I travel, cook, eat, observe, interact, live and write.
As a culinary and cultural travel writer I seek connections among people, activities, the environment and what they eat that tell the story of a region/culture, whether that be in the remote Andes Mountains or the streets of Philadelphia.
Publications include my travel web site on Argentina (www.travel-with-pen-and-palate-argentina.com) and articles covering a diverse range of countries and cultures at www.travelpenandpalate.com and both the digital and print editions of the Hellenic News of America.
Industry experience includes over 45 years as a chef, chef educator, hotel and restaurant manager, catering as well as teaching history, writing, theater, culinary arts and business.
I'm an active member in the American Culinary Federation.
I like figs and chevre and caramelized onions. Of course, who doesn’t like pizza? Summer time is fig season in the United States. They’re low in calories, high in potassium, not too sweet and hold up nicely when gently cooked.
Figs are thought to have been first cultivated in ancient Egypt. During the Minoan era they reached Crete through trade and then appeared around the 9th century BC in Greece eventually spreading throughout the Mediterranean world. Greece and Rome considered the fig such a delicacy they became offerings to the gods.
Chevre is simply the French word for goats milk cheese. Any decent unseasoned goats milk cheese will be fine. I say unseasoned because many varieties in stores include herbs, garlic and even dried fruits. For this pizza you want a plain goats milk cheese. The history of goats milk cheeses follows a similar vein and have been around the Mediterranean world for as long as figs. Goats produce naturally sweeter milk than cows, and in this pizza it becomes the creamy base.
Sweet onions such as Vidalia and Walla Walla are wonderful in any dish calling for onions. Their lower sulphur and higher sugar content make them both gentle on your eyes when peeling and so pleasant to eat that I’ve known people to take a bite like an apple. Slowly cooking the sliced onions in unsalted butter brings out the natural sugars creating a soft caramel brown deliciousness that pairs well on a burger or hotdog. On this pizza they add to the mild sweetness of the cheese and figs.
The paprika adds color to the beige ingredients, and the red pepper flakes give it a mild kick. Any plain or whole wheat pizza dough either homemade or store bought is fine. I have a preference for whole wheat.
Fig and Chevre Pizza
1 unbaked 12″ pizza shell
2 large sweet onions
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 to 10 ounces Chevre (goats milk) cheese
1/3 to 1/2 cup cream or buttermilk
5 to 6 ripe fresh figs
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes depending on your taste
salt and white pepper to taste
olive oil for brushing pan
1. Remove the cheese from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature.
2. Peel and thinly slice the sweet onions.
3. Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium high heat and add the onions.
4. Reduce the heat and slowly cook the onions uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes stirring occasionally until the onions have turned a light caramel color.
5. Preheat the oven to 425°F
6. Combine the cheese and cream or buttermilk until smooth. It should be the consistency of thick yogurt. Season with a little salt and white pepper to taste
7. Slice each fig into 8 pieces
8. Lightly brush a pizza pan with olive oil and place the pizza dough on the pan
9. Spread the cheese evenly over the pizza shell
10. Cover the cheese with the caramelized onions
11. Sprinkle the paprika and red pepper flakes over the onions.
12. Evenly distribute the sliced figs over the onions.
13. Bake the pizza for 20 to 25 minutes
Like any pizza, serve it hot from the oven or at room temperature. Leftovers can be warmed in an oven the following day but cover the pizza with foil and do not use a microwave, unless you enjoy chewy pizza crust. This makes four entree servings for lunch or a light dinner. Accompany the pizza with a tossed green salad. Or serve it as part of a tapas assortment cut into eight slices. It’s a light and refreshing vegetarian dish on a warm summer day.
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”
Frida Kahlo is undeniably beautiful in this Modigliani-like 1926 self-portrait, and why not at 19 years-old. Yet it was only a year after her near-fatal tram accident. It’s not an idealized painting; it’s a photograph hand colored in oil by Frida.
Self-Portrait Wearing a Velvet Dress greets you in the entrance hall of Casa Azul fittingly alongside that of her famous photographer father. Casa Azul is the house her parents built in Mexico City where Frida was born, lived and died. It’s the “lived” part that created a legend.
Countless books and films document a turbulent and creative life that near-death simply sparked. In a recent visit to Casa Azul, a museum to all that was important to her, five images stayed with me. A prolific writer, Frida was known for her wit and insights. In her own words Frida provided for me a frame for the image I was remembering.
“I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.”
Frida’s survival in the Mexico City tram accident of 1925 was eclipsed by her determination to not shatter her creative soul. “Passion is the bridge that takes you from pain to change.”
