Cook, Dine, Travel

The Magic of Mykonos

26 Jun , 2018  

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Cook Like a Local

Shrimp Saganaki with Feta
Sesame Crusted Feta with Raspberry Sauce
Mykonian Onion Pie

If you’ve ever dreamed of a place where you can drift off for a nap on a terrace overlooking sparkling azure waters while the sound of a distant church bell tolls, or of sitting at a cafe with the sea breeze blowing warmly around you while you nibble on olives and octopus, succulent meats and bread drizzled with the most flavorful olive oil you’ve ever tasted, you may have been picturing magical Mykonos. That’s what we discovered when we assembled a group of seven foodie friends in a 17th Century Colonial mansion here.

Of all of the Greek islands, Mykonos is by far the most trafficked. It sees bigger crowds than its quieter sister, Santorini. This isn’t just because it’s a bit closer to the mainland. It’s also because there is just more ‘there’ there.

This gem of the Adriatic is a chic playground during the high season. But in the Spring and Fall you can experience more of the island without distraction as we did when we arrived by ferry in April for a lazy, food and wine filled escape. During these periods, you can wander the winding white-walled cobblestone alleyways in relative peace but still enjoy the many shops and restaurants that are open. This was perfect for our group who less inclined to dance until the wee hours as visitors do in the Summertime.

Once we arrived on the island we quickly discovered why this retreat is so popular. The main town is a network of quaint winding streets. A warning — it’s easy to get lost, but unless you have somewhere to be, this can be a treat. These gorgeous little streets are kept cool by the shade of the buildings and are dripping with bright bougainvillea and other foliage.

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These gorgeous little streets are kept cool by the shade of the buildings and are dripping with bright bougainvillea and other foliage.

Because our week was being spent in the low season, we took advantage of the quieter scene and booked the aforementioned 17th Century mansion on Aghia Kyriaki Square in the center of town. With two levels of expansive space to get lost in, we felt we had ample space to enjoy a bit of solitude when needed. While some of us would head out on the island for site-seeing adventures or a day at Paradise Beach, others would quietly read in the study, lounge on the gorgeous wraparound terrace, or wander out to get happily lost nibbling our way around those little lanes.

In the late afternoon, we would gather back at the house on the terrace for sunset and plan our evening food adventures. Would we cook in or explore the town’s restaurant offering. To be honest we most often chose the latter option.

What happens when you gather a group of people this serious about food, all open to experiencing it without pressure or pretense? You find that you experience the local flavors and opportunities for culinary discovery to its fullest.

An Abundance of Food Options

Grape leaves with lemon cream

Grape leaves with lemon cream

Greek standards that most are familiar with such as Gyros and Souvlaki, grape leaves, Greek Salad (just called ‘salad’ here) are in ample supply here of course. But Greece and Mykonos, in particular, provide an abundance of ingredients and dishes that may surprise and will definitely delight first-time visitors, especially if seafood is your thing. As you can imagine, this island’s restaurants and markets are teeming with the best of the sea fresh off the boat.

It’s all about the cheese

Mykonos is home to two varieties of cheese that are the pride of the island. But while they originate from the same tiny place, these cousins could hardly be more different.

Xynotiro is a hard cheese made from goat or sheep milk. The curd is drained and cured in a reed basket. It’s pungent aroma and sour flavor make it a perfect pairing with honey. It’s also often used in salads or baked dishes.

Kopanisti, on the other hand, is a soft cheese made from cow, goat and sheep milk that has a luxurious texture and a spicy, unique taste. It’s often mistaken for a whipped feta given its fairly light consistency and is similar flavor profile to the more famous greek cheese.

Kopanisti & Xynotiro Cheese

Kopanisti & Xynotiro Cheese

One can hardly write an article about Greece without mentioning Feta. Because while the two aforementioned products are uniquely Mykonian, this queen still reigns supreme on menus and dishes across the island. You’ll find it mixed into many dishes, served as an accompaniment or a featured course, breaded and flambeed with Uzo or another liqueur. With the right treatment, it can also act as a beautiful meal ender to replace dessert as in this Sesame Coated Feta with Raspberry Sauce.

