Florence Fortnam discovers some of the islands' finest wild ingredients – from mountain goat to thyme honey – and learns some of the secrets behind the islands’ tasty local produce.
From our boat, we watched a small herd of goats bound fearlessly down the rippling cliffs to the sea. ’Salt water – eugh!’, I cried, as they began lapping thirstily at the water’s edge. “Natural seasoning!’ our guide, Loukas, said with a wink. Wild goat, he went on to explain, has been one of the staples of the diet in Naxos and the Small Cyclades for millennia. You find it on every menu – baked in crispy pies with vlita (spinach-like greens that grow wild across the islands), braised in stews with the famous Naxian potato, cooked with tomatoes and cinnamon, or steeped in thyme honey (a speciality of neighbouring Iraklia) and roasted on an open flame. It hadn’t been long since I’d filled my belly with breakfast but I couldn’t help my mind wandering to thoughts of lunch.
I was on Donousa – one of the four inhabited Small Cyclades islands, ten miles east of Naxos – on the first day of my gastronomic discovery of Naxos and the Small Cyclades, delving into the food culture of the islands to uncover some of this archipelago's wild and wonderful produce.
As we rounded a clutch of jagged rocks jutting out into the aquamarine sea, a green cliff face came into view, an unexpected sight on an otherwise rocky, shrubby island. This verdant, vertiginous valley, Loukas explained, was home to a number of natural springs, the secret behind the island's productivity, he claimed. "Our very own little oasis,” he said. “Apricots, figs, lemons, almonds, pears, plums, grapes, oranges – they all grow here.” As we drifted closer, I could just make out the tiny colourful flecks of early fruit amongst the leafy trees.
Half an hour later our boat moored in the glassy bay at Kalotaritissa and we climbed the rough path to the bamboo-shaded terrace of the family-run Mitsos taverna.
Bowls of salt-dried throubesolives (the black, wrinkly kind) and hunks of poppy seed bread arrived on our table before we'd even had time to digest the menu. Many of the family recipes have been passed down from the indomitable grandmother Fani, who, at 86 years young, still rules the roost around here.
Like almost every rural taverna across the Cyclades, everything is either grown here on site, gathered locally or caught in the bay. Herbs – picked along the lanes – flavour family recipes: there's cuttlefish with oregano, cinnamon and tomatoes, tasty vlita with mint and lemon, huge salads topped with scoops of soft, velvety, basil-flecked feta.
"Bit different to the sort you're used to, hey?" Loukas joked, as images of the vacuum-packed rectangles of rubber cheese we call feta popped into my head. Lunch was rounded off with some caramelised quince and kaimaki – a buttery, vanilla-flavoured ice cream with a meringue-like gooeyness in the middle. This was followed by a shot of brain-tingling raki, accompanied, as always, by an enthusiastic 'yamas!' (‘cheers').
Naxos produces some of Greece’s best-known cheeses, a culture attributed in part to the Greek myth that Apollo's son and cheese maker extraordinaire, Aristaios, supposedly grew up on the island.
There's the rich, creamy and slightly sour Xynomyzithra, buttery Graviera, sweet Mizithra, and spicy Arseniko, to name a few. To find out more, I headed to a cheese-making farm in Agiassos on the south of the island where, with an 800-strong herd of goats, Stelios and his family produce one of the island’s favourite cheeses – a tangy, award-winning Mizithra.
After a quick tour of the production room, I followed Stelios out to meet the rest of the workforce. I could hear them before I could see them – each goat, he explained, has a different sounding bell, and he can recognise each individual one.
As he opened the gate, the goats stampeded into the surrounding heather-studded valleys (their diet of wild flowers and shrubs is the secret to their success, so Stelios claims), which was one of the most awesome, dramatic sights of the trip. My ears were ringing with the sound of 800 goats bells for the rest of the day.
Naxos is a surprisingly lush island, with hidden green valleys, natural springs, misty mountains and a higher than average rainfall. This fertile environment has allowed it to be self-sufficient since ancient times, producing its own meat, unique cheeses, vegetables, fruit, herbs, honey and wine – you name it, they produce it.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Dionysus, the Greek god of winemaking and fertility, was supposedly born here, too. Evidence of its agricultural roots – past and present – is everywhere, from the now derelict windmills perched on hilltops and the flocks of sheep and goats that graze freely on open plateaus, to the agricultural terraces, carved deep into cliff faces along the coast.
Later that evening we tucked into patatato, a slow-cooked casserole of wild goat and the famous Naxian potato. The meat was tender like slow-cooked lamb – and beautifully seasoned, naturally.
Words by Florence Fortnam
Disclosure: Florence's trip to Naxos and the Small Cyclades was organised by the Greek National Tourism Organisation Board (GNTO UK & Ireland) as part of Green Traveller's Guide to Naxos and the Small Cyclades. Florence has full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Naxos and the Small Cyclades this year. All opinions are the author’s own.