Take me to Lesvos!

10 November 2022

The ones who know me, know that I do not prepare much for my trips, I leave myself to discovery and surprise, to the magic of the unknown, especially when travelling to a new destination. It is very usual that the new impressions are so vivid and full of layers that I stay captivated for long after – a reason to put down and seal some moments and precious experiences, from the place, its energy, and people. Similar is with Lesvos – Mytilene, the gulfs of Gera and Kalloni, the Museum of the Petrified Forest, the very special sardines called papalinas, the emblematic ouzo from Plomari, the breath-taking sunsets in Sigri and the magical dancing. They all deserve to be part of a story well told.

The island of Lesvos is wrapped in uniqueness, and this feeling started flowing from the very morning I stood at the entrance of the hotel, overlooking the harbor of Mytilene, while the sea breeze and perfumes started overflowing my whole being. A city so picturesque and reminiscent of a post card, abundant in colors, shapes, architectural styles, and the captivating energy of the Aegean Sea and sun. There is not such a sensation of happiness while walking along the harbor, having a sip after sip of cappuccino with a bite of freshly baked simit, sprinkled with lots of sesame. Happiness started from here and lasted for a whole week, rich in multiple experiences each single day.

The invitation from Respond on Demand (focused on developing tourism & travel gastronomy) to join the 1st International olive conference on the island of Lesvos – Elia Lesvos Confest, as a speaker, was thrilling, especially when talking about Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) as a local gastronomic and cultural heritage. Indeed, I was not born by olive groves and under the Mediterranean sun, yet my heart has always felt exactly like that, culminating in changing completely my professional and life path in 2018, and dedicating it to growing the EVOO and food culture through the power of education.

Our dear hosts and local community from the Cultural Association Elaias Nisos Lesvos organized the most enriching 3-day program with 44 guest speakers from around the scientific, health, gastronomic and olive world. Complementary, we experienced the island through the eyes of the locals, which I always accept as a very precious gift. A conference to remember and a host to remember! Fotini Tirpiniri, the engine of this multifaceted event, invigorated each day with her vision and devotion to the topic of high quality EVOO, with grace, modesty, passion and determination. Starting at 9 in the morning and going to rest at 2 in the morning (on the other day though) is something to keep in one’s memory! In mine for sure! 

It is far-reaching to look at the content flow of those 3 inspiring days of dialogue, unparalleled as scope and contribution for the extended olive community. To me this event was a signature of hope for more joined and meaningful efforts to spread awareness about how unique and beneficial EVOO is – called elixir of life not by chance. Day 1 –  dedicated to EVOO and health & nutrition, with the participation of renown professors from the University of Athens, the University of Peloponnese, the Yale School of Public Health, as well as the Temple University; Olive oil & technology, where the importance of EVOO quality was on absolute focus; Day 2 – dedicated to Olive oil & the Environment with much attention to agricultural & sustainability practices, to innovation; Gastronomy, marketing, branding as a vehicle to promote high quality EVOO; Day 3 – dedicated to tourism & Olive oil as a lived experience, where the experience of olive native and non-native enthusiasts/ travelers and educators was shared (a detailed program is attached for reference and inspiration).

 

What stays memorable throughout all the conference days are two flavor experiential landmarks – the EVOO tasting sessions run by my friends and olive colleagues Anita Zachou (founder of Mykonos Olive Oil Tasting) and Manolis Salivaras (organizer of Berlin Global Olive Oil Awards). We tasted more than 10 local olive oil brands and the very distinct Lesvian cultivars – kolovi and adramytini. I treasured this live experience telling a lot about the flavor characteristics of the varieties, as well as the different styles of EVOO crafting – early (Sept-Oct) vs. classical harvests (Nov-Dec). I couldn’t help remembering the flavor sensation of red forest fruit, and more specifically of blackberries, which reveal to the palate when tasting later kolovi harvests, which perfectly suit the preparation of desserts.

