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Lesser-known Mediterranean island escapes - Africa- Europe

Dotted among the major crowd-drawing destinations of the Mediterranean lie less-explored, modern-day sirens for food lovers, each island boasting a history-rich hinterland beyond their captivating shoreline. Jo Davey dives in

Naxos Greece

This island was favoured by hedonistic Dionysus for a good reason: an abundance of produce, including an encyclopaedic range of cheeses, make this a clever deviation from other, more famed Greek destinations

For the Ancient Greek historian and geographer Herodotus, Naxos ‘surpassed all other islands in prosperity’, its lime-coloured valleys and labyrinthine old towns rippling with life. Some 2,500 years later, little has changed. The unsung island is a cornucopia of Mediterranean crops and produce, grown by warm-hearted locals among a wealth of white marble ruins. The rare cloud over the gold-and-green landscape is usually caught by Zeus. Not the deity, said to have been raised on the island, but Naxos’s highest mountain (1,003m). The soaring grey peak welcomes the rainfall that makes Naxos the Cyclades’ most self-sufficient and fertile island. Where others crisp and sear under the Grecian sun, Naxos veritably blooms.

Its most prized crop is the potato, cultivated here since the 1700s, which form the foundation of its cuisine. A surprising side-effect of potato production was dairy – in the 16th century, locals realised the tubers grew better in areas where cows grazed, leading to an increase in cattle. Now, no trip to the Aegean island is complete without tasting traditional Naxian farmhouse cheeses. Arseniko, from the mountain village of Koronos, is believed to be 1,000 years old. Its name, meaning ‘masculine’, is said to reference the strength of the flavour: a rich, piquant tang that tingles the inside of your cheeks. Naxos is also a hub for sweet, nutty Graviera, Greece’s second most popular cheese, which can be fried like halloumi. There’s creamy, sour Xinomyzithra and its aged version, xinotyri; soft, springy komos, created by fermenting leftover thylikotyri cheese in mountain herbs.

Creative local producers are constantly adding to this encyclopaedic repertoire. Within the cool stone walls of Naxos Cheese Koufopoulos in the main town, you’ll find the classics alongside dark wheels of Naxian black cheese with orange and tangerine, galatero with leek or sesame, and cheeses pressed with wine dregs.These added extras are all part of the island’s acclaimed produce: herbs, honey, olive oil and citrus, which lends itself to the lemony local spirit, kitron. Small, family-run vineyards litter the landscape, offering wonderful, little-exported wines and the occasional un-bottled tipple, which packs a heftier, honeyed punch. It’s hardly surprising that in Greek mythology Dionysus – god of winemaking, fruit and fertility – is the protector of the island.

Such abundance has meant farm-to-table restaurants aren’t a novelty but normality, serving up foraged herbs and wild staples like goat, often seen teetering their way across the sand-coloured cliffs. Firm local favourites include rooster and rabbit, lemon-roasted lamb, spit-roasted pork and, of course, cheese-topped potatoes. Dakos, a pile of tomatoes, feta and olives atop bread soaked in golden olive oil, is a shining plate of Naxian produce.

Yet while Naxos runs over with mythos and myriad flavours, it’s entirely overlooked in favour of crowd-pulling Santorini and Mykonos. Those who do visit its legend-laden shores are privy to an authentic, unmissable Greek island that bursts across your palate like one of its sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes


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Formentera Spain

Stone walls, swaying palms and flourishing fishing villages form the backdrop for a local gastronomy that reinvents and elevates rustic dishes to new heights

A reputation for do-nothing holidays on a sun lounger belies the intricate culture and exciting food on offer in tiny backstreet cafés and bustling seafood markets a hop, skip and a jump from tourist trapsIt might not immediately conjure up images of food-laden tables, sauce-streaked plates and full, pat-worthy bellies, but food is quite literally in Formentera’s name. Thought to be derived from the Latin for ‘granary’, it was once a Roman island used for wheat production. Nowadays, it’s an unexpected food destination that just so happens to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean.

Surrounded by peacock-blue, see-through waters and white sprawling sands, the only shadow cast on Formentera’s award-winning beaches comes from its better-known sister Ibiza. To the south of the bigger island, Formentera is the smallest of the Balearics, where locals putter about on scooters, winding their way through charming rural hamlets and busy fishing ports.

But while quaint villages and relaxing seaside vistas are what lure visitors, Formentera is far from sleepy. The island has been a hub of agriculture since Moorish occupation in the early 700s, which brought the farming and irrigation techniques that formed the island’s stone-wall landscape. On top of this, fishing and salt production at the Ses Salines Natural Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, have formed the backbone of local gastronomy.

The postcard seas keep larders fully stocked, offering soft fritá de pulpo (octopus fried with potatoes and vegetables), fennel-infused tuna casserole and calamars a la bruta – squid cooked with potatoes, sobrassada (pork and paprika sausage), wine and its own ebony ink. Ceviche has become increasingly popular, with restaurants like A Mi Manera serving locally caught fish marinated in orange and tomato.

