Local Cuisine: Ionian
In the Ionian, you’ll find many culinary influences from the 400 years of Venetian occupation. Corfu is famous for dishes like pastitsada, beef or cockerel stewed with pasta, tomatoes and a touch of spice – hot paprika – not found in the rest of the islands. But thick tomato sauces, redolent of the sun and enriched by garlic and herbs, are common to all of them.
Peppery ladotyri cheese and nougat from Zakynthos, lentils, and salami from Lefkas make good souvenirs that will fuel memories of your Ionian holiday. While there, keep your glass filled with Kefalonia’s dry white Robola and smooth Verdea on Zakynthos.
Local Cuisine: Aegean
The amazing delicacies that come out of the Cyclades belie their dry appearance. Many of them support small cheese producers, whose gravieras and fresh cheeses rarely travel beyond their shores. They are also famed for their wonderful sausages and preserved meats, sundried tomatoes, capers and almond-paste confectionery, not to mention that the octopuses hung out to soften in the sun make a spectacularly idiosyncratic island scene.
Try some charcoal grilled, with a bowl of pungent kopanisti cheese, some fava (mashed yellow chickpeas), tomato or courgette fritters and mild summer greens and you won’t want anything more; especially if you have a bottle of Santorini’s white assyrtiko or red mavrotragano to hand.
And most of all Crete, the island that gave the world one of its healthiest – and most delicious – ways of eating. Wild greens in abundance, the best olive oil, fresh fish and heavenly cheeses. As soon as you land, you’ll smell the herbs growing on its hillsides – oregano, thyme, rosemary, and dittany – blended with the salty air from both the Libyan and Aegean sea. Just the appetizer for what you are about to discover on your culinary odyssey.
Local Cuisine: Epirus, Thessaly, Peloponnese
Heading north to Thessaly, you’ll discover the secrets of its local cuisine, those of the plain, the breadbasket of Greece, and those of the herdsmen, who put their flocks out to pasture on the mountains that encircle it – producing exceptional meats and cheeses. Organic vegetables are in abundance, the charcuterie from small farms is always of the highest quality and, for those with a sweet tooth, there is sticky halva from Farsala.
This is the home of potent tsipouro, drunk by the thimbleful on every and any occasion. To the west, mountainous Epirus boasts no industries but has a rich gastronomic tradition pared down to the essentials. Take its pies, for example; perfected by nomadic shepherds or farmers, these pies exemplify rural cuisine at its finest. The ingredients are rudimentary: wheat and/or corn flour mixed with a drop of oil bartered from the lowlanders or butter from their own flocks, combined with a handful of wild greens plucked from their doorstep and a smidgen of cheese.
But try one piping hot from the wood-burning oven and you’ll remember it forever. A pie like this is a meal in itself, a single concentrated portion of Mediterranean mountain goodness.
Hop down to the Peloponnese, the land of the olive and the citrus. The endless orange groves of Laconia, the Argolid near Epidaurus and Mycenae and proud Mani, where they add oranges to their sausages and lemons to their tomato stews. The Argolid also produces the best artichokes, while Leonidion hosts an aubergine festival each summer.