbourside tavernas and a few beers on the balcony listening to owls hoot over the bay – it was a treat to wake up to bright sunlight and the sea lapping beneath the window. I sat on our balcony, sipping coffee watching a few yachts moored in the bay and the seagulls stalking the sea for small fishes. Blissful! Our apartment was traditionally decorated in Cycladic hues and thoughtful eclectic decor, the real deal clincher was a huge window opening out onto views of the bay. This was ideal for boat watching (I’m developing a fascination with Greek ferries). There was nothing more distracting to do but listen to the waves lapping below, read, and reflect. The owner described it as ‘the best apartment in the small Cyclades’ I wouldn’t even argue – it was.

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Sikinos is a small island, and as such even in August we felt part of a place that wasn’t filled to the brim with visitors, but was busy enough to feel buzzing. Some Italians and Greeks with holiday homes, a smattering of Germans and few Brits, and locals going about their normal lives. It didn’t feel, like other islands I’ve visited, that all was on show for the tourists. It just gets on with it, no fuss – even on the main beach in Allapronia bay, with it’s lovely shelving sand falling into shallow blue water, backed by tamarisk trees, has a play park taking centre stage on the beach. In keeping the community park ethos, as all beaches belong to the municipal authority,  it exists without the blight of sunbeds for hire and has umbrellas with park benches spread out along the shore,  ensuring that everyone shares and sits to chat, whiling away the hours with a picnic while children roam freely running along the bay.

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The community feel extends throughout the island, and it being  August we were lucky enough to visit while the island’s summer festival took place. Events range from poetry reading, music recitals and art displays, in Chora the main village perched on the cliff with sugar cube splendeur,  the town hall acted as gallery. In it  we saw some facinating amatuer photography and artwork.  Some captured traditions, including a set of great photos documenting a herd of sheep being swam round in the shallow sea in Spring to wash the lanolin off their woolly winter coats. A very affable gentlemen who led the project explained the photos and talked about how they would be kept on permanent display at the schools so the children could understand more about their past and the island’s traditions. It left us feeling warm and wonderful, and that wasn’t just the kind gesture of offering tsipouro or wine to the visitors! That just is part of the collective generous spirit of the islanders. There was a sense of unity there, and given its size and population that entirely makes sense. Everyone stopped and had time for one another. It was blissful sitting in a cafe, lingering over a frappe and watching everyone stop and chat. From the baker leaning over her counter to the teenagers being chastised for leaving their bikes strewn on the square. The centre of the village has all you’d ever need: an ATM, medical centre and a school, the formal square was built by the Italian’s when they occupied the island. Crucially tourism and traditional life manages to co-exits; they didn’t seem to mind us tourists dropping in and wandering through the whitewashed streets, watching their basketball games, being present in their lives momentarily.

The sell-everything-you’ve-ever-needed shop in Allapronia plays the centre of port life – a mother and daughter run this with efficiency: bill paying for the locals, tourist info for rooms and facilitating taxi-type lifts for lost yachtsmen. We witnessed a rather glam English couple anchor their boat and then rock up looking for a taxi to take them to a bar in Chora – presumably they had been mis-advised – although there is one lively bar that passes as the islands epicentre of nightlife, there is little else even the peak of August. and no taxis on the island at all. But  a few calls a later, and the couple had time for a glass of wine in the taverna before a car arrived to whisk them up the hill to Chora.

This sense stepping back in time was exactly was we were seeking, as we sunk in easily into an island which only has a handful of tavernas, cafes and bars – there’s a keen sense of life just ticking over rather than a hurried pace of money-making and vying for attention. Of course, the everyone work hard running the apartments and meeting visitors at the ports as the ferries arrive in their haphazard  frequency, but it seems as if they aren’t too worried about the infringement of large-scale tourism. No high-rise developments, no swimming pools – just lots of open sky and empty hills, near deserted beaches for relaxed amusement and quiet contemplation.

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We enjoyed some great meals in Taverna Lucas right on the front. As we were staying in Lucas Apartments it went without saying that we were always met with a smile and chat by the family members . The local version of Horiatiki Salata (Greek Salad) took some beating – feta was replaced with soft tangy local goats cheese, adding in fresh capers and herbs in abundance.  In Chora we sampled both of the side-by-side restaurants near the square; To Steki tou Garmpi and  Klimataria on alternate evenings, enjoying the simple menu and daily specials of goat in lemon sauce, garlicky tzatziki and homemade meatballs.

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Walks were our primary distraction and motive for the trip – highlights of the week were hiking up to Chora and Kastro to Moni Zoodohou Pigi, along some of the best preserved cobbled moni paths (donkey paths ) I’ve seen. The the paths are signposted and mapped with numbered routes thanks to brilliant work of the paths of culture project ran by  Elliniki Etairia– Society for the Environment & Cultural Heritage. This group have worked tirelessly to preserve, map and promote the excellent range of routes across many of the smaller Islands.

