Mykonos is an island with two identities: the summer, frenzied Mykonos, a mecca of cosmopolitan tourism, and its winter heart. It is in this latter, unvisited island that the locals reclaim their traditions.
For all its contradictions, the island’s core spirit remains surprisingly intact and nowhere is this more evident than in a thriving local cuisine based on the simplest ingredients — fish, barley rusks (twice-baked hard tack), onions, wild savory, goat’s milk — and on the humble pig, whose winter slaughter, called hoirosfagia in Greek, is still reason for a feast.
Despite the island’s present worldliness, its cooking mirrors the era long before the tourist invasion that began in the early 1960s, when Mykonos became the charming, undiscovered, windmill-studded summer camp of the uber rich. The island’s traditional cuisine remained steadfast, one of utter paucity, similar to the delicious, if poor, cuisines of other bone-dry islands in the Cyclades. Onions become the stuff of a grand savory pie, in a crust made crisp with lard. Wild greens find their way into fritters, as they do all over the Aegean; in Mykonos, a greens and tarama (fish roe) fritter is a specialty during Lent.
Like almost all Greek islands, fish has always played an important part in the Mykonos diet. The most common fish are red mullet (barbouni), which are pan-fried with tomatoes or with tomatoes and capers in a classic Cyclades dish; and skate, which is fried and served with the garlic-potato puree skordalia. Fried octopus tentacles are a much-savored meze (small plate) too.
Dairy has always been an important component to an otherwise meager diet. Simple goat’s milk cheeses are part of the Mykonos larder. The peppery kopanisti, which has gained culinary fame, is fermented in clay jugs over several months until the appropriate bacteria propagate and give it its characteristic bite. A treat that belies the “healthy” image of the Greek-Mediterranean diet is sunny-side-up eggs cooked in lera, the cream skimmed off the top of fresh milk. Tyrovolia, a soft fresh cheese, gives substance to the onion pie mentioned earlier, as well as to melopita, a sweet cheese pie. Another specialty, xinotyri, or sour cheese, is made by fermenting and straining buttermilk.
All over the Cyclades, marzipan-like confections called amygdalota are traditional sweets and they’re de riguer at weddings. These are usually made with blanched almonds; in Mykonos, the almonds are toasted and the amygdalota are shaped like little bells, crunchy on the outside and damp and soft in the middle.
But on an island so representative of summer in the world’s eye, the one event that has shaped the table more than any other is the winter pork slaughter. This custom is still much anticipated by the 11,000 or so permanent residents (4,000 of whom are foreigners), after all the Mykonos tourists go home.
The great, humble pig
The pork slaughter, like so much involved in island cooking, is a lesson in the economy of agrarian cooks, even those whose land is much more valuable these days as real estate than as farming ground. The slaughter takes place at local village homes anytime between Dec. 6, the feast day of Saint Nicholas, and Jan. 20, the feast day of Saint Anthony according to the Greek Orthodox calendar. The array of specialties that result are enjoyed all year round.
Hogs have historically been a main source of protein in Mykonos, and pork’s history here is expressed in a litany of local specialties: the louza, a salted, pressed, air-dried and smoked loin that was introduced by the Venetians, who ruled here between the 15th and 17th centuries; savory-flavored sausages for which the island is famous; and head cheese, called pichti.
After the slaughter, the fresh meat is ground by hand and made into meatballs. The knuckles, all the way up to the knee joint, are stewed with wild greens, and the liver is cooked with cabbage or onions. Even the pig’s lungs, delicious by local accounts (I’ve never tried them) find a place, stewed with whole small onions in a classic dish known as stifado. Chops, or paidia, are smoked near the fireplace. All are enjoyed with gusto along with plenty of the year’s new wine.
A generation or two ago, pig lard was also of utmost importance, providing a main source of fat for a barren island with only a few olive trees. The lard also served as a natural preservative in which hunks of pork were kept all winter long. Bread smothered with lard and sprinkled with sugar brings back fond memories to many Aegean islanders.
Many of these products are not the exclusive domain of local denizens. Louza, the sausages and kopanisti can all be found widely in Mykonos and in supermarkets in Athens. Visitors to the island might also run across the traditional barley rusk, or mostra, which was originally a unit of weight. These are served for breakfast, a light lunch and a healthy snack, and traditionally were the hard tack that fishermen took with them on long journeys because they keep well. Restaurants have revived their use, and one local specialty calls for making a bread salad by topping the rusks with chopped tomatoes, olive oil and a bit of peppery kopanisti. With a few substitutes, this is an easy dish to replicate even in an American kitchen.
Mykonos remains a place of gustatory contradictions, where in a single day you can have sushi at Nobu and spread a bit of fermented cheese, as ancient a preparation as any, on delicious, nutty mostra. But the island’s cuisine is richest at its most elemental, when locally grown produce, farm-raised livestock and fish from the surrounding sea are prepared traditionally, a celebration of the rich complexity of flavors born of simple ingredients on a barren isle.
(Mykonos Style Garlic Spaghetti With Ground Rusks)
From my book “Aegean Cuisine” (KETA Publishers, 2008)
Serves 4 to 6
food processor until finely chopped
In a large skillet over low heat, warm half the olive oil and add the garlic. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until soft. Be careful not to burn. Add the tomatoes to the skillet and raise the heat to medium. Cook until most of the tomato juices have evaporated, about 10 to 12 minutes. Add salt, pepper and sugar.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and cook the spaghetti to al dente. Drain and toss with remaining olive oil.
Add the spaghetti to the sauce and toss to combine. Cook for a minute and then spread on a large family style platter. Sprinkle the rusk crumbs and parsley and serve immediately.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photo: Mykonos-style garlic spaghetti with ground rusks. Credit: Vassilis Stenos