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.
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“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.
From food festivals and music on the Malecon to affordable week long book fairs, just walking Puerto Vallarta offers too many distractions from work.
A recent email from a friend living in a popular south Florida destination praised its beauty but bemoaned a culture not interested in much more than lying around a pool or beach. Although that is fine for some, for others there’s vibrancy on Puerto Vallarta streets and beaches rare in North America. Whether it’s the riot of colorful craft stalls on the Isla de Cuale, neighborhood street festivals, processions, parades or oyster vendors on the beach, there’s no lack of stimulation.
Of course that’s all beyond the major events that attract locals, expats and visitors from vacationing Mexican families to gay singles. Food, naturally, is a major focus either as a side component or on the center stage. Northwestern Mexico with its Pacific waters teeming with sea life is a veritable food market.
It’s appropriate that Puerto Vallarta and a nice selection of its many restaurants annually honor aguachile with its own festival – a native dish that can define Mexican food in the northwest. Aguachile (chili water in Spanish) is a “cousin” to ceviche. Like most regional dishes, recipes do not believe in boundaries.
Whereas both dishes include seafood and lime juice, aguachile infuses the lime juice with hot chilies. Both dishes also have variations from the most common, shrimp, to octopus, scallops, salmon or any combination of shell, seafood and fish. The single imperative is that these raw ingredients are as fresh as possible – sushi grade is not too extravagant.
Additional ingredients are both traditional and optional. Ceviche has a bit more onion and less chili. Both include cilantro, frequently other vegetables and even a combination of juices. Aguachile always includes generous slices of cucumber for the soothing qualities that vegetable provides given the spicier nature of the dish – after all, it is called chili water.
If you happen to own a molcajete for preparation, it doubles as a beautiful bowl with its black basalt contrasting with the colors of the ingredients. A number of internet sites have recipes for aguachile. Hispanic Kitchen has a good basic shrimp aguachile recipe. America’s foremost chef on southwestern Hispanic cuisine, Rick Bayless, provides ideas outside the box.
The annual January Aguachile Festival was held in Parque Lazaro Cardenas, currently undergoing a transformation with stunning mosaics.
On the same day, the annual Book Fair, a week long event, was taking place on Puerto Vallarta’s main Plaza de Armas. Dozens of book stalls sell new and used books in a variety of languages for all age levels. The prices are below reasonable.
Food for the stomach and the mind, stimulation for the eyes and the ears with enviable weather and fronting the Bahia de Banderas: no wonder Puerto Vallarta greets all with “Welcome to Paradise.”
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“A business we can do together; something we can grow together.” Alan Mundy
Just imagine light, creamy, hand crafted peanut brittle and rich aromas of organically grown Mexican coffee. Alan Mundy and Ausel Diaz Arguello did, and in the process La Fortuna Organic Coffee and PVs Finest Peanut Brittle blended their lives. Yet when Alan and Ausel met just a few years ago they were both in flux.
The date “1985” on the package of PVs Finest Peanut Brittle means more than the start of a business. It wasn’t actually the start of a business. It was Alan’s stress therapy.
In Louisiana Alan was in the real estate and electronics businesses. Yet in an urge to do something creative, he started making his grandmother’s peanut brittle in 1985 as gifts for friends. That soon turned into a marketing tool – gifts to clients at the holidays.
For thirty years Alan made upwards of 2,000 pounds of peanut brittle annually as gifts. Yet his life altered several years ago when his mother’s health started to decline. For a variety of reasons, relocating to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was desirable for both Alan and his mother.
Ausel was fresh from culinary studies at Puerto Vallarta’s Casserole Instituto Gastronomico. He was also from Chiapas, the southwestern most state in Mexico, known for its lush tropical beauty, abundant agriculture and poverty.
Ausel’s grandfather had developed a 20 acre coffee farm nearly a century before. Despite the fact that it grew to 120 acres, like many small farmers, his grandfather and father sold the beans wholesale to coffee dealers. Profits were meager.
