Pelion & magic

Each trip is like a magic box ~ you open it and a marvel happens! At least with me it works like that and I’m new after each journey. Enriched, inspired, full of happiness and with wings widely open. I’ve noticed that especially in the last 3-4 years when my personal/professional transformation has been on its way, I intuitively choose multidimensional trips.  Journeys that open new paths of experiences and knowledge and bring new encounters with precious people and soulmates as to life’s values and what’s daring in it. I love going to the sea and mountain, to unknown villages and towns, to olive groves full of blossoming thyme and singing cicadas, to explore and meet flavours and people that stay in my thoughts and heart. For long and often forever.

These last spring months have been different, kind of capsulated and focused, looking deeper into the self, transforming though challenging. I imagine for each one of us in a very personal way. For me indeed I had some moments of emotional peaks and valleys, of popping-up questions and of shadowing fears. A beautiful bouquet of everything that I have received and contemplated on with gratitude. At some point in time I left myself to the natural flow of things and to some dreaming. It’s unavoidable to dream whatever happens in life and out of our control. I simply can’t stop it, dreams come and come. My dearest tangible dream was to spend one month away from the city life and fuss, by the Mediterranean sea, in the fields abundant of olive trees, wild flowers and herbs and to feel with my whole being and senses the scents and perfumes of Nature. Its music and natural flow. To be somewhere both far and close, vivid and raw, somewhere unknown, and activate the flow of renewal and happiness. 

I’ve told you before about the encounters that look like as if happening by chance, yet in reality not. People that cross our paths and enrich them in their own way. And come back after to share moments together. I was in Thessaloniki last October, honoured to be a speaker at #FoodTrex2019, organised by the World Food Travel Association. Sharing thoughts and vision about the importance of local food (my passion along with EVOO) ~ both for developing sustainable local communities and for bringing excitement and novelty for the travellers. There I met Eleni, a journalist, with a culinary TV show, and food and olive oil interests that we both share. Her heritage is from Pelion (Πηλιο) and right on 29th of June, after some scarce advise, my Greek journey began. Arriving in probably the southest point of the peninsula, with a breathtaking blue of the sea and after a 7.5 hour drive from Sofia.

Volos – Platanias is around 75 km and it seemed like double along this beautiful picturesque mountain road, like a serpentine dense in lively surprising curves. Demanding fully my focused attention. The first impressions of the area were very vivid and even my little tiredness could not blur them. It was this feeling of brightness and abundance, of everything ~ vigorous layers of green, all shades of blue, beautiful majestic platanus trees, neat stone houses with elegant chimneys, and yards full of blossoming flowers and ripe summer tomatoes. Lots of blooming fragrant jasmine everywhere. Clear sky and transparent air dense in sensual summer perfumes, and that vast vast sea, the Pagasetic gulf reaching far to the horizon and so so inviting. To step in and refresh the skin and mind. If possible, immediately ~ this is how I felt and by the way the same feeling persisted every time I was driving along this pretty winding road above the glittering waters.

Back then and passing by the full of life villages I had a pale impression of the local people. Only after a few days and interacting with the elderly couples sitting in their front yards or on the benches on the street, or with Haroula and her son Tomas giving a hand on any question in the village supermarket, I had this sense of community and togetherness. Us strangers, them locals and absolutely connected with a little friendly gesture, a smile, a happy wish «καλο μπανιο!», some laughing & “Greek like” speaking (on my side😊) that was making my morning happy and full ~ «Τι κανεις?» – «υπεροχα υπεροχα» was my answer. It was like that, I felt that in a way I belong there.

Platanias has circa 150 permanent inhabitants, a cute port with many fish boats and ships crossing the sea every day, terraced houses with luscious gardens full of lemon and fig trees, thousands of olive trees from the local variety Amfissis (Αμφισσις) all around the hills, a beautiful natural beach with pristine blue waters and refreshing natural shadow under olive trees, imposing rocks and a precious platanus tree spreading like a generous umbrella. Mellow and comforting sand, and round colourful stones inviting you persistently with their purity to just lay down after the refreshing «μπανιο» in the sea. Something I was doing delightfully after each bathing having the benefit of a tender rejuvenating natural massage. And an authentic jacuzzi between the rocks by the shore to activate the body energy in a pleasing yet sometimes rather intense way. Waves have been pretty rough at times, indeed. This I call naturality and purity at their best connecting you with the power of the sea! 