Indulge in Seafood

It’s fresh and it’s everywhere. The markets and the restaurants on the island know that when it comes to food, what Mykonos has going for it most is the abundance of fresh-caught seafood from the sparkling Mediterranean. You’ll begin to notice a trend on restaurant menus: small fish, delicately and lightly fried and served with a wedge of lemon for seasoning; tender grilled octopus that melts in your mouth; fried, battered squid; and shrimp cooked in olive oil with garlic or in savory stewed tomatoes with feta. And there’s a good reason for this. These are the dishes that the people of Mykonos have been enjoying in their homes for centuries. Before modern residents began the arduous task of farming the rocky, windswept slopes of the island with vegetables and livestock, there was always a plethora of food available just offshore in the warm sea waters.

But the produce of the sea isn’t just limited to selfish. Fish such as Snapper and Bronzini are also popular here and can be found whole fried, simply grilled and drizzled with a bit of that famous Greek olive oil and some lemon. Simple and rustic is what the cooks of Mykonos do well. When the ingredients are this good, you let them shine with a simple presentation.

Savor the Flavor

From tiny Mom & Pop restaurants to creative modern fine dining, there’s no shortage of restaurants to entertain your palate. After a morning walk to see the famous windmills with their bright white bodies towering over the town, we found nothing was more rewarding than grabbing a table that overlooks the sea or is tucked away in a quiet alley and ordering a trio of dips consisting of Hummus, Babaganouj and Tzatziki and some grape leaves with a creamy lemon sauce and tucking into a menu rich with flavors. While we took advantage of the fact that seafood reigns supreme here, we didn’t pass up the garlic-spiked greek favorites pork or lamb souvlaki with lemon roasted tomatoes.

…nothing was more rewarding than grabbing a table that overlooks the sea or is tucked away in a quiet alley…

For dinner, make a reservation at one of the town’s more upscale restaurants. We found ourselves one evening on a special occasion gathered outside around a table M-Eating where the chef is doing beautifully creative things with traditional Mykonian flavors.

Wine overlooking the water at Katerina's

Wine overlooking the water at Katerina’s – Photo credit: Dan Banks

One crisp, clear evening, a portion of our group broke off to find dinner in Little Venice, the neighborhood named for its proximity as, or rather, on top of the water. We found an adorable restaurant called Katerina’s and settled into the dining rail along the open windows to watch the sunset as we nibbled on fresh seafood as the waves lap at the building beneath our feet. As we breathed the salt air deeply in and breathed out all of our worries we agreed that this moment was simply spectacular.

Hit the Market

Shrimp Saganaki With Feta

Shrimp Saganak with feta

If your accommodations on the island include a kitchen you’ll be dying to work some culinary magic with fresh local ingredients. On the promenade along the water in the town center, you’ll find a small scrappy market every morning. Local fisherman and farmers proudly display their products while locals and tourists alike browse the offering. The selection of vendors leans decidedly more towards seafood since the terrain of the island isn’t the most hospitable to vegetation. Take the opportunity to purchase some fresh octopus, shrimp or fish that is some of the freshest you’ll ever find. Pick up a pound or so of fresh shrimp with the heads on to whip up a pungent Shrimp Saganaki for lunch. Teeming with briny shrimp, this stewed dish is perfect served with a crisp white wine and some crusty bread sopping up the stewy tomatoes with feta. If you’re lucky enough to find bright summer tomatoes, pick up a few to add to it.

Tip: Get to the market early as it is quite popular the vendors’ sell out of the wares quickly.

Relax and Nibble on a Vineyard

Nestled in a quiet valley in the center of the island is the only working vineyard on Mykonos. Vioma Vineyards is an amazing experience worthy of an afternoon. The trip is a quick one from either side of the island (about 20 minutes from the main town center by car) One of our fellow travelers had rented a vehicle, but we decided that with the way that our group ‘tastes’ wine, it would be safer to take a taxi. At the end of the afternoon, we were glad that we did.

Vioma is a derivative of the Greek word ‘to live’ and you’ll see why when you arrive at the vineyard. As far as the eye can see to the base of the mountains that cradle it, the land bursts with grasses, grape vines, and wild vegetation unlock you’ll see on the rest of the island’s rocky terrain. At first glance, the vines themselves seem too small to sustain a wine business, but this is purposeful. Because of the famous Mykonos winds that sweep this area, the plants are kept low to prevent damage.

