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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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.
Batzo:sheep or goat milk cheese served with spicy tomato marmalade from central and western Macedonia.
Giant beans slow pan cooked with tomato and herbs. Many variations on this dish throughout the Silk Road world.
Fried Zucchini with tzatziki 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Tzatziki Sauce (basically yogurt, garlic and dill) is embedded in regional Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Fried cheese and raspberry jam. A significant variety of semi hard to hard cheeses throughout the region have been used to prepare this popular meze. Sirene is a regional brine cheese frequently fried.
Salad with pomegranate seeds: The pomegranate originated in 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 culinary 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 (grape leaves or cabbage) 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.
Makes perfect sense why Naxos is home to Mardi Gras. Dionysus was its first Rex!
Venice, Rio de Jeneiro and New Orleans may capture headlines, but no destination other than Naxos and the Small Cyclades can claim Dionysus, the patron of Carnival, as their native son, as well as his father, Zeus.
The Carnival of Naxos 2019 (2 – 13 March) blends timeless Greek festive elements from ancient Dionysian spring rites through to the evolution of modern Mardi Gras. Tracing roots back to rituals of sowing winter crops and praying for the coming of spring through to the Christian celebration of Easter’s promise of rebirth, the Carnival of Naxos 2019 captures all – and their web site details all!
The classic Koudounatoi – based on ancient rituals during Dionysian celebrations – is a hallmark of the Naxos festival. The Koudounatoi dance and rituals are performed by men dressed in traditional white costume bedecked with colorful ribbons and a belt of cowbells. Their dancing movement makes the bells create a very loud sound in order to clear away bad spirits that may bring plague and famine.
The Temple to Demeter overlooks the productive agricultural land of Naxos Island. Agriculture had made Naxos wealthy and in the 6th century BCE the island erected this first all marble temple in the Greek world to Demeter, goddess of grain. Dionysus was the protector of Naxos and maintained one of his divine residences on the island.
In more traditional form the men are covered with a brown coat wearing a belt with hanging bells. Holding large sticks that symbolize the Dionysian phallus, the Koudounatoi challenge each other and anyone who interacts with them and the divine right to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Wedding of the century
On Friday March 8 at the Temple of Apollo’s Portara this fertility theme is dramatically recreated with a retelling of the arrival of Theseus and Ariadne, which through a series of complications worthy of Greek story telling (including pirates!) ends with her marriage to Dionysus, elevation as a goddess and blessings upon Naxos. Ritual weddings are a common theme during Carnival.
Parades night and day
The island villages are studded with individual folkloric events during Carnival, the preparation and presentation of traditional foods, the beloved Torchlight Parade and the culminating Grand Carnival Parade on the Chora waterfront.
The Greeks elevated revelry to divine status. Christianity added its themes to the pre-Spring/Lenten season, and Naxos’ several century occupation by Venice all embossed their personality on the Carnival of Naxos 2019. Travel to the heart of the Cyclades and experience three millenniums of Carnival.