Naxos is a fertile garden in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Za, the highest mountain in the Cyclades, Mount Fanari and the entire area around the village of Kinidaro yield crystalline marble, granite and emery. Below the quarries, on ground underpinned by limestone, the islanders' sheep and goats graze on wild greens that grow in the mineral-rich soil and yield creamy milk that is made into six or seven different types of cheese. Below the pastures, the Naxiot livestock farmers have their animal sheds and dairies, dotted around villages such as Filoti. The plateaus are home to the farms – worked without pause – where the islanders grow citrus fruits, including pomelo, and olives. The meadows below the plateaus are used for “sophisticated” livestock farming, producing wonderful beef that is hard to come by elsewhere. And down by the sea, the land yields potatoes, and especially a local variety of spunta.
Across the length and breadth of this mountainous island, you will see the locals working the land. Most have two or three jobs: baker and organic farmer; restaurateur, livestock farmer and dairy producer; producer, packager and merchant. They produce olives and olive oil, fruits and vegetables, raki and more than 10 varieties of grape used for wine or eating. They rear rabbits and chickens and keep bees. The Naxiots are indeed self-reliant. Their products can be purchased on the island and a few stores in the country's larger cities. But their greatest asset is that they are good folk.
Driving back from Koronos and Damarionas to Agiasos, I met a number of locals who said that the island cuisine has changed little over the years. With a few exceptions, I did not discover secret or long-forgotten recipes, but rather fascinating combinations of ingredients in both old and new recipe books. Most families at one point had home-reared pigs, just as in most parts of the country. Michalis Krimitzas, a resident of Apeiranthos, recalls that his family “would butcher one at Christmas and the other at Carnival [before the start of Lent]. On the last Sunday of Carnival we still make ‘rosto,’ which we serve with pasta. The fat and skin above the loin was preserved. We would fill our cellars with jars of preserved cuts.”
The cured pork is known as “alatsoto” on Naxos and it is cooked with broad beans or a small chunk is added to vegetable dishes such as stuffed vine leaves (dolma) or beans in tomato sauce for flavor. The cheeks and neck would be made into a delicious rosemary-scented snack called “glynero,” cured in the fat that the islanders use for butter. The flank was turned into “zamboni,” ham cured in salt and flavored with garlic, cinnamon and cloves. This was usually made at Carnival and eaten all the way up to Christmas. “Amathies” is another festive dish made with pork belly and stuffed with rice. It is a fiddly dish to prepare but well worth the effort. In the village of Moni, Anastasia Maraki took the time to cook it for us. As she cleaned and stuffed the offal, her mother-in-law, Irene Herouvim, told us all about the varieties of wild greens that grow on the island and how she uses them in the traditional Easter Saturday lamb offal “magiritsa” stew, along with mushrooms. Easter is generally a celebration that is centered on food, and especially on “patoudo” (or “batoudo”), a whole lamb stuffed with fragrant herbs.
Most of the locals didn't start eating beef until the 1960s because it was expensive to rear and they preferred to sell it rather than consume it themselves.
Other food typically found on the family table are “fava” dip, a puree of cooked yellow split peas served with finely chopped onions and capers, stuffed tomatoes, goat and bean casserole, and, of course, a slew of dishes involving potato.
On this journey, through the locals' stories and treats, I realized that the traditional cuisine of Naxos is very much alive. The food of yesteryear is still prepared today, with top-quality local products, cooked for the family but also served to the island's visitors at its tavernas and restaurants.
* This article first appeared in the June 2014 edition of Gastronomos, Kathimerini's monthly food supplement.
Rosto (pork casserole)
Christina Kannelopoulou and her son Giorgos run the Mythodia restaurant, near the town hall, where the cook showed us her version of rosto, the island's most iconic celebration dish.
1 1/2-kilo piece of pork shank tightly wrapped in twine or netting
4-5 cloves garlic, finely sliced
300 ml dry red wine
4 bay leaves
150 ml olive oil
3 large ripe tomatoes, crushed, or 500 gr diced and tinned
1 tbsp tomato paste
salt & pepper
1 stick cinnamon
3-4 allspice berries
1 tsp dried oregano
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 tbs dried
400 gr thick pasta
Score the meat and rub with salt and pepper, stuffing the cuts with garlic and oregano. Drizzle with olive oil. Heat the rest of the olive oil in a large saucepan and evenly brown the meat over a high heat. Add the wine and wait for 2 minutes until the alcohol has evaporated. Add the grated tomato, tomato paste and as much hot water as needed to just cover the meat. When it comes to the boil turn the heat down to medium, cover the pot and cook for 45 minutes. Then add the allspice, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves and thyme, cover the pot and cook for another 45 minutes until the meat is tender. Remove from the heat, put the meat on a board, remove the string and carefully cut into one-inch slices. Place slices back in the sauce and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the pasta for 3 minutes less than recommended on the packet and finish off in the sauce. Remove the spices before serving. An aged grated cheese, preferably a Naxos variety, goes well on top.