Naxos is well known for its agricultural abundance. The 166 square mile island, largest in the Cyclades, has a fertile interior created by the surrounding mountains. Lush valleys provide produce such as the famous Naxos potato and citron as well as the products associated with dairy and grazing.
According to legend, the young Zeus was raised on Naxos Island in a cave on Mt. Zas. The 3,300 foot Mt Zas (aka Mt. Zeus) is the Cyclades tallest mountain. It’s a hikers paradise.
Zas Cave, was inhabited during the Neolithic era, which ended in 2,000 BC. Archaeological excavations have found ornamental objects of copper and gold
Naxos and the Small Cyclades – four “satellite” islands surround Naxos like moons – has for centuries been its own system within the archipelago. During the 8th and 7th centuries BC Naxos dominated commerce in the Cyclades. Its advantageous trade position made it a prized possession of empires for millenniums.
Many were smart enough not to interfere with a money machine. Even the Ottoman’s kept a distance as long as the taxes flowed into Constantinople. They outsourced the administration of the island to Venetian bankers.
Naxos is the most fertile island of the Cyclades. It has a large aquifer under the island in a region where water is usually inadequate. Mount Zeus at 1,004 meters (3,294 feet) tends to trap the clouds increasing rainfall. Agriculture is an important economic sector making Naxos the most self-sufficient island in the Cyclades.
This abundance is obvious in Naxos restaurants, artisan food shops and food markets. Besides produce Naxos is famous throughout Greece for its cheese, meats, fish and seafood. Simply walking along the wide, beautiful, long, crescent, pedestrian friendly waterfront of Chora (Naxos Town) is a gastronomic delight. Some of the best cafes and tavernas in Naxos are sandwiched between shops offering Naxos crafts and food products – it’s the center of nighttime social life in town.
When driving in the interior of Naxos there is a sense that you are on mainland Greece. Over 30 villages dot Naxos. Many, such as the beautiful marble town of Apiranthos, cling to the side of mountains with panoramic views of the lush interior of Naxos.
Vioma Cooking School
At Vioma in the village of Kaloxylo – another photo perfect flower bedecked white and blue shuttered Greek village – Maria Andrielou is committed to passing down the art of making traditional dishes of Naxos. Maria is the mother of my guide, Katerina Andrielou. Vioma confirms what I’ve known for years – Greeks eat vegetables.
You may be laughing right now, but in my culinary career as a chef and a writer I’ve countered many comments, especially from Americans and British used to the limited choices in their Greek restaurants, that Greek food is fried calamari, souvlaki and a ubiquitous salad. Without any particular intent the dishes our small group prepared that day happened to all be vegetarian.
Vioma’s classes are hands on as the five of us prepared our entirely vegetarian meal, which became lunch. Located in a beautiful traditional village house, Maria creates a relaxing atmosphere in which to learn some of the basics of Greek cuisine. The two main courses were a traditional olive pie and stuffed vegetables.
These are ageless recipes with many variations throughout Greece. There is nothing complex – no special tools. The only requirement is using the freshest ingredients possible. That’s not difficult to find on Naxos.
Olive pie (Λιόπιτα)
for the pastry
- 500gr (1 lb + 5 Tablespoons) self-rising flour
- 1 cup of tepid water
- ½ cup of olive oil
- 2 tbs of vinegar
- 1 tsp of salt
- 2tbs of sesame seeds
for the olive paste
- 2 cups olives (any type)
- 2 tbs of olive oil
- 1tbs of balsamic vinegar
- 1 finely chopped clove of garlic
- 2 finely chopped leaves of basil
additional ingredients for the filling
- 1 diced tomato
- Diced feta cheese
- Finely chopped peppermint
- Remove the stones from the olives and put them in a blender with all the ingredients and blend them.
- Put the self raising flour in a bowl with the water, the oil, the vinegar and the salt. Knead it until we have a soft pastry, which doesn’t stick to the hands. Then separate it into 3 balls.
- Take the first ball and roll it out with a rolling pin making a round shape until it becomes thin.
- Spread the olive paste evenly on the pastry and then create a line for tomatoes, cheese, oregano and peppermint. Then roll it up. Repeat twice more.
- Put all three rolls in a pan and baste them with any type oil. Add sesame seeds on the top. Score the top of the rolls.
- Place the pan into a pre-heated oven at 180°C (350°F) for 20 minutes until they brown.