In Marxism Will Bring Health to the Sick she accepted that her own life of multiple surgeries followed by months being bedridden and still frequently in pain would not dim creativity in art, love or politics.
Whether camping across the North American continent, being honored in Paris or her love affair with Leon Trotsky, physical disabilities may have complicated plans but never stopped her.
“Diego was everything; my child, my lover, my universe.”
Casa Azul is blue. It was her home and that of her husband the renowned Mexican bad-boy creative genius Diego Rivera. Their relationship lasted her lifetime and his connection to Casa Azul until his death.
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” The friction between these titans matched their artistic legends. Both had numerous lovers – “Take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are a bourbon biscuit.” They divorced in 1939 but remarried a year later.
Perhaps she shed insight on both their personalities, “I was born a bitch; I was born a painter.”
Yet in the garden of Casa Azul there’s a photo taken of Frida and Diego as they stand on the terrace that’s just above. Their eyes are locked. The tension of mutual passion, competition and life’s complexities is captured in a photo.
“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
A horrific tram accident in Mexico City in 1925 when Freda was only in her late teens ought to have killed her. Instead it left her, in her own words, “broken.” Her spine had been fractured in multiple places, her right leg in 11 as well as the pelvic bone and collarbone. She also suffered severe internal injuries.
She was a pre-med student. Her injuries, pain and long periods in bed became the catalyst for an artistic expression of her life experience. In the process she created a unique life experience that has inspired many.
I am sure the comfortable, airy, light filled studio on the second floor in Casa Azul is neater than it was when a working room. Frida had space with most essentials easily accessed, and large windows overlooked the garden courtyard. In the center was her easel.
The easel is as it would have been the last couple years of her life. A still life, which she enjoyed painting – “I paint flowers so they will not die” – may have more meaning than simply a pretty picture, and it was the wheelchair that caught my eye last.
Its brown color blended into the studio as if her disabilities were of little importance. Frida had lost her feet a few years before her death, but that did not dampen her great passion… as long as she could paint.
“I want a storm to come and flood us into a song that no one wrote.”
Frida Kahlo’s Death Mask rests on her bed in Casa Azul. There is serenity to her face, especially after a life of pain, yet not a countenance of finality. She looks as if she’s sleeping as she had in that bed for so many years.
Frida may have said, “I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return,” but does that mean she wanted creativity to stop. Perhaps the turbulence of storm and flood (written to one of her lovers) was freedom – being swept into an unknown reality. Behind those sleeping eyes she could be fashioning a new song.
When you go: Museo Frida Kahlo (Londres 247, Del Carmen, Coyoacán, 04100 Ciudad de México, CDMX) is 11 km (6.5 miles) from the historic center of Mexico City. It’s accessible by bus or taxi/Uber.
You can enjoy more by Travel with Pen and Palate at…
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Mexico has 300 to 550 species of edible insects, more than any other country.
The ancient tradition of eating insects is steeped in culinary tradition, not lack of other foods. In pre-Hispanic days insects were an easy power house of protein to gather as ingredients and enjoy as a convenience food.
The UN report in praise of entomophagy— insect-eating — as a promising source of sustainable protein stressed that “The case needs to be made to consumers that eating insects is not only good for their health, it is good for the planet.” After all, insects outnumber all other living creatures – and many are edible.
In the past decade there has been a revival in Mexico from street vendors to celebrity chefs reincorporating insects into the cuisine. What was dismissed after the Spanish conquest is chic again.
AtRestaurante las Piramides within the UNESCO Zona Arqueológica de Teotihuacánthey serve a traditional Mexican menu with some ancient exotic foods. An appropriate introduction is a Mexcal cocktail with Chapulines (roasted grasshoppers – they do have a nutty taste and texture). Chapulines have been a popular fast food since the ancient Mayan days, especially in southern Mexico.
From their starter menu there is a selection of dishes that would be a perfect introduction to tasting insects.
Fried corn cakes with quacamole y chapulines.
Excamoles al epazote (sauteed ant larvae with wormseed herb)
chinivuiles (red Maquey caterpillars) and gusano blanco (white Maquey caterpillars)
The Mercado de San Juan Gourmet is Mexico City’s food mecca for the serious eater and chef. Among the food stalls are small attractive cafes where locals frequent and visitors can experiment with new tastes.
I will not address the “disgust” factor when it comes to “exotic” foods. I’m interested only in the “wow” factor that there is so much to try. The world is a pantry.
When you go: Mexico City is well served by international air. For accommodations I recommend the historic Hotel Geneve (1907). It maintains and polishes its glory every day.
