Schinousa Yellow Split-Peas

Schinousa is a 9.5-m2 island in the “Little Cyclades”, home to 200 permanent residents, most of whom are engaged in farming, fishing, livestock and tourism. Ten of the residents cultivate the Schinousa fava bean, a type of yellow split pea found only on the island. (The Greek fava is almost always mistranslated on menus and food sites with the similar-sounding English term fava bean; the latter, however, is in fact only another name for the thumbnail-sized green broad bean). It’s traditionally boiled with onion, the deep cornmeal gold of the legume turning a creamy pale yellow as it thickens into a velvety puree, which is then served dressed with a generous amount of olive oil and sprinkled with capers and finely sliced onion.

Schinousa-fava

Until recently, the only way to taste this remarkably flavorful legume was to travel to the island itself, a reward in itself, of course, the ultimate chill-out island, with pristine beaches fronting bays of translucent turquoise waters and a charming hilltop village that seems to have emerged untouched from the 1950s.

I tasted my first Schinousa fava, however, on another island in the Cyclades archipelago, Sifnos,  at the Tselementia, an annual three-day festival of Aegean island cooking named after the early 20th-century Sifnos-born chef and author of the first comprehensive cookbook in Greek, Nikolaos Tselementes. There in the small flagstone-paved square of the village of Artemonas, one of the most beautiful traditional settlements in the Aegean, representatives from a dozen and a half islands man kiosks where they offer visitors tidbits of local delicacies and take turns ascending a wooden platform at the end of the square to give cooking demonstrations of their island’s dishes. At the Schinousa kiosk, a trio of islanders, all sporting identical bright blue t-shirts emblazoned with the name of their homeland, were serving guests thin rounds of bread topped with a puree of their fava. The nutty puree was delicious, with its undertones of chestnut and black pepper. Who’d have thought a legume could taste this good?

Later that evening I met Manolis Koveos, the farmer whose beans I had sampled. He’s a handsome, dark-haired young man with a winning smile and a deep sense of responsibility for the legacy he had been entrusted with. The seeds he sows have been handed down from his grandfather, as one might a family heirloom. (I am told that fava has been cultivated on the island for the last 250 years.). His contagious enthusiasm for his product and his island is evident as he describes how the seeds are sown and harvested. He tells me that no more than half the seeds at hand are sown in December, the rest saved in case the harvest fails. “The seeds can’t be found in the market,” he explains. The plants are cultivated without the use of fertilizers and pesticides—“only what nature provides,” Koveos says. The peas are harvested in June in the early morning hours and by hand as the plants, he explains, are too delicate for machines.

Machines there are, however. In an admirable case of community solidarity, he and other farmers got together to bring sorting and packaging machines to the island. Koveos’ split-peas are cleverly packaged in a minimalist brown-paper bag or, for smaller packages, in a clear bag slipped into a burlap-like diaper that recalls the sacks that corner grocery stores in earlier decades used to keep legumes and rice (traditionally these items were sold loose in bulk).

I bought packages for friends in Athens, but I hope the Schinousa fava finds the broader audience it deserves and that its more famous cousin—the Santorini fava—has acquired. For the time being, Koveos travels to food fairs across the country to promote and sell his product, winning prizes for his fava along the way. He has plans, however, to begin distributing his split peas to select delicatessens and food stores in Athens. I can’t wait.

Anassa’s Organic Herbal Teas

When I opened my first tin of Anassa’s “Pure Defense” herbal tea, I wasn’t sure whether I should prepare a cup of tea or set the herbs out in a glass bowl on the living room end-table, as one might potpourri. The mix of water mint, rosehip and dittany had a surprisingly brilliant color and fragrance.

Anassa Herbal Tea

There must be something in the way that they are dried that preserves their essential oils, color and fragrance, and I suspect (though I am no chemist), their antioxidants as well. The herbs for Anassa’s line of whole-leaf loose teas are picked and cleaned by hand. Though the herbs are certified to be organically cultivated, the firm carries out its own analyses. Samples are sent to labs at the Benaki Phytopathological Institute for quality tests. Co-founder Afroditi Florou notes: “Despite the extra cost, we want to be sure of the quality of the herbs and that none has a trace of agrochemicals.”

Florou started the firm with Yanna Matthaiou in 2012. Both had successful careers as marketing executives in the financial sector, where they first met. In an interview with Katerina Bakogianni for Kathimerini, Florou was asked why they chose to start a business on their own, and indeed in the food sector. Florou said they wanted to do something they could be proud of, and they wanted a product with the scent of Greece. They have every reason to be proud: four of their products won a “Great Taste Award” in London last year.