A regional outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust five years ago led to a downturn in both coffee production and prices, which resulted in the loss of the family farm. Prospects for Ausel’s family were dire. Then Allan and Ausel met in Puerto Vallarta and a plan that would benefit all developed.
With Ausel’s knowledge of Chiapas, family ties and traditional organic farming methods used for centuries, Alan’s entrepreneurial logic saw a way to revitalize the family by reverting to tradition. In the process they created La Fortuna Organic Coffee by elevating common Arabica beans to premium status.
Securing title to 200 acres for the family simply started the process. The densely planted acreage thrived in the mineral rich tropical mountains of Chiapas. The chaff from the roasted coffee beans was the only enrichment added back to the soil.
Planting, maintaining and harvesting coffee have always been hands-on tasks due to necessity. During harvest season in 2017 (November to March) demand for workers exceeded the local supply. La Fortuna employed four workers from Guatemala.
Alan and Ausel created a business plan for La Fortuna that relied on personal attention to every detail by those involved. Traditional hands-on techniques from sorting, roasting, packing and marketing have been essential to ensure premium quality. “It’s a labor of love,” quipped Alan, and he was correct, but not just in the common understanding of that phrase applied to business.
Coffee beans are food, and the cooking method has a major influence on flavor. Using a clay oven, the beans are hand roasted in small batches in a heavy iron bowl topping the wood fire of Indigenous pine and robles. The beans are stirred with a wooden spoon.
Subtle chocolate and spice undertones were enhanced by the gentle roasting process while hints of smoke from the pine and robles wood complimented rich, earthy notes in the beans. The coffee was smooth, medium bodied and light on acidity.
Hand packaging of the beans minimizes breakage that releases essential oils, which trap flavors. The packaged beans are shipped to Puerto Vallarta where Ausel and Alan take over marketing. Yet that’s not the end of the Chiapas connection – there are peanuts.
Peanut brittle was a Southern United States invention from the late 19th century. The South was awash with peanuts and sugar so their combination was to be expected. The recipe Alan grew up on was from his grandmother, who like many gleaned knowledge from regional variations.
Alan had the idea that once in Puerto Vallarta the peanut brittle recipe he had used the past thirty years could be turned into an enterprise that involved his mother. Unfortunately, her health soon made that an unrealistic expectation. Then culinary trained Ausel entered Alan’s life along with peanuts from Chiapas.
What makes the superlative “finest” believable was not just the taste but also the texture. Having grown up on Northern versions where the caramelized sugar was truly brittle – like breaking glass – PVs Finest was creamy. The tan brittle crumbled in the mouth becoming a smooth caramel counterpoint to the deep flavors of roasted peanuts.
Sponge peanut brittle was one variation in Louisiana that existed for well over a century. Alan and Ausel have taken note that Canadians liken it to English sponge toffee. Considering Puerto Vallarta’s popularity among Canadian tourist, that’s a good marketing connection.
Organic peanuts and small batch production are the hallmarks of PVs Finest Peanut Brittle. The peanuts are sourced from farms owned by Ausel’s extended family, which provide over 3,000 kilos (6,600 pounds) of roasted peanuts per season. No changes have been made to the recipe of Alan’s grandmother.
Enhancing the basic recipe though was always considered. Alan and Ausel are developing a recipe with the addition of coconut. Coating PVs Finest with chocolate would pair a Southern tradition with the birthplace of chocolate.
Made by Ausel in their climate-controlled kitchen, the week’s production sells out quickly. PVs Finest Peanut Brittle winter production coincides with the seasonal schedule of Puerto Vallarta farmer and craft markets. During the winter season Alan and Ausel work five major markets selling La Fortuna Organic Coffee and PVs Finest Peanut Brittle.
Before meeting, Alan and Ausel had separate desires to make a difference in the lives of loved ones. Together they succeeded – a proud mother and a revitalized family – based on centuries of tradition. What they could not have foreseen was how candy and coffee would grow their own love.
