Where to stay
Aressana Spa Hotel & Suites Friendly boutique hotel and a tranquil oasis in the centre of the main town Fira. A short stroll from the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, shops and other points of interest. When you dine in their Ilfestioni restaurant, leave room for the next day’s bountiful breakfast: traditional dishes of island meat, sweet tomato paste, capers, pies and loukoumades (small fried doughnuts with fresh cheese, honey and sesame). Doubles from £220. Fira, 00 30 22 8602 3900, aressana.gr
Canaves Oia Hotel Certainly one of Santorini’s finest hotels and up there with the best in Europe. It sits with a plum location overlooking the caldera with 18 rooms in the hotel and 26 suites in a separate, adult-only anex. Its bathrooms are beautifully styled, as are the communal spaces. Doubles from £320. Oia, 00 30 22 8607 1453, canaves.com
Rocabella Located in a quiet part of the clifftop north of Imerovigli, with good views of the caldera. Breakfast buffet of cheese, cold meat, fruit salad and a modern rendition of dakos salad (rusks, tomatoes and feta). In its Axinos restaurant, chef Iosif Spanomanolis creates modern dishes from island and mainland ingredients. Wine list includes Argyros aidani, Gaia assyrtiko, Sigalas rosé and mainland wines. Doubles from £250. Imerovigli, 00 30 22 8602 3711, rocabellasantorini.com
Voreina Gallery Suites Small boutique hotel in the heart of Pyrgos with bold Cycladic bioclimatic architecture. North-facing with dramatic vistas and a small gallery showcasing modern art. Doubles from £200. Pyrgos, 00 30 22 8603 0700, voreinasuites.gr
Santorini is a Cycladic island in the Aegean Sea. Flights from the UK
take around 4 hours and the time is 2 hours ahead of GMT. Currency is
the euro. Summers are hot, with an average high temperature of 27C
and an average low of 22C.
British Airways flies to Santorini International from London City and Heathrow several times a week, from £332 return. britishairways.com
easyJet operates a daily direct flight from London Gatwick to Santorini from late March to early November, from £280 return. easyjet.com
Pyrgos Rent A Car will have a car waiting for you at the airport, making it easy to explore the island’s back roads, wineries, tavernas and beaches. 00 30 22 8603 1190, pyrgosrentcar.com
The Greek National Tourism Organisation provides a wealth of useful information for planning your trip to Santorini. visitgreece.gr
Essence of Cyclades by Nana Dareioti, Thalia Tsichlaki and A.N
Androulidakis has extensive recipes and information on local cuisine. Buy
it in restaurant Selene (see Where to Eat) and good island bookshops.
Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power by John Szabo (Jacqui Small, £30) is a resource for the history, unique characteristics and styles of wines produced on volcanic soil, including Santorini.
Where to eat
Prices are for two courses, with a carafe of wine, unless otherwise stated.
Giorgaros Close to Akrotiri, this taverna offers spectacular views across the caldera. Simple and flavoursome fish dishes comprise only what has been freshly caught: try grilled or baked sargos (sea bream), lavraki (sea bass) or glossa (sole). Don’t miss the kakavia (fish soup) or fried shrimp. From £20. Faros, Akrotiri, 00 30 22 8608 3035
Metaxy Mas Opened on chef-owner Kostas Chryssocherakis’s name day in 2004 in a lovely village. Santorinian ingredients and Cretan dishes are centre-stage: yoghurt-baked lamb with coriander, sepia-coloured cuttlefish pilaf, pomegranate salad, feta in flaky pastry, Santorini fava with capers. From £25. Exo Gonia, 00 30 22 8603 1323, santorini-metaximas.gr
Red Bicycle A quiet terrace ideally located for people-watching in ever- crowded Oia. Chef Dinos Samourakis makes good use of quality island produce; try home-made dolmades, tomato keftedes, aubergine salad, and cod with beetroot. From £42. Oia, 00 30 22 8607 1918
Santo Wines Enjoy the sweeping caldera and dramatic sunsets from the terrace while you dine on local products – salads, good cheese pies, fava, and koufeto (sweet almond preserve). Wine is sold by the glass and waiters are knowledgeable. Try the multi-award-winning vinsanto, made from grapes sun-dried and aged in oak barrels, and a light sparkling rosé. From £21; wine tours from £8. Pyrgos, 00 30 22 8602 2596, santowines.gr
Selene For 30 years owner Giorgos Hatzyiannakis has set a high standard for fine dining on Santorini. Chef Panos Tsikos brings a modern touch to dishes such as fava-stuffed squid; mackerel with Santorini peas, fried fish scales and soured milk sauce and roast lamb and aubergine with black olive paste and caper chutney. Ask sommelier Georgia Tsara to recommend one of the fine local or mainland Greek wines. Also offers cooking classes. From £52. Pyrgos, 00 30 22 8602 2249, selene.gr