Matthaiou and Florou started out with their own capital, no state subsidies, and limited production. Their first point of sale was a kiosk in an upscale shopping mall in the northern suburbs of Athens. Now their teas are to be found on the shelves of select supermarkets in England, Denmark, France, Italy and Belgium. In 2014, the firm was one of four to be honored with the Hellenic Entrepreneurship Award.

With the funding, mentoring and business support that come with the award and the experience garnered over the last two years, Anassa is looking to expand. Plans include the creation of its own production unit and entry into additional markets abroad. Florou notes, though, that further development is constrained, at least for the time being, by the relative scarcity of high-quality, organically cultivated—and 100% Greek—herbs.

Aromatic and medicinal herbs figure in both Greek mythology and the writings of ancient botanists, pharmacologists and physician-philosophers, such as Hippocrates, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, whose encyclopedic compendium of medicinal plants remained a standard reference work until the 19th century. It is fitting then that Anassa’s packaging concept, designed by MNP Design, pairs each tea with the playful iconic depiction of a figure from Greek mythology: Talos, a bronze giant who circled the island of Crete daily to safeguard it from incursions of pirates and foreign invaders, is featured on the “Pure Defence” tea, and Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, on the “Pure Peace” blend of chamomile, lavender, tisane and lemon balm. The Temeussian fox adorns the tin for the mint tea, the Athenian owl, the mountain tea.

The tin comes with accessories to prepare the tea without the need for a strainer or teapot—chlorine-free, biodegradable filters, with which you fill with tea and then thread through a thin wooden stick, creating a kind of tea bag: the stick rests on the lip of the cup while the suspended filter is immersed in the water. Not quite the Japanese tea ceremony, but a ritual nonetheless, not to mention a convenience at the office.The packaging design won a gold prize in the 2014 European Design Awards.

Anassa is a model of entrepreneurial talent, commitment to quality, and strong branding that showcases Greece at its finest. The tea is a pleasure in itself.

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In writing this post, I’ve drawn on interviews that Matthaiou and Florou have given to Myrsini Tsadarou in lifo and Katerina Bakogianni in Kathemerini (both in Greek). There’s also a corporate video, captioned in English, which is worth viewing. The beautifully designed Anassa website also deserves browsing, not only for the product details but also for its gorgeous photos of the teas.

Sardines in Extra-Virgin Olive Oil from Th!nkgreen

With a range of a few quality products, anchored in tradition but produced with a commitment to environmental responsibility, Th!inkgreen is another example of a successful, young Greek firm that has found its way into markets beyond the borders of the country.

Thinkgreen_sardines

Founded in 2003, the ISO- and Bio Hellas-certified company focuses on organic products associated with the traditional Greek diet such as extra-virgin olive oil and blackhead Throumba olives, and canned fish; along with smoked yellow-fin tuna and anchovies in cold-pressed olive oil, Th!nkgreen also produces canned sardines.

Whether fresh or preserved in salt, brine or olive oil, sardines have formed part of the Mediterranean diet since antiquity. For centuries the humble pilchard was a cheap and relatively abundant source of protein. While it remains a great nutritional deal, stocks are at risk because of poor fishery management and overfishing. It’s not because of the sardine’s popularity, at least not directly. The vast majority of the world’s catch winds up as fish meal for animal feed or aquaculture. A staggering 80% – 90% of the landings of pelagic forage fish such as sardines and anchovies goes into fish meal. Of this about two-thirds is used to feed farmed fish. Most of us eat our sardines in food like chicken and farmed salmon.

The Marine Conservation Society has classified the European pilchard within a range of “mostly sustainable” to “under pressure”. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommends that sardines caught in the Mediterranean generally be avoided. Although there is some evidence to suggest a slight recovery in the sardine stock in the Aegean, it makes sense to reap the benefits of this heart-healthy fish from products of companies committed to sustainable fishing.

Th!nkgreen is one of those firms. The company was the first in Greece to receive Friend of the Earth (FOE) certification for sustainable agriculture and is involved in projects to improve the sustainability of fishing and to designate zones of sustainable fishing in the Northern Aegean. Its yellow-fin tuna already comes from certified sustainable fisheries.

