When I travel I can’t imagine just lounging around, which is one of the reasons agritourism has such appeal. You have your own agenda, but you’re also part of something larger, namely a farm whose foods you will experience at dinner each night. And if eco-tourism is what lures you to a spot, you will have the opportunity to learn about the food of an area, or its flora, history, language, customs, ecosystem. Such active study engenders a visit with purpose, whether you’re staying on a funky farm or an elegant old mansion. But a 5-star resort? What might it offer along such lines? Thread count isn’t something that matters a great deal to me, but I’m open to being exposed to something new and good. In this case it was Costa Navarino, in the Peloponnese region of Greece.
A resort that taps into local culture
Costa Navarino is in Messinia, the part of Greece that is green and lush. The beautiful resort (run by Westin) is situated at the edge of the Ionian sea, and the area is free of shops proffering Chanel and St. John. Started and owned by a local family, Costa Navarino is one of those seamless, large, well-appointed hotels in which you are well fed and lavishly cared for. Follow the signs to the beach and soon you’re standing on the sand or (swimming) in the sea. If you know where to look, you can see the ruins of a Venetian palace. The palace of Nestor is not far away, either, and while the location adds up to something exceptional, there’s more, for this is a resort that strides two worlds, that of hospitality and that which has to do with the preservation of the traditional life of Messinia and the protection of its exceptional landscape.
This part of the Peloponnese is an agriculturally rich area, but poor, and Messinians have long had to leave their homeland to find their fortunes elsewhere in the world. One man who left, Capt. Vassilis C. Constantakopoulos, vowed that he would make his fortune, return to Messinia and build something that would allow others to come home. Over a period of 20 years, he and his family created this resort that not only employs hundreds of Messininans, many who have finally been able to return to the area from afar, but is extremely sensitive to its environment and produces some very good food, starting with olive oil.
Olive oil, honey and sweets
When the hotel built a reservoir a few miles away, more than 7,500 olive trees were transplanted to Costa Navarino. The robust and spicy Koroneiki olive oil that is produced from these trees is used in the resort’s restaurants. (It is also available from Dean & DeLuca.) This olive oil is but one of about 25 foods produced, used and sold at Costa Navarino. Local artisans, working in small batches, also produce the irresistible olive oil biscuits (laid by your pillow instead of chocolates), the intense honey and sesame sweets called pastelli, an unusual, complex vinegar, wild sage tea, plump Kalamata olives simmered in a red wine syrup, preserved wild figs, seasonal spoon sweets (a small jar greets you when you arrive at your room), sea salt, and other choice foods including thyme honey embedded with a chunk of honeycomb. These, and other traditional foods, can be enjoyed at breakfast with or in lieu of the enormous spread of international delicacies. On my recent fall visit to Costa Navarino, I watched one husband and wife team make the honey-sesame pastelli, another couple, with their young daughter, make the olive oil biscuits, and three women fashion extraordinarily elaborate wedding breads.
There are a number of cuisines represented in the resort’s many restaurants, including Italian and Japanese, but Greek food dominates. A particularly interesting concept is expressed in the Omega restaurant, which offers modern dishes based on an ideal proportion of omega 3s and 6s. Instead of some vague international hotel style, the food at Costa Navarino echoes the high quality of the local products and the distinctive flavors of the area’s cuisine. Generous platters of vegetables (some vegetables are grown in the hotel’s gardens) fooled us at each meal, for my friends and I ate them as if they were dinner, forgetting to allow room for the octopus stew, the roasted pork shoulder, grilled grouper and wild greens, or the lamb dish to follow. After all, it was impossible to resist the silky puree of yellow peas studded with capers, platters of grilled eggplant, peppers and zucchini as sensual as they were simple, or the vivid salads that were nothing like what passes for “Greek salad” at home. Greek varietal wines were poured. I’m especially fond of these wines that, not surprisingly, are so right with the flavors of the vegetables, herbs and the olive oil.
“As comfortable and delicious as everything was at Costa Navarino, who wants to stay in a resort when the surrounding area is so beautiful? An enormous lagoon offers refuge to birds during their migrations, among them, flamingos. There are hikes to take, golf, if you play, the sea to swim in, or pools. Kalamata (which has a great vegetable market) is a 45-minute drive away, and the charming village of Pylos is even closer. The resort will guide you to places to eat other than its own good restaurants. One, high above Pylos, was simply a house, the house, in fact, where the chef was born. While we gazed over the hills to the Ionian Sea he prepared a braised rooster dish with handmade noodles, among other delicacies. You can also end up in a small house where two local women will cook a very traditional meal and give those who yearn to try a hand at rolling phyllo dough, which is tricky but actually possible. If you’re one who has wondered about those Greek pies that combine sweet and savory flavors, like squash, sugar and leeks, this little house is where you can experience such dishes.
All the designed elements of the resort, from the buildings to the gardens the uniforms, to pillows and chandeliers were created in Greece. The tins for the oil are made in Greece. In fact, Greece has been the source of the physical manifestation of Costa Navarino, from the modern architecture to traditional stone walls built by local Messinians. Outsourcing has not figured here nor has it been necessary to create a place of beauty, plus jobs have remained in Greece, a lesson from which we could learn. So in the end Costa Navarino ends up being an interesting mix of tourism, environmental sensitivity blended with the goal of benefiting local people and keeping the area’s food and building traditions alive. The success of the resort is shared. In nearby small towns, tavernas and cafes that were once dead are now bustling. Life has returned. Still, the area is rural, the roads are small.
An American friend who lives elsewhere in Greece scoffed when I told her about Costa Navarino, projecting an over-populated tourist belt that would destroy the ambiance of this area. I hope that doesn’t happen. Rather I hope that Costa Navarino can become a model for others, for resorts will continue to be built. Certainly, if all resorts were created with the same goals in mind — to benefit locals in a meaningful way, to exist intelligently within an environment that it strives to protect, to encourage the production and use of traditional food — it would be a different and richer and more delicious world. Of course Greece has its financial nightmares right now, as do many other countries, including ours. But if you’re in want of sun and sea, good olive oil and gracious hospitality, you might lend a hand to this beautiful country while enjoying the pleasures it has to offer.
Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author many books on food and cooking, including “The Greens Cookbook” and “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers Markets.” Her latest book is “Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.”
Photo: A view of the Costa Navarino resort. Credit: Deborah Madison