As part of our Greentraveller's Guide to the Central and Southern Peloponnese, Clare Hargreaves discovers a surprise signature dish and a feast of other local gems on a food tour of the peninsula
Grab a table on the plane-tree-shaded terrace at the convivial O Thiasos cafe in Kalamata, the beachside city in the Peloponnese’s southwest corner, and order the signature dish for which locals return time and time again. It’s not lamb or goat, as you might expect after a drive across the forested mountains of Arcadia to the north or across the fertile plains of Messinia surrounding Kalamata. But succulent roasted pork clothed in the tastiest crackling you’ve ever crackled.
Why pork? The answer is the region’s history, which flavours so many of its dishes. The Peloponnese was ruled by the Ottomans for nearly 400 years, until the early 1800s. “As Muslims don’t eat pork, the locals knew the best animal to keep was the pig,” says Fotini Arapi, who leads the Kalamata Food Tour run by the company Food Philosophy (kalamata.tours). “They knew the Ottomans would leave those alone. And while the Greeks tended their herds, they hatched revolt.” Still today, no Peloponnesian festival is complete without its spit-roasted pig.
Pork doesn’t just come roasted though. Another prized speciality on this wild and vast rocky peninsula is pasto (or siglino) meaning ‘salted pork.’ Pork meat is ‘corned’ with salt, then smoked over local woods like olive and cypress, and herbs such as sage, which gives it a unique flavour. Finally it’s simmered with wine, oranges and spices. It’s been made in Kalamata by the Oikonomakos family ever since they started their butcher’s shop in 1871.
Drop in there today (it’s part of the Food Tour route) and you’ll see Giorgos, one of the two brothers now running the shop, proudly stirring vats of rosy pork chunks and vibrant oranges below rows of hanging salamis as his parents hover at the back, Greek coffees in hand. “The tradition comes from the Mani, south of here. All houses had a pig that they’d slaughter in February and eat for the rest of the year,” Giorgos tells me, handing me a succulent morsel to try. “Orange trees is what grew in people’s gardens, so they flavoured the meat with their branches.” The meat makes a great flavouring for a bean soup, or stufffed tomatoes. But you’ll also find it served on its own as a mezze in local restaurants, many of which make their own, from O Thiasos in Kalamata, to Skourkos and To Xani tis Kandilas to the north, in and near Levidia.
You’ll find more of Kalamata’s must-eats at Mantineia, a deli in the city’s old quarter a few blocks from its apricot-and-cream Byzantine-style cathedral. Perhaps the most sought after is vanilla fir honey, from the forested Menalon mountains to the northeast. This is a ‘honeydew’ honey, which means it’s made not from blossom nectar, but from sweet secretions produced by micro-organisms on the trunks of the vanilla (or black) fir tree. Bees use this to produce a pearl-coloured honey that’s not only delicious but has a remarkably low glucose content. Unique, it’s been given PDO protected name status, so grab some quick if you spot it alongside Mantineia’s other honeys and colourful spoon sweets (fruits preserved in sugar syrup).
Peloponnesians may not drink much fresh milk, but they’re champions at yoghurts and cheeses. In Mantineia’s fridges you find metal trays of set yoghurt which aproned ladies cut into chunks for you to take home. Also look out for locally-made sfela, a protected-name semi-hard cheese made from goat and sheeps’ milk (sfela comes from the Greek sfelida, meaning strip, as it’s cut during production). It pairs briliantly with local lalagia,bread-stick ‘spaghetti’ that’s been fried in olive oil then scattered with sesame seeds, displayed in vast baskets alongside.