As you may know, sardines are a nutritional powerhouse, rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, selenium and calcium. Just 90 grams of this wonder fish provides over 300% of the daily recommended allowance of vitamin B12. Since it’s low on the food chain—the fish feeds on zooplankton—the sardine is also low in the toxic organic compound of mercury, methylmercury, which bioaccumulates in larger fish higher up the chain. To get an idea of how much lower, consider that gram for gram, swordfish have 75 times the amount of mercury that is found in sardines; even the staple canned albacore tuna has 35 times the mercury in the sardine.

What a shame, then, that one of the most inexpensive marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids often comes packed in a bland unnamed vegetable oil. Th!nkgreen, however, preserves their North Aegean sardines in organic, heart-healthy extra-virgin olive oil. I found the fish had a firm flesh and was less salty and a bit more fragrant of the sea than others. A good choice for a mezes, simply dressed with a little lemon juice and sprinkling of parsley, or tossed with pasta in a sauce of lightly sauteed grape tomatoes, capers, and a bit of garlic.

Ideally I should have tasted the fish without the influence of politics—or design (for which I have a particular weakness). Eschewing the retro aesthetic that seems de riguer for such traditional products as anchovies and sardines, Th!nkgreen has opted for a strikingly minimalist packaging that substitutes a palette of dark blue and deep orange (and a few fish) for the green in its name. It’s a bold but fitting choice for a company that is trying to make a difference, and not only in its balance sheet.

Lasagna Chips (Marcitos) from Chiotiko Kellari

These addictively delicious chips from the island of Chios are the Greek answer to the nacho. The marcitos are made from cut sheets of wheat-and-potato lasagne, flavored with things like spinach and dill, rocket or paprika, and fried in olive oil. The lightly salted chips are a bit thicker than a nacho and are sturdy enough to hold up to a dip of fava beans or chunky aubergine salad. Interestingly enough, they bear, if in description only, an uncanny resemblance to what is described in a 1st century CE recipe for lagana: sheets of dough made of wheat flour that is flavored, not with rocket but with lettuce (juice), and, once spiced, fried in oil.

Marcitos — lasagna chips from Chiotiko Kellari (the Chios Pantry), photo from enet.gr

No chip is particularly healthful food, but for a chip, the marcitos, which is preservative- and additive-free, does very well, thanks to the olive oil (50 grams comes in with only 1.2g of saturated fat). Though there’s clearly a market for an alternative, natural-ingredient Greek “nacho”, the chips haven’t been discovered yet to the degree they deserve to be. The distribution network for this hand-manufactured product, produced by the Hiotiko Kellari (the Chios Pantry), is still quite small. But I expect that will change soon.

The Kellari was created by Nikos Konstantoulakis in Vessa, his birthplace and one of the mastikohoria in Chios, a complex of largely medieval villages renowned for the production of mastic, the aromatic resin from the tree of the same name that was known in antiquity as a chewing gum and is now used to flavor pastries, liqueurs, traditional Easter egg-breads and the renowned Greek ice cream kaimaki. Konstantoulakis left the village as a young man, traversing a professional arc that included a cook’s apprenticeship at sea, years of experience working with Athens hotels and caterers, and a stint at a small Corinth factory that produced pasta, before returning to Chios in 1999 to work, again as a chef, at various hotels on the island. In 2009 in a landmark building in his home village, he opened the Hiotiko Kellari, where he turned out and sold artisanal pasta that drew on traditional ingredients but in a decidedly original way: chick-pea or carob or whole-wheat flour could serve as a base for casarecce (striftari) or tagliatelle flavored with nettles or tender artichoke leaves or rocket.

The subsequent success of the Kellari reads like an entrepreneurial fairy tale. Konstantoulakis sends samples of his products to a widely read food journalist, who encourages him to move ahead with his plans to expand distribution of his products beyond the island. His products are gradually placed in a few of the city’s gourmet delicatessens and begin to receive some good press. The big break comes when one of the food emporiums, the Mediterranean Food Shop (To Παντοπωλείον της Μεσογειακής Διατροφής), organizes a live cook-in with a well-known Athens chef, who makes a dish with his carob-flour pasta. More write-ups and awards followed, including a listing in the highly esteemed annual “Gourmet Awards” put out by an Athens food magazine. And then the lasagne chips came out, once again to general acclaim. The rest isn’t exactly history—but it may be soon.

I am indebted to Elina Giannalopoulou’s article in the Ethnos for information on the history of the Chiotiko Kellari. 

