Tales from a tiny island – a gourmet guide to Kythira - Greece

Where to stay

Hotel Margarita A restored, early 19th-century family home reached by a stepped pathway leading down from a labyrinth of cobbled lanes close to Chora’s castle. Two terraces overlook the Aegean Sea and surrounding countryside and each room has its own character. Doubles from £51. Chora, 00 30 2736 031711,

Hidden Retreats These stone villas built into the hillside to blend in with the local landscape, have a sophisticated design using local materials, giving seclusion and comfort to each retreat. Yoga and massage treatments are available and, on occasion, musical evenings and theatrical performances. Breakfasts feature the best local foods and products – honey, paximadia, yoghurt, fruit and eggs from free-ranging chickens. Doubles from £184 (3-night min), including breakfast. Agios Propokopios, 00 30 2736 034270,

Petrokalli Studios Self-catering apartments that come with their own terrace or balcony. There’s opportunity to learn how to cook some traditional dishes and, at appropriate times, pick olives, see wheat being harvested or gather herbs. Filio taverna (see Where to eat) is nearby. Doubles from £60. Kalamos, 00 30 6941 447648,

Sunvil hotels and apartments The company has a number of attractive small hotels, pensions and self-catering accommodation in beautiful locations, including Avlemonas, Kapsali, Chora and Agia Pelagia. Amenities vary; some have a pool or are close to a beach, or they may be self-catering apartments or houses. Neromylos apartments in Agia Pelagia, for instance, are traditionally designed in keeping with the old stone watermill close by, and located along a quiet lane within five minutes of the beach. 7 nights from £832pp including flights. 020 8568 4499,

Travel Information

Where to eat

Prices are per person for a two-course meal with wine, unless otherwise stated

Familia Cretan-born chef Yannis Voulgarakis lets the seasons and local products guide the menu in his welcoming restaurant. Mezes are varied and colourful – delicate dolmades, light, lemony beetroot dip, meltingly-soft aubergine slices – and the mains a delight: gamopilafo, slow-cooked kid with rice simmered in the meat juices, or skioufichta, carob flour-rich, hand-made pasta with slices of tiny, round courgettes, bell pepperand a savoury yoghurt sauce. Desserts come sweetened with local honey and a dessert house-wine aromatised with rose-scented geranium leaves. From £18. Fratsia, 00 30 2736 033908,

Filio Crusty loaves, pies filled with fresh cheese and wild greens, and macaroni are all made with local wheat milled here, in an outhouse. The seasonal menu based on what owners Nikos and Katerina grow, gather or make includes oven-roast artichokes, young rooster, goat baked with potatoes and home-smoked pork, served on a flower-bedecked terrace. From £17. Livadi, Kalamos, 00 30 2736 031549,

Limanaki When Andreas Kontoleon isn’t out on his fishing boat, he’s in the kitchen of his taverna about 50m from the quay. Your choice of fish or seafood depends on what he has netted: pan-fried red mullet or chargrilled octopus, perhaps. Finish with a glass or two of tsipouro liquor. From £21. Avlemonas, 00 30 2736 033013

Panaretos Owner and chef Demetrios delivers a fine community service in his open-air taverna in Potomas town square, a favourite spot among locals for celebrations. Refresh yourself with a coffee or beer while you visit the market, then come back later for salt cod with garlic sauce; plump artichokes and tender dolmades from the grill; or kolokithokeftedes (courgette fritters). From £18. Potamos, 00 30 2736 034290,

Platanos A vast plane tree shades the terrace outside an elegant, 115-year-old building, with traditional dishes such as beetroot salad with walnuts, yoghurt and olive oil and souvlaki (grilled chunks of lightly-smoked pork on a skewer). Drinks include a rosé barrel wine. From £15. Milopotamos 801 00, 00 30 2736 033397

Skandeia The owners grow, gather, harvest and preserve the produce and olive oil they use. Dishes include light, flavourful domatokeftedes (tomato fritters), melitzanosalata (aubergine dip), slow-baked goat and rabbit stew. Desserts? Home-made cake, thick, creamy yoghurt and fruit coulis. From £17. Palaiopoli, 00 30 2736 033 700,