Ta Dichtia On the attractive terrace a mere hop from the sea, try chef owner Michalis Troulakis’s fish of the day – grilled, fried or oven-baked; Santorini salad (sun-dried and fresh tomatoes, onion, chloro cheese, cucumber, caper leaves); cuttlefish in its own ink, wine and olive oil, and an array of meze. Finish with yoghurt, honey and fresh fruit or glyka (see Food Glossary). From £22 (whole fish are priced by the kilo). Perivolos Beach, Agios Georgios, 00 30 22 8608 2818, tadichtia.com
To Psaraki Enjoy the view over Vlychada harbour with grilled stuffed
sardines, octopus or whole grouper, marinated shrimp, crab salad,
pan-fried bonito fillet, barbounia and a fine taramasalata (nothing like our
supermarket gloop). Chef-owner Thanasis Sfougaris has a good touch
with local vegetables too. Finish with a super-sweet galaktoboureko
(custard pie) and a glass of slightly rouged and honeyed vinsanto. Has
an excellent list of other local wines. From £27 (whole fish are priced
by the kilo). Vlychada, 00 30 22 8608 2783, topsaraki.gr
- Flower buds and berries are preserved in sea salt, leaves in vinegar; berries are also dried. Traditional uses include with fava, sea bass and in Santorini saladChloro Island goat’s cheese; the best is four to six days old. Used in sweet and savoury dishes, as a filling for pies, in salads and as a dessert with fruits and honey
- Dried pulse grown on many Cycladic islands, but only Santorini fava has PDO status. Served as a purée, with capers, caper leaves, olive oil and a little chopped onion, with bread on the side, or as a soup
- Glyka tou koutaliou
- ‘Spoon sweet’, or glyko for short. Any fruit, and many small vegetables, are made into sweet, syrupy glyka – tomatoes are a Santorini favourite
- Meatballs or vegetarian versions are popular throughout Greece; on Santorini they are made with tomatoes, flour and fresh herbs and fried in olive oil
- Generic term for wild greens. The best hereis sea chicory, collected from cliffs and shoreline
- Rock samphire, crunchy and sea-salty;often eaten pickled, but delicious fresh
- Sausages made from chopped pork mixed with wine and herbs (usually fennel), smoked, then hung in the hot wind for up to five days
- Traditional Easter open pastry, now popular year-round; filled with mastic-flavoured anthotyro cheese
- Grape must; different varietals impart their own special flavour. Used in cakes, biscuits and paximathi, they’re especially good with poached figs
- Collectors are immortalised in Minoan wall paintings; used today in pastries and superb island bread
- Distilled spirit made from the vine remnants after the grapes are pressed. Sometimes made from mulberry or prickly pear. Also known as raki or tsigouthia
- White aubergines
- Shaped like a large egg; beautiful, creamy-white and often with purple streaks. Served in many dishes when in season, and always with olive oil
Food and Travel Review
Spectacular, magnificent, breathtaking: just three of the superlatives commonly used to describe Santorini (or ‘Thera’, in antiquity), yet they don’t really prepare you for the Aegean island’s ethereal vistas. In the 17th-century BC, a volcanic eruption destroyed the island. It split and sank, putting paid to a prehistoric Minoan civilisation to create a deep caldera (‘cauldron’) surrounded by high, lava-lashed cliffs. Centuries of human ambition have since created a stunning landscape with picturesque white and blue cliffside villages, and a terroir that’s producing award- winning wines matched with truly exceptional food.
Deep appreciation and understanding of their challenging environment has allowed Santorini’s inhabitants to farm and fish for over 6,000 years. The trade-wealthy Minoans built a thriving city on the coast, protected from destructive northerly winds. Two millennia later, islanders built yposkafa (dwellings dug into rock) along the brow of the caldera in Oia, Fira and Imerovigli to protect against Arab raiders. By the late 19th century, the island was prospering again (shipping and wine), and elegant mansions appeared alongside the iconic blue-domed churches and cave houses. The 20th century brought poverty and a severe earthquake, and many left the island. This was the Santorini I encountered in 1964: a car and airport-free hinterland of steep, winding cobbled lanes, oil lamps, hundreds of working donkeys, and the ancient site of Akrotiri still buried under ash. This memory never left me and 20 years later I returned to run a cookery school in the village of Oia. Water was becoming scarce then, and newly arrived electricity was likened to God’s will – sometimes on, sometimes off. But the fava, tomatoes, capers, barley bread and wine still tasted extraordinary.