Ourania Mouseti’s Fig Honey

Fig syrup or συκόμελο (miele di ficchi in Italian) is a product waiting in the wings to be discovered. It’s got a lot going for it. It’s as pure and natural as products get—just figs and water. The syrupy nectar is not honey at all, but rather the reduction of the liquid in which figs have been boiled. The raw material—the figs cultivated in the Taxiarchis area of the island of Northern Evia—are of high quality (the region’s dried figs have been recognized as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product by the EU). And it’s mythically delicious.

Ourania Mouseti's fig honey
Ourania Mouseti’s fig honey

Fig honey is still very much an artisanal product in Greece, put out, as far as I could discover, by only one local micro-producer, Ourania Mouseti (though obviously households through rural Greece make their own fig honey). Although the product could probably benefit from the kind of award-winning food-packaging design done by such Greek firms as Red Dot, mousegraphics and K2, there’s an element of charm in the fact that the fig honey is hand-bottled and sealed with a wax-coated cork, and the label for the expiration date is filled out by hand. But I’m not sure how well that can scale.

It’s not likely to make it to the big-time gastronomic Broadway that Greek feta, yoghurt and (to a lesser extent) olive oil have managed to break into, but the product has potential. Granted, it’s very much a niche product, but the niche is already there: cooks both professional and amateur, food enthusiasts, and health-conscious consumers on the lookout for natural sweeteners, the same people who drove the market for things like balsamic vinegar glaze and grape-must syrup. This honey-like concentrated essence of figs has numerous applications in the kitchen—in vinaigrettes, barbecue sauces and marinades, or a glaze for roast meats or a topping for custards, yoghurt and ice cream, drizzled over ricotta or used as a finishing element for sauces and an ingredient in cookies (as is the case in Italy).

And this market is still relatively competitor-free. Although fig syrup from Provence and Italy is available in delicatessens and online, in the great majority of cases the product has such added ingredients as sugar, spices and other flavoring. That said, there are a number of Italian firms that produce true fig honey. But why not a land like Greece that’s renowned for its figs? Unfortunately, Mouseti’s fig honey still has a very limited production run and a tiny distribution market. I managed to find mine at the Mediterranean Food Store (Το Παντοπωλείο της Μεσογειακής Διατροφής, Sofokleous 1, 210 3628738) but nowhere else in Athens.

I can only conjecture why this is so. Private venture capital in Greece is tight, and official state incentives even more so. Credit for investments from Greek banks has all but dried up, though this may change in the near future if the recapitalization of Greek banks proceeds as hoped. Another reason may be the actual return on investment. It takes a lot of figs to make this syrup (count on at least 1.5k of fruit for 220 g. of syrup), and it simply may not make sense to expand production for the honey when better margins are to be made in dried figs, jams, and fig paste. Though with the appropriate marketing and packaging, the product could command a price high enough for the producer to recover costs and earn a modest profit. After all, this fig honey is pure ambrosia, and who wouldn’t pay a bit extra for the food of gods!

Lake Kerkini Buffalo Meat

It sounds almost too good to be true. Entrepreneurial vision, community action, and enlightened policy measures at the national and European level all come together to promote the sustainable utilization of a rare habitat and an endangered species.

The endangered species begins to recover and is once again bred and raised for milk and meat. The free-range grass-grazing animals, for all intents and purposes organically raised, yield meat rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and with more protein but with 50% less cholesterol and an eighth of the saturated fat of beef. Demand far outstrips supply. Agro-tourism in the region begins to gain momentum, creating new jobs, along with those of the mostly young livestock breeders, some of whom used to farm tobacco. Idyllic, don’t you think?

Boras Buffalo Meat
Boras buffalo meat, here as a kind of smoked ham-steak

The animal is the water buffalo. The habitat is Lake Kerkini in the prefecture of Serres in Northern Greece (though the buffalo is raised elsewhere in Greece, including the Nestor delta). This lake began as an artificial reservoir on the site of an extensive marshland. It was later redeveloped and the 110m2 wetlands area, now protected part of the Natura 2000 network and protected by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, has become one of the most important birding sites in Greece.  It is also home to over 2500 water buffalos, a noteworthy population when one considers that the entire population of the species in all of Greece in 1984 was just under 400 animals.

In the early 1950s Northern Greece alone was home to over 70,000 water buffaloes. Their numbers begin to diminish rapidly with the import of enhanced cattle stock, the contraction of the buffalo habitat as the wetlands were dredged, and the loss of almost half the agricultural population between 1961 and 1991 as farmers abandoned the countryside to move to the cities or emigrate abroad.