Please read more by Travel with Pen and Palate at…
History is not about the past; it’s about the present.
We only remember yesterday because we’re alive today. We can only understand today if we dissect what occurred yesterday. It’s with that rubric a visitor to Corfu, if interested, can glean this Ionian island’s reality.
If the first time visitor is already familiar with the classical heartland of ancient Greece encircling the Aegean Sea than the beautiful streetscapes of Corfu Town are in an Italian city. The island’s premiere museum perhaps belongs in London. The charming Casa Parlante offers insights into the daily life of the Venetian nobility.
Yet this is Corfu, and it’s just a short distance from the mainland of western Greece. The reason has everything to do with geography, which means it has to do with politics and trade. The regions that comprise Hellenic civilization for the past several thousands of years were the bridges and battlefields between Asia and Europe, and Corfu represents that reality.
Even olive oil, the gift of Athena to the Hellenic world, has a story. During its 400 year reign over Corfu (1383-1797) the Venetian Empire mass produced olive oil for international export. As a result the island has over four and a half million trees, more than any other region in Greece.
If you watched the BBC series The Durrels in Corfu you may recognize the top photo as the house of the fictional character Sven. The 18th century stone building used to be an olive press and is surrounded by 400 year old trees in an idyllic setting. It’s currently for sale – history alive – and Sakis Gianniotis of X Adventure Clubwill take you there to revel in its tranquility.
Case Parlante, the multi story townhouse dating from 1620, details the life of a 19th century Venetian noble family. This was the social class that ruled Corfu for 400 years until Napoleon conquered and ended the fabled Venetian Republic in the 1790s. Since 2013 the museum’s docents provide room by room tours bringing the family to life.
“To life” is almost real. From the patriarch to the cook, life-size animatronic figures bow, sip tea, read the news paper and chop vegetables. These entertaining figures were created by the Alaxouzi Brothers, Greeks whose business is based in London. As a guest in this noble house, visitors are greeted with kumquat and rose mint liquors – an homage to Corfiot’s Venetian inspired love of excessive sweets.
Several insights into life at that time are notable. An only daughter of a noble family could inherit wealth in her own right as well as arrange their own marriage, as long it was to another aristocrat. This was a particular freedom granted only to Corfu women.
Mirrors and hallways were ingeniously positioned to keep eyes on the movements of the servants.
Cooks in aristocratic houses were often at the top of servant status and trusted as “spies” for the owner.
The Palace of St. Michael and St. George
The Corfu Museum of Asian Art and the Municipal Gallery of Corfu are housed within the impressive neoclassical Palace of St. Michael and St. George. The history of the palace is as interesting as the art on display. The fall of Venice led to a brief period in Corfu of French control. Upon Napoleon’s defeat, Corfu was ceded to the United Kingdom and was administered by the British Empire for 50 years (the Greek nation did not exist at this point.)
Constructed in 1819, the palace served as the official residence of the British Lord High Commissioner. After present day southern Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1830’s it was still not until the 1860’s that the United Kingdom ceded the Ionian Islands. Over the next century the palace served various functions including a royal residence for the Greek monarchy.
The transition of the palace into a world class museum started in 1928 with a vast donation by an avid Greek collector of Oriental art expanding over the years to include southeast and central Asia. Today its collection numbers in the tens of thousands of objects, which, fortunately, are not all on display creating a tranquil setting to wander the quiet rooms without feeling overwhelmed.
The Municipal Gallery of Corfu’s art collection ranges from priceless medieval Cretan works influenced while Crete was also under Venetian rule (15th – 17th centuries). The fall of Crete to the Ottomans in 1699 resulted in a flood of artist and intellectuals settling in Corfu.
A sizable portion of the collection is of 18th through early 20th century artists inspired by the the Romantic and Impressionist movements expressing individual life and events developing into Corfu’s distinctive Ionian School of Art.
Twenty-first century artists are well represented especially through special exhibits.
Encouraging artistic expression in the newest generations of Corfiots, the gallery sponsors “One Saturday, One fairytale” events for children to display their art and study the artist whose paintings are exhibited. In honor of Greek Orthodox Easter the gallery recently displayed a special exhibit of photos taken by Corfu boy scouts. The quality was stunning!
History is more than facts, and a nation is more than geography. In his epic poem The People, Yes, the great American poet Carl Sandburg expressed it succinctly. I am the history; I am the present; I am the culture. Go to Corfu and discover so much more than an island.
When you go: Corfu International Airport (CFU) serves direct flights from many European cities including London, Frankfurt and Rome. Frequent flights connect the island to Athens and Thessaloniki. Ferry and coach bus connections to major Greek cities are frequent as well.