The second landmark was the food prepared by the Women cooperative of Parakila, for our coffee breaks and lunches – so simple and so special, rich in the natural tastes and aromas of EVOO. I loved all the interpretations of pitas and couldn’t help keeping the kremidopita (onion pita) on my palate and mind, along with the platseda sweet with walnuts, sesame seeds and spices. The koulourakia (biscuits) – savoury with olive paste and herbs, together with the sweet ones with melting sugar and cinnamon on the tongue, are ones to remember! The ladies were so nice to share these so precious koulourakia recipes to prepare them back home in Sofia – I promise I will for Christmas! The paximadakia (barley rusks) with green olives jam were sensational in flavor and simplicity. Once again, I was enchanted by the Mediterranean diet – it’s diversity and flavor richness, and much more by the hospitality and kindness of the local people – a common feature of the Mediterranean and island culture, however here on Lesvos it felt so very special!

The ones who know me better, know that local flavors totally fascinate me, and this is what happened on the island of Lesvos, plus a few non-food impressions, which have nestled persistently, for a love affair to last forever! Therefore, let me tell you about a key impression for each of the seven days:                                     Day 1 – traditional dancing at Molyvos – we travelled to the farthest point on the north-west of the island for a traditional dinner in a tavern by the see. There, I first tasted the very special sardines of Kalloni Gulf (a protected reserve, known for its rich biodiversity, flora, fauna and natural salt harvesting), called papalinas, on the grill and exceptional – so delicate and fine as flavors and textures. Still, the most impactful and beautiful impression was once the troupe of the Cultural Association of Traditional Dances “Molyvos” appeared in front of us – with their exquisite costumes and harmonious movements on the vivid rhythms of the very traditional island music. I admit I have never seen this kind of dancing on such a magical music, one definitely needs to have it as a live experience!

Day 2 – Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest in Sigri – I started realizing the meaning behind this rare museum on the way from Mytilene to Sigri, situated on the volcanic land on the west side of the island. The scenery changed drastically from luscious green pine forests (the island is called the emerald island) to rocky empty landscapes with very scarce vegetation, which graciously accepts the life force of the Aegean sun setting on the west. Once in the park of the museum, the excavated millions of years old forest trunks were very imposing – keeping the structure of the wood, yet completely having mineralized and with the colors of the specific minerals they had been in contact with. This spot on the island is a must visit and see – to hear about the dynamics of the volcanic activity 20 million years ago, and the following transformations – from tropical forests to scarce landscapes. In fact, the whole island is a geopark due to its multiple changing scenery and very rich biodiversity, with many bird species choosing it as a permanent or temporary home. 

Day 3 – Vranas Olive Press Museum – the day was very abundant in impressions and changing distinct pictures – the discussion panels during the conference, the performance of the children’ group of the Aiossos Dancing & Music School, playing fantastically the very local musical instrument called santouri, the emotional dance of Antonis Tirpintiris on the stage of the Mytilene theatre (and later in the tavern together with the dancers from the Cultural Association “Arion” Music & Dancing), the moving speech of the organizers at the closing ceremony of the conference. One could not possibly imagine that there could be more. And there was much more! As a culmination of our 3-day olive gathering, bringing us all closer around our shared EVOO missions. Symbolically, and to commemorate the importance of the bridge between traditions and innovation in olive oil making, we visited the Vranas Museum, and the experience was fully worth it – seeing a well-preserved stone mill, steam engines which replaced the domestic animals (horse & donkey) in the milling process, and a collection of beautiful old photos featuring olive pickers and tools to collect the harvest.

Day 4 – Sigri Ol’Eve olive mill, which was our last destination for the day, and a spot I had on my must-visit list when arriving on the island. The day however unfolded spontaneously and in a different way – visiting two monasteries enlivening the healing and protecting energies of St. Michael and St. Raphael; tasting the most delicious loucoumades with honey and walnuts (small doughnuts fried in EVOO) served with eliniko sketo (Greek coffee without sugar); driving with my new friend Eleni (a young producer of high quality and distinctive EVOO from Corfu island) to Sigri and passing through Vatousha village famous with its tsoureki and baklava with almonds, honey, butter and EVOO;  through Antissa village known for the flavourful and rich Ladotyri of Lesvos/Mytilene (a regional cheese kept in EVOO, with PDO and one of the finest Greek cheeses).

