A Greek feast: breaking bread on the island of Chios

Culture, Economy, Environment

Our eyes meet momentarily as Simos pauses for a rest by the cast-iron stove. He seems content, but then the sun shines through the citrus trees and dapples his velvety grey face. He lets out a disgruntled meow and saunters outside into the shade. The family’s sleepy British Shorthair seems done with the day.

My day, however, is just beginning. It’s 11am in the sleepy village of Kampos, on the island of Chios, and I’m starting to feel hungry. At present, I’m the only guest at Perleas Mansion, a 17th-century property on the wider Perleas Estate that’s been a guest house since 1992. And today, lunch is being prepared in the kitchen of the private quarters, which is separate from the main building and looks out onto 17 acres of citrus trees.

Our chef is the mansion’s owner, 57-year-old Vangelis Xydas, who’s just returned from the supermarket with a promising looking bag of ingredients. He puts on Kosmos Radio, which instantly fills the room with the joyful plinks of the bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument, and gets to work. Vangelis’s kitchen is small and traditional in its design — the large stones making up the walls are exposed, the ceiling hangs low with mahogany beams. It’s furnished with vintage cabinets, chairs and tables that Vangelis himself has restored in his workshop in the next room, while all around is a haphazard array of copper pans, old-fashioned cooking scales and countless bottles and jars of wine, olive oil, pickles and herbs.

For lunch we’ll be eating psari plaki, which is fish — in this case cod — cooked in the oven plaki-style, meaning layered with oil and vegetables. It’s a dish traditionally eaten on 25 March, a national holiday in Greece that marks both the Greek War of Independence and Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. Only, it’s actually the 24th today  — and, seeing as I’ve a flight to catch in the morning, we’re celebrating this special day a little early.

As Vangelis busies himself, I relax in the company of Roula Boura, a family friend, and her nine-year-old twins, Giorgis and Marianna. Roula’s husband, Vassilis Ballas, will be joining us for lunch later in the afternoon, along with Eirini Mitsi, a tour guide and family friend. With seven hungry mouths to feed, Vangelis is also making a second cod dish, based on one of his mother’s recipes. It requires the fish to be cooked on the stove rather than in the oven, and includes white beet leaves, an ingredient that traditionally only Chians from the Kampos area throw in.

Roula is originally from Athens. In 2006, she and her husband Vassilis quit their IT jobs in the capital and moved to Chios to become mastiha producers. Mastiha, or mastic gum, is very much the island’s speciality. The versatile resin is cultivated throughout the south of Chios and has been used for centuries to make everything from sweets and alcohol to cosmetics and furniture. 

Swapping IT for mastiha feels like quite a leap of faith to me, but Roula certainly doesn’t seem to regret coming to Chios. And, though she lives nearby in Chios Town, she speaks warmly of Kampos. “You won’t find anywhere like it in all of Greece,” she says. “It has a different energy, a different smell, a different atmosphere,” she says. “It’s a secret, and it likes it that way.”

Of the 50,000 people who inhabit the island of Chios, around 3,000 live in Kampos. The land around the village was one of the first places on the island to be cultivated, and today it’s a labyrinth of citrus orchards and iron-gated 14th-century mansions built by the wealthy Genoans who occupied the area from the 14th to the 16th century. 

Its pathways, scattered with fallen oranges and lemons, are fringed by high, reddish stone walls built to protect the land and its produce from pirates. But there’s no sign of pirates these days — in fact, when I’d gone for walk earlier in the day, the only sign of human life I’d spotted was a heavily moustachioed Chian who whizzed past on his beat-up Vespa, clutching fresh bread under one arm and steering with the other, a half-smoked cigarette clinging for dear life to his upper lip.

Back in the kitchen, Vangelis explains that tomorrow also happens to be his name day — a Greek Orthodox tradition whereby nearly every day of the year a different saint is celebrated, along with all those who share his or her name. ‘Vangelis’ is short for ‘Evangelos’, although he urges me to call him Uncle Vangelis, as I remind him of his niece. For the psari plaki, he slices the potatoes and places them into a baking dish, followed by onion, tomato, garlic, olive oil and water. As he reaches for the dried oregano that hangs above the stove, Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock comes on the radio, prompting him to do a little jig. 

I ask him what kind of food he loved to eat growing up. “Saligaria,” he replies, pausing to scratch his beard, while trying to think of the word in English. He means snails. “My father and I would go and collect them after it rained,” he explains. “And then my mum would cook them.” Roula chips in: “When you grow up in an area like this, you don’t go to the supermarket to buy snails and wild mussels and things like that. You just collect them from the fields.”

