Ode to Ikarian cuisine, authentically vegetarian since time immemorial

From the moment the door opened and I set foot in Ikaria I felt that I was in a place with its own rules. The first day I saw the sunset on the beach of Na, eating watermelon with an Italian grunt and his dog. And then the dawn accompanied by violins at a festival in Mavrato. All the following days I crossed the hinterland in a jeep, observing the wild beauty of the island and the souls of its people. Self-sufficient and resilient, some seemed more like mountaineers than islanders. What are they eating;

I did not sit down to watch the tributes of the big foreign networks for the cuisine of the “centenarians”, I looked directly to find a cook that the locals consider among the best on the island. And they pointed out Eleni Karimali to me in the settlement of Pigi. In her house she hosts and feeds musafirs from all over the world, lucky ones who try authentic Ikarian recipes but also the wines made by her husband, George and their daughter Eliana. All of them are basically vegetarians.

The first thing I ask Eleni is what she loves most about Ikarian gastronomy: << Fermented foods, such as cheese, bread, wine. My favorite recipe is the handmade sheet with my own yeast. All the pies, with a particular weakness in the Ikarian pies and the machi (handmade spaghetti). I also love the aromatic plants and herbs that grow in Ikaria, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, thyme, oregano and wild herbs. I make a drink with them or I just smell them. My grandmother always had a sprig of rosemary in her ear and she smelled it. Once I asked her ‘why are you doing this?’ She replied ‘my child if I smell it my soul is resurrected’. >>

A key feature in the diet that follows is the way it is cooked, which is such that the nutrients in the food are not killed. Eleni explains to me that she never fries and cooks almost all the food, breads, pies and legumes in the wood oven. He always makes the pies with the greens and vegetables of the season. In winter with weeds and tambourine (the pumpkin). In the spring with fennel and again with tambourine. Summer with bullets, zucchini tops and ports. Cheese pies with Ikarian cheese, kathoura and kopanisti, he makes all year round.

<< I make the bunch more creative than my grandmother did to fill us up. Many times I color them with vegetables and herbs and even with vine leaves. My yeast is 40 years old since I received it from my mother-in-law. Of course I have made my own additions with doughs from our wine when it is in fermentation. Sufiko is a traditional Ikarian recipe and is made with all the vegetables of the summer garden. Zucchini is a root that grows in rivers and streams, we collect it in the winter months, cut the edible part and replant the rest so as not to reduce its population. We usually cook it as a courgette salad. >>

I am impressed by this turn to vegetarianism and since I am also from the province I can say with confidence that you will hardly meet a vegetarian housewife in a village. Eleni will answer my question about how this philosophy came about in her life.

“I grew up with this diet, mainly vegetarian. We hardly had meat at home. I typically remember the summers we spent as children on the island, eating the meat of Agios Panteleimon, Christos and Panagia. All the other food was from grandma’s garden, that is, it was all with summer vegetables. When my husband and I met, in Athens we were very interested in the environment and ecology. So we became vegetarians for several years. We raised our children completely vegetarian. At some point I realized that the diet we followed in Athens was the Ikarian diet! We came to Ikaria in ‘99 and from the beginning we wanted to have a small farm. We bought kids and chickens. “Then I realized that there is a cycle of life and that once in a while when we were renewing our animals, we could also cook meat.”

The family, therefore, did not always live in Ikaria. They lived in Athens and George Karimalis, who had inherited a 500-year-old unexploited property, came to the island on weekends to revive it and grow vines. Many times on weekends it was 4 or even 5 days when the storm did not allow the ship to return. So once Eleni decided to go down with him to Ikaria and see the work she did on the estate. “I come in November and I see how beautiful the place was after he had completed all the plantings and the winery and enchanted I suggested we come and stay permanently. Surprised by my proposal and in an instant, we changed the lives of our entire family. We decided to move permanently to Ikaria. “

Then the decision was made to turn the restored facilities into an agritourism project.

Then the family, from the demand they saw in the visitors, started organizing culinary workshops in order to revive and promote the Ikarian healthy diet-plant-based as well as the Ikarian lifestyle as a whole. “There were many who asked us what we eat, how we eat it, how we cook it, etc. It all started when we were included in the 5 regions in the world with the largest number of long-lived people, the so-called blue zones. “Nutrition, exercise, gratitude, family ties, social life, happiness and faith are, in my opinion, some of the secrets of longevity.”

As I learn from Eleni, among the activities of the visitors are the cooking and bread lessons, the participation in the harvest, the production of petimezi from the must, the collection of raisins, the collection of mushrooms, herbs, eggs, milking and cheese production, the feeding of the household. How familiar are people from urban backgrounds with this lifestyle?

“Everything seems new to them and at the same time very interesting. They like to follow me to the goats and watch me milk, they often try it themselves. They are very excited about the idea that we are replacing sugar with petimezi and must in our sweets. They consider our flavors unique and they like that we follow the healthy Ikarian diet. The foods they like the most are completely vegetarian because many of our guests are people who are looking for a healthy diet and go crazy with the simplest, our pre-baked bread with oil and oregano, all our own production. Most are unfamiliar with rural life. The simple daily life of the farm for them seems like a unique experience and fun activity on their vacation. This is the purpose of wine tourism and agritourism. Let the people of the city know the rural way of life “.{}

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