While sobrassada is sneaked into all sorts of dishes for a hit of salt and spice or spread on pa de pagès – a dense, artisanal peasant bread. Pork and lamb are the most popular meats, often found in one-pot paella wonders like fideuà. And a simple but divine local dish comes straight off the pole-propped fig trees that fleck the landscape. Fresh figs are stuffed with island goat’s cheese and ham before being baked into a tangy mouthful.

Formentera food is, in essence, rustic reinvented: staple dishes taken to new heights by creative chefs and local cooks who know their simple, spectacular ingredients inside out. It’s hard to go wrong when eating here, whether stumbling on an open-air café in a secluded village square or booking into a fine-dining garden under the stars, you’re guaranteed a feast of fresh, native ingredients. Better still, nothing is wasted. Tomorrow’s stock for bullit de peix fish stew comes from today’s offcuts.

Despite being known for its northern powder-pink salt marshes, the island is a sweet haven. Days of exploring ancient ruins, cycling and sunbathing are best finished with generous helpings of greixonera, a caramelised cream and bread pudding that uses up unsold ensaïmada pastries from yesterday’s breakfast.

Make sure to try flaó, a cheesecake flavoured with mint and wild anise – an ancient Easter recipe that can now be found any time. Anise is also one of the 30 local herbs used to make Formentera’s traditional digestif, Hierbas. Come springtime, just as tourists make their way back to the island, Formentera grandmothers begin the next batch of sweet, infinitely drinkable brew, which sits in home stills through the island’s long summer days.

Calo des Mort Formentera Mateu Bennàssar

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Djerba Tunisia

A reputation for do-nothing holidays on a sun lounger belies the intricate culture and exciting food on offer in tiny backstreet cafés and bustling seafood markets a hop, skip and a jump from tourist traps

Anchored off Tunisia’s south-east coast, Djerba is without doubt a place where sun-loving tourists can, if they like, roll out from under parasols and stroll straight to dinner at a resort restaurant. But beneath the veneer of bright white beaches and beyond the palm-sprinkled pools, Djerba has a complex history, with an undiscovered side featuring culturally rich cuisine.

Long before sun loungers took over its shores, Djerba was a land of food legend. It’s supposedly the home of the lotus-eaters, a mythical people from Homer’s Odyssey who lived off a narcotic lotus, rendering them sleepy and insouciant. Those who visited the island fell under the plant’s power and soon forgot how to return to their homes.

The lotuses might be long-gone, but Djerba’s kept its hypnotic draw over the centuries. Its history is a medley of empire-building peoples, from Berbers and Arabs to the Byzantines and Vandals. The island passed among half the countries and old kingdoms of the Mediterranean: an ever-changing conveyor belt of great civilisations that left behind picturesque ruins and diverse cultures, which helps to explain its complex food heritage.

Even a short walk from the touristy beaches into Houmt Souk, the largest town, takes you to backstreets filled with tiny local cafés, where plates are a swirl of Carthaginian, Spanish, French and Turkic cuisine. Djerba is all about rich dishes and strong flavours: for breakfast, locals smear olive oil and mouthwatering, fiery harissa paste across baguettes; lunch brings salads such as mechouia made with grilled peppers, tomatoes and garlic, and hot omek houria made with smashed spicy carrots. Later, expect to be offered ojja, the Tunisian version of shakshuka, fluffy couscous and Tunisian tajines – not the familiar clay-pot stew here, but a baked omelette filled with spices, herbs and meat or fish, usually succulent mutton or fresh tuna.

The sea has naturally played a vital part in local life. During the 15th century, Djerba was a piratical sanctuary and its beneficial trading position earned it a reputation as a sort of ‘supermarket of the Mediterranean’. Now, buccaneers and business have been replaced with small fishing villages and bustling seafood markets, where you can pick your catch and have it cooked for you in the restaurants next door. But traditions live on: Unesco-recognised charfiyah fishing is still practised on the island. You can spot the zigzags of palm barriers emerging from the waters, channelling fish into baskets on the currents.

Driving into Djerba’s rural interior, the crowds of the coast give way to quiet olive orchards, sun-crisped shrub land and one of the last remaining Jewish enclaves in North Africa. Alongside the grandiose El Ghriba Synagogue, these ancient communities are home to Tunisian-Jewish delicacies such as kofta meatballs and brik. A speciality of hole-in-the-wall cafés like Brik Ishak in Hara Kabira, this crisp pastry shell is stuffed with tuna, capers, potatoes and – when done right – a runny egg. The burst of warm golden yolk is good enough to forget home for just a little while longer.

Traditional Couryard Djerban House Djerba 1356

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Vis Croatia

A chequered past of successive occupations has left this Adriatic idyll with a legacy of diverse cuisine, often served in household eateries, with a network of vineyards appreciated since Greek and Roman times

Vis lies 50km from the crowded Dalmatian Coast but it may as well be a whole world away. Closed to foreigners for decades, the island has become a Croatian time capsule consisting of crumbling stone cottages, idyllic beach coves and home-grown cuisine. Ever since Greek and Roman rule, Vis has been known for its wines. In the ensuing centuries, the tiny island fell to French, Austrian, Italian and allied forces, each takeover ushering in a melee of trade and ingredients via its pretty cyan seas.

