With an appetising crunch, I push my fork into a kataifi, splitting it in two. The traditional filo pastry, with strands as thin as vermicelli, wind tightly around a soft eggplant filling. It releases a warm, fragrant aroma of rich Cretan herbs on splitting and, after dipping a forkful into the accompanying sweet tomato marmalade, I savour its piquancy and delicate texture.
I’m sitting at Avli in Rethymnon, Crete, one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the Greek islands. Known for honouring traditional flavours of the land and preparing them with inspired techniques, Avli seamlessly blends the best of both old and new. Like the people of every Greek island, Cretans are fiercely proud of their local dishes. There are subtle differences, but a mutual climate with sun-soaked Mediterranean earth, warm seas and cultural influences from ancient Greek, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish ruling periods bring the scattering of islands together in their cuisine profiles, producing a unique culinary landscape.
Gastronomic origins – From those historic eras until now, Greek island dishes show off the local produce, with olives, citrus, fresh seafood and local vegetables playing starring roles. Though simple, main meat dishes are never plain. Fragrant, slow-cooked rabbit, goat or lamb stews highlight the bold and bright qualities of intensely flavoured fruits and vegetables, thanks to the islands’ blazing sun and meagre rainfall. The country’s best wine varieties hail from Santorini, where volcanic soil nurtures the main grape variety, Assyrtiko, a vine that thrives on a water source of sea mist and nocturnal dew.
Above all, seafood reigns supreme. Octopuses are pinned out to dry daily, and can be seen splayed above mounds of sea urchins, calamari and shellfish as they chill on ice trays. Handpainted fishing boats haul in their catches of the day, to be consumed mere hours later. Whether it’s sea bream or sea bass, simply grilling a catch with a classic, uncomplicated blend of olive oil and fragrant herbs such as oregano or thyme often completes a recipe. Once served, a satisfying squeeze from a fresh lemon instantly brightens the scorched fish, rendering it irresistible.
Old island towns – Greek island fine dining brings these ingredients and techniques to an entirely new level. Avli’s degustation menu celebrates local culinary treasures and is inspired by the past and present in both taste and presentation. Dining in the Greek islands is also about appreciating the incredible surrounds. In Rethyrnnon, marbled door frames, ochre-painted walls, and intricate wooden Byzantine balconies draped in bright pink bougainvillea greatly enhance the experience. The conversation of passing locals and wandering travellers are the only sign that time hasn’t stopped in the most romantic of eras. At a neighbouring table, a clink of small tumblers brimming with a locally made raki – an anise-flavoured spirit – is accompanied by the toast “san ygeia mas” (to our health), setting a meal in motion among friends.
From the seaside – That familiar toast is echoed in Mykonos, my next stop, with glasses of a pale, golden-hued local white wine. At the five-star Bill & Coo Suites and Lounge, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, I’m settling into one the most prized dining verandahs in the country. This time, I’ve traded an old town island view for another quintessential island scene: the impossibly azure Aegean Sea stretching endlessly into the distance.
Adrift in the trance-like tranquillity, a white plate topped with a stunning crimson composition suddenly seizes my attention. Called Cherry Tomatoes vs. Strawberries, this dish turns out to be not a competition of flavours, but rather a harmonious balance of them. Local cherry tomatoes roasted in honey, caper cream, thyme, virgin olive oil and goat cheese complement the sweet tang of strawberries for an entirely pleasing dish. It’s the start of a degustation menu meant to be lingered over, which isn’t very hard considering the setting. By the time I’m enjoying the last delectable mouthful, the sun is slowly sinking in a fantastically coloured sky. Taking in the moment, I sit back and breathe in the quiet night air and feel the hint of a cool sea breeze. Dining in the Creek islands – a truly intriguing and breathtaking destination – is about appreciating everything that surrounds you.