Before my first trip to Greece this summer to visit some of the mainland’s most ambitious wineries (which I’ll be writing about separately), I’d been told that often the best Greek food is found in people’s homes. I concur. Our little group ate colorfully and well in the few tavernas we visited, but we were treated to three exceptional meals by the women of the wine estates: Sonia Gerovassiliou of Domaine Gerovassiliou, Stella Katsaros of Domaine Katsaros and Vasso Parparoussis of Domaine Parparoussis in Patras.
I got a taste of what was to come by visiting the historic food market in the center of Thessaloniki with Rosemary Barron, the leading expert on Greek food and author of “Flavors of Greece,” who has run several cooking schools in Greece. The abundance and range of fresh ingredients was inspiring. “Sadly, this fabulous market, which is like a village within the city, is being threatened by the ‘convenience’ of modern supermarkets,” she says. “It would be tragic to lose such a rich tradition of food.” The vast covered market, with its narrow lanes of shops, cafes and stalls, occupies several blocks at the city’s heart and is a must for anyone interested in the culinary cultures of the Mediterranean.
Domaine Gerovassiliou is 30 minutes from Thessaloniki in the gentle hills above the sea. Sonia Gerovassiliou is an elegant hostess whose modern style is tangible in everything she does — from the flowers she picks for her table settings to the clear flavor of her food. Her light dinner, held on the winery terrace overlooking the vineyards, was a perfect introduction to the Greek summer palette.
“We love to begin with salads and vegetable dishes in summer,” she says, “along with softened feta cheese lifted by spicy pale green chili peppers, or baked black olives. Our produce is so fresh it can stand alone and marries well with our style of crisp, clean wines.” I was particularly seduced by a darker-toned dish of octopus stewed with eggplant, a recipe of Sonia’s mother that offered a primordial variation on the theme of pairing land with sea.
A huge dentex, a deep-sea fish, followed, grilled on the open barbecue and accompanied by a “sauce” of olive oil and lemon juice for those in need of condiment. (Personally, I’ve learned from the Italians to keep lemon and fish away from each other, to enjoy my seafood unveiled by that acidity).
Dessert was both airy and liquid: Sonia’s loucoumades – fried dough balls topped with honey and sprinkled with chopped walnuts – were a triumph of lightness and sensuality, and married well with her husband’s late-harvest wine. Made with Malagousia grapes left to ripen until raisinous on the plant, it had aged for four years in small barrels.
Two days later we climbed the winding road to Domaine Katsaros on Mount Olympus for what proved to be a fascinating tasting and lunch with the family. Stella Katsaros, helped by a woman from the village, spent two days preparing the meal. A kindergarten teacher by profession, Stella is also the author of three cookbooks.
Our mid-morning snack could have been a lunch in itself and set the tone for the beautifully prepared food here. Tiropita, a tender yet complex cheese pie, was made with several Greek cheeses folded into the creamy filling and layers of hand-made phyllo. Hortopita, another pie, featured cheese too, blended with chard and five kinds of wild herbs. The filling twisted inside layers of the crackly phyllo. It took Stella three hours to make the pastry for those two pies.
When, after our visit to the vineyards, we sat down for lunch, we were treated to a lesson in classical Greek cuisine at its best. Stella’s rice and meat-filled dolmades had been rolled into the vine leaves just minutes before being cooked and were clean-tasting and minty. They were paired on the plate with large chunks of small zucchini cooked with feta, served piping hot. “These vegetables are from our garden, and the secret is to boil the zucchini briefly before sauteeing them with cheese and parsley,” she explains.
The Katsaros moussaka was an archetype, its top custard cloud browned to gold, giving way to the bite of ground meat and the soft warmth of long slices of eggplant, shiny skins left on. It was followed by stewed free-range organic veal served with slim, thin-skinned pale green peppers whose fine bitterness made the meat even sweeter. Dessert was a visual play on the moussaka: galatopita is another custard-topped gratin, sweetened with fresh milk curd underpinned by walnuts halves and silky crisp pastry.
Our final winery meal was held at Patras, at the home of Athanassios and Vasso Parparoussis. “My mother Vasso is an experienced forager who scoures the hills and fields for wild foods,” says the charming young Eriphili, daughter of the house and an enologist in her own right. The family’s home is near the coast and surrounded by a large, exotic garden of sweet-scented flowers and a menagerie of courtyard animals. For our midsummer night’s dinner staged in the darkened garden under giant cactus bushes and a 400 year-old Greek-plane tree, Vasso prepared a clutch of unusual and well-defined dishes to begin the meal.
We started at 11 p.m. with small savory phyllo tarts filled with subtle egg custard and the bitter hearts of wild artichokes the size of thumb-nails that left no doubt of that plant’s thistly provenance. Wafer-thin Parmesan crisps were topped with spindly wild asparagus that Vasso had picked in the hedgerows: bitter, intense and good. Baby eggplant in large chunks was soft, smoked and earthy, topped purely with parsley, and a memorable salad of purslane, avocado and lightly pickled capers shifted the tone with its higher, tangy notes. The Mediterranean was present, too, in raw, blue-red baby tuna slices and a salty salad of seaweed.
It was after midnight when the main courses were served: whole, tiny quail stuffed with grapes and pine nuts, rolled and baked in vine leaves, followed by kid roasted slowly with potatoes and mountain marjoram whose fauve flavors accentuated those of the mountain goat. What could round off such a tour de force? A giant baba cake accented with wild-bramble jam, and diamonds of lightly spiced baklava, all hand-made in the Parparoussis’ colorful kitchen. What a meal! It was a fitting accompaniment to the estate’s unique wines, made with native grapes, and an unforgettable finale to this gastronomic week of feasts.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Photo: Vasso Parparoussis’ baba with blackberry jam. Photo Credit: Carla Capalbo
Slideshow: Carla Capalbo