Sotiris Simply prepared fresh fish done very well. Try the tuna salad (made with slow-cooked fish covered with olive oil and pressed for six days), pan-fried anchovies with rock samphire and grilled calamari. From £18. Avlemonas, 00 30 2736 033722

Trattamento Located on the waterfront of a quiet, picturesque bay, this friendly taverna is a family affair. Tassos Kasimatis works the grill when he’s not out collecting fennel and salt; his son, Panagiotis and sister, Vasso, look after guests, and their mother, Maria, cooks. Try fennel and cheese (both myzithra and feta) pie, fresh sardines in olive oil, tomato salad with small black olives, fleshy capers, onion and cheese. From £17. Kapsali, 00 30 2736 037226

Zourida Come to this cool, shady, space just off the main square with an appetite. The daily-changing menu is short and robust: lamb and potatoes aromatised with rosemary; pork cutlet and potatoes; briam (roasted aubergines, tomatoes, onion, potatoes and courgettes); and fresh salads are all served in generous portions. Good house wine too. From £18. Chora, 00 30 6976 444776

Food Glossary

Red mullet; the sweet, pink-fleshed and prized fish of the Greek Mediterranean. Small ones are pan-fried, larger ones grilled
Distilled from tsipouro (see below); strong, sweet, infused with cinnamon. A gentler version is flavoured with citrus and cinnamon
Or glyka tou koutaliou, literally, ‘sweets on the spoon’ (singular, glyko), consisting of fruits preserved in syrup. Favourites include sour cherry, orange peel, grape, watermelon, pear and vegetables such as aubergine and tomatoes
Coffee made the Greek way, in a small, long-handled coffee pot (briki), and served with the grounds in small cups; ask for sketo (without sugar), metrio (a little sugar) or glyko (sweet)
Kreas sto fourno
Meat (lamb, kid, pork) oven-baked with olive oil and herbs in an open pan, usually with potatoes
Rock samphire, collected from sea-facing cliffs and rocky shorelines; served with fish, lightly boiled or sprinkled with salt and preserved in vinegar
Farmhouse cheese stored in olive oil; made from late October when milk becomes plentiful after the dry summer
Smoky, charred aubergine flesh mixed with herbs, tomato and olive oil
Pies big and small, with fillings changing with the seasons
Distilled liquor made at the end of the grape harvest from the residue in the wine press

Food and Travel Review

Drama is never far away from this idyllic island of precipitous cliffs, small, secluded bays and alluring beaches perched in the Mediterranean between the Aegean and Ionian Seas. There’s another kind of beach on Kythira too: high on an inland hillside outside Mitata, the old Byzantine island-capital, a thick, shell- and fossil-filled layer of sand spills out of a ridge on to a path. For Kythira, like its famous child Aphrodite, was born of the sea; the island has risen out of it at least three times.

Local honey producer Giannis Protopsaltis, whose surname (meaning ‘first psalm-singer’) dates back to those prosperous and religious Byzantine times, is happy to play guide to this remarkable geological story. ‘I consider myself a server, or slave, of the bees; we don’t make money from them, we serve them,’ explains Giannis. ‘By collecting pollen and transforming it into honey, bees alone on the planet gather their food, keep it safe and give it to humans.’

They do this in their hive, a home that bees can make anywhere. In past times, man destroyed it in order to collect the honey and it took the ingenuity of a Greek in classicism – a Kytherian, coincidentally – to design a bee-friendly, reusable hive. Its shape, forgotten for millennia then rediscovered in the 19th century, is still used by bee-keepers worldwide: wooden frames, their distance apart measured by a thumb knuckle, slotted into a wooden box.

Giannis moves his hives to follow the flowers among the herb-covered rocks of Palaiopolis, an ancient city-port on Kythira’s west coast, and the rich, aromatic honey that his bees produce tell the stories of the flowers they’ve frequented.

‘The hills change colour here,’ he says. ‘From the bright yellow of broom to the sage and thyme blossom that turns them deep pink.

‘When bees leave the hive they go first towards the sun, then the flowers, and they will always find their way back to the hive. If you eat their honey you become part of Kythira.’

Palaiopolis lies in a valley leading to a small, sheltered bay reputed to be Aphrodite’s bathing quarters. Naturally, for such a famous goddess, there are several versions of her birth. Homer described her as the daughter of Zeus and Dione, but another ancient story has her born from the foam that formed where the severed genitals of her father Uranus splashed into the sea – right here, in Kythira’s sapphire-blue waters.