“In Thessaloniki we live our history.” Sofia Bournatzi
Of course that statement could almost be a cliché if it wasn’t applied to Thessaloniki. It has greater impact for the city simply than having eighteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It has more to do with resilience. Despite wars, earthquakes and fires, Thessalonians are doing what they have been for 2,300 years.
Thessaloniki is still what King Cassander, its founder, planned:
Largest city in Macedonia
Greece’s second largest
The port city of the northern Aegean
Gateway to the Balkans
Commercially connected to Asia Minor
Strategically located on both Spice and Silk Roads to the Orient
This reality has made the city coveted and popular over the millenniums by conquerors from Rome to the Ottomans, and their presence is palpable now. It’s under your feet; it’s towering over your head, and soon you’ll whiz by more on the new state-of-the-art underground subway/tube system. The past is an integral component of Thessaloniki’s urban fabric because it’s in your face.
Looking out to the Thermeic Gulf from Thessaloniki’s new Waterfront Promenade merchant ships are anchored waiting their turn at the modern docks just north of downtown. Behind are the Ladadika, Ano Poli and the “acropolis” – the imposing Heptapyrgion fortress. These districts are the commercial, cultural and culinary heart of the city. They offer postcards onto the past …
The Palace of Galerius
The Palace of Galerius was not a large luxurious house. It was an “Imperial City” within the city – administrative, residential, religious and public entertainment venues. Depending on interpretation, it was such a vast complex it could well be considered a rebuilding of Thessaloniki
The Romans were enamored with Thessaloniki ever since they had absorbed Macedonia into the Empire in the 100s BCE. Four hundred years later the port city was the largest in Rome’s Greek provinces and one of the wealthiest in the empire. By the end of the 3rd century Thessaloniki was poised to become central to the new Eastern Roman Empire.
Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus (Caesar: 293-311) newly appointed “assistant Emperor” in the Tetrarchy created by Diocletian, preferred Thessaloniki over his region’s official capital. Construction on his palace complex started in the late 290s.
(video published 02/02/2016, Vladimiros Nefides)
It was a vast site covering a good portion of Thessaloniki’s historic core and composed of numerous interconnected components, most of which today are lying underneath streets, parks, residential and commercial buildings as the city morphed over the centuries. The complex was enclosed by stonewalls from the port waterfront up to the newly fortified acropolis. The most visible examples of the complex today are the stunningly preserved Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius.
The cylindrical Rotunda was built in 306 AD and has served as a public building ever since. It was originally a temple, possibly to Zeus. By the end of the 5th century Christianity had been established in the Empire and for over the next thousand years the Rotunda was the Byzantine Church of St. George. After Ottoman conquest in 1430 it became a mosque (note the 16th century minaret in the photo) until 1912 when with Greek-Macedonian reunification it was designated a national monument. (Ottoman era buildings are protected by historic designation throughout Greece.)
Arch of Galerius
The Arch of Galerius stands on a busy intersection (Egnatia & Dimitriou Gounari streets) just as it did when constructed. Thessaloniki’s Egnatia Street is a portion of the 2,000-year-old Roman Via Egnatia, which still connects Macedonia to Istanbul (aka Constantinople, aka Byzantium). Significant remains of its intricate carved marble panels detail the military prowess of Galerius and Rome.
The Heptapyrgion towers above downtown Thessaloniki where the ancient acropolis was located on the foothills of Mount Chortiatis. The massive fortress guarded the city for nearly two millenniums. Started by the Romans in the late 4th century along with rebuilding the defensive walls to encircle the city, it was substantially expanded by the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century and the Ottomans in the 15th.
Oddly both its Greek and Ottoman name (Yedi Kule) mean “fortress of seven towers” even though it has ten and at no time in its construction phases did it ever just have seven. Despite that anomaly, the impressive relic today serves as an UNESCO World Heritage site, a park with panoramic views of the city, and a backdrop for the historic Ano Poli (Upper Town) neighborhood , which survived the Great Fire of 1917.
The Baptistery of St. John
The Baptistery of St. John the Baptist of Thessaloniki (c.400) is a peaceful hidden sunken garden with an art deco apartment building and outdoor cafe overlooking the site. The sacred spring still flows but is channeled inside a modern chapel. It’s considered the oldest Christian baptistery. It is close to the 5th century Hagia Sophia and within the Galerian Palace complex.
Surrounded by popular cafes in the shopping district of the Ladadika is one of Thessaloniki’s most beautiful medieval buildings. The 15th century Bey Hamam, an Ottoman public bathhouse, is testament to the sophistication this city has enjoyed during its long history. Only ceasing its original use in the 1960s, its intricate brick and tiled facade is an architectural sculpture dramatically lit at night providing a stunning visual backdrop as café patrons dine.