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The expansion of  the island’s road network from a single tarmac road from the port to Chorio only happened recently and grew to a few more uneven roads out to Ag Georgios, the Winery and the ruins of Episkopi temple. All are worth visiting, but a car isn’t necessary if you’re prepared to use the very efficient and friendly bus service (up and back to Kastro/Chora every hour). The network of paths cross the island and in a matter of minutes you can leave the villages behind and be on your own, listening to nothing but goat bells and dogs barking. It all evokes an overwhelming sense of barren beauty, only the small churches dotting the hillsides to punctuate the view.

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We enjoyed several afternoons at Dhialiskari beach – where the church of Agios Nikolaos sits – it’s a well signposted 30 min walk. Its an unspoilt bay with jsuy umbrella shades and no facilities – perfect for diving off the rocks and snorkelling. The island also has beaches at Ag Georgios that you can reach by a regular boat service from the port.

When out walking you’ll notice is the imposing landscape, terraced ledges with stone walls for cultivating grapes and olives at dizzying heights. The island was once known as Oinoe (Island of Wine)  in ancient times and famous for grape growing across the region and beyond – we enjoyed plenty of decent wine and pleased to see the revival of the tradition with the opening of the Manalis Winery which we didn’t have time to visit but it’s definitely on the list for next time. After 7 magical days I was sad to say Andio!

The only downside to Sikinos was its tendency to suffer from the Meltemi wind in August and September. This is the prevailing north wind that blows through the Cyclades island in Summer – this wasn’t an alien concept to us, we’ve experienced it in the islands before where it had a much needed marvellous cooling effect. But in Sikinos it seemed to take on a new form – once the sun set, the wind howled through and became cold and damp, whipping through the streets in Chora and the sensible travellers among us were prepared with a fleece jacket. I however, only had a cardigan! Brr!

That’s the surprising thing with Sikinos – it draws you in;  you have to make the effort on the ferry to get there (at best 2 hours to Santorini -at worst 6 hours from Athens). It’s not the immediate breathtaking beauty that starry neighbours Folegandros and Santorini might have, but it welcomes you, encourages you to slow down, bathe in its peaceful glory and forget the world.

 

Patmos in Bloom

It’s been a magical week in Patmos. We’ve experienced the warmest hospitality, discovered Easter traditions, walked for miles surrounded by wild lavender on the trails.

I even managed to visit a garden centre in Kambos. Everywhere we looked were beautiful gardens, full of lillies, petunias, beaurganvilla and hippeastratum in blooms. I bought some aubergine seeds from a lovely English lady who married a local and now runs a florist and plant shop in Skala. It’s an island full of garden plots and vegetable growers. I’ll be back Patmos.

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Inspired Greek Cuisine from the islands

As a committed Grecophile and taverna cuisine aficionado – ha! who am I kidding! In all reality I love Greek cooking, it has a basic premise that is heartfelt seasonal simplicity and I love cooking up a storm (translate = chaos!) in the kitchen. This weekend I had a friend over for dinner so decided to get stuck in and prepare a meze menu for sharing.

I read through Belinda Harley’s ‘Roast Lamb in the Olive Groves‘ for inspiration . I have struggled to find many Greek cookbooks – so let me know if you come across any treasures. It’s a very skilful modern take on some of the wonderful and traditional recipes she found during her time spent on Paxos. The island is a true jewel in the Ionian sea – we visited Paxos a couple of years ago and had enjoyed two weeks of pure bliss, walking, swimming in deserted beaches and enjoying some of the finest local cuisine. The island is a treasure – recommended to me by my parents who have only visited it in 1976, it was their first taste of what turned into a long term love for Greece. I have inherited their adoration of helios and retsina, and convinced myself in the 30 odd intervening years Paxos had changed only a little, with just the modern conveniences of wifi and imported gin as the real markers of time. But I do want to get round to writing a longer post on Paxos as it is a small island that deserves a full exploration. Watch this space

But in terms of my menu plan, the island inspired me to cook Spanakopita – a deliciously buttery feta and spinach pie.

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Spanakopita

Using Harley’s recipe for a colourful panzarosalata (beetoot salad with radish and feta) with it’s peppery taste to liven up the palate and offer a colourful visual for the meal. In my humble opinion any Greek menu is incomplete without a good basic tzatziki, served with bread and olives drizzled with lemon oil and thyme.

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almost ready – midia saganaki
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My love of olives

To add a little texture and taste I cooked midia saganaki – which is mussels in a winey tomato sauce, with an added shot of ouzo, sprinkled with herbs and feta. It’s a perfect sharing dish with the sauce just crying out for soaking up with bread.

I also grilled some simple pork kebabs seasoned with herbs and lemon,  a Greek salad – drizzled generously with wine vinegar and topped with feta. There is a love of cheese throughout this menu, so I went all out and grilled halloumi to serve drizzled in honey and sesame seeds.

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Just like a taverna

All served with a bottle of Retsina salvaged from Sainsbury’s and chilled to perfection. It may have been February in Kent, but we all agreed it was a Greek summer in our bellies…