Having been back in Canada now for a few days and almost over the jet lag, I’ve had plenty of time to think about how begin writing about this past summer’s vacation to Greece. For starters, I did spend any time in Athens (other than some dead time waiting for connecting flights to/from Thessaloniki). This year’s Greek odyssey saw stay in northern Greece with a week visit to the island of Lefkada, located on the Ionian side of Greece.
As always, I stayed at my family’s summer home in Halkidiki (near Thessaloniki) where I swim twice a day, tan until I resemble a gypsy, spend time with my parents, relatives and friends I’ve known since the 80’s! There were the day trips to Thessaloniki, some trips to more exotic beaches in Halkdiki and taverna-hopping at night.
I traveled to the island of Lefkada for the first time – an island that doesn’t require a ferry boat to travel to – just a causeway that connects it to the mainland. Lefkada is an island rife with greenery, olives trees. One side of the island is relatively flat and most of the hotels are located facing mainland Greece and the center of the island is mountainous. A car is needed on Lefkada as most of the island’s popular and beautiful beaches are included on the side of the island facing Italy ( on the Ionian Sea). Some of Greece’s best beaches are on Lefkada and Egremni and Porto Katsiki often get mentioned in “best beaches” lists.
I also attended a Greek wedding (yes it was BIG and FAT) and even reconnected with a former Greek amabassador to Canada who now spends his retirement in a nearby town in Halkidiki. While in Halkidiki I also traveled to the third peninsula to explore and taste the underappreciated Mount Athos area. Most of the third peninsula is enclosed by a border and home to several Greek-Orthodox monasteries. One can only travel to Ouranoupoli and from there one must enter only if carrying a visa (pre-arranged) into Agio Oros…the name for the entire territory governed by monks and clergy. Sorry, no women are allowed on Agio Oros but crusies are available from Ouranoupoli that tour along the coast.
My weekend in the Athos area was spent in Arnaia with it’s well-preserved old architecture, a couple of wineries, a Feta cheese facility, the tiny islet of Amouliani and to visit a lady who “opens” her own phyllo and made two delicious phyllo pies right before our eyes!
I also wanted to visit Constantinople (Istanbul) once again this year but days were running out and schedules with my travel partner and friend made this an impossibility this year (there’s always next year). Instead, I took the advice of friends to head towards the Greek/Turkish border to visit the city of Xanthi. I went during the city’s Old City Festival to revel with others in this picturesque old town with both Greeks and Muslim minority living side by side peacefully. Xanthi is known for its extraordinary desserts and exotic dishes with a near-east flare. Xanthi’s “pazari” is Greece’s largest and I was fortunate to shop there on the Saturday morning I was there.
Upon my return to our summer home in Halkidiki (where our Greek home is) I was hoping for some milder daytime temps to arrive but not to be so. This September was one of the hottest I remember with the thermometer hitting 36C – more beach action! September is a wonderful month to visit Greece and airfares have dropped, the summer crowds have left and the days are sill hot for a pleasant swim in the sea followed by comfortable warm evenings taking a stroll and dining outdoors at a taverna.
I spent some days (and nights) exploring more of my favourite city in Greece – Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki iss Greece’s 2nd largest city and Greek’s often call it the “co-capital” alongside Athens. Thessaloniki’s history sees many people come and go: Turks, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs. The city was also home to a significant Jewish population and one can even visit a museum dedicated to this important facet of Thessaloniiki.
Thessaloniki is one Europe’s oldest cities and it’s also considered one of the earliest examples of a multicultural city. Today, the majority of Thessaloniki’s population in Greek but the population is made up of natives of the province of Macedonia, Vlachs, Asian Minor Greeks forced to leave Turkey in a series of population exchanges and Pontian Greeks who (not to be confused with Asia Minor Greeks) came back to resettle in Greece after many generations of living around the Black Sea.
The Pontian Greeks have their own dialect, they are a tight-knit community and they have there very own unique cuisine. Pontian Greeks can be found in Athens as well but the majority live in Thessaloniki and towns in Macedonia and Thrace. Some Greek towns and villages were born with the influx of Pontian Greeks who came to resettle on the Greek mainland.
Back in Xanthi, my friend (and chef) Stella Spanou was kind enough to show around the area and on one afternoon I spent at a “Ksenona” or rural hostel just outside of Xanthi. Situated in an old abandoned Turkish village was this family-run type of “bed & breakfast” by a family of Pontian roots. Stella and Eleni prepared dinner, we ate and drank and delightfully (first time in awhile) did not speak of or discuss the Greek economy. We spoke about the wine harvest that I just witness, the region of Xanthi and the delicious food before us. Two of Eleni’s brothers took turns playing the Pontiako Lyra (a kind of viol) played upright and help between one’s thighs after our meal. It was a moving moment with their father keeping rhythm by clapping and everyone reflecting on how wonderful a day we just had.
One of the dishes at the table was of Pontian origin and I’m going to share that dish with you in the coming days but in the meantime, I thought to share another Pontian dish, a sweet one that embodies my sweet Greek vacation and all the memories of the wonderful food enjoyed with old friends and new. We’re now into Autumn and many of this summer’s fruits are a memory and we await for the long winter to pass and another cycle of Spring and Summer will warm our souls and fill us with more memories.
The Pontians have a dish called Hosafi which is a compote made of mixed dried fruit and often some nuts are included in the mix. The ladies of the household with gather fruit as they came into season and dried them for consumption in the winter. Turning dried fruits into a compote is simple genius born out of necessity and ideal as a Lent-friend dessert. I couldn’t think of a more ideal recipe to offer than one with fruits preserved from the warm months and used to tide us through the winter. A compote is usually made with fresh, ripe fruit and preserved in a syrup but here, the main ingredients are dried fruit.
The dried fruits are re-hydrated in warm water then simmered in a simple syrup of water and sugar and spices of your choice. I decided to go with star anise, reminiscent of a compote I ate earlier in my vacation while on Lefkada. This is a really easy recipe using dried figs, apricots, prunes, raisins and almonds. There’s water, there’s sugar and star anise and what the heck…some Greek honey to add some richness to the syrup.
Hosafi is wonderful served on some strained Greek yogurt or ice cream or simply on its own. I make a small batch as we’re using dried fruits which are available all year ’round – no need to make large batches here. Make a batch, store in a container and keep in your fridge.
Hosafi (Χοσάφι) – Compote of Dried Fruit
(makes enough to fill 2 large jars)
1/2 cup of dried apricots
1/2 cup dried figs
1/4 cup sultana raisins
1/4 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup almonds
approx. 1 cup sugar
3-4 whole star anise
1/4 cup Greek honey
- Place all the dried fruit in a bowl and cover with hot water. Place a cover on the bowl and allow the fruit to rehydrate for about an hour. Pour the water and dried fruit into a medium-sized pot and if need be, add more water ( to cover by an inch). Add the sugar and star anise and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
- Once almost aboil, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for an hour. Add the honey, stir in and take off the heat and allow to cool. You maty add the almonds while the compote is still warm.
- Pour the compote into a jar/glass container and keep in your fridge for up to 3 months. Serve on some strained Greek yogurt or ice cream.
. All rights reserved.