The unrestored street (left) in the Ladadika is on purpose to preserve the facades of what this major international commercial district was like prior to the 1917 Fire. (right) A busy historic district of cafes, commerce and culture today.
The White Tower
The White Tower’s infamous history as a notorious Ottoman prison fades in the mist of time when viewed today at its photogenic location on Thessaloniki’s historic waterfront. The current tower, constructed in the 15th century replacing an earlier Byzantine fortification, anchored the city wall’s southern corner on the waterfront. The tower is a fascinating museum of the historic district and offers panoramic views of Thessaloniki.
(video published 28/01/2010, flat13onfire)
Within the prisons of the Heptapyrgion and White Tower many famous rebetika songs of love, loss, resistance and survival were written by Greek prisoners during the last 30 year period of Ottoman rule. The mournful yet captivating music of rebetika still reverberates in many Greek cafes bonding music, food and friends and in 2017 UNESCO listed rebetika music as an “intangible cultural heritage” of Greece.
Dionysos Orma Restaurant, Loxandra Restaurant, The View Cafe Food-Bar (Tzibaepi Taverna) and the Courtyard Cafe at Hotel Hagiati: four restaurants in the Edessa/Pella Region that serve classic Greek cuisine … or is it just Greek?
The name itself, the Silk Road, conjures romantic images of camel laden caravans, vast desserts and colorful markets where merchants speaking dozens of languages hawked the wealth of the world. That was fairly close to the truth.
Although camels are not commonly used, the business connections made over 2,000 years ago remain. The Silk Road was a commercial system of trade routes from the Orient to the Eastern Mediterranean, not one trek. Dozens of ancillary routes spun off a major artery into the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Peninsula and Eastern Europe.
“Location, location, location…”
Goods from lumber to saffron streamed through Thrace and Macedonia in mutual trade with Asia for both internal consumption and distribution to other markets. The region’s borders were a natural gateway for the Balkans. The Agora (marketplace) of Pella in Central Macedonia built by Alexander the Great (c.300s B.C.E.) was the largest in the ancient world. The port city of Thessaloniki was founded in this era to take advantage of Silk Road trade.
When the Romans built the Via Egnatia after they expanded their empire (c. 100s B.C.E.) it linked the Adriatic Sea with Thessaloniki and continued to what is today Istanbul. The modern highway (A2) that covers the same route nearly parallels the Roman road. The Silk Road has simply morphed in form.
It would be unrealistic to imagine that millenniums old contacts among diverse cultures and geographies could not have major impacts on food. Reality has been that Alexander himself brought Pella Region cherries from Asia. Zucchini, potatoes and tomatoes have nothing to do with the Silk Road but are New World vegetables not available in Europe until the 16th century.
It’s common for the menus to proudly print that all products used in restaurants are sourced local. More than two millenniums later the principal occupations of Central Macedonia are still in agriculture – peaches, cherries, cotton, tobacco, wine, grains and animal products. Four restaurants in less than 36 hours provided more than enough to sample the Silk Road ingredients of Central Macedonian regional cuisine.
Giant beans slow pan cooked with tomato and herbs.
Fried Zucchini with taziki sauce. The zucchini, like all squash, originates in the Americas. However, the varieties of squash typically called “zucchini” were developed in northern Italy in the second half of the 19th century generations after the introduction of cucurbits from the Americas in the early 16th century.
Vine leaves over veal with lemon, feta cheese and dill. Sun dried vine leaves have an intense flavor and when hydrated are free of the salty brine of bottled leaves.
Kavourma: a casserole with traditional salami made of beef, ham and pork, potatoes, peppers and herbs served warm. Kavourma has many variations as a fried or sautéed meat dish in Silk Road cuisines.
Tsobleki: In its simplest form, this is a dish of usually red meat in tomato sauce slow cooked in its clay pot, a “tsobleki.” Dionysos Orma’s is a traditional Edessa recipe using veal and adding potatoes, courgettes, eggplant, red roasted peppers, mushrooms, tomato sauce and feta cheese.
Pumpkin spoon sweet (in a spiral) stays crunchy because it’s under ripe before cooking.
Kormos: A popular and simple comfort food dessert – layers of biscuits and chocolate garnished with coconut.