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Epirus is a rugged, heavily forested and mountainous region largely made up of the Pindus Mountains. Considered the “spine of Greece,” the Pindus Mountains separate Epirus from Macedonia and Thessaly to the east.
Even though the clothing, architecture and food may have a Balkan feel, today generally older men and women gather on benches around Metsovo’s church of Agia Paraskevi to observe life on the Central Square and speak the ancient Aromanian dialect.
Livestock grazing on the green Pindus mountain slopes and crafts are still a part of life in Metsovo. To that foundation, tourism has had a significant impact over the past half century. Winter skiing, summer hiking, vineyards, unique foods, charming hotels and restaurants with a view add to the allure of this northwestern Greek enclave.
Naxos is the most fertile island of the Cyclades. It has a large aquifer under the island in a region where water is usually inadequate. Mount Zeus at 1,004 meters (3,294 feet) tends to trap the clouds increasing rainfall. Agriculture is an important economic sector making Naxos the most self-sufficient island in the Cyclades.
This abundance is obvious in Naxos restaurants, artisan food shops and food markets. Besides produce Naxos is famous throughout Greece for its cheese, meats, fish and seafood. Simply walking along the wide, beautiful, long, crescent, pedestrian friendly waterfront of Chora (Naxos Town) is a gastronomic delight. Some of the best cafes and tavernas in Naxos are sandwiched between shops offering Naxos crafts and food products – it’s the center of nighttime social life in town.
Marathia Restaurant on Tinos Island aptly proves the superlatives you have heard on the creativity of Greek cuisine and the uncompromising beauty of Cyclades Island beach locations.
Considering how many restaurants in Greece I have reviewed, Marathia is one of the more traditional yet modern you can visit. Chef/owner Marinos Souranis opened Marathia Restaurant in 2002 in the renovated nine-room boutique hotel his parents constructed on Tinos Island 40 years before. He and his staff use ageless techniques crafting a menu firmly based on local products and traditional recipes.
Yet the hook for the curious diner is in the knowledge that subtle personal touches (cinnamon added to homemade petroma cheese) and the imaginative presentations (marinated sardines served in sardine cans) set Marathia apart. That is a high compliment considering the exemplary level of Tinos gastronomy.
Both restaurant and hotel are open year round. The nine one and two bedroom apartments with kitchens are integrated within a design that’s traditional Greek village villa with 21st century amenities. The hotel includes the airy taverna style indoor dining room with many attractive antiques, tools especially, serving as sculptures against the white stucco walls.
Across the street is the seasonal dining pavilion, Partokali Beach Bar, which itself languidly spreads down stunning Aghios Fokas Beach – the longest sand beach on the island. Besides the dining area, Marathia provides shaded lounge chairs for total enjoyment of this Blue Flag beach. All of this is within a ten minute drive from the center of Chora.
Brunch at Marathia in general follows hotel patterns in so far as a buffet includes a variety of their cheeses, marinated fish, local sausages, yogurt, fruits and savory dishes. What from a distance could be mistaken for pastry layered with cream topped with strawberries was a baked savory pastry layered with cheese, herbs and topped with cherry tomatoes.
Chef Marinos wanted me to sample Marathia’s specialties from the a la carte menu. They are all meze, small plates that together with bread, salad and cheese frequently define a Greek meal. All were traditional centuries old preparations of local ingredients when preservation drove recipes. The dishes using riki, sardines, grazos and fish row are all uncooked salt cured.
Lakerta appears throughout the Aegean and Adriatic coasts. It uses riki, cousin to bonito fish. The fish is soaked in two separate salt-water solutions each for 24 hours. This cleans the fish. It’s then cut into steaks, salted and weighted down for 3 to 4 days turning daily. The lakerta may then be thinly sliced and eaten or stored in olive oil.
The lakerta is tender with mild saltiness as if fresh from the sea. Serve thinly sliced drizzled with olive oil and lemon.
