Get Me to the Greeks

Published in Gourmet Live 02.22.12
Diane Kochilas bypasses Athens for the island of Lesbos, which is known for many things, including exceptional spices, olive oil, and ouzo
Lesbos, Greece

Molyvos, in northern Lesbos, is one of Greece’s most scenic ports.

If Greece is a crossroads between East and West and old and new, Lesbos, Greece’s third-largest island, is a microcosm of these juxtapositions. This northeastern Aegean island may be known to some for its ancient resident poet Sappho and her odes to women, yet have you heard of its inviting towns, unspoiled shores, and luscious olive oils and ouzos?

Now that modern-day Greece’s economic woes have grabbed the headlines, rest assured that the islands still pulse to a timeless rhythm, far removed from the tumult of Athens. These days, the crisis has had an unexpected upside for travelers: Many hotels and restaurants have been forced to lower prices, a survival tactic that is working. Last year, Greece saw the most visitors ever, and people in the industry are expecting more of the same in 2012. The image problem belongs to Athens, and many visitors bypass the Greek capital completely, either flying by charter to specific destinations or connecting at the airport to get to the islands. Lesbos, for example, is especially accessible: less than an hour by air from Athens, with service several times daily.

Venture outside the handsome capital of Mytilene—with its pristine old mansions, many of which have been renovated as chic hotels—and the island morphs into deep country. It’s a landscape dotted with traditional villages, where farming, husbandry (mainly sheep and goats), fishing, olive oil production, and the distilling of Greece’s most renowned ouzos dominate. On the northern side of the island, Molyvos, an amphitheater-shaped fishing village, has been transformed into one of the most sophisticated and picturesque ports in all of Greece. Yachts bob along the quay and the homes have thus far defied economic distress to fetch seven figures in euros and dollars alike. Eressos, on the western coast, is said to be the birthplace of Sappho and a favorite vacation spot for gay women. Nearby is one of the island’s most visited attractions, a 20-million-year-old petrified forest.

Nature’s bounty, coupled with proximity to the shores of Anatolia, still shapes Lesbos’ unique culture. Until 1922, people traveled back and forth routinely between the island’s shores and Turkey. (Lesbos, like many Greek islands, was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1913.) In 1922, when the government of Turkey expelled a million Greeks, many settled in Lesbos. They brought their cuisine—perfumed with the seasonings of Asia Minor—with them.

A few years ago, I discovered The Notebook of Erato—a paean to the cuisine of the Greeks of Smyrna (today, Turkey’s Izmir). I pored over the book with a home cook on Lesbos, and we found in it a mirror of the island’s food—specifically, many dishes rooted in the rich, aromatic cooking of the Mikrasiates, or Asia Minor Greeks, including a wealth of eggplant recipes, rice studded with chestnuts and raisins, and cumin-scented meatball sausages, all still part of Lesbos’ culinary vernacular. Rice, such an Anatolian grain, figures prominently in many island dishes. One of my personal favorites is the sougania, an herb-and-rice-stuffed onion, made with an oblong variety that looks like a giant shallot.

The Liquid Gold of Lesbos

Lesbos is one of the greenest Greek islands and owes its lush landscape to the ancient olive tree. Almost 80 percent of its arable land is devoted to groves, and there is something akin to 126 trees for each of its almost 90,000 residents, or close to 11 million in total. Needless to say, with annual output at about 20,000 tons, it is one of the three most important areas for oil production in Greece. Unlike the sharp, peppery, and emerald-green oils of Crete and the Peloponnese, made almost entirely from the Koroneiki cultivar, Lesbos’ olive oil, produced almost exclusively from two local varieties, Kolovi and Adramytiani, is gold and its flavor more subtle and round.

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