Concern for the continuing quality of these products is at the heart of Yiannis Nomikos’s work. He takes me to the sheltered south-east of the island where fava thrives in the dry pumice soil. It’s harvest time and the 5-8cm pods are stacked into neat heaps in the small fields and left for up to 20 days to dry: ‘You’re not doing it right, do it right,’ a young Yiannis remembers his father shouting, as he failed to rake the piles properly; to expose and dry the lower pods. Thus chastened, he has since taken great care in preparing fava: ‘We pod the beans, remove their skins and spread them out to dry. Until six years ago, everyone on the island did all this by hand. Today, a small threshing machine helps with what was once labour-intensive, back-breaking work – separating chaff and beans – but nothing can change fava’s temperamental growing habits. Inclement weather can mean it won’t grow at all.’
In a neatly planted field not far away, 80-year-old Christoforos Fousteris tends rows of low-growing, leafy tomato plants. Brought to Santorini by ships returning from Egypt for the construction of the Suez Canal, these small, ridged, sweetly juicy fruits thrive here. I meet Christoforos in a small square in nearby Emborio, where he’s chatting to his farm-neighbour, Manolis Tsigalas, who’s selling potatoes, cucumbers and courgettes from the back of his truck. Driving Christoforos home along rutted, narrow lanes lined with dry-stone walls, we pass a small monastery, fields of barley and the occasional fig tree. With the energy of a far younger man, Christoforos takes us around his plot. Yiannis explains, ‘He mounds the soil at the base of the plants so as to protect any roots that might be exposed by the winds. The best tomatoes grow within the canopy of foliage, close to the roots and sheltered from the sun. Seeds taken from these tomatoes “remember” this, so these are the best ones to plant next year.’ Much of the crop here is sun-dried ready for export as one of the finest PDO products on the planet.
Now noon, the soil is grey and powdery, yet the only crop watered here is the white aubergine. Soil is kept fertile with crop rotations of tomatoes, fava, clover and barley, and the heavy night mists that blankets the island even in summer months. The result is produce with intense, distinctive flavour. George Hatzyiannakis, owner of Selene restaurant in the village of Pyrgos, was the first restaurateur to give top billing to local ingredients and native varietal wines when he opened 30 years ago, and still does: ‘Why should I change now, when we have the real story of our foods and wines right here?’
When maths teacher Paris Sigalas started making wine from Santorini’s native varietals in 1991, he went against trends. While his assyrtiko wines have won many awards, he’s enjoying experimenting with another native grape, aidani: ‘We’re doing it the old way, like nykteri [an island method of making wine]. It’s a very interesting varietal, with unique potential. It has a more grassy, buttery feel in the mouth.’ He also has a wine he has named Kavaleiros, ‘the man that rides the horse’. ‘I’m emotionally connected to this wine. I used to enjoy walking through this man’s vineyard. He was very old and full of passion for his wine. So when I asked to buy his grapes, he responded, “Who are you, for me to give you my grapes?” For ten days he led me on. Finally, we became friends.’ Paris vinified Kavaleiros in 2009 but sadly his friend died before he could taste it.
Santorini’s pumice soil contains no potassium, so pH is low and grape acidity high – ideal conditions for the island’s three most important white varietals: assyrtiko, aidani and athiri. In his vineyards near Pyrgos, master winemaker Haridimos Hatzidakis tells me, ‘There were more than 50 native grape varietals here in the past, but our soil can be poor, so only some varietals have survived. Wine is a living organism and belongs in its place. I love and respect this terroir, environment and especially the vineyard, which is why I’ve always produced organic wines.’ He is now considering biodynamic production and, in preparation, cleverly rebuilding more of the old dry-stone terraces that cover this area. We walk past his crops of assyrtiko, aidani and mandilaria (a red varietal) to a lovely, small vineyard called Mylos just above a church. Here, vines are grown ‘the old way’, their stems shaped into rising circles as they grow, forming ‘baskets’. Covered by leaves that collect the heavy night dew, the grapes (growing inside the basket) benefit from dripping water and their protective daytime shade. While we walk, I can sense some trepidation, ‘We want the meltemi winds to blow now, not the hot, dry south winds. These caused havoc for us last year.’ Meltemi, or etesian (from the Greek for ‘annual’) winds blow across the Aegean from the north, during the summer months, bringing cool continental air.