The village offers some tavernas, two supermarkets, two cafes, a bakery and basically that’s it ~ simplicity at its best and fully sufficient to live a happy village life😊also some local produce full of flavours from the gardens around.

I loved all the villages in Pelion and that sense of life, simple and very physical, connected to the roots and heritage, to the soil, water and all that Nature has to offer. We visited some beautiful old villages up in the mountain Milies (Μιλλιεσ), Visitsas (Βυζιτσας) and Pinakates (Πινακατες) abundant in fruit and chestnut trees, and so much fresh water all around captured in pretty fountains or streams to generously water the gardens. I was totally captivated by the cobbled marble paths, the imposing square with a prominent minimum one centenary even millennial platanus tree, the elegant marble fountains and the dearest hospitality of the local people. There is not a warmer feeling to get a jug of fresh spring water on your table when ordering my beloved Greek coffee «Ελληνικο μετριο» along with freshly baked biscuits with cinnamon and cloves. 

People there just do anything with the fruits of the land with their hands and heart ~ amazing thin pasta, fruit jams and pastils, delicious fresh bread, veggies preserves and this unique Gliko tou kotalyuo (Γλικο του κουταλιου) from young green walnuts, black cherries, the local miniature and fragrant apple variety Firiki (φιρικι) and all seasonal fruit available. I tasted very elegant “Sweet spoons” at the ladies cooperative Esperides (Εσπεριδες) in Visitsas who bake and boil something unique and delicious every single day. We had a nice chat over a big cooking pot with black cherries and from there I left with orange biscuits with cinnamon and olive oil and Firiki sweet spoon. They travelled all the way to Sofia😊

Baking is definitely an art in Greece and for me grown up on the Balkans and having travelled across the Balkan countries it is a ritual to taste local dough recipes. And draw a tasty line to our shared Ottoman heritage. Every time, regardless if in Bosna Herzegovina or North Macedonia or Turkey I find many similarities and an absolute local authenticity as to the structure of the dough and the specific flavours. So it happened in Pelion where I have two favourite bakeries standing out with their unique style, heritage and homemade deliciousness. One in Milies and the other one in Lafkos. At Fournos Korba (φουρνος Κορμπα) I indulged in the juiciest rich and flavourful pies. The thin dough phyllo layers are just to enrobe and give shape to the pie, remaining very discreet as a taste. What comes on stage is the flavour of the filling, the most delicious one I’ve ever tasted in my life ~ of red and yellow bell peppers with roasted onion, or of bouquet of wild greens with spices, cheese and onion. There I also tasted a tender fragrant pita bread topped with mature preserved olives and sweet onion slices. All with olive oil and delicate saltiness, very well balanced to help expressing the leading flavours of each dough creation.

In between Platanias and Argalasti is the picturesque village of Lafkos (Λαυκος). There I felt at home reminding me my summer vacations in my grandparents’ village Martinovo, in the mountains. Gardens full of blossoms, ripe fruit, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes, elderly ladies sweeping the front yard with their full focus, children laughing and flying on the streets, and elderly men chatting over a cup of Ελληνικο on the village square. It is curious that on that pretty square is located the most ancient café in Greece, dating back to 1785 and its owner proudly prepares the coffee himself along with showing us the old photos of his ancestors and magazine articles from around the world. He, the owner is very strict at closing at 12 noon, so for the spontaneous coffee drinkers it’s a little challenge to make it any time of the day. We made it and was a sweet experience.

Reflecting back, my #1 impression from Lafkos remains the beautiful charming bakery of Yannis and his family that is like a dream place to be ~ authentic old building supposed to be a railway station once upon a time, a hospitable bench at the front door inviting you to sit, indulge and chat with the neighbours, a stunning fire oven that bakes 200 breads at once and a warm staff that makes you feel at home. And you forget to leave😊There I tasted the unique traditional yellow bread with a special wheat flour from Lemnos island prepared with salt, water and olive oil. And with big heart and dedication in each single lot baked. I witnessed almost the whole process of the bread preparation and felt that blissful energy of the artisan man dedicated to his art, day after day. With a smile and generosity, one could only cherish and be grateful for.  

They make a variety of cheese and greens pies, rolled, layered, fluffy and tempting with the most amazing cheese from the nearby goat cheese maker ~ cottage, fresh salted and unsalted, feta. Also, many sweets ~ baklavas, Tsoureki (τσουρεκι), biscuits that go perfectly well with coffee or tempt you to prepare fragrant and delightful French toast at home. My love for bread could not resist taking a loaf back to Sofia when stopping by to say «Ευχαριστώ» and wish for a fruitful summer «καλο καλοκαιρι». And leave with the generosity of Yannis, his freshly baked pita with the richness of the goat cheese and a tsoureki. Also, with a bottle of their family olive oil from the area of Promiri in south Pelion. We laughed to my words that if staying for another month we would turn well rounded with all this inviting deliciousness. Happy, genuine, sincere moments that I appreciated so much, keeping a shining star in my thoughts forever!

