As we celebrate our Greentraveller's Guide to Lesvos and Chios, Sian Lewis explores the tastes of the island of Chios, from fragrant tangerines to treasured mastic sap.
I don't think I've been anywhere where food is such a simple and yet integral part of day-to-day life as Chios. The so-called 'island of the senses' is aptly named for the fragrant scent of jasmine hanging heavily in evening air and the sight of the deep blue sea as you drive along the coastal roads, but the abiding sensorial memory I have of this charming, laid-back corner of the North Aegean is of taste. Admittedly, I'm the kind of person who daydreams about lunch whilst polishing off breakfast, but I'd bet that the lovingly prepared, simply served dishes that abound on Chios are enough to turn anyone into a serious foodie.
Chios is the 5th largest Greek island and a place with a chequered and turbulent past, inextrictably linked to its gastronomical riches. Through the centuries the island was ruled by many different peoples and regularly invaded by pirates desperate for a taste of its bounty. Chios' coveted produce, such as scented tangerines, rich olives and priceless mastic sap, has even shaped its architecture. Hidden in the hills are fascinating fortified villages, designed to be unpenetrable to protect local farmers and their precious crops from unwanted visitors. And along the coast a line of watchtowers still stand proud, relics from the days when fires would be lit along the shoreline to announce approaching pirate ships.
Chios may now be a peaceful place to visit but you can get a taste of wilder times. Many of the island's specialities are produced using centuries-old methods, and food is part of the rhythm of the day here - early one morning in Avgonyma I found hunters busy skinning rabbits outside my cottage, whilst in the evening twilight local women gathered in the squares of the village to gossip as they dexterously washed mastic sap.
Local produce is even used as decoration, from octopus tentacles strung up outside beachside tavernas to fat garlands of tomatoes ripening in the sun on stone walls.
The perfect way to discover Chios' foodie heritage is a guided walk with Vassilis Ballas. He's a Chiot with a wealth of knowledge of local history, and left a job in an office in Athens to return to the island and help visitors discover its gastronomical past. We met Vassilis in medieval Mesta village and he walked us through the quiet stone archways and empty corners of this peaceful old place, spinning tales as we went of what life was like for the farmers who harvested mastic here.
There are 24 mastic villages, each different and uniquely decorated, but Mesta was my favourite. Designed to be an inpregnable and confusing fortress to would-be thieves, it appears to be just a huge, rather off-putting wall from outside. But venture in through the gates and you'll find a magical, secret settlement - a warren of tightly-packed stone cottages and narrow cobbled streets. Vasillis explained that the houses are so close together that villagers can visit each other by climbing over the roofs. We walked past shaded squares and locals sitting at wooden tables drinking 'souma', a potent local liquor made of distilled figs and grapes.
We eventually found the old gate again and ventured out into the mastic groves, full of little, wizened trees hunched over like old men. Vassilis taught us the fine art of harvesting mastic sap, once worth its weight in gold to trade and still used to flavour desserts, as medicine or as a unique chewing gum. Vassilis showed us how to take a sharp little knife and make nicks in the scarred bark of our chosen tree victims. Sap immediately began to ooze out, liquid and sticky. Older cuts on the trees yielded hard jewels of the sap - when they fall to the ground they are ready to be collected. We tried doing as the Chiots do and chewing on the mastic tears - they have a delicate piney taste and are surprisingly refreshing.
Another delightful place to discover the heritage of Chios is hidden in the shady glades of the area of Kampos. Founded by Genoese invaders in the 14th century, this fertile part of the island is dotted with Italian-style villas, citrus orchards and flower gardens, and one of the grand old mansions has been lovingly turned into a museum dedicated to the island's citrus fruits. The collection of curios here makes for a fascinating insight into a time when Chiot gentry lived very well indeed from the sale of oranges, which were carefully wrapped in beautifully decorated paper before being shipped around the world. The legacy of the citrus trade lives on in Citrus Chios, a company which still produces a rainbow of incredible preserves, marizipans and sweets delicated flavoured with oranges, lemons and figs. We retired to a table in the museum's shady square for cold Greek frappe coffees and a tasting of the jams and candied fruit on offer, which are traditionally served as 'spoon sweets'. Eaten with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, or just, as the name suggests, with a spoon, they're a deliciously tart end to a meal.
Despite how rewarding gastronomic-themed days out are on Chios, there's no need to do any organising to enjoy the pleasure of eating well - just pop into any beachside taverna. They all serve very similar, traditional dishes, and after a few days on the island I gave up trying to navigate my way through menus and just asked the waiters to bring us what they recommended. Try it and your table will groan with bright Greek salads, just-off-the-boat fish and tasty meat dishes, served with glasses of cloudy ouzo or a brain-rattlingly strong coffee.
Words by Sian Lewis.
--- Sian took a tour of Mesta with Vassilis Ballas of Masticulture Tours, who offers day or evening trips around the village and out into the mastic groves, including a picnic of Chiot produce
The Citrus Museum in Kampos can arrange tastings of jams and spoon sweets made by Citrus Chios, also for sale in their shop