These shores are home too to murex-bearing mussels whose gland-fluid, when exposed to air, transforms into the radiant, purple-colour pigment so beloved by the emperors of old. The pigment is insoluble, and turning it into a solution for dyeing fabrics was one of antiquity’s well-kept secrets. Kythira thrived on the trade, and Aristotle knew it as Porphyrousa, ‘the purple one’.

Nearby, Skandeia taverna sources its superbly-fresh vegetables and horta (wild greens) from this fertile valley, kritimo (samphire) from the rocky shoreline 80m away, and herbs from the surrounding hills. Land-to-table eating is a reality here. So too is sea-to-table, with fish and cephalopods – octopus, squid, cuttlefish – needing transporting only a couple of kilometres to Skandeia from a fisherman’s boat in Avlemonas. This pretty, pocket-size fishing village was once the principal port: Elgin’s ship carrying a consignment of the Parthenon sculptures to London sank here in 1802. Raised from the sea bed, it continued on its journey.

A 16th-century Venetian fortress guards the tiny cove as two fishermen return from a two-hour trip that began before sunrise. The evening before, Giorgos Kontoleon and his nephew, Andreas had laid eight nets a few metres deep and close to the shore of the beautiful bay. Now they have a good catch from these clear, clean waters: a metre-long swordfish, 3kg of octopus, red mullet, dentex and barracuda – altogether there are around 40 fish in the haul, destined for the kitchens of tavernas close by, including Andreas’s own, Limanaki.

Kythira’s capital, Chora, is a small town of many churches and cobbled, pedestrian lanes hugging the steep sides of a formidable ridge that supports the imposing Venetian-era castle. But the island’s hub is 20km north, in Potamos. In its weekly market, Minos Davaris sits at a trestle table piled high with seductive cheeses. Next to him, his wife sits behind a huge, homemade pie, cut into portions ready to sell: golden pastry filled with spinach, two kinds of myzithra (fresh cheese) – one with sea salt, one without – lathotyro (cheese stored in olive oil), eggs and fresh fennel. The ingredients are their own, all grown, collected or foraged. ‘I make lathotyro from half goats’, half sheeps’ milk and store it in my olive oil for three months, sometimes a little less,’ says Minos. ‘Lathotyro is made this way here because, in the old days we had so much farmhouse cheese that we needed a way to keep it longer. We have many caves on the island, so we have space and a good temperature to store cheese.’

A few stalls along, cheesemaker Irine Gigas, from the nearby village of Trifylianika, sells goats’/sheeps’ butter and myzithra. She made the small stack of creamy-white cheeses yesterday, and the drier, pale-yellow ones – ideal for grating over pasta – 20 days ago. Bottles of olive oil stand alongside. ‘I pressed the oil last November,’ she says. ‘We never store it for longer than a year as we always need the space for the next year’s oil.’ Next to Irine, there are small jars of pale, clear chamomile honey. Asked how many flowers would be needed for the bees to make one jar of this exquisite nectar, she replies simply, ‘An enormous number, enormous.’

Across the road from this small, vibrant market, the historic, century-old Astikon Kafenion is still the place to go for well-made kafes (Greek coffee). Every summer, owners Maria Kontoleon and her brother, Dimitri, host musicians from all over Greece, and many famous names have joined local players and singers performing here. This iconic, much-loved café has always been multi-purpose – the tale that one old man would bring his goat with him when he came for a coffee, chat and haircut doesn’t surprise regulars.

The population of this island of fine produce, magnificent views, 350-odd churches, pure, windswept air and narrow, scenic roads has been far greater in the past than it is now.

Kythira was a battleground for the Spartans and Romans, an important stop-off for crusaders, occupied by medieval Venetians and, in 1537, it was attacked by the terrifying pirate Barbarossa. He destroyed the then-capital, Palaiochora, and made slaves of all the inhabitants who hadn’t already hurled themselves from the surrounding cliffs. The surname Sklavos, or slave, is still common here, and today Palaiochora has become a fascinating ghost town.