It’s absolutely stunning how olive oil is an unconditional partner to all the food in the area. You taste the pie, pita or bread, the fried zucchini balls or the orange pie and you know that there is olive oil inside ~ the flavours are light, harmonious and so natural. Just born for each other! I loved the local olive variety Amfissis (Αμφισσις) with its vigour of green herbaceous, tomato and artichoke notes well balanced with a stimulating pungency. I had no expectations to what it has to offer ~ I tasted it first at Patistis family winery (Πατιστις), where along with the distinctive wines, the family makes early harvested extra virgin olive oil from their own centenary trees. The philosophy to make organic produce is deeply rooted in the agricultural and production practices ~ with all the necessary care and knowledge, and fully resonating with the flow of nature each single year. Although not a major focus for the business, olive oil is made with utmost attention and respect for the land and trees, acknowledging that this specific cultivar normally gives harvest every second year. 2020 is not the best year due to early heat followed by rains on the peninsula.

Passing by the winery on the way to Argalasti we decided to make a visit and Kostas (one of the two sons involved in the family wine making) was very hospitable to take us through a tasting session. You know my passion for local food, recipes and varieties, as well as for protecting biodiversity. A topic very dear to Patistis philosophy making it possible to taste the Greek grape varieties in organic and natural wines with their own unique style and reflecting the character of the land and its richness ~ Xinomavro (Ξινομαυρο), Rodithis (Ροδιτις), Limnio (Λιμνιο) and Assirtyko (Ασυρτικο). And yes, the land of the estate has this stunning view to the Pagasetic gulf and each piece of it is immaculately taken care of ~ each walnut tree or zucchini plant are where they need to be to absorb the sun and wind flows in the best possible way for their growth. What a bliss to walk in the neat full of life and ripening fruit vineyards, to smell the tomato leaf aromas and dream about a fresh tomato salad drizzled with some EVOO and seasoned with sea salt crystals and freshly chopped parsley. Dreams come true especially when you verbalise them😊I left with some fragrant ripe tomatoes along with some wine and olive oil to enjoy back at home in Sofia. And, indeed these were the most tasty, velvety and harmoniously sweet tomatoes for this summer and so far. 

I open a small bracket here to share a little about Centaurs and Pelion connection. I was curious to know about the story behind Patistis Centaur character looking at me from every bottle. Kosta started this intriguing story provoking me to immerse deeper and read more about these mythical creatures ~ one more magic and mysticism of Pelion energy. Legends tell that the horse-human beings (centaurs) inhabited the forests of mount Pelion. Nowadays people say that Pelion is one of the most beautiful and captivating mountains in Greece abundant in waters and luscious forestry ~ lots of millennial platanus trees and many chestnut, birch and oak trees. With fertile orchards heavy with ripening succulent fruit. Centaurs are said to have been born of the mythical Ixion and Nephele, while Chiron is considered as the superlative centaur, the wisest and justest among all the centaurs. A very special story, as special as the story and wines of Patistis family.

The snowball effect always happens in my trips, a nice and pleasant snowball though😊it is that magic chain effect when you meet wonderful people and ask them about food, places, stories, etc. to take you to other wonderful people, experiences and stories. And the journey gets expansive and magically enriching. So it happened with “O Kalogeros” (Ο’Καλογερος) on the main square of Argalasti village (Αργαλαστη) ~ a small family taverna where mama Nikoleta and her son Dimitris bring the traditional homemade flavours to the table, for their guests. It was the easiest thing Dimitris to take us to his mom in the kitchen of their centenary old beautiful house and tell us the menu for the day ~ about 10 dishes both vegetarian and with meat, prepared in the morning. Young green beans stew with herbs, flavourful stuffed bell peppers and tomatoes with rice and veggies (there was also an option with beef minced meat in white sauce), amazing Imambayaldi (long baked aubergines with veggies and olive oil), zucchini balls fried in olive oil, meatballs in red sauce, the traditional for Pelion stew Spetsofai (Σπετσοφαι), beef with potatoes,  Pastitsio (Παστιτσιο), etc. I need to admit I haven’t come across such home cooked deliciousness since last September in Crete, again in a village that moved me deeply back then (almost in the middle of nowhere as the city people usually say). To finish our lunch without something small and sweet was not an option and Dimitris surprised us with a Sweet spoon plate, the fruit unrecognizable even for a food enthusiast like me. I didn’t try to guess ~ the shape, colour and texture were not helping at all. It is impressive how each fruit and its peel is turned into a dessert, to utilize it fully and preserve the flavours for the off-season time. Finally, I tasted the most tender and special watermelon peel transformed into a delightful sweet treat. The specific about the Sweet spoon is preserving the fruit or peel intact and beautiful regardless of it being the Firiki whole apple, or kumquat fruit, or a lemon peel. Although one may argue how much sugar syrup is needed for this traditional technology, in reality you just need “a spoon” to sweeten your palate and soul. Not a surprise that “O Kalogeros” ranked #1 on my Pelion taverna places list ~ special, authentic, delicious ~ definitely one could not find anywhere else.