Its role as a sea-route stop-off ended when Yugoslav forces commandeered it as an army base in 1945, shutting out the rest of the world. Since reopening to foreign tourism in 1989, Vis has never gained the notoriety of other Mediterranean islands or developed an intense level of tourism, making it a hidden gem for those seeking a history-filled, food-centric destination.

Today, Vis appears as a stunning splash of cream and terracotta in the Adriatic, strewn with palms, pines and vineyards. Despite its tempestuous past, it held on to its reputation for fine wines, growing vines that thrive in sandy soil, and the wineries curve around the southern and eastern coasts for visitors to tour and taste. The white vugava grape is believed to have been brought to Vis by the Roman army, and the island has made a speciality of its difficult, time-sensitive cultivation. When harvested just right, vugava produces an incredibly sweet, fruity wine. Plavac mali, an immensely popular grape across Croatia, results in full-bodied, powerful reds with a high alcohol content and jammy, spiced finish. The Lipanović winery is one of the best places to sample the two grapes – not only does it produce spectacular wines, but its cellar is housed in a military tunnel left over from the former Yugoslavian army, adding a drop of history to your glass.

Offshore, the island’s luminous blue seas are replete with seafood, popular with divers and diners alike. Konoba Jastožera in Komiža on the west coast is the home of Vis lobster. The sweet, scarlet crustaceans are caught beside the restaurant, where visitors can also dine on succulent octopus and grilled fish, surrounded by glittering green shallows and lobster catchers.

Many restaurants in Vis, however, are household eateries: small home establishments producing local dishes like pogača. Two versions of this ancient filled bread battle for domination, depending on which side of the island you’re on. To the north, past citrus orchards and silver palms, the oldest settlement, Vis, is home to a Greek necropolis, Roman baths and viška pogača. This version is made with herbs, anchovies, onions and olive oil, while the komiška pogača from the western town of Komiža also includes tomatoes – a once seasonal addition now available all year. Warm, salty and full of umami, pogača is a rural loaf that, like Vis, has survived the centuries intact and entirely unspoilt.

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The Aeolian Islands Italy

In the home of the amber nectar that delighted all of Europe in days gone by, an ancient viticulture has been restored. Combined with Sicilian-style, herb-infused home cooking, this is a retreat for gourmets

The tiny spatter of sun-kissed islands off Sicily’s north coast are home to an ancient and hard-earned viticulture, until a few decades ago on the brink of extinction. Today, Aeolian vineyards have been revived by dedicated producers who are bringing old wines into a new world with delectable results.

Wine has been produced across the Aeolian Islands since the first century, but international recognition came much later at the hands of malvasia, known as the ‘vine of volcanoes’. Its sweet, syrupy dessert wine, which develops fragrant orange notes in the Aeolian soil, took Europe by storm in the 1800s, when British soldiers stationed in Sicily took quite the shine to it. The amber nectar quickly became the Aeolian’s biggest export: island economy flourished and winemakers flocked to the lush volcanic crags.

Then came phylloxera, a pest that decimated the vines, wiping out Aeolian viticulture and forcing the winemakers to emigrate. It wasn’t until the Sixties that these valuable vineyards were resurrected and the islands were once again carpeted in vines.

The island of Salina is at the heart of this turnaround. Carlo Hauner, credited with the revival, has been busy curating a new generation of sweet malvasias at the Hauner winery in Salina’s south east. The north coast is home to the Caravaglio winery producing sensational amphora-aged wines from 60-year-old vines, as well as Capofaro Locanda a wine-based boutique hotel. Although new cultivation methods are being spearheaded, traditions are kept alive and thriving through the Malvasia delle Lipari DOC, which requires grapes to be sun-dried on straw mats before pressing.

The sulphur-rich soil also supports the islands’ other crops. Capers are known as the ‘orchids of Salina’, named for the plant’s showy white and violet flowers. You’ll find capers generously sprinkled on pasta, fish, salads and in sauces. So flavoursome are they, the pizza brand Franco Manca went to Salina to source its capers – and decided to set up a restaurant there. Naturally, local cuisine is heavily influenced by southern neighbour Sicily, with plates full of fresh fish, lemon, tomatoes, garlic and strong aromatic herbs.

Another revival of recent years is taking place on Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian Islands. Ancient wheat grains long-cultivated in the region are making a comeback, with their flavoursome bread used in local dishes like pane caliatu, an Aeolian panzanella. Growers here have learned to be cautious, however, as grains have previously been responsible for one of the more colourful Aeolian tales, centred on the little westernmost island of Alicudi. Today, it is a rather forgotten, car-free outpost where slow, local life and quiet reigns. But from the 1600s, the entire population of Alicudi experienced hallucinations on a grand scale, with witches, ghosts and shape-shifters regularly reported. The visions became part of the remote island’s mythos, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that historians realised what was going on: driven by poverty, islanders had been eating mouldy rye flour infected with ergot fungus, the base of LSD. Today’s Aeolian trips are a little less fantastical but full of colour, curiosities and a culture dedicated to its food and drink.

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