Visit the city’s covered market and you start to understand why, 25 centuries ago, Euripides called Messinia’s soils ‘kallikarpi’ or ‘fruitful.’ Vats of herbs foraged from Mount Taygetos jostle for space with neat stacks of aubergines (the region even has its own variety), oranges and wild greens. In spring, you’ll find a variety of small-and-spiky wild artichoke from the Mani, that’s celebrated there with an annual festival. And in summer, ruby-coloured mulberries, after which the peninsula was once named (its ancient name was Moreas, thanks to its resemblance to the outline of a leaf of a mulberry tree (mouria) - rounded at the top, with the three long fingers of Messinia, Mani and Monemvasia extending below.) To taste it all, including locally grown black-eyed beans with spinach and herbs and kayianas (eggs scrambled in olive oil and grated tomato), both delicious, there’s no better place than O Thiasos. As I’m visiting in autumn I’m also lucky enough to try moustalevria, made from the must of the pressed grapes. The grape juice is mixed with flour and cinammon and boiled until it forms a jelly, which is topped with walnuts or sesame seeds - pleasantly refreshing at the end of an oil-rich meal.
The king of the larder round here, of course, is the olive - and Kalamata even has its own ebony-hued olive named after it, not to be confused with koroneiki olives which are grown to make rich fruity oils. Messinia has around 15 million olive trees, producing 60,000 tonnes of extra virgin olive oil annually. Visit between November and January, and you’ll see entire villages outside harvesting their precious trees - always by hand in the case of Kalamatas, to avoid damaging their delicate flesh.
To learn the secrets of pressing, I join a tour of The Olive Routes at Androusa, northwest of Kalamata, owned by Dimitra and Stathis Kontopoulos. The mill is housed in an ancient building that was once the Sultan’s house. For the tasting, oils are poured from dark blue bottles so that you focus on taste (“cut grass” and “tomatoes”) rather than colour which, as Dimitra will tell you, is irrelevant.
Travel to the Peloponnese’s southeast coast for other gourmet delights. Stop en route at pretty Italianate Gytheion, for instance, and you’ll see spot fishermen thrashing their octopus against the jetty steps to soften their flesh. In Lent, when the eating of blood is forbidden, squid, octopus and cuttlefish (all bloodless) come to the rescue, often stewed with spinach, onions and other vegetables.
Talking of spinach, Monemvasia, the historic castle-on-a-rock on the coast, has its own unique way of preparing it. The ubiquitous spinach pie is replaced by a delicious flatbread filled with spinach called saithia. We tried it at the old town’s Matoula restaurant, where the views across the town walls out to sea are as scrumptious as the home cooking.
North of Monemvasia, the handsome mountain village of Kosmas has become famous for its galaktoboureko, or semolina custard pie. Find it in any of the cafes under the plane tree in its central square - there are even signposts to it! Like most Greek desserts, it’s a filo-pastry-clad affair that’s bathed in a honey-sweetened syrup. And eating it is a sacred Sunday morning ritual.
But while you’ll find galaktoboureko elsewhere in Greece, a pastry you probably won’t is crinkly-edged diples, which means ‘folded or doubled’ pastry - think blonde brandy snaps without the brandy. Rolled pastry is deep-fried then sprinkled with honey and chopped nuts. Having breakfasted on some excellent home-made ones at Kinsterna Hotel in the hills near Monemvasia, I can heartily recommend them. But for the locals, diplesare also something you eat at weddings and christenings to symbolise the ‘sweet life’ of the married couple or the ‘double joy’ of the baptised child.
Wines are plentiful - and increasingly good, particularly in areas like Nemea (outside the scope of this blog) which produce some superb reds, from the Agiorgitiko (St George) grape. But the true wine of the south is the sweet wine from Monemvasia, called Malvasia, whose production began in Byzantine times - the first record of it is in 1214 by the Bishop of Ephesus. Monemvasiots exported their sweet wine worldwide, and the wine even makes an appearance in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Monemvasia-Malvasia wine was reborn when the Monemvasia winery opened in 1997 and in 2010 it proudly gained its own PDO. I sip it in the relaxed Enetiko Cocktail Bar in the Lower Town on Monemvasia’s great rock. Stin ygeia mas! Cheers!