Stuffed Vegetables (Γεμιστά Λαχανικά)
- 4 large ripe tomatoes
- 2 large bell peppers (green, red or yellow)
- 2 aubergines (eggplant) and/or zucchini
- ½ kilo (1 lb + 5 tbs) of white rice (3 tbs for each veg)
- 2 finely chopped onions
- 2 finely chopped cloves of garlic
- 1 finely chopped bunch of parsley
- 3 potatoes
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 cup water
- 2 cups tomato sauce
- Wash the vegetables well and open a lid on the side of the stem.
- Carefully with a small knife and spoon remove the insides without cutting through the exterior skin. Discard any seeds and then finely chop the reserved insides.
- Heat a little bit of oil in a pan and sizzle the onions with the garlic and the inside of aubergine.
- Add the wine and when the alcohol is evaporated add the rice.
- Two minutes later add the tomato sauce, parsley, oregano, salt, pepper. Simmer all together until the rice has absorbed all liquids.
- With a tablespoon take a small amount and fill the vegetables. Do not pack the filling because the rice will swell during baking. (Optionally, before stuffing the tomatoes, add a little bit of sugar.)
- Cover with the vegetables lids.
- Cut the peeled potatoes (wash-peel-cut) and put them between the stuffed vegetables.
- Pour oil, tomato sauce and water over the vegetables and potatoes. Put the pan into the oven and cook at 190°C (375°F) for an hour until the vegetables brown. During the cooking time you may have to add water to keep the vegetables moist.
The old Greek saying, “Food’s an excuse to get together with friends,” is evident at Vioma. There’s nothing like sharing a meal that you’ve helped prepare with people who only a brief time before were total strangers.
Naxos Sweet Home
In a complete turn around from dishes made with Naxos abundance, Naxos Sweet Home is an example to me of why food is such an important part of Greek life. We need it, someone has to prepare it, Greeks share it and the experience can be life changing. Kali’s path somewhat mimics my own when I was bored with my initial career choice denying that I always wanted to be a chef.
Kali is a chemical engineer. She was bored with her government job after the economic crisis put nearly all her projects on hold. With her science and engineering background what do you do? If you’re Kali and live on Naxos Island you open up Naxos Sweet Home making unique flavored hard candy and become an island sensation.
There is no doubt that in creating Naxos Sweet Home’s unique hard candy it is equally important to be a chemical engineer as a chef. Using water, sugar, flavorings and geometry, Kali’s hands fly over the molten sugar rapidly forming various colored ropes of cooling sugar and placing them in just the correct location on the roll that will create her design. Then the long rods of sugar are cut by hand into uniform pieces faster than any machine I have witnessed.
Besides their best selling smiley face – a favorite among children – Kali uses some unique flavorings, flowers and herbs. Lime-chili was a favorite of mine along with sage, citron, mastic, rose, eucalyptus and a dozen and a half more flavors.
The shop gleams like a jewelry store. It was the inherited home of Kali’s grandmother. The packages and jars of colorful candies shine in front of back lit whitewashed walls.
Naxos Sweet Home’s reputation has made it a prime supplier of one-of-a-kind candy designs for life events – weddings, name days, baptisms. The designs are fascinating and prove once more that there’s more skill in creating fine food than just a love of flavor.
We can refer to the harvest of Naxos in quantity of fine food products. Yet more important is the quality of people. Maria, Katerina and Kali are three Greeks using diverse skills who have discovered careers that make people smile.
When you go: Naxos is easily reached by air through Athens and Thessaloniki or by ferry service from Pireaus (port for Athens) and Rafina. I recommend the comfortable ships of Blue Star Ferries.
Disclaimer: The author was the guest of the Municipality of Naxos and Hotel Naxos Resort. All opinions are my own. I wish to thank Dimitrios Lianos of the Municipality of Naxos and the Small Cyclades for my itinerary and your knowledge of the island, Katerina Andrielou of Vioma and Spiros Manolas of Naxos Sun Holidays for being my guides. Re Make Consulting, Athens, facilitated travel arrangements. Motonaxos Car & Bike Rental provided transportation on Naxos.
You can read more in the HNA on Naxos and the Small Cyclades with hotel, restaurant and things to do information at Naxos, Mykonos, Delos: divine vacations in the Cyclades in the July edition of the Hellenic News of America.
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