Immortal Food in the Greek Islands

Text by Carlo Spinelli

Millennia have passed since the ancient Greeks savoured the Mediterranean diet in the Cyclades, living off their semi-wild flocks of sheep and goats, wine, bread and foraging the fruits of the earth. Now, on the islands of Tinos and Andros, more than two thousand years later, it all seems much the same: nothing artificial or adulterated, just natural foods like cynical Mother Earth taught us. 

Half man, half goat, Pan approaches the shepherd and offers him some wild artichoke, to eat raw with bread and the olive oil which has always abounded on the island of Tinos. On the other side, Dionysus and his maenads offer him raki, the pomace distillate as ancient as the vines themselves. Lastly, all around, the dryads, female deities who guard the woods near to the waters of the Aegean, revel and offer capers in oil, samphire, sun-dried tomatoes and lush slices of louza, Greek ham. It seems the type of rustic fairytale so well liked by classic scholars yearning for those times when the fauns and maids danced and ate among the nymphs, but it’s an experience that can still be had on some of the Greek islands. So travellers to the islands of Tinos or Andros can identify with this relaxed, metaphysical and pleasure-seeking gourmet shepherd, pampered by the gods of the woods of ancient Hellas. And truly appreciate the simple cuisine.  

At the table, the Cyclades and their inhabitants seem to have lived a life apart: while the world was discovering tinned or precooked food, the doctrine of intensive animal farming and the stress of fast food, food polluted by antibiotics and satellite navigation to reach an acclaimed restaurant on time, over the millennia this archipelago, as beautiful as its nature is wild, has continued to live independently and naturally, raising goats and pigs, cultivating vines and foraging for wild dandelion leaves or capers to add to tasty Greek salads. Only America, somewhere around the seventeenth century, ‘recommended’ another ingredient, tomatoes, which the inhabitants started to dry in the heat of the sun and also use in winter. In Tinos now they go to the port to buy the local round cheeses or to the Pallada area to buy fruit and vegetables at the local farmers’ market. And they also drink a really very interesting handmade beer, Nissos Artisanal Beer, which wins prizes abroad with its all-Greek flavour. The marine/rural atmosphere, that pairing so distant in the eyes of the cosmopolitan citizen, but so perfect for archaic Greek culture, has been passed down among the inhabitants for many, many years, and it seems there’s no changing the status quo. 

Are those forefathers, the ancient inhabitants of the island of Lemnos, who liked to grate the earth over some of their dishes, like a bizarre ‘rocky Parmesan’, really so far away? Are the memories still alive of those ancient Greek sacrifices, on the beaches of the Mediterranean over two thousand years ago, with the enchanting and mystical night fire, when they killed sheep for good luck in both peace time and war, sharing the meat, the animal’s body, among the men and giving the innards to the gods? Or of when the Aegean’s shells were ground into powder to make powerful aphrodisiacs to revive the men’s desire? Has all this gold, dripping with pan-Hellenic gastronomic culture, perhaps provided the basis for the modern Greek cuisine of Tinos and Andros? Yes, without a doubt, but perhaps we need to go even further back, or rather even deeper, and delve into the entertaining past of Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher that legend has it lived in a spartan barrel (which was actually an amphora!). For this funny, chubby philosopher the key brick in his theoretical structure was the affirmation that the natural order was absolutely superior to any other element: no Nutella on bread made of refined white flour, no Spam packed by robots, and most certainly no tomatoes grown using weedkiller. Diogenes and friends drank spring water and fed off acorns collected from the ground or plants that they reluctantly harvested: the first principle of the Cynic diet is raw food, and then on Tinos they hit on foraging wild artichokes or wild fennel which gives dishes a great aromatic flavour. Just like then, in the Cyclades they prefer a salad of wild capers with garlic, oil and vinegar to the fatty hamburguesa con queso y mayo of the big European and American cities. No tapas or canapés that taste something like pizza for your aperitif, but the age-old flavour of olives. The Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes, as Athenaeus recounts, said that olives were to be eaten when they were “as firm as a virgin’s body”. Is this the reason for the aperitif’s enduring attraction since Classic times?

Grilled meat and Mediterranean fish is OK, as are sardines and oily fish by the bucketful, but to cook with fire is a metaphor for progress, in contrast to the raw, wild and untamed. On Andros and Tinos you can still see donkeys ploughing the fields: tractors are reserved for reality shows on modern farmers and the latest 2.0 technology.

Anecdotal literature on Diogenes shows him more of a glutton for olives and wild berries than Mephistophelian meat eater: for him nature already ‘naturally’ tends to provide a sufficient quantity of products for picking. And he who makes do, reaps pleasure. 

On the island of Tinos, Mr Stratos is the owner of two ancient and very special stone houses, so basic and simple that he usually rents them as summer houses to the first most bucolic tourists to write him an email. Despite the technological computer to receive his bookings, Mr Stratos brings to mind the simplicity of Diogenes, when he praised his master Antisthenes for example: “The cups we shall drink from are those made of thin clay which cost less. Let our drink be spring water and the food bread, and the appetizer salt or watercress, as they are simple foods to find that give serious intellectual enjoyment.” Ah, Greek simplicity, then as now, with its direct ties to nature and its vegetable produce. Ah, the Mediterranean diet, as long-lasting as the life it gives.   

Now the bread, salt and spring water of Cynic times just sound like ancient poetic verse, because these days in Tinos you can also eat loukoumades, erotic sweet fritters at the Kyriakatiko Café or in one of the countless bars along the harbourside. So modernity has come to the Cyclades too, with the enthusiasm and never-ending curiosity for the latest novelty. But here it is softer, gentler, thanks to its relaxed, bucolic history. In all its gentleness, it’s hard to kill off the Mediterranean diet.  

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