When you think of Greek cuisine, surely tzatziki, moussaka, baklava and feta cheese made in 100 ways comes to mind. But what about candied eggplant, quince marmalade, kormos me biskota, koulourakia, sage tea, cream of chestnut, glyko karydaki, halite and petimezi? These are some of the unique delicacies in the agricultural paradise of Greece’s southern Peloponnese peninsula. While I didn’t go there for a culinary tour, I could have and encourage foodies to do so.
In October 2020, I returned to Greece to write a story for BBC Travel online about one of the oldest languages in the world called Tsakonika, which is spoken in about a dozen villages in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese. My interviewees and locals introduced me to a range of culinary products unique to their villages as a serendipitous bonus on my trip.
My interviews began in the town of Leonidio, the de facto capitol of Tsakonia, the region in which people speak the rare language. En route there from Athens, my gracious Peloponnesean navigator George and his son (my translator) Dionysis showed me the Temple of Hercules nearby which Assyrtiko wine grapes were growing. This common Greek varietal makes fruity white wines and yummy road snacks.
“Fruit always tastes better when it’s stolen,” joked George as I dangled a bunch of grapes in my mouth.
We also spontaneously sampled ripe figs, which grow in abundance in the Peloponnese along with a range of other fruit and olive trees. (FYI, figs are the oldest cultivated fruit in the world, dating back more than 11,000 years!)
In Leonidio, I was surprised to learn that in addition to Tsakonian culture, it is equally famous for an unusual, sweet variety of eggplant that’s skinny with thin violet and white stripes. It’s so celebrated that the town hosts an annual international festival called Melitzazz (eggplant + jazz in Greek) featuring products and dishes made with this vegetable. (I imagine producers grooving with eggplants in their hands like maracas.) Products I recommend myself are eggplant marmalade and candied baby eggplant in a syrup made with warm spices and almonds. The latter is divine atop Greek yogurt.
I was also introduced by Leonidians to quince marmalade and kormos or mosaiko me biskota (a sliced chocolate log filled with crushed biscotti). Quince is high in pectin, making it ideal for marmalade. In fact, this word derives from marmelo, the Portuguese word for quince. As Sicilians and Italians are genetically very close to the Peloponneseans, it’s no surprise that biscotti (hard Italian biscuits) made their way to this region. Alas, the Greek version of Italy’s “chocolate salami” was created as kormos (log) or mosaiko (mosaic) of biscotti. This indulgent sweet was offered to me for breakfast and it kick-started my morning better than coffee!
The next stop was Pera Melana, a mountainous village near Leonidio. There the son of a friend of my interviewee took me on his scooter to see the famed eggplant growing in his garden along with orange, pomegranate and fig trees. My interviewee’s friend and her daughter made fresh-baked bread in a stone hearth and graciously shared it with me over a delicious omelet stuffed with fried feta cheese. They also introduced me to Greek wine cookies called koulourakia, which go well with sage tea (aptly named as studies show the herb can improve cognitive function), Greek coffee (thick, boiled espresso) or frappé (iced, frothy coffee made with instant Nescafe and evaporated milk).
My interviews ended in inland Kastanitsa, a village meaning “little chestnut” because of the many chestnut trees that grow there. Not only are chestnuts roasted on an open fire, they are used to make a delicious, creamy spread (think Nutella made with chestnuts instead of hazelnuts without palm oil or milk). En route, we were halted by an entourage of goats crossing the road.
After work was done, George kindly invited me to dinner with his family at their home in Tripoli, the capitol of the Peloponnese region. It was prepared by his wife, Argiro, a wonderful cook, who introduced me to additional delicacies: fresh-picked olives and raw pistachios from their own trees, glyko karydaki (green walnut preserves), vyssino glyko koutaliou (sour cherry preserves) and halite rock salt hand-made by a friend. (The word halite is derived from the ancient Greek word for salt háls). There are far more olive trees than people in the Peloponnese (86 million versus 1.2 million) and raw pistachios upstage their roasted counterparts in beauty with bright pink and green colors. The green walnuts are the entire fruit, not just the nuts, picked when tender before the hard inner shell is formed. The rock salt had tiny bits of stone in it, proving it was homemade, that could be easily picked out.
The next day George and Argiro kindly took me their friend’s organic winery Kalogris, the first of its kind in the Peloponnese. This region grows the vast majority of Greece’s wine grapes and those at Kalogris – such as the white-wine making, red-skinned Moschofilero – are grown without any chemicals. Their wines are produced by spontaneous fermentation from natural yeast in the air. Kalogris also produces a unique by-product from its wine grapes called petimezi (iron-rich molasses).
Two of the best Protected Designation of Origin appellations in Greece are Nemea and Mantinia, both located in the eastern Peloponnese. Their vineyards are planted at altitudes as high as 800 meters (2,500 ft) above sea level, literally producing “high-life” wines. I recall Greek wines 20 years ago being limited to retsina, a sweet white wine infused with pine resin. Today, they are competitive with other Mediterranean wines, often using unique Greek varietals.
While I went to the Peloponnese in search of ancient words, I was by default inundated with regional foods that made me speechless. As a serious foodie who has worked with chefs around the world, it’s rare for me to meet a crop, ingredient or dish I don’t know. In the Peloponnese, there were several that were Greek to me. “Yamas” (cheers in Greek) to this agricultural paradise!