Deboned grazros (cousin to sardines) sit in salt water for 90 minutes and in apple cider vinegar for 5 to 7 minutes. After the vinegar soak they’re placed in jars and covered with sunflower oil – important because sunflower oil imparts no flavor unlike olive and most other oils. The grazros can keep for three months.
Botargo – or avgotaraho – is a delicacy of cephalus or gray mullet fish row. The whole row sack is cured in sea salt for a few weeks, sundried and then encased in beeswax for preservation as it has been for over a thousand years. Traditionally served thinly sliced with some lemon juice and/or zest and white pepper either solo or with crusty bread and butter – the beeswax is removed before eating.
The botargo has a lightly chewy texture due to the process; yet its unique flavor is intense. Although like wine, flavors can very depending on the life-style and age of the cephalus, I detected hints of mango and sea urchin tongue. Allow the botargo to linger in your mouth to maximize the subtly sweet umami experience.
In preparing smoked white grouper the fish is covered in a mixture of sea salt, white pepper and sugar for 16 days before being smoked for two days. The moist, delicate silky fish is served thinly sliced with a garnish of pickled grapes as counterpoint.
Marinated vegetables, including artichokes, are steamed in water with some vinegar, lemon juice and a little olive oil until just tender. Then they are drained and marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. The textural contrast of the piquant vegetables pairs well with rich cheeses and delicate fish.
All cheeses, except one, are made in-house from unpasteurized milk and are so labeled on the menu due to health restrictions for certain conditions such as pregnancy. The exception is graviera, which is locally made with pasteurized milk. It’s the second most popular and versatile Greek cheese after feta and similar to gruyère. A firm but creamy cheese with generally mild on the sweeter side taste notes, it’s often sliced and added to cheese trays, grated over pasta and fried as saganaki.
I was surprised to see dozens of kariki aging. Only one person on the island makes it commercially, chef Aggeliki Vidou, but in small batches that cannot satisfy demand. Marinos makes his own kariki – the very rare (in the 21st century) “pumpkin cheese” of Tinos.
The name comes from the small gourd, a karika. Traditionally it was used to collect milk. Now metal milk containers are called kariki. It starts with petia a simple base cheese, that’s packed in the karika – the actual gourd. The gourd is sealed with a flour/water paste and aged for 2 to 3 months. The interaction with the gourd imparts both color and deep flavors with hints of caramel, mild gorganzola and dried figs.
His malathouni, also from the base petia (cone), is made with goat’s milk. On average malathouni is aged for about one month. At Marathia it’s aged six months intensifying the natural tang of the goat’s milk yet maintaining a creamy texture.
Petroma’s base cheese is freshly strained petia. The round of cheese is then weighted until most of the additional whey drains. At Marathia they add a bit of sea salt and cinnamon to the petia before straining.
The wood burning oven near the entrance to the hotel is for bread baking. Olive wood only is used for its high and uniform burning temperature. Breads are made from whole-wheat flour and the yeast from a starter dough. The breads have a touch of sourdough texture and aroma that compliments rich butter and cheeses.
Tinos Island’s own T-Oinos Winery 2013 Clos Stegasta Assyrtiko accompanied the main courses. It has a classic nose of dry summer grasses and vanilla. The tongue picked up fresh citrus zest, which lingered. The throat sensed a pleasant finish of dry grapefruit zest. Assyrtiko ought to be a Greek national treasure.
With the cheese course, local Domaine de Kalathas’ Winery 10+12 late harvest 100% Tinos Island potamisi grape produces a fresh semi-dry white wine. It’s not aged and has subtle tones of honey and white currents with floral notes. Despite being semi-dry in the mouth it has a surprising dry smooth finish.
Tinos Island is a gastronomic destination of great physical beauty. Yet you could eat a convenience store hotdog on a Greek island beach and remember the beauty of the experience. At Marathia let’s just say the experience is raised far above sea level.