During the 20th century, much of Kythira’s population emigrated, but some have returned. Baker Pavlos Coroneos, whose father, also a baker, worked in Melbourne before returning to build their thriving Karavas bakery, explains why. ‘I’m comfortable in my work here,’ he says. ‘We have something that’s been made for centuries, yet fits perfectly into our modern world, into our desire to waste nothing: paximadia, the fresh bread that’s baked a second time. It was made because, in the past, when people worked in the fields all day, fresh bread quickly turned stale.’ He runs through the process of making paximadia. ‘We make a dough from flour, yeast, spring water and salt, form it into long pieces and cut these by hand with a sharp knife and a twist to each cut. We let the dough “blossom” (rest) before baking it briefly at high temperature, then bake at 120C for three hours. We make 40,000 paximadia a day. In the old days people planted olive trees for the future, and I want to use their knowledge – today we need it more than ever,’ he says.

Climatically speaking, Kythira is an island in two parts. The east is dry, the west swept by strong, winter-only, westerly winds, and Kytherians have adapted to this. A few kilometres north-west of Karavas, in verdant Amir Ali springs, versatile farmer Harry Tzortzopoulos explains how villagers have, in the past, made best use of the island’s low rainfall: as the spring water flows downhill, it’s blocked with boulders in appropriately-flat places, essentially trapping it in small ponds to create a ‘stepping-pond’ effect.

‘The idea is not to store water, but to create areas of moisture where the water can sink into the ground,’ he says. ‘If left on the surface, water soon disappears, but when it sinks, it can be used later, especially in the hot months. We are hoping to reach springs higher up the hillside and tap into them the same way, to be able to supply more villages with water.’

In this picturesque, narrow ravine filled with beautiful, spreading plane trees, Harry talks about how he became an organic olive oil producer:

‘It was an accident. We realised that for us, the olive tree is a symbol of belonging, but how often is the olive oil you taste fresh and aromatic? Fine, polyphenol-rich olive oil starts with healthy soil and subsoil, and we are working to preserve it here.’

Nikos and Katerina Kalligeros also live with the land, not just on it. Twenty-four years ago they opened Filio taverna in Kalamos, south-east Kythira. ‘I want to reduce our food footprint to zero’, says Nikos, standing alongside his handsome, colourful roosters and the plump geese among the flowers beneath his olive trees. In Filio’s large, room-size larder, shelves heave under the weight of sea salt, huge jars of kritimo, capers and volvoi (wild bulbs) preserved in salt and vinegar, and glyka (fruit preserved as sweets and served on spoons) of lemon, strawberry, mandarin, cherry, pear. Dried herbs for teas hang in bunches, and small barrels contain deep-auburn carob pods, plump figs, almonds and dried beans.

‘I smoke our pork for six hours over rosemary, sage and pinewood, hunt for rabbits and, last year, pressed 2,000kg of olive oil’, Nikos explains. ‘We make breads, macaronia (pasta) and pastries from the wheat we grow.’ It helps that his father was a seed-saver. ‘It’s taken me six years to be able to grow enough of these two old Kytherian wheat varietals,’ says Nikos. ‘The golden, hairy one grows in Crete too – it’s good for bread-making. The other one, without hair, makes a soft flour, which is extremely good for sweet pastries; it only grows here, in Kythira.’

In front of a small, white-washed church stands the enormous millstone used to make olive oil by his grandfather and those before him. Fig and almond trees grow close to the rocky path leading to the church, flowering herbs spring up all around and a small olive grove and neatly-planted vineyard cover the sloping hills nearby. ‘I grow arikaras grapes for our wine – they harvest early, in mid August – which have a flavour of the past. They were brought to Kythira from Smyrna [now Izmir in modern-day Turkey] 100 years ago,’ says Nikos.

Beyond this hauntingly beautiful landscape the Mediterranean Sea sparkles and beckons. Greeks are keen to point out that Kythira is not just a place, it’s a state of mind. If it is, then its roots are in the island’s story: a love of the generous honeybee, music and glorious purple, food producers who seem touched with a little madness and, of course, the birth of everyone’s favourite goddess, Aphrodite.

Words by Rosemary Barron. Photography by Mark Parren Taylor. They travelled courtesy of the Greek National Tourist Organisation.

This feature was taken from the August/September 2022 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.

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