Talking about #1s it is the right moment to share more about my biggest Pelion love as far as local flavours are concerned ~ wild Kritama «Κριταμα». I tasted it blanched as a starter at the fish tavern Flisvos (Φλοισβος) in Katigiorgis (Κατηγιοργις) and enjoyed the salty citrus flavours reminiscent of the sea, something I have never tasted before. The names sea fennel and rock samphire suggest not only the rich flavours of the greens but also the natural places it inhabits. Soon after Katigiorgis, we met tete-a-tete on our beach rocks in Platanias, after my observing an elderly man with a plastic bag heading to this direction. He was obviously picking something and my curiosity took me there almost immediately. Kritama requires some physical efforts and climbing to get it as it grows on top of the rocks in the sea to accumulate all the sun and sea water energy in its thick elegant leaves. Real beauties, rich in salty flavours on the nose and tongue, notes of citrus, wild fennel and a pleasant crispiness giving a fresh sensation to the palate. I picked some handfuls and experimented with it fresh ~ as a salad with lemon-EVOO dressing, as well as to prepare an interpretation of the Greek yoghurt salad Tzatziki with marinated for a night Kritama instead of the cucumbers. It turned amazing and even for my Greek friends it was a novelty worth giving it a try. Sea fennel is a “super green” not just for its unique taste, but also for its health and nutrient properties. It is rich in vit. C, K, E, Iodine, carotenoids, flavonoids and Omega 3. Full of power of the natural antioxidants! It was the most logical thing to return home with a big jar of preserved Kritama, diligently and happily picked, washed, blanched and marinated by me, following the precise directions given by Kostas from Patistis winery who along with his engineer and agronomist education, is a professional chef as well.  

I already mentioned Flisvos in Katigiorgis, south Pelion, a fresh fish tavern located on a cute little bay, right by the sea where Dimos and his cousin arrange a table for you on the beach. The experience is both ordinary and extraordinary. The tavern is as any other tavern ~ simple and unpretentious, yet the feeling by the sea, its silence and beautiful sunset pink-grey shades, the fishing boats crossing the bay, the kids still bathing and playing by the shore at 9 p.m., gives you this special feeling of pure and genuine joy. Life couldn’t be more, truly. This is the place where I tasted the most delicious fish soup very generous in flavours ~ of the fresh fish fillet, veggies and fish stock. The enjoyment continued immersing after the red grilled fish Scorpina (Σκορπινα) and fried Barbouni, or the other speciality of the place ~ spaghetti with tomato-onion sauce and crayfish (Καραβίδες). Dimos and his cousin take care of couple of thousands of Amfissis olive trees and he proudly shared a bottle of their Early harvest to taste it and season our food. It was curios for me how local people involved in olive oil listen with interest to a foreigner talking professionally about the organoleptic characteristics and what’s essential when aiming for obtaining the best and highest category ~ extra virgin olive oil, and not just virgin (with some common defects usually linked to fermentation and oxidation, and sometimes to the milling process itself). I appreciated a lot sharing thoughts and experiences (in my case mostly linked with my extensive tasting record and broader knowledge of cultivars profiles and producers’ practices from other countries) and to listen about the native experiences of last 2019 harvest.