A premium Retsina (yes there are premium vintages of this ancient wine!) Resin, especially from Apleppo, has been used since ancient days to seal oxygen out of porous clay amphorae to extend the wine’s life. Wines from Thrace and Macedonia were distributed through the Silk Road,
By the 3rd century, barrel making was common throughout the Roman Empire. The exception was the eastern regions, which became the Byzantine Empire, where resin was used to seal the barrels or directly flavor the white wine. A new generation of Greeks are now discovering a new generation of retsina.
Tsipouro has been the poster child of thriftiness for centuries. This simple distillation of the must – left overs after grapes have been pressed for wine – has been popular with Greek monks and moonshiners ever since. Now it has entered the premium spirits realm – aged tsipouros are available. The brandy-like aromas vary depending on type of barrel used and previous use of the barrel. The Katsaros Family tsipouro has been in smoky scotch whisky oak barrels for five years.
Moussaka is an eggplant or potato-based dish common throughout the Middle East, the Hellenic world and the Balkans with many local and regional variations. The Greek version includes layers of meat and eggplant topped with a Béchamel sauce – Loxandra’s had a particularly thick, creamy béchamel topping. The eggplant is a child of the Silk Road. First cultivated in northern India, it’s widely used.
Taziki sauce – classic cold Greek yogurt and cucumber accompaniment to Dolma and other dishes.
Fried cheese and raspberry jam
Salad with pomegranate seeds: The pomegranate originated Persia and northern India and has been cultivated since ancient times throughout the Mediterranean region. It’s probably as important in Greek mythology as it is tasty in its many Greek uses.
Eggplant cooked with tomatoes and herb. Of course, the tomato, so commonly used in Greek cuisine, is classic New World and did not enter Greek cooking until the 17th century but that does not stop this from being a beloved preparation.
Zucchini stuffed with meat topped with delicate avaglomono sauce. Variations on this lemon egg sauce have been around forever.
Dolma with rice. Dolma is a family of stuffed dishes common in Mediterranean cuisine and surrounding regions including the Balkans, the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
Roast sheep with lettuce. The Silk Road encouraged “head to tail” consumption.
Wine: Lunch was accompanied by a fruity but dry Pella region red by Ligas Winery, similar to a Beaujolais.
Shopksa salads are common to a southern Balkan/Northern Greek table. The mild sheep milk cheese, most likely grated sirene, was perked up by a napping of balsamic vinegar. Of course, every dish with tomatoes is post 16th century since it is an American fruit.
The local freshwater trout is as Greek as they get. The Edessa/Pella region has an abundant supply of fresh water streams from the surrounding mountains. Simple, with slabs of grilled potatoes.
Delectable dishes of roasted eggplant with olive oil and fried cheese are popular small plates.
Roasted local mushrooms from the Black Forest. Greece’s forests, especially in the north, have 150 edible mushroom varieties.
Aegean Sea fried fresh anchovies. Despite the lush mountains and valleys of Central Macedonia the abundance of the Aegean is never far away. These are like savoring french fries.
Grilled Potatoes. The potato was brought to Europe from South America in the 16th century and has never lost its popularity.
Savory beef in tomato sauce – slow cooking…relaxed dining.
The Hotel Hagiati in the historic medieval Verosi district has an intimate courtyard cafe open to the public well into the evening.Breakfast, complimentary for guests, is available as well. Both the interior lobby and the courtyard comprise the cafe.
Besides local breads, jams from local fruits and classic phyllo pies there are regional specialties. The Hagiati’s Trahana Soup is ancient (open link for a recipe) a product of the Silk Road and still common throughout the region.
Centuries after its creation as a convenience food to take on Silk Road caravans and keep at home as a staple, Trahana is still being made. The origins of this sourdough or regular breadcrumb-like food is part of the Silk Road’s history.
Kostas Martavaltzoglou is GM and 3rd generation of family owned Agrozimi, makers of traditional Greek grain products since 1969. Trahana is one of their products.
Culinary history is human history and too rich to quibble over words as “authentic.” All recipes are regional – even to a village or a family. For Central Macedonia and the Edessa/Pella Region it was all about location on the fabled Silk Road.
When you go: Edessa is an easy 55 miles (90 k.) west of Thessaloniki. It’s possible to drive, take a train or travel by intercity couch bus. Pella Archaeological Site and Giannitsa are within 25 miles (40 k.) from Thessaloniki. Both are on the (Silk) route between Thessaloniki and Edessa.
Absorb the architectural soul of Macedonia at the Hotel Hagiati.
Occupying a historic stone merchant’s house a short stroll from Waterfalls Park, the Hotel Hagiati’s interior is a blend of Balkan and Near East textiles and decorations. It’s not an artificial blend. This traditional Macedonian style is due to being at the crossroads of the world.