Sigri olive mill was another world and an excellent example how traditional agriculture (preserving the natural eco systems with regenerative practices for the land and trees) and innovative hi-tech extraction technology meet in harmony. I was both amazed and humbled, full of respect for the owners and their team living the philosophy of tradition and innovation. We tasted the new oil crafted from predominantly green olives, both unfiltered and filtered (the final stage of a continuous production process) from the kalamon and kolovi varieties, also arbequina, the 3 among the 12 cultivars grown and thriving well on the lands of the farm. This 1st tasting has nothing to compare with as an experience – the flavor sensations of the purest olive juice are so lively, chlorophyl green, even slightly astringent on the palate – just fascinating, and certainly carrying the typical notes of each specific variety.

Nonfiltered vs. filtered (the usual debate in the olive oil world each harvest) – there is not a discussion at all in Sigri. Filtered! As it preserves the oil qualities lively and eliminates any consequent fermentation due to remaining olive paste particles and molecules of vegetable water. No debate. Just fresh homemade bread generously dipped into the fresh oil and sprinkled with wild oregano. As simple and delicious as that!

 

Day 5 – the olive groves of Ol’Eve estate & sunset in the wind. This day was so emblematic, starting with a long home-made breakfast at villa Faros with a variety of fruits from the land – the sweetest last figs, full of ripe juices pomegranates, surprising Chinese dates, several kinds of table grapes, apples and pears, last fragrant melon, and rich-tasting freshly boiled eggs from the hens of the farm. A walk in the groves, to explore the land with centenary adramytini trees, and the new ones with 8, 5 and less than a year-old trees. 

One needs to feel the wind on the face, standing on the top of a volcanic hill, full of newly planted trees on meticulously made terraces, and overlooking the Aegean Sea down in the plain. It’s a life-affirming experience! Manifesting that human and Nature could co-exist in harmony and in a balanced give and take relationship, envisioning the future. We witnessed the harvesting in some of the groves where, once again with traditional agriculture, lots of hand work is involved. 

The afternoon extended to veggies and olive picking in the garden and a 10 km walk in the land of the estate with secluded calm beaches, exquisite sea daffodils, fragrant kritama (sea fennel/ blue samphire) tasting the salt of the sea, powerful winds, and the most breath-taking fire-like sunset in the sea. I felt so much alive and grateful to be in Sigri at that very specific moment, with those kind and beautiful people, new friends, and family from foreign lands.

Day 6 – sunbathing on sea weeds at the end of September. If there is something to vividly remember on this day, it is my 2-hour sunbathing on the nearby beach, on a comfortable bed of seaweed under the caressing noon-time sunrays. One could not wish for more – a very kind sea and caressing sunrays after the stormy winds of the previous day. A bliss, a blessing at the end of September, and a fish soup after to remember! Flavored with the last garden veggies of the summer and some nutritious fresh purslane, which paired fantastically the fish bouillon. 

It is curious to mention that the seaweed, which my feet and body praised a lot for its beneficial care, is a key ingredient of the compost nurtured at the farm, for enriching the sandy and volcanic soils. It takes about 10 months for the compost (consisting of seaweed, olive leaves and pits, manure, etc.) to transform into nutritious concentrated soil. One of the many impressive milestones of how to maintain a natural eco system on the farm.

Day 7 – taking back home the book “The Olive on Lesvos” & some precious bottles of new oil. I am lucky to hold this book in my hands, rich in stories and information about the olive tree and its life on the island of Lesvos, about the centuries long culture around its cultivation – a fulfilling life for most of the people living on the island. The book is like a kind witness that all that I saw and lived during these 7 days is real and exists. One just needs to take the plane or boat and go to see and experience it!   

With this, much gratitude, many smiles, and the last Aegean gracious sun rays of September, I am saying goodbye to season 2022 and looking forward to 2023, to add some new vibrant experiences on my personal Lesvos map. 

Check the full program of the conference here!