Foraging for mushrooms. Photo: James Stewart
I’m in the mossy dell of an oak wood in Zagori, mainland Greece. Gold coins of sunlight are scattered over the forest floor and the air smells richly fertile. Crusty with lichen, a small chapel is half-hidden among the trees. I’m not sure which feels more sacred, that chapel or this beautiful, quiet woodland. Vikos Gorge, the world’s deepest chasm by width, lies 20 minutes away. But Vasilis Katsoupas wants to highlight another side of Zagori instead. He’s brought me to forage for wild mushrooms.
I’ve rarely met anyone as passionate about an ingredient as Vasilis. After decades as an ecologist for Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in Canada, he runs foraging and ecology trips in Zagori’s quieter corners and cultivates mushrooms for his mushroom-themed restaurant, Kanela and Garifallo.
For Vasilis, mushrooms are not simply a foodstuff. They are a building block of Zagori culture. He explains: “People take things for granted. Most of us don’t appreciate nature and how we’re a part of it; we tend to see ourselves as masters of the universe. Foraging like this and talking about our food and where it comes from helps us connect with the environment. It brings food back to a specific location and our place within it.”
He could be speaking for the culinary culture of Zagori. A sparsely-populated corner of Greece near the Albanian border, Zagori prepares a menu as distinct as its wild landscapes. Its cuisine is one steeped in self-sufficiency. When every imported ingredient came from beyond the mountains on foot or by donkey – roads only appeared here in the 1950s – villagers lived from surrounding woodlands, meadows and alpine pasture.
“My family farmed here for generations,” Costas Zissis, a nature photographer in Aristi, tells me. “We had everything we needed: wheat from fields by the Voidomatis river, sheep from the mountain meadows for cheese and meat, cows for dairy, berries and wild honey, even some vines for wine.”
He talks about chamois once hunted in the Pindos mountains, about a mountain flower which brews a refreshing herbal tea and of dog rose hips packed with Vitamin C.
Like the traditional dishes of rural France and Italy, Zagori cooking is stewed in a peasant past; a cuisine of survival foods refined into pure pleasure. Founded on sheep’s cheese, fresh vegetables and meat, it is also Greek cooking at its best – honest, unpretentious, delicious. If foodie buzzwords like “local”, “organic”, “homemade” and “seasonal” have yet to catch on, it’s only because they are taken for granted.
The bread and jams served at breakfast in your family guesthouse? Ubiquitously homemade (it speaks volumes that there are no Zagori bakeries). Vegetables served in restaurants generally come from the family garden and cheeses and meats are typically from a neighbouring farm. This is terroir and then some.
I first sample this at a restaurant in Megalo Papigo. Above its vine-covered terrace, muscular cliffs are flushing pink in the sunset. It’s pinch-me beautiful. Yet I hardly notice such is the quality of the cooking.
Restaurant in Megalo Papigo. Photo: James Stewart.
Having entrusted my selection to the family owners, plates arrive like a culinary Sorcerer’s Apprentice; a salad of tomatoes and soft feta cheese; chanterelle mushrooms picked that day and sautéed with garlic and parsley; zucchini perfectly seasoned with olive oil, lemon and salt; succulent pink veal with french fries flecked with thyme. To aid digestion there’s tsiporou, a light grappa that the owners swear is a cure-all.
Every ingredient is from the family farm, they say. Indeed, some ingredients grew in the vegetable and herb beds that surround the restaurant. Talk about food miles in Zagori and you often have to reduce the measurement to metres.
Even the region’s fine-dining address, Salvia, maintains the ethos. Nothing comes from more than 40 miles away, the chef tells me after my meal (local trout with dewdrops of honey). To guarantee fresh salads and herbs, he has a greenhouse and garden, “of course”.
When quality is assured, food dilemmas come down to choice. So what to eat? The surprise is that the local speciality is pies. Based on flour and eggs, Zagori pies come in as many varieties as there are households: either quiche-like or wrapped in flakey pastry, often cooked with mountain greens, spinach or feta, always seasoned with local herbs. They are an art passed through generations as much as a kitchen staple.
As central is the crumbly soft feta from sheep grazed in Zagori’s pure alpine pasture. A world away from the salty slabs in supermarkets, this is the original Greek feta from which all others derive. Look out, too, for stews of huge gigantes beans with spinach, tomato and herbs, and slow-roast lamb. As ubiquitous are sweet liqueurs flavoured with local walnuts, cherries or mountain herbs; all homemade, naturally.
Back in our oak wood, we harvest just a plate or two of chanterelle mushrooms (we’re a little late in the season).Vasilis is disappointed. Not me. Our tour has revealed the terroir behind the tastes; the pasture, woods, wildflower meadows and cold clean rivers that nurture a delicious cuisine.
“Food here is not just something to eat. It’s part of Zagori itself,” Vasilis says. I’ll say grace to that.
James Stewart is the author of Greentraveller's Guide to Zagori & the Epirus Coast