I am so impressed how the younger generation (in their 30-40s) in Greece leads the way in establishing “Early harvests” as a producing style that takes the best out of the goodness of the olive fruit ~ richer flavours and higher phenolic compounds levels. More aroma, taste and health in a bottle. I’ve came across this newer vision vs. the one of the elderly generation in Crete, Peloponnese, Khalkidhiki and now in Pelion! Indeed, the tasting experience of local Amfissis oils was green, fresh, delightfully pungent, reminding of tomato, pine nuts, rosemary and banana. Absolutely worth it to take back some bottles and share them with friends. And what a bliss to finish the fish soup with a drizzle of green freshness and give it an extra zest!

Another food place that took my mind away is “At Eleni’s” (Ταβερνα Ελενι), in south Pelion, on the road Afelianes-Kastri (Αφελιανες – Καστρι). The first impression when entering the taverna is the terrace nested among olive trees and overlooking the sea in the distance. A mini paradise garden immaculately taken care of ~ fragrant jasmine and lots of blossoming roses around the tables sitting under the shadow of four local grape varieties. It’s like taking your own time and making yourself a small gift, to indulge into the perfumes and food flavours, and celebrate the simplicity and marvel of life. I loved the taverna family concept ~ mama Eleni, her son George, daughter and grand daughter preparing and serving the food to the guests in the summer months. Compact menu of artisan local dishes prepared only with olive oil, among which baked feta with tomato jam, chicken with orange sauce and cous cous with aromatic spices, fresh seasonal veggies salad with a soft local cheese, home fried French fries going perfectly well with the signature beef meat balls. All dishes had something in common ~ elaborated simplicity, richness and depth of the flavours that reach all your senses not just the palate.

I’ve noticed in EVOO, also wine that the final product reflects to a great extent the owner and maker, as if their personal and life values as well as appreciation about flavours’ depth are embodied in the elixirs they craft. I felt the same way “At Eleni’s” as the richness of the food and its gradually evolving flavours were obviously reflecting the family creative and demanding spirit. A notion of surprise and perfection that I discovered also in the desserts. Aaahhh, the desserts. Certainly not the typical Greek taverna sweets that are simple, sometimes even a bit rough. Refined, multi-dimensional as flavours, intriguing as textures and flavour combinations. It was the most common thing to open a talk about the desserts and how in a taverna one could indulge into something so special ~ fine crust tart with a velvety tangerine mousse, panna cotta with a fragrant delicate peach puree, the traditional orange pie (Πορτοκαλοπιτα) with a completely different texture richness. I love orange pie and when in Greece I took the chance to taste it in any new place I go. Always. Here I was blown away, it was like a story telling and my imagination started running in blossoming luscious orange groves dense in scents. So, George who was nominated by us as the “dessert virtuoso” is the one responsible for these amazing and diverse desserts. His passion to create special and very balanced in sweetness and flavours sweet treats is unlimited. To give a new interpretation to famous chefs’ dessert recipes, to do them “his way” and thus very special. “At Eleni’s” was definitely “love from first sight” that will last for sure and anticipate my next visit to South Pelion.

What a sweet ending of my story about magical Pelion! I started off this journey knowing nothing, just the name of the village to stay. I returned expanded and leaving Platanias with this cosy feeling of people who share their warmth and friendliness with us wishing us „Καλο ταξιδι“ with the most genuine smile. Of a magnificent natural beauty, the one of the Pagasetic gulf starting from Volos and reaching to Trikeri and Agia Kyriaki (Αγια Κυριακη) that could not be depicted by any photo. Of the local recipes and flavours still alive and often with a novelty twist to resonate with life dynamics. Of the warm nights and the starry sky abundant in glitter. I came back new and different as it happens after each enriching trip in the Mediterranean. Full of happiness and gratitude that I live on the most beautiful planet and life is so generous. 

Some more places I would recommend:

~ gastronomic shop Olicatessen ~ with rich portfolio of artisan locally crafted Greek products, specializing in highest quality EVOO & honey ~ Victor Hugo 4 / Thessaloniki / 54625 (www.olicatessen.gr)

~ Χαρουπι restaurant (Xaroupi) ~ with authentic signature cuisine from Crete & a marvelous selection of Cretan wines (organic & natural wines as well) ~ Doxis 4/ Ladadika/ Thessaloniki/ 54625 (www.xaroupi.gr)

~ Μπράιτον Γαστρονομικό Μεζεδοπωλείο restaurant (Brighton Gastronomiko Mezedopoleio) ~ modern signature Greek cuisine ~ Krokiou 34/ Volos/ 38333

~ dairy/goat cheese farm~ fresh, cottage, feta, icecream ~ Λαυκος (Lafkos village), on the road itself, right side & 500m before entering the village, driving from Platanias