It’s not exactly clear when and how the turnaround started. The buffalo ranchers were undoubtedly helped when the European Commission granted the buffalo the status of a livestock animal in 1997, a decision that made breeders eligible for EU agricultural subsidies. According to one account, EU MP Mihalis Papagiannakis played a decisive role in securing this recognition. Another factor was likely the establishment of a buffalo ranchers collective that would advocate for the adoption of common production and hygienic standards and lobby for the interests of its members.

In another story, Zelios Boras, a butcher in Livadia, Serres, hung a sign outside his shop in 1999 saying “Buffalo meat for sale”, only to garner the scorn of his fellow butchers and many of the local residents, and perhaps rightly so, given the variation in hygienic standards in the processing and storage of buffalo meat at the time. Undeterred, Boras launched a buffalo kavourmas, a cumin-scented confit of cured buffalo meat (along the lines of the more widely known pork version and a distant cousin of the pastourmas).  This kavourmas was later presented at the Agrotica 2004 trade fair to favorable reviews. At the same time, consumer interest in leaner, free-range, antiobiotic-free meats grew, a godsend to the buffalo ranchers, whose animals spent their lives grazing on grass in the wetlands of Serres. Bournas’ buffalo meat, and that of other producers, such as the Hasapiko, began to garner awards at gourmet food expositions, whether in the form of kavourmas or sausages or fresh meat.

Supply is still limited and, unless you happen to be in Serres, for the time being available only in selected delicatessens in Athens and Thessaloniki. Admittedly it’s more expensive than corn-fed, antibiotic-pumped feedlot beef—and given its low fat content, somewhat trickier to cook—but it’s a flavorsome and healthy addition to the larder.

Trikalinos Grey Mullet Bottarga

In her gorgeous monograph The Fragile Feast – Routes to Ferran Adrià, artist and photographer Hannah Collins provides a visual narrative of 30 ingredients from the kitchen of the renowned chef and visionary exponent of molecular gastronomy, detailing their passage from source to table. Among the foodstuffs whose story she tells are anemones from Cádiz, Pyrenees pines, Ecuadorean rose petals and… the Trikalinos bottarga, salted cured grey mullet roe from Messalongi, the princely (if in price and not origin) avgotaraho Messalongi.

Trikalinos cured grey mullet roe (avgotaraho), packaging by Office Communication Consultants

Although sometimes referred to as “poor man’s caviar”, bottarga, available online at $125 for a half-pound stick, is anything but a peasant food these days. That said, this salty and umami-dense delicacy, like caviar, calls for the simplest preparation: thinly sliced onto toast or flatbread, or shaved over pasta, trahanas or eggs.

For the preparation of bottarga, the roe sacks are removed from the mullet, washed, and salted with natural sea salt. The salted sacks are set into casts and air-dried, and then hand-dipped into melted beeswax; the layers of wax prevent oxidation and preserve the nutritional value of the roe, including heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Although avgotaracho has traditionally been a heavily salted product, the Trikalinos bottarga has a salt content of less than 2%, enabling it to be happily paired not only with the customary tripouro or ouzo but also with single-malt whiskeys.

Trikalinos has nothing to do, of course, with the town in northwest Thessaly of the same name, since the avgotaracho is made from mullet caught in the Messolongi-Etoliko Lagoons, one of the most important lagoon complexes in the Mediterranean and part of the Natura 2000 network, but rather with the family name of the three brothers who founded the company in 1856. Under its current owner, Zafiris Trikalinos, the company made a daring move in 1997 when it opened a new production facility in Athens. On the one hand, the new premises, the first such ISO-certified facilities for bottarga production, enabled the firm to continue using traditional production techniques in the context of strenuous quality control and food safety standards. On the other hand, the move also deprived the company of the right to use the EU Protected Designation of Origin label—avgotaracho Messolongiou is one of only 7 foodstuffs in the category of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans to be awarded this label—since PDO status is reserved for agricultural products which are traditionally produced and processed and prepared entirely in a given geographical area. However, this has not proved an obstacle to the product’s acquiring a number of international endorsements, including placement with Fauchon and Petrossian, a Sial Paris distinction, a series of Athens Gourmet Awards and a Pentaward packaging design award (if only more Greek firms were aware of the importance of design and graphic identity in promoting their products abroad).

Trikalinos also produces a fleur de sel, a premium natural marine salt from the Etoliko – Messolongi lagoon prepared using traditional harvesting methods in Greece, as well as marinated anchovy and sardine fillets.

For more information on the preparation of bottarga see Diana Farr Louis’s interesting piece for the Athens News on Fishing for Delicacies in Messolonghi