As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to Pelion, Clare Hargreaves surveys the foodie scene of the Pelion peninsula, the mountainous boot that sweeps its heel into the Aegean Sea midway between Athens and Thessaloniki.
Greece’s Pelion Peninsula is where bare rocky landscapes give way to lush sweet chestnut woods that jostle for space with fruit orchards and olive groves, gurgling streams and fountains, and stone and slate villages that tumble down the flanks of mighty Mount Pelion. Homer aptly dubbed it the land of “quivering foliage.”
Such vegetation spawns a rich natural larder, which make Pelion’s food offering unique. Here you’ll find slow-cooked meat stews, grilled fish that’s just come off the boat, delicately stuffed cabbage leaves resembling tiny silk-wrapped parcels, and filo-pastry vegetable pies that provide perfect portable fuel for hikes along the peninsula’s cobbled kalderimia (mule paths). It’s creative, honest and delicious.
Recipes reflect the peninsula’s many foreign influences too, but whatever the dishes, they use local, fresh and seasonal ingredients. Here cooks are rooted in their native soils, and rightly proud of it. Many even grow their own.
The settings in which you eat are as unpretentious as the food itself; who needs fancy decor when you have the shade of a plane tree on a cobbled village square, or a beach with a view across the turquoise waters of the Aegean? Restaurants and tavernas are laid-back places where friends and families relax together over food, invariably watched by stray dogs and cats who hover for titbits.
There are table-clothed exceptions, of course, such as some of the hotel restaurants in Tsagarada and Portaria, and at The Six Keys in Afyssos, where superchef Ioannis Baxevanis is wowing diners with his contemporary cutting edge cuisine. But in general, eating in a Pelion restaurant is like joining the owner around their personal kitchen table.
Greeks also know how to juggle their food with their drink. In Pelion, the latter usually means tsipouro, a fire-water made from the pomace of grapes after they’ve been pressed to make wine. It’s served in tsipouro tavernas known as tsipouradika - choose with or without aniseed (the first making it like ouzo). In the old days, Peliot men drank tsipouro on its own, but the influx of refugees from Asia Minor in 1922 introduced the idea of combining it with mezedes (hors-d’oeuvres).
So today, for every 50ml miniature I ordered, a different delicacy was brought to the table. Menus, and the stress of deciding what to choose, are dispensed with; and you can eat your way through the chef’s repertoire. I did just this at a tsipouradiko on the harbour front in Volos, on Pelion’s northwest corner.
Ingredients, awaited with excitement, chart the year’s passing months. Visit in spring and you’ll feast on omelettes made with wild asparagus, and spot locals perched on rocks like goats to harvest rock samphire, succulent and aniseedy, or tsitsiravla, the tender shoots of the wild pistachio tree.
Both are pickled in brine, to be enjoyed throughout the year as a meze with tsipouro or a classy salad garnish. Other wild greens are gathered by the armful to be stuffed into pies, sometimes bulked out with trahana - cracked wheat that’s been boiled with soured milk. Or they’re gently sautéed and topped with eggs, to make one of Pelion’s simplest yet most delicious dishes.
June sees the arrival cherries as large as golfballs, celebrated at a festival in the mountain village of Agios Lavrentios. Many are preserved in a sugar syrup to make “spoon sweets”, traditionally offered by housewives to welcome guests (dentists look away).
Pick of the crop is vissino (sour cherry), perfect with yoghurt as pud. Visit the Women’s Agritourism Cooperative in Vyzitsa and you can watch the village ladies making spoon sweets and jams the way they’ve been made for millennia.
Summer sees the arrival of juicy chin-slathering melons and figs, and of tomatoes, which are thrown into salads or scrambled with eggs to make strapatsada. It’s the season too for green peppers - spetza - which give the name to spetzofai, Pelion’s most celebrated dish which combines fried green peppers and grated tomatoes with chunks of local sausage.
Eleni Karaiskou, who owns Pelion’s much-loved Kritsa restaurant, and taught me to make spetzofai at her farm-based cookery school, swears by the veal sausages made by Drosos butchers in Volos. Traditionally though, sausages would have been made from goat or mutton with a bit of pork.
For meat, goat and chicken rule the roost, often enjoyed as gidha lemonati (goat stewed in a lemon sauce) or kokoras me hilopites (casseroled rooster with homemade pasta). In winter the must-eat meat is wild boar, which Kritsa slow-cooks with tomatoes, plums and chestnuts.
Pelion’s big thing, though, is apples. Visit Zagora in late summer, and its steep hillsides groan with aromatic apples, mainly firiki, a small oval altitude-loving variety. Cooks pop them into pies or bake them in the oven with cinnamon and honey. And thanks to its diminutive size, it’s a perfect candidate for preserving in a sugar syrup. My top apple delicacy, though, is petimezi, Pelion’s answer to balsamic vinegar, made by boiling firikiauntil they turn into a thick syrup that’s as dark as tar - wonderful on breakfast pancakes and on salads.
In autumn, mushrooms and chestnuts litter the floor of the chestnut forests covering the peninsula’s eastern flanks. If you want to learn how to tell your boletus (known locally as ‘Little Monks’) from your parasol, join mushroom-mad Filaretos Psimmenos on a foraging expedition, then enjoy a garlicky fry-up in his Amanita guesthouse just outside Tsagarada.
While mushrooms are generally pan-fried, chestnuts are prepared every which way - from bottled in a sugar syrup (of course!) to gently boiled to create a sauce to accompany pork or veal. Try the veal and chestnut humdinger dish at Tsagaradha’s Aleka’s House restaurant - or if you’re needing a sugar kick, go straight to their rum and chestnut puree dessert. Come in October and you can dance your way through the Chestnut Festival at tiny Xourichti.
Last, but not least, there’s wine - and it’s good. Organic vineyards such as Milea and Patistis are producing some very quaffable wines - try Milea’s Merlot, and from Patistis, the Limnio with Xinomavro (both names of grapes) or the Xinomavro blanc du noir. No wonder the gods, according to Greek legend, chose Pelion for their holidays. They were clearly foodies.
Text and photos by Clare Hargreaves
Disclosure: Clare Hargreaves was a guest of the Greece National Tourist Organisation and Volos Pelion. Clare had full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Pelion in the autumn of 2018 for our Greentraveller's Guide to Pelion. All opinions are the author's own.