On a hot summer evening in the Aegean olives have a zingy, comforting flavour that’s missing at home where they are merely really good. The same goes for watermelon. Served up free at many restaurants what is often a tasteless fruit in Scotland oozed honey sweet juice, and served chilled was wonderfully refreshing. Husband even made a drink with it and iced water.
Olives are a staple part of lives in many Mediterranean and Aegean countries, not only to eat and use in oil but also as a base for soaps and a variety of creams, lotions and potions developed over the centuries since the ancients doused their bodies with olive oil in bathhouses, and several thousand years before that.
I was into my teens before I came across even a mention of olives, and then they were treated as something of a joke – a bit like garlic. A peculiar taste that had rolled across the Channel when some customs officer’s back was turned, landing up in a few high class clubs and restaurants. I was into my twenties before I first tasted them, on a holiday that was full of firsts. The first time I’d flown for a start. We were in what was then known as Jugoslavia. How the world has changed since then!
Now fridge and cupboards have numerous jars of olives, and when abroad olives and bread are our favoured starter to a meal. My family have got used to a mother who asks for some good olives rather than boxes of chocolates. But I have to admit, that when eaten in the sun they do have an additional attraction.
Surprisingly, lamb in Pefkos was plentiful and fairly cheap when eaten in restaurants, as well as wonderfully sweet. Often it was served traditionally, slow cooked like Kleftico, or with bacon, or in a rosemary sauce.
Sometimes it was grilled as chops, or served on skewers. But always it was good.
My surprise arose from the habitat. When we looked at the bare rocks of the hills, with little vegetation, and no sign of sheep, we wondered where the lamb came from, but were assured there were plenty in the south of the island. In the Scottish Borders we have rolling hills, green grass as far as the eye can see, and millions of sheep. Yet we eat little of it (presumably much is exported) and when we do buy it the cost is steep, with restaurants charging much more than in Rhodes. So I made the most of it and ate my way through many of the lamb dishes available.
Goats we did see from the bus, munching sparse clumps of dry vegetation amongst the rocks. We had the chance to taste goat one evening, cooked on the grill, and went for it. Husband thought it tasted like a cross between beef and lamb, I thought it more like pork. Whatever, it made a main course with a difference.
Baklava, like olives, has a long history, its origins claimed by both Turkey and Greece. Layers of Filo pastry filled with a mixture of chopped, sweetened nuts and drizzled with syrup or honey. It should be sickly sweet, and it was when I’ve eaten it previously, but the baklavas I tasted in Pefkos, though all slightly different, were gorgeous and helped replace energy lost in the heat.
Sometimes it was served with a scoop of ice cream, sometimes on its own or with a few artistic swirls of garnish. At Spitaki restaurant it was occasionally served with a sparkler for an extra zing. Very seventies, but it still made me laugh and feel special.
As a change from baklava one evening I was given a similar filo pastry desert but instead of nuts the filling was a sort of custard. Good, but not as moreish as the nuts variety.
On another evening I was told a special sweet was being made for me. Again, I don’t know the name, but have made variations several times since returning home as it couldn’t be simpler or more delicious. Yogurt (I use the Turkish yogurt from our supermarket as it has the creamy flavour of what I had in Pefkos) drizzled with runny honey and topped with walnuts. I have substituted nectarines with some crushed almonds for the nuts, and it still tasted extraordinarily good.
Our meals were accompanied by a carafe of local wine, usually dry red but occasionally we opted for white. And a bottle of water. And one evening we were presented with glasses of Masticha of Chios Liqueur courtesy of the restaurant.
One final ingredient that made all these dishes and meals so unforgettable: the warm, friendly people who greeted us and brought the dishes to our tables. A return to the restaurant brought smiles, waves, chatter about the dishes, how they were cooked, the ingredients, gravitating to stories of families and villages, sons and jobs, travels and family homes. Their openness and generosity will long be remembered.