Thursday, October 18, 2012

{wanderlust} glorious greek cooking school

The main attraction of my trip to Greece was a week at the Glorious Greek Cooking School, run by Diane Kochilas and her husband Vassili on the island of Ikaria. In addition to daily cooking classes, Diane and Vassili also acted as our guides for five days packed full of food and cultural experiences. I arrived on Sunday afternoon and was met at the airport by Diane's assistant, Lizana, who piloted a huge blue van up the steep, twisty road from the airport to our home for the week, Messakti Village. My room was large but rustic (think private balcony, ocean view, and, in true island style, some local wildlife of the insect variety). The hotel was located directly across from the beach, which was covered in soft sand, and outfitted with comfy lounge chairs and umbrellas. After a quick swim, it was time to meet my classmates. In a lucky coincidence, all four of us at cooking school that week were the same age, had enrolled in the program alone, and, as you might expect, shared an obsession with food and travel. In other words, we were fast friends. 

Day One
We were up early on Day one for the name day of Saint Fanorious. Fanorious is the Saint who reveals things--misplaced items, ideas, and even, legend has it, your future spouse (spoiler alert: this one didn't work for me). Women from nearby villages bake spice cakes to bring as offerings to Saint Fanorious. After being blessed by the priest, the cakes are distributed to the congregation. Needless to say, we were the only foreigners at the church, but that didn't stop the village women from pressing slices of their cakes into our waiting hands. I think I had four pieces before noon. Clearly my week was off to a strong start. 

Next we returned to our hotel for a Greek cheese tasting and lesson with Diane. We settled in at a table near the pool to try the cheeses pictured below and to learn all about Greek dairy production. 

Later that evening it was time for our first cooking class.  Our cooking classes were held at Diane and Vassili's house, and we ate all of our meals on their lovely terrace. First up was a Greek Meze class where we made dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), keftethes (Greek meatballs), orange-fennel octopus, and, of course, plenty of tzatziki. I knew I'd love the meatballs and tzatziki, but I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the dolmades (and by how many of them I ate). I think of grape leaves as being bitter or briney, but we stuffed fresh leaves with a mixture of rice, pine nuts, currants and lemon that was so delicious, I can't wait to make them again.

Day Two
Day two began with something I thought I'd never do--milking a goat. There are 40,000 goats on the island (compared to 8,000 people) so goat products are ubiquitous on Ikaria.  We started our day with a visit to the shepherd to collect some fresh goat's milk.
After our adventure (and it was an adventure--on my first try I squirted goat milk all over my feet) we headed back to Diane's for breakfast and some cheese making. (Pictured in the center of my plate, above, is pine honey, a thick, rich honey with the consistency of peanut butter.) Making goat cheese was much easier than I'd imagined, and our finished product was amazingly delicious.
Later that afternoon (after our daily beach time) we went into town and spotted a sign for goat's milk ice cream. Since we'd already tried goat milk and goat cheese, goat ice cream seemed like the next logical step. The chocolate was good, but the lemon ice cream pictured above was truly outstanding. Sweet, sour and studded with pieces of candied lemon rind, I will be attempting to recreate it as soon as possible.  That evening at our second cooking class, we made fava puree with eggplant topping, smoked eggplant dip, zucchini fritters, and lamb with avgolemono sauce. Fava may just be my new favorite thing. It's actually a puree of yellow split peas mixed with copious amounts of olive oil. (I joked that Diane is to olive oil as Paula Dean is to butter--she kept telling us to add "a little bit" before pouring glug after glug into a dish. Did I mention that Ikarians live abnormally long lives and have little to no heart disease? Lesson learned: You can never have too much olive oil. It was awesome.)
Day Three
On the morning of Day Three, we drove across the island for an early morning swim in Ikaria's famous hot springs. We pulled over when we saw this simple wooden sign by the side of the road, and Diane and Vassili led us down a steep, rocky path to the springs. We encountered patches of water that were chilly, patches of water that were warm, and patches of water that were boiling hot. The springs are heated by sulfur, which is said to have healing properties and is supposed to be especially good for your skin.
After soaking for a while, we headed to Faros Beach for a lunch of fried seafood. In addition to squid, french fries, tomato fritters, zucchini fritters, and baked feta, Vassili also ordered us deep fried whitebait, which we were to eat whole--bones, eyes and all. I tried one (when in Rome, right?) and it was. . . crunchy.  Faros beach also had the clearest ocean water I have ever seen in my life. 
On night three, we were back in Diane's kitchen cooking up dako salad (Cretan barley rusks topped with tomato, cucumber and feta), pasta with caramelized onions and Greek yogurt, braised rabbit, and zucchini pie. We also made some almond cookies that I will be sharing with you very soon.
Day Four
Day Four began with another amazing experience--a visit to the island beekeeper. Yiorgos is in his 80s and was being followed by a documentary film crew the day we were there. Just your average morning for an octogenarian island beekeeper, right? We donned beekeeping habits and looked on nervously as he tended the hives.
Vassili told us that Yiorgos was stung at least 10 times during our visit, but each time he brushed the bees away as if they were a mere annoyance. Back at his laboratory,  we watched as he processed the honey, and we got the chance to taste fresh honeycomb (it was amazing). 

Thursday's cooking class was one I was really looking forward to--homemade phyllo dough. Rolling out the dough was actually easier than I thought it would be, and we used it to make a variety of cheese, meat and dessert pies. Our homemade phyllo was not as light and flaky as the commercial phyllo we also worked with that afternoon (pictured below) but it was still fun to try out. That night we had the evening off, so we ate our phyllo by the hotel pool before walking into town for drinks and snacks. 
Day Five
Friday began with a quick trip to a local vineyard (always a good way to start the day), where we wandered around and picked up some local sweet wine. 
Next up was an afternoon cooking class, where we prepared moussaka (did you know it's actually pronounced MOO-sa-ka?  I certainly didn't) giant beans with dill and honey (so good I've already made them again) and shrimp saganaki.
After lunch we went to the Monastery of Theoskepasti to visit the old stone temple and to taste their famous loukumades, Greek doughnuts drenched in honey. The chapel was amazing and looked like something out of a Disney fairy tale. (Doesn't it look like Rapunzel could pop out of one of those windows at any moment?) As for the lokumades, well, let's just say that I'm not willing to disclose to the entire internet how many I ate before dinner.
And to top it all off? A farewell dinner in a vineyard. Diane and Vassili's friends George and Eleni run a winery and organic farm in the hills of Ikaria. George and Eleni's green and sustainable operation is filled with olive trees, fruit trees, vegetables, and grape vines. We gathered on the patio overlooking their beautiful land just as the sun was setting, and Eleni served us one of the best meals I had during my entire time in Greece. We stuffed ourselves with rooster, ratatouille, twice baked potatoes, and the most delicious chickpeas I've ever tasted before somehow finding room for sour cherry semifreddo. 

After dinner, we asked Diane and Vassili to drop us off in Armenistis so that we could continue our final night out and taste what we heard were the island's fabulous mojitos. (In retrospect, "Greek mojitos" should probably have been a red flag, but we were convinced they were going to be amazing right up until the moment we were served giant glasses of vodka adorned with sugar and mint. Fortunately, the ouzo we ordered afterwards was perfect.) All in all, the week was a delicious adventure. Thank you to Diane and Vassili for opening your home to us and sharing your passion for Ikaria and Greek cuisine! If anyone out there is thinking about taking Diane's class or traveling to Ikaria, feel free to email me for more details. You can see more of my photos from Ikaria here.

1 comment:

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