Cozy rooms feature wood-paneled ceilings and natural stonewalls, plus minibars, free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Room service is available and the enclosed garden courtyard of the former stables is a cafe until late in the evening.
Driving the smooth, flat roads of the Loggos Valley past the ancient cities of Pella and Giannitsa, through lush farmland it was easy to see why this became the heart of an empire. Ahead, visible for miles, was the Rock of Edessa. Looming 1,000 feet above the plains, the current city of Edessa was perched like an eagle’s nest.
The city proper wasn’t always on top of the rock. The top held the acropolis. According to legend a descendent of Hercules, Karanos, founder of the Argead Dynasty, (Alexander the Great’s family) built Edessa as Macedonia’s first capital. Two thousand years later (it’s only “time”) the waterfall was named after him – the tallest in Greece.
The city was at the base on the valley floor close to the agricultural commerce of this affluent region. If a mantra of business has been “location, location, location,” Edessa was blessed. It was a western distribution center for the fabled Silk Route linking Asia and the Mediterranean World since at least the 5th century B.C.E.
Both earthquakes and wars during the long history of Edessa meant that few buildings remain intact prior to the 14th century. The Varosi district, where the Hotel Hagiati is located, is the most historic area keeping its character and medieval Macedonian ambiance.
Verosi was created on the site of the city’s ancient citadel after the fall of Edessa to the Ottoman Empire in 1389. This was followed by the catastrophic topography altering 1395 earthquake – it created the waterfalls – which by the mid-19th century had turned the neighborhood into a major water powered industrial center. Significant World War II damage and the demise of the mills led to the Municipality of Edessa in the 1990s to focus on a concerted effort to preserve Verosi.
Meticulous but expensive restoration continues. Restoration must preserve and repair the exterior using identical materials and methods (The Hotel Verosi, the Hagiati’s compatriot around the corner, has a Plexiglas floored lobby covering ancient city walls).
The Hotel Hagiatiis a product of this effort, and its location could not be more central to both Waterfalls Park and a historic walk through Verosi.
Virtually next to the Hotel Hagiati is the centerpiece of Edessa, Waterfalls Park and the Open Air Water Museum. Started in the 1940s as the multilevel entrance to the tallest waterfall in Greece, Karonos Falls, the Municipality completed the restoration of surviving mills into museums in early 2000. The museums highlight the industrial and agricultural history of the region as well as the significance of water and the ecosystem.
In the opposite direction from the Hotel Hagiati a stroll will bring you past the14th century Byzantine Church of the Koimisis – its historic frescoes are undergoing restoration. The many canals and streams snaking through big old trees set a dreamy scene. Lined with small cafes, the water softens even the modern city.
The world’s oldest convenience food?
Breakfast is complimentary at the Hagiati and among a menu of choices are local jams – especially the region’s famous cherry – and their fresh peaches to ancient dishes such as Trahana Soup. In its most basic form Trahana Soup is the traditional farmer’s breakfast porridge. Yet not just in Greece.
Some culinary historians consider trahana to be the world’s oldest convenience food. Trahana is made with semolina, wheat flour, bulgur or cracked wheat. Milk, buttermilk, or yogurt is mixed in to form a thick dough.
Trahana comes in two types: sweet and sour. Sweet is made with whole milk, typically goat’s milk, and sour trahana is made with yogurt or buttermilk.
Regional variations can have additions such as vegetables, sesame seeds or red peppers. The mix is then broken into chunks, dried, and then broken up again into pea size pieces. It sounds simple but the process if done by hand is lengthy so it was made in large quantities, carried in pouches on caravans and was a staple in households.
Whatever its origins, trahana in various forms is still found, commercially produced, almost everywhere from the Balkans to the Middle East. (In the Edessa/Pella Region it is made and distributed by Agrozimi, makers of Greek traditional products since 1969). It’s a nearly instant thickening agent – like Ramen noodles – added to soups, stews or as a food topping. Another proof that Eastern Mediterranean/Mid Eastern cuisine knows no boundaries.
1 cup spicy trahana (not spicy can be substituted)
1 onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cinnamon stick
½ bunch parsley
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 cup red (or white) wine
salt to taste
Melt the butter in a deep skillet.
Saute bay leaf, pepper, parsley, cinnamon stick, onion and tomatoes for 1 minute
Add the trahana and continue to saute 1 to 2 minutes more.
Arrange the chicken quarters on top of the sauteed mixture.
Add the wine and ½ cup water.
Cover and simmer on med low heat for 1 hour. Check halfway and add more water if necessary.
