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Bon Appetit, Magazine

Bon Appétit!

Undiscovered Kythera.

— Adapted from an article by Rand Richards Cooper; produced by Mara Papatheodorou; recipes by Aglaia Kremezi, Bon Appétit, May 2002

Reproduced on the Epicurious website:



If you associate anything with Kythera, it's probably romance. One myth names the island as the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love; and I could see the very spot from the sun-splashed terrace at the Hotel Margarita.

"They say she was born right there," the hotel's friendly owner, Panajotis Fatseas, told me, pointing to an unremarkable offshore islet called Avgo (the egg). He seemed doubtful. So have many visitors down through the centuries who've come expecting the sylvan glades and cavorting lovers of Watteau's famed 1717 painting, The Pilgrimage to Cythera. It's not that Kythera isn't beautiful. It is, but with the desolate beauty of villages huddled on windswept moors and solitary monasteries high atop rocky cliffs.

From my hotel it was easy to explore the town of Kythera, all the way up to the crumbled stone walls and rusted cannons of its sixteenth-century Venetian fortress. Back in the nearly deserted town (there was only a handful of tourists on the entire island), I wandered streets where whitewashed houses made a canvas for pink bougainvillea and pomegranate trees dangling their gold-red treasures. A big north wind — the same one that blew Odysseus past Kythera toward the land of the lotus-eaters — whistled through the lanes, banging a shutter.

Kythera can be spooky. It has places like Aroniadika, a hillside village where it seems tumbledown houses outnumber tenanted ones, and where ghosts are said to prowl at night; and the clifftop ruins of Paleohora, the medieval capital, which the pirate Barbarossa sacked in 1537.

I kept smelling licorice, and finally traced the scent to my own hand; I had torn a sprig off a maratho bush at the fortress, and a rumor of wild fennel stayed with me all day. Kythera is a big herb garden that leads you from scent to scent; you visit with your nose. Thyme abounds, its aroma gracing the island's renowned honey. Sweet basil grows in the garden of the walled monastery Moni Myrtidion. And if the legend of rosemary — said to grow only in the yard of a righteous person — is true, then Kythera is surely an island of saints.

The island abounds in local food products. Stavros, a specialty foods store near the town square, carries many of them — tangy mezithra cheese, marmalades made from lotus and quince, honey-walnut cookies called melomakarona, and Fatourada, a kind of Greek grappa, flavored with cinnamon and cloves.

I loved Greek island food: the simple preparations, seasonal ingredients, and bold flavors. Portions weren't timid, either. My first night, at a popular psarotaverna called Magos, I sat at a table under the stars, cats purring hopefully underfoot as I took on a gargantuan red mullet, grilled with lemon and butter. The fish was so huge and delicious I felt like Philoxenes, a Kytheran of yore who, when told by his physician that the size of the fish he was eating could kill him, calmly replied, "Be it so, but before I die, let me finish."

But even the smallest of dishes can inspire such gluttonous praise — particularly the famous mezedes. These appetizer-like preparations — salads, savory pastries, spreads, and fritters — may be either eaten at the start of a meal or combined to make a multi-course, tapas-like feast. They are an excellent introduction to an island's cuisine and can be found in any taverna.

Taverna dining is home cooking in the deepest sense; it's what you get on an island where the highest praise of a restaurateur is "He buys nothing." I enjoyed simple-but-memorable dishes at restaurants everywhere: a luscious version of fassolakia freska (green beans) with lemony chunks of sautéed squash at Myrtóon; spiky-hot tyri kafteri (pepper cheese) at Zorba's; a baked eggplant dish called papoutsakia (little shoes) at Panaretos, where the waitress explained the dish by pointing at her feet; and great moussaka at Pierro's in Livadi.

Culinary life in a place like Kythera, where the person serving your food most likely grew or raised it, remains rooted in rural village ways. The unity of farm, food, and family was plain to see at Taverna Filió in Kalamos, where sheep stood bleating in the lot when I pulled in.

Nikos and Katerina Kalligerou, the energetic young couple who run Filió along with Nikos's parents, showed me around. In the kitchen Katerina described the local specialties on her menu, like xinohondros, a type of pasta made from cracked wheat boiled with goat's milk; and outside Nikos showed me the family's fruit orchard and vineyard, the grape skins and pulp collected in containers for making tsípouro, a kind of Greek grappa."When we make it, we all are drunk," he said, then winked at me as his grandmother waved from the porch next door.

There's an alluring wholeness to Kythera's artisan way of life. At Roussos Ceramics, a family-run ceramic works in Livadi, I was shown around by Maria, who with her mother, Grigoria, does the painting and glazing, while her father, Yiannis, and brother, Panajotis, throw the pots. All were busy in the workshop with the big fourno and shelves of exquisite dishes, jugs, vases, and urns. Grigoria served ruthlessly strong Greek coffee with almond biscuits and a glass of water (the water that, in America, would be in the coffee), as I admired pieces made long ago by Maria's great-grandfather. Maria told me she still sees his handiwork in houses all over Kythera. "I always know when something is his," she said. "He had a certain style."

On Kythera, nature itself has a certain style, creating art like the stones on the beach at Kaladi, in rich shades of garnet and chocolate crisscrossed with spidery striations of white; or the brilliant pink blossoms of the oleanders in the town square, whose aroma reaches an ecstasy of sweetness even as they die.

And that is Kythera too, mixing eros and thanatos, mortality heightening the sense of beauty. At a waterfall below the village of Milopotamos, I saw a young couple holding hands along a path that wound among trees, vines, and overgrown houses. It was a scene scripted by a romantic poet: the ruined houses, the rushing cataract, the spirits in the glade. Aphrodite's island is a good place for lovers, after all. It quiets you with its solitude, then quickens you with its sudden and surprising beauty.

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