Although the cuisine of Chios feels Greek, there are plenty of dishes and ingredients that are distinct to the island — these include mastelo, a chewy cow’s-milk cheese that’s perfect for frying; masourakia, a thin pastry made with almonds and mastiha; and, of course, mastiha itself, which is widely used in Chian cuisine. 

While Roula and I discuss the importance of mastiha production to the island, Vangelis puts the baking dish in the oven. He’ll add in the sauce and cod a little later, but for now, it’s time to focus on his mother’s stove-cooked version. For this, he fires up the cast-iron stove with planks of wood, then throws chopped carrots and onions into a large pan of olive oil.

Then, abruptly, he disappears, emerging a few minutes later with a giant steel bowl full of fresh, wild white beet leaves from the garden, where he also grows aubergines, tomatoes and cucumbers. Under the watchful eye of her mother Roula, Marianna helps stir the beet and grated tomato into the pan, creating a giant cloud of steam that threatens to engulf her. Vangelis leans in to smell the pan and shakes his head in dismay. It’s not quite right, he says, adding a touch of cumin, which seems to do the trick. He then transfers everything into a much larger pot with potatoes inside and lets it cook, with the cod to be added in later. 

The smell of sizzling onions, garlic and carrots fills the air, mixed with fleeting wafts of citrus every time somebody opens the back door. With the vegetables cooking merrily away, Vangelis joins us at the kitchen table for an espresso. Conversation drifts from today’s meal to general gossip; what’s-her-name’s daughter is back from Athens for the bank holiday, so-and-so’s son decided not to come back after all. Marianna is on Roula’s lap, hugging her mother, while Giorgis is in the main house playing on his iPad. 

As he takes his last sip of coffee, it suddenly dawns on Vangelis that he hasn’t bought enough fish for the weekend — and must do so before everything closes. “Páme!” he shouts, meaning ‘let’s go!’, as he whips off his apron and dashes outside. I follow him and jump into the passenger seat of his white pickup truck.  

We chug along the path through the orange grove towards the fish market just down the road. There aren’t many food markets in Chios — most ingredients are either bought from supermarkets or grown in people’s back gardens. We reach the tiny roadside fish market, where we pick up a handful of red mullet from the friendly fishmonger and zoom back to the mansion. I wind down the window and try to catch a whiff of the citrus trees. 

“Just you wait; in a few months, when spring has fully kicked in, the smell is unbelievable,” Vangelis says. “I still can’t believe it, even after 57 years of living here.” In addition to owning the Perleas Mansion, Vangelis runs the nearby Citrus Museum, which he launched in 2008. He also makes his own marmalade and essential oil.

Back at Perleas, we walk through the stony courtyard and into the main guest house, where we find Giorgis and Marianna dutifully laying the table of the elaborately decorated dining room — think marionettes hanging from its ceiling, French exhibition posters from the 1990s on the walls, and sapphire-blue cabinets stocked with floral teapots and crystal sugar bowls. Minutes later, Vassilis and Eirini arrive and everyone immediately helps to bring out the food: the two cod dishes, a basket of bread, roasted cauliflower, a chickpea salad with dill, bell peppers and chopped-up sardines, a plate of homemade pickles and finally some French fries, mainly for the twins. 

Vangelis pulls up a chair at the head of the table and pours the adults a glass of Ariousia Chora, a dry white wine made on the island. We toast with a collective “Yamas!” before tucking in. For the next few minutes, the table is an entanglement of arms passing plates and bowls from one end to the other. I scoop two large spoonfuls of the psari plaki onto my plate, along with some salad and a piece of bread before furtively taking more than my share of Vangelis’s homemade pickles. For the next half hour or so, the conversation, in Greek and English, veers from subject to subject, from the pandemic to why Vangelis isn’t entirely happy with his fish. 

“Eh,” he says, adding a resounding ‘tut’. “I’ve tasted better… My mother’s!”

“Typical Greek son!”, Eirini replies, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. 

Eirini was born and raised on Chios, and as a local tour guide, knows plenty about the island. “The best thing about this place is the people,” she says, affectionately putting her hand on my shoulder. “They appreciate life, and they don’t want to change”. She tells me that Chios has little appetite for mass tourism, despite being Greece’s fifth-largest island.

(nationalgeographic.co.uk – F. Zeynalova)