After a hearty breakfast, it is an easy stroll to take in the city and use as a base to explore the legendary history of the Edessa/Pella Region. The Hotel Hagiati offers the ambiance to experience Edessa’s present within its past.
When you go: Edessa is an easy 55 miles (90 k.) west of Thessaloniki. It’s possible to drive, take a train or travel by intercity couch bus. Pella Archaeological Site and Giannitsa are within 25 miles (40 k.) from Thessaloniki. Both are on the (Silk) route between Thessaloniki and Edessa.
What forces make a legendary region a tourist attraction? Conflict and nature are two factors. Pella was Alexander the Great’s new showpiece capital and over 1,500 years later nearby Edessa profits greatly from an earthquake.
It’s easy to understand why fun loving Dionysius was a favorite deity among humans. Vineyards have existed in northern Greece since antiquity. The earliest archeological records for wine production are at least 7,000 years old. Wine was essential to the Greek psyche and in everyday life Macedonia and Thrace was its motherland.
When Hercules had to perform twelve labors one of them took him to the westward extent of the then (at least to humans) known world. Trouble was that the actual end of the world was on the other side of a great mountain (which if true would effectively have made the Mediterranean a lake). So what’s a super-hero in a hurry supposed to do?
The dome of the planet was a glittering display for the Pachamama. No wonder for thousands of years the indigenous people of the Andes worshiped the land as a living force and looked upon the Pachamama – the Earth Mother – as their benevolent protector.
“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.” ― Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
Built in 1870 in the Venetian style by an English architect for a Corfu merchant, Villa 1870 is for discerning guests to experience the magic Durrell felt in the 1930s. Except, unlike the Durrell’s, your personal chef will be roasting the lamb while you relax by the heated pool overlooking the Ionian Sea. Perhaps after lunch your personal driver will take you the short distance into UNESCO World Heritage Corfu Town or to explore this legendary island’s countryside.
Dimitrious and Nancy bought the house in 2017, made a total restoration, installed the heated swimming pool and opened for their first guest in April 2019 – me. I have had the pleasure of previous experiences being guest number one, and it does provide a travel journalist a unique perspective.
It is possible for one guest to have Villa 1870 to themselves since this impressive house is a vacation rental – five bedrooms, five bathrooms, housekeeper, car and driver and a personal chef to cook to your needs. Obviously it’s the perfect venue for a vacation with friends, family or a small wedding.
Each of the spacious five bedrooms and baths are individually decorated in 19th century style with 21st century conveniences. An antique armoire is still a functioning piece of furniture. Even the rain shower in the marble bath hearkens back to the luxury of Villa 1870 when it was first constructed.
It was only six years earlier, 1864, that Corfu Island was united with Greece for the first time in its history. Although the Ionian Islands off the west coast shared many similarities with their mainland and Aegean Island neighbors, Corfu was either independent or part of empires. From the Romans through the British – especially during the nearly 500 years of Venetian rule – Corfu was at the center of Asian-European international trade and influences.
Being on Corfu at Villa 1870 for Greek Orthodox Easter highlighted some of these unique influences. Already the most celebrated holiday in the Orthodox calendar, on Corfu there is the tradition of throwing water-filled red clay pots.
Dating back to pre-Christian days of getting rid of winter’s cooking pottery at the Spring Equinox, it morphed in Christianity to symbolize the earthquake that proceeded the opening of Christ’s tomb. At noon on the Saturday before Easter, after a solemn procession, thousands of people gather on the narrow streets of Old Corfu Town and the balconies of buildings and drop the pots to smash on the street below.
Within an easy stroll or even easier ride from Villa 1870 is UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Corfu Town with its pedestrian friendly streetscapes lined with an eclectic mixture of architecture. This is not a “typical” blue roofed whitewashed Greek town. World class museums (the Museum of Asian Art) and restaurants (The Venetian Well) are all within easy walks.
Yet Chef Themes Iliabis at Villa 1870just might entice you to eat in. From classic slow spit roasted whole lamb at Easter dinner, jewel like maze with late afternoon drinks to sumptuous and surprising breakfast treats, dining at the Villa matches any restaurant.
Corfu has been a vacation mecca for centuries and a stay at Villa 1870 will evoke the magic of time standing still. An elegant mansion, the Ionian Sea, your driver, your chef, your housekeeper and the heated pool will settle over you. Surrender.
When you go: Direct flights connect Corfu International Airport (CFU) to many European cities including London, Frankfurt and Rome. Frequent flights connect the island to Athens and Thessalsoniki. Ferry and coach bus connections to major Greek cities are frequent as well. For Villa 1870 booking information please visit their web site.
Please read more by Travel with Pen and Palate at…