One of the stops I made during last year’s vacation in Greece was to the southernmost Prefecture of Greece, Laconia. The capital of Laconia is Sparti (Sparta) which you all are pretty familiar with by now. My journey to Sparta began way before even setting foot on this region of Greece.
Last Spring, I was invited to meet a trade junket from Laconia, where purveyors of olive oils, Feta cheese, olives, handmade pastas sought to form partnerships with restaurants, delis and shops here in Toronto. I was moved by the passion each representative (often the owner/proprietor) had for their product(s). I would like to recognize the following companies and their products from Laconia:
- Sparta Kefalas is a company based around the town of Kefalas on the Evrotas River. All their products are made with an “organic” approach. Sparta Kefalas produces extra-virgin olive oil, table olives, pitted and sliced olives, olive paste and sun-dried tomatoes.
- Agrosparta Olive Products is located just 5km outside of Sparta and they act as host when you visit the Museum of Olive oil. Agrosparta offers olives – from small jars to large tubs for that Greek-style of consumption. You may want to try their olive paste as part of your array of mezedes/appetizers.
- Renieri Olive Groves. It’s a small world! The Renieri Olive Grove is situated in Foiniki, Laconia and it turns out they are the relatives of our family friends, the Rieneris family of Toronto. The Renieri Grove’s products range from extra-virgin olive oils, jars of olives and olive paste.
- The Co-Op of Epidavros-Limaras, Laconia. The Co-Op is concerned strictly with producing extra-virgin olive oil of the highest standards.
- ALEA Laconica. Located on the mainroad towards Gytheio, just south of Sparti lies the operations for ALEA. ALEA’s products concentrate on an array of olives and extra-virgin olive oil.
- Labiogal produces barrel-aged Feta cheese, made exclusively from goat and sheep’s milk from area farms. I was a delight to sample both the goat/sheep’s milk combo of Feta and the goat’s milk-only Feta. CLICK HERE to watch their video on the making of Feta Cheese.
Soon after meeting this trade junket from Laconia, I met some family friends at church. Toronto’s Greek community is a tapestry weaved of Greeks who emigrated from every part of Greece. Included as friends of our family are folks from the Prefecture of Laconia. One such family is the Kolokithas family and after hearing about my enthusiasm about their olive oils, etc., I was kindly extended an invite to stay in their home and explore Sparti and some of the surrounding area. Up until last year, I had never been this far south in mainland Greece. With my parents having a summer home by the beach in Halkidiki (northern Greece) – it’s hard getting motivated to traipse around Greece. Getting from my summer home means a thirty minute drive to Thessaloniki, then hop onto a train for a five hour ride to Athens. One can then drive or take the bus down to Laconia and it’s capital, Sparta. The Athens – Sparti trip takes about three hours.
The main road that takes you from Tripoli to Sparta will take one through towns and villages that are nestled in low, rolling hills. The descends down towards the city of Sparta, with the Taygetos mountain range as it’s backdrop to the South. When one enters Sparta, I didn’t immediately see evidence of its brilliant past. Much of Greece’s cities are populated by rows of low-rise apartments with stores at street level as the anchor. Despite the urban feel of the city of Sparta, it’s agricultural legacy and lifeblood are never too far, rows upon rows of olive trees abound. Until now, I have never EVER seen so many orange trees in the my life. At the Kolokithas home where I was staying, this neighborhood sat nestled beside olive trees and orange groves. Where most Greeks are content to have a small plot dedicated to the family garden – the Spartans boast of having “stremmata” (Greek unit of 1000 sq. metres) of olive and orange trees.
The Evrotas River no doubt has been vital to the agricultural life of the area. The river begins in the Taygetos Range and flows for 82km through Sparta and empties into the Laconic Gulf. The river is fed by both precipitation and underwater Springs. Oleanders can be found all along the river and to this day, it is irrigated for agricultural use. According to the Laconia Chamber of Commerce, there are 34 registered companies producing Kalamon table olives and extra-virgin olive oil, 12 companies concerned with citrus fruits and juices, 7 wineries, 5 companies producing cheese products, three major producers of honey, 2 pasta companies, salted and cured trout and the local delicacy, the cured & smoked pork called Singlino.
During my stay in Laconia, I was relieved to see that there were more similarites than differences as Greeks. Every Greek has a special love for their region and sometimes this comes at the expense of Greeks from other regions. I found the people of Sparti and Laconia to be as warm as in any other part of Greece I’ve visited, the exclusive use of local extra-virgin olive oil in all their cooking (what’s butter?) Some food reflections thus far? The dried Greek oregano from the Taygetos Range that I tasted was some of the most, pungent, aromatic and poignant, the mint from K. Evangelitsa’s (Kolokitha) garden was the sweetest mint I’ve ever tasted.
On my first evening in Sparta, I was taken along to a “end of summer” dinner held amongst friends. I opted for “bamies with veal, sauce, peas and potatoes”. Of the home-cooked dishes….Kokkoros Krassato – a Greek coq au vin if you will. The rooster is segmented, browned and slowly braised in a tomato, red wine and olive oil sauce, with hints of allspice, all served on a bed of Greek pasta (bucatini shape).
Patates tiganites (French fries) that were done in olive oil. Can you imagine something so common and as simple as fries being so memorable? I jokingly asked K. Evangelitsa if she had any sunflower oil in the house…I was met with an austere look that only a Spartan woman could give!
Another dish that I was served was “Bouzopoula”. The first time I heard this word was a few days earlier in my vacation in Leonidio. Bouzopoula is the local slang for what most Greeks call “Gouronopoulo” or whole roasted suckling pig. In the Greek-Orthodox calendar, there’s another fasting period that runs up to one of most significant of Greek holidays, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Panagias) on August 15th. I was told that many in Laconia adhere to this fasting period leading up to August 15th. On August 15th and after…Bouzopoula is served and enjoyed greatly.
What’s there not to like about a whole roasted pig? Usually a whole pig is cooked but many families will apply the same technique to a leg or shoulder cut…apply generous amount of sea salt, black pepper and dried Greek oregano. The Kolokithas family is coming over for dinner soon and have I got a surprise for them! The final dish that stands out the most during my stay in Sparti was a vegetarain main course called “ÎºÎ¿Î»Î¿ÎºÏ…Î¸Î¿ÎºÎ¿ÏÏ†Î¬Î´ÎµÏ‚” (Kolokithokorfades). This is as down-home Greek southern food as they get: a stew of zucchini, in particular the tender leaves, the small stalks and sometimes the blossoms get thrown in too! This dish looked fab, it bursted with garden-fresh flavours and it was quite filling.
That’s the first installment of my visit to Sparti and Laconia. I will soon take you to nearby Byzantine Mistras, the Port of Gytheio, Neapoli, a visit to the Vatistas Winery, Monemvassia and finally, a scenic trip through the mountains of Laconia on my way back up to Athens.
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