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Truffles, wine and kayaking in West Macedonia

Sarah Baxter goes truffle-hunting and enjoys the diversity of delicious local food in West Macedonia


The breakfast table was fit to burst. Thick slices of flakey cheese tiropita (pie) and golden omelettes jostled with fat red tomatoes and salty olives; there was unctuous yoghurt flanked by cherries and peaches, glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice and thick pancakes begging to be slathered in homemade jams.

The fabulous breakfast spread at Argyro’s Guesthouse. Photo: Richard Hammond

“I do something different every day,” Argyro said, attempting to sneak a plate of frosted buns into the mix.


My eyes bulged, both at the growing spread and the view outside the tall casement windows: of the hillside village of Nymfaio and the green mountains beyond, just waking up to a beautiful blue-sky day.

The view of the hillside village of Nymfaio and the green mountains beyond. Photo: Richard Hammond

I’d come to this region of western Macedonia in part to taste its diverse flavours. And Argyro’s Guesthouse was providing a delicious start. This characterful retreat sits at the top of Nymfaio, a fairytale village of stone mansions and cobbled alleys tumbling down the beech-flanked slopes of the Vitsi range. There’s good foraging to be done up here in the hills – “All the women from the village know how to live from the forest, how to find herbs, mushrooms, fruits, snails,” Argyro’s husband Ioannis told me. But, after breakfast, I was heading down into the valley to find further sustenance.

The stunning village of Nymfaio. Photo: Richard Hammond

This land was once a prehistoric lakebed, which has created unique, mineral-rich soil, good for growing everything from excellent potatoes to large, crimson Florina peppers, so revered for their sweet, tender flavour that they have protected origin status – I tasted some at Naoumidis Farm, near Lake Vegoritida, where they grill, pickle and smoke them into tasty spreads and sauces.

However, it was another fruit I was most looking forward to sampling. This region is the home of Amyndeon, the smallest, coldest, driest appellation in Greece, which produces some of the country’s most exciting wines.
The entrance to the smart Alpha wine estate. Photo: Richard Hammond

“The area is ideal for wine-growing,” export manager Konstantinos Arvanitakis told me as he showed me around the smart Alpha Estate. We toured the handsome blush-pink winery’s cool cellars and start-of-the-art lab, where Alpha’s viticulturalists tweak the perfect blends. Then we headed out into the neat ranks of largely Greek grapes, including a plot of xinomavro that’s over 100 years old and still producing – “it makes a concentrated, elegant fine dining wine,” Konstantinos told me, “an explosion of taste.”


Indeed, I was soon able to discover that for myself: Alpha offers free tastings. “Greek wine doesn’t have the best reputation, but it’s improving,” Konstantinos explained. “We want people to come and taste Greek grape varieties – it’s not about selling our own, it’s about exposing people to higher-quality Greek wines. The main thing is the wine needs to show its character, to show where it was made.”


He poured me a dizzying array of glasses, from the venerable xinomavro reserve to a citrusy assyrtiko; each one spoke of the soil and the altitude and the weather and the passion of this part of Greece. Then he took me to Kontosoros, a high-class restaurant hiding out in the tiny village of Xino Nero, also focused on showcasing the calibre of local flavours.


Using ingredients from the backyard, and nearby producers, chef Iliana conjured delicious dishes of grilled cheese, baked vegetables, traditional stews and grilled fish, which we paired with Alpha’s well-balanced malagouzia – lively, mellow, floral, it was like summer in a glass.

Now, thanks to Konstantinos, I was developing a taste for this land, so I thought I’d continue that in Prespa National Park. This area in the far north-west corner of Greece, where the country rubs up against Albania and Macedonia, is renowned for its giant beans, nurtured by the microclimate of its two mountain-flanked lakes. The fields on the east bank of Little Prespa Lake look like a legume encampment, striped with endless teepees of bean plants. However, I had a different delicacy in mind.

Nikos Tsilis and his chocolate labrador Avra. Photo: Richard Hammond

I met Nikos Tsilis and his irrepressible chocolate labrador Avra under a stand of ancient juniper trees near the village of Psarades. We – or rather, Avra with her keen nose and desire to please – were hunting for black truffles, the precious fruiting fungi so prized by foodies. Nikos is self-taught but has gained a reputation as something of an expert; he’s trained his tastebuds to tell different varieties apart and has even unearthed truffles new to science.


“It started as a hobby but many restaurants call me now,” Nikos explained. “I can sell them for €100-600 per kilo. The other day I found a black truffle that was 400g.”


With so much money at stake, I figured truffle-hunting must be very hard indeed. But within two minutes Avra had sniffed out a handful of the strange, pungent lumps; within half an hour we had a large pile.

“They’re good for the bones,” Nikos told me, “and some say they’re an aphrodisiac but I don’t believe it.”


He gave me a truffle to takeaway, which was kind, but did make my luggage reek like the humusy depths of the earth. He suggested I hand it over to his friend, Kiriakos, who runs a taverna in the lakeside village of Mikrolimni and who would happily grate it over my dinner.

A handful of truffles from the morning's search... bravo Avra! Photo: Richard Hammond

But first, I had to earn my feed. Arriving at the taverna in the early evening, I found two kayaks pulled up on the little sandy beach below – Kiriakos doesn’t rent them out as such, but visitors are free to borrow them in exchange for collecting any rubbish they find in the lake. As the sun lowered, Kiriakos paddled out with me, along the reeds, past the herons and swooping swallows, into the gilded ripples, towards the interweaving ridges of the mountains beyond. He told me legends of the lake – how it was created, so they say, by the ill-fated love of a prince and a water nymph; how the lost village of Lyca lies below the surface like a lakebed Atlantis.

Kiriakos lends his kayaks in exchange for visitors collecting rubbish in the lake Photo: Richard Hammond

It was a perfect aperitif, and I was hungry by the time we clambered out of the boats and settled on the taverna’s stilted deck for cold sunset beers and an array of unfussy but sensational dishes: grilled Florina peppers, fried potatoes, fat Prespa beans, tiny freshwater fish… Food showing its local character, enhanced by a seasoning of balmy lake air. Macedonia in a simple, magical meal.


Sunset from the lakeside village of Mikrolimni. Photo: Richard Hammond

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Watch our video of Sarah's trip to West Macedonia and Thessaloniki:


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With thanks to Joysters for facilitating our visit in the summer of 2022.


For more information about travelling in this fascinating part of Northern Greece, see our


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