‘People have a desire to be informed about local wines, foods and gastronomy; people want to know their history,’ Selene’s sommelier, Georgia Tsara, tells me. I think she’s right. I certainly want to know why renowned winemaker Yiannis Tselepos is producing assyrtiko here, when he has wineries in the mainland regions of Mantinia and Nemea. ‘My philosophy is to grow grapes where they belong. Santorini is the best possible place to grow the assyrtiko grape, so I come here. I don’t expect the grape to come to me.’ He has collected medals for his assyrtiko since first creating it in 2014.
While not quite so important commercially, capers – the unopened flower buds of the caper plant – also rely heavily on Santorini’s soil, topology and climate. While plentiful in the wild, they are difficult to cultivate. Expert foragers Artemis and Katerina carefully pick buds from the huge, bushy plants cascading down the east-facing cliff near their home. ‘I layer them in this barrel with rock salt,’ Katerina explains. ‘After one month, they’ll be ready.’ She takes me into the storeroom, a natural cave in the cliff. ‘We add them to beans or aubergine lathera (slow-baked in olive oil), for added flavour.’ Throughout the spring, they pick caper leaves too. ‘Only the young, tender ones, with rounded not pointed ends.’ Caper leaves are stored in vinegar and are at their best before they’re a year old. Appropriately enough, rutin-rich capers are said to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis – a reason, perhaps, that they were imported into medieval England and sold to the upper classes.
You are never far from the sea on this crescent-shaped island, but although extraordinarily beautiful, the caldera acts as a stark reminder of the fearsome power of nature. Anthi Arvaniti, one of three daughters in a long line of Akrotiri Faros (lighthouse) fishermen, is on the deck of her family’s fishing boat pointing out a tiny, whitewashed church at the base of a cliff. St Nicholas is the patron saint of fishermen, and on his birthday many congregate here in their boats. On deck, Mohammed, who has worked for Anthi’s father for 15 years, is emptying the 12 shrimp baskets that he laid and marked 300 metres offshore yesterday evening. Anthi is pleased: ‘We have about four kilos [a mid-size catch] and two octopuses. We’ll return the smaller one as it’s not big enough.’
Mohammed pulls in the nets, and for the next 30 minutes, he swiftly and steadily creates two tidy piles – one, with the net holding fish, the other without. He collects fish suitably sized for the table – tiny-beaked parrot fish (their liver is a delicacy when very fresh), cuttlefish, barbounia (red mullet – more expensive than a slave in Greek antiquity), and many in the rockfish family, and gently tosses them into a container. Inedible ‘garlic fish’ – so bony that even cephalopods won’t eat them – and smaller fish go back into the sea. ‘We [local fishermen] are working together to stop over-fishing and keep the seas fertile,’ Anthi tells me. Meanwhile, Mohammed is pulling in a 3kg eel with a small fish still in its mouth, a good-sized ray and a lobster. ‘In his taverna, my father never stores a lobster near its mortal enemy, the octopus. For in its fear the lobster will lose a great deal of its weight.’ As we head back to shore, Anthi fries shrimps for us. Never has seafood tasted better.
It tastes as good, though, in two island tavernas we visit, both owned by Cretan chefs. In Metaxy Mas, Kostas Chryssocherakis prepares meltingly tender marinated fresh tuna topped with capers and a dish of rock samphire to perfectly match a 2014 Hatzidakis. A few miles south, in Perivolos, Michalis Troulakis shows me how to make a Cretan fisherman’s dish: he places a 3-4kg whole, cleaned grouper in a heavy saucepan, adds eight small potatoes – a deep yellow colour from the volcanic soil – covers it all with sea water and lets it simmer for 40 minutes. Then he whisks lemon juice into the gelatinous liquor and serves us up a feast.
The huge respect these chefs and winemakers demonstrate for the products of their strange, sensitive terrain and ferociously hot and windy climate appears at other moments, too. As I enjoy chef Eleni Kokka’s delicious breakfast dishes at the Aressana hotel – sfougato (egg and potato pie), cheese pies with thyme honey, revani (gooey honey-soaked orange cake) – owner Evangelia Medrinou appears with a tray of plump katsouni (Santorini cucumbers.) As she cuts one in half and scoops out the seeds, she tells me, ‘We like to take katsouni to the beach, where we find a limpet, eat it, then use its serrated shell, still salty from the sea, to scoop out the sweet pulp.’
With its huge number of summer visitors, I fear for this small island’s wonderful produce, and the community of – predominantly ageing – foragers and farmers who know exactly how to find and cultivate them in difficult terrain. Because like in many aspects of life, it is out of true hardship that the finest things are grown.
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