The wines that are being produced at Vioma are all organically grown and are a beautiful example of how delicious Greek wines can be. The selection is simple — a red, a white and a sweet dessert wine, all from grapes that can thrive in dry, sandy soil. But don’t feel that pressured to settle on one, you can sample all three, as we did. We also spent the nominal amount to enjoy a spread of food that paired well with the wines including those two Mykonos cheeses, hard and soft, a bit of Louza, a local ham similar to prosciutto, olives, and bread. The star of the spread just may have been the Horiatiki salad (the closest thing to what many outsiders consider ‘Greek Salad’) filled with fresh vegetables from the garden and eggs produced onsite. We were also blessed with a sampling or the honey grown on the vineyard with its incredible notes of fennel and flower. Dimitra, who runs the vineyard along with her father, as well as leading eco biking tours, gave us an in-depth lesson on the wines and some insight into what is involved with running the vineyard.

Visitors have the opportunity to sit among the vines at Vioma Vineyards

Visitors have the opportunity to sit among the vines at Vioma Vineyards

The best way to wrap up your experience after nibbling and sipping is to stretch your legs and walk through the vines and around the vineyard. We took advantage of the Adirondack chairs, sprinkled through the vines to take a quick respite before Dimitra took us to be introduced to the chickens that produced the eggs for our salad.

Before you leave be sure to grab a couple bottles of wine to take back. You’ll want a glass or two on your terrace later as the sun sets. And if you have a bit of spare room in your luggage, don’t pass up the opportunity to take home a few jars of honey. You’ll thank me later.

Hire a Chef

No, seriously, it’s completely affordable. On one of the last evenings we spent in Mykonos, we gathered around the large table in our house for a celebration that was the reason for our trip — my partner Dan’s fiftieth birthday. My original grand plan was to cook a multi-course feast for him. But in a rare moment of practicality, I decided that it would be impossible to make the meal I knew the occasion deserved and enjoy the festivities, so after a bit of sleuthing on the web I reached out to a catering company who knew of a woman who was famous on the island for her cooking.

Mrs. Irini arrived a few hours before dinner with her impeccably dressed son as a server. She was warm and gracious as she set up in our large kitchen and shooed us from the kitchen insisting we enjoy ourselves and let her handle everything.

As we relaxed with a few bottles of rosé from Vioma Vineyards a flurry of fresh snacks arrived for us to nibble as the sunset including stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki, and taramasalata, a mayonnaise-y dip made with fish roe that was salty and delicious piled onto warm pita.

Soon we were called to the table for a veritable feast featuring tender octopus, simply grilled fish bursting with flavor and one of the best roasted lamb dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat accompanied by nicely roasted potatoes and more of that tasty tzatziki and pita.

…a veritable feast featuring tender octopus, simply grilled fish bursting with flavor and one of the best roasted lamb dishes I’ve ever had…

Just as we were about to push back from the table not having saved room for the beautiful cake I had purchased from a local bakery, a large platter containing both traditional and Nutella baklava arrived. We all gave a small groan as we realized that it was not an option to pass up this delicious greek specialty before enjoying the birthday cake.

I made my way downstairs to thank Mrs. Irini and profusely praise the incredible meal that we had enjoyed just as she was finishing cleaning up. When she handed me the bill I was shocked. We had provided the wine for the evening, but she had bought the ingredients, cooked and provided service — all for a few hundred euros, less than we would have paid for our group to dine out. As I saw her out the door and said goodnight I realized what a smart decision this had been. We had enjoyed an incredibly authentic meal that I could have never provided —it was as if our Greek mother was downstairs crafting our meal with love. And I for one, had gotten to relax and enjoy the evening — priceless.

Email Mrs. Irini about your dinner.

A Reluctant Departure

Those of us who made the trip to Mykonos together isn’t a lightly traveled bunch. But as we boarded our ferries and flights to depart the island at the end of the week we were all agreed that this was one of the best trips of our lifetime. Having the right dynamic of people who take a similar approach to culinary tourism is key. But what made it truly special was the island, the town, the people and every bite we shared together.

Honey from Vioma Vineyards

Honey from Vioma Vineyards

A few months later as I stood in my kitchen back in the U.S., I pulled down a jar of that Vioma honey and drizzled it onto a piece of crusty bread and was instantly taken back to that week. I could feel myself standing in the breezy vineyard basking in the warm sun or walking those ambling little lanes with their white-washed walls, the smell of bougainvillea washing around me. One taste of that honey and I was transported back to Magical Mykonos.



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