"The people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine."
Quote from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides circa 500BC
Do not hesitate to stroll into a restaurant kitchen to see what is on offer.
Dodecanese cookery is different from other island food since it relies more on spices and often a good Dodecanesian cook will have a 'spice' box next to the hob, a box that contains several spices, including ground pepper. This adds a slightly more 'eastern' influence reflecting the various foreign occupation additions to the gastronomic panoply. The Ottoman empire brought more spices and so some dishes have that exotic hint of historical flavours.
Greek island food features numerous old favourites, those quintessentially Greek dishes that can be so delicious and satisfying. A simple Greek salad can be a great eating experience made with, for example, sweet ripe tomatoes, peeled cucumber, thin slices of sweet onion, black olives and wild oregano flowers - and drizzled with a little extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.
Concluding, I will never agree that true Greek cookery is not one of the world's great cuisines. With dishes dating back, chronologically, to ancient times, it is absolutely reasonable to assume that many of today's national dishes around the Mediterranean basin and beyond owe their roots in the proto-cookery that ancient Greeks engaged in so very long ago. In the far back mists of time cooks used what they had to hand to fill stomachs and along the way the evolution of European cookery owes a huge amount to what the Greeks originally perfected via gastronomic experimentation.
A popular quality taverna Kavos Mare at Pefkos, Lindos, Rhodes
One of the world's great yet simple dishes made with immaculately fresh quality ingredients sourced from local suppliers - at least that's how it should be and indeed usually is.
The ubiquitous ‘Twelve Islands’ of the Dodecanese are in fact fourteen (the ancients did not count two of them): Astypalea, Halki, Kalymnos, Karpathos, Kassos, Kastelorizo, Kos, Leros, Leipsi, Nissyros, Patmos, Rhodes, Symi, and Tilos. There are numerous smaller islands but most are mere chunks of rock in the sea, sparsely populated if at all. Many are just outposts for a few sheep or donkeys.
Every single island of this richly historic area of the Southern Aegean is unique. Customs and foodstuffs are particular to each enclave yet their group history and peculiar geography (Nissyros is a typical example), have melded the cuisine over the great spans of time and coloured the group with a definite homogenous identity.
The East and North Africa are right nearby and so it was inevitable that the aromas and dishes have been exported to these islands and are not found elsewhere in Greece. The sea provided the main livelihood for the people of the Dodecanese until the sudden arrival of tourism. A history of conquests and despots, from the Ottoman Turks, Venetians, and Franks to the Italian fascists in the 20th century, has shaped the colour and flavours of the Dodecanese plate to create a cuisine that is both vivid and cohesive.
In ancient times the people of these markedly sunny and beautiful islands moved fluidly back and forth between home and the nearby shores of Asia Minor and Egypt. The people of Rhodes traded in ancient Naucratis, a thousand years before Christ. The lucrative and quality wine and grain trade of the Dodecanese enabled the rich benefactors to provide a powerful naval force and even the Colossus of Rhodes – that massive bronze statue.
The rich spice trade of the Byzantine area and the legendary Knights of St. John, who helped to import costly and rare spices to western Europe, have left us an indelible mark on the cuisine of Rhodes and Dodecanese islands. Ages later, the fascist regime of the Italians, who annexed the Dodecanese from 1912 to 1948, left a further legacy of dishes that seem instantly Italian in look and taste and have been part of the local cuisine for several generations. Other dishes, such as the fritters that are still popular in Alexandria, were brought to the islands by traders and travellers between the two areas.
Kalymnos, Symi, and Halki are particularly geared-up for the fruits of the sea since they were unable to sustain their own crops due to lack of arable land. Thus you will see today that much of their food is sea-based and that they have a tempting legacy of fish dishes that are both sustaining and tasty.
Ancient ingredients have still survived to this day, and there is no doubt that the traditional dishes of bulgur wheat can be traced right back to 500 BC and beyond. Soup, stuffing, pilaf or porridge is still popular eating and a firm favourite amongst the indigenous population. It is also delicious and worth trying just for that authentic link with the ancient food of the past.
There is a distinct personality to Dodecanese cookery that is exemplified by the marriage of pasta with legume ingredients. Here, for example, the marriage of legumes and pasta is popular, encompassed in the array of lentil, chick pea and pasta dishes found in Rhodes, Nisyros, Symi, Astypalea and fellow islands including Tilos. Pasta is popular and recipes from Kassos and her sister Karpathos have now become stalwart dishes all over Southern Aegean.
©Ava Van Hollander 2010
The King of Oils
The background picture ← →, is of the ancient and quintessential Greek ingredient - Olive Oil. Greek olive oil is undoubtedly the best in the world (debatable, but I am convinced this is true) - being both full of flavour and delicious and at times, lusciously sublime. Used also as a medicine for all manner of problems, including the removal of ear wax, it is of course responsible for some of the most delicious dishes in the Mediterranean area. It is also a vital ingredient for a healthy diet. The king of oils is quite simply, unbeatable!
Rhodes and many of the Dodecanese islands are ideal for viticulture and the making of good wine. Indeed, wine production has been an essential trading element since the vine was first cultivated between 3000 BC and 2000 BC.
Cooled slightly by the often gusting yet refreshing Meltimi wind that compliments the sunniest area in Greece from May to September, this is ideal wine producing terrain.
Rhodes wine in particular has been famed for thousands of years for it's quality and was immensely appreciated by other Greeks, and countries like Rome and satellite nations, who avidly imported it in amphorae on a regular basis. Sunken wine trading ships have been found stacked to the rafters with pottery amphorae from Rhodes, some still sealed and containing residues of their original contents.
Today you can enjoy wine of a quality that promises an authentic taste of an industry that stretches back possibly six thousand years.
Ask the restaurant waiter or shopkeeper about the local wines and you will be surprised at the quality of the authentic Greek wines on offer.