CULTURE

An Anafi cook brings out the best of her island

With no proper signposts or large clusters of rooms to let, Kleisidi on the southeastern Aegean island of Anafi is easy to miss. But when visitors ask where they should go to eat, those in the know send them to the village, on the first beach heading east from the port, where Margarita Kalogeropoulou?s taverna can be found.

Once there, at the peak of summer during the day you?ll see an interesting mix of raggedy youths from the campsite, swimsuit-clad beachgoers, foreign visitors from the small number of rooms nearby and a motley crew of others who?ve dropped by for a light meal or something more substantial. In the evening it often seems like the entire island is there, and not without reason: The prices are reasonable, the service friendly and the atmosphere relaxed. The view over the sandy beach is also lovely, but the key to the taverna?s success is the food: unaffected, comforting and simple, with just a few cosmopolitan brushstrokes to take it to a higher, though still intimate, level.

As the summer draws to a close, the taverna is still open, serving late-season holidaymakers and locals.

So many beautiful things paraded across our table during our visit: fava puree dotted with local capers; tomato salad with soft, white myzithra cheese; a mixed vegetable salad with fresh basil; crispy fried balls of fava with tomatoes and cheese; eggplant baked in a clay pot with tomato and cheese; aromatic beef-and-pork meatballs; beef and chicken cooked in tomato sauce served, and a simple meat sauce served with homemade pasta… There was balance and flavor; these were all dishes straight from the heart and prepared with tasteful frugality.

?I make the pasta in the winter, when I can collect up to 60 eggs a day that I cannot use,? Margarita, who insisted that we call her by her first name, told us when we asked her about the pasta.

And the bread is delicious, substantial and flavored with all kinds of seeds.

?That will never change,? we were told by Margarita?s older daughter, Efi, who helps out around the taverna in the summer. ?She tried a lot of different recipes before she got it right. You see, she didn?t like the bread we got at the bakery.?

Moving from Athens

Margarita was born and raised in Athens to parents who were both from Anafi. She married Dimitris, had two children and worked at a private company for years. The family only used to spend their summers in Anafi, until 1985, when Margarita and Dimitris decided to open a coffee shop there.

?We had to bring the fridge in on wooden boat, because the port was not built until 1986,? Margarita reminisced. ?And all the equipment was carried by donkey, because there was no road.?

As the business progressed, Margarita began making breakfast for her early patrons and then started cooking up selections of different snacks (mezedes) to serve with alcoholic drinks. Her customers — visitors and friends — began asking for more food and Margarita decided to turn the coffee shop into a taverna, serving dishes from Anafi and other parts of Greece.

In 2000, Margarita and Dimitris moved to the island permanently and for the past two years she has had her younger daughter, Betty, who is 30 years old and studying to be a chef, helping her out in the kitchen.

The cuisine of Anafi, Margarita explains, is very similar to nearby Santorini which is renowned for its local products and food but it also draws from other islands in the Aegean.

Rather than explain, she took us to her kitchen and prepared four recipes.

?Here is the mixture for our ?gemista? [a term usually used for stuffed, roasted vegetables]. Yes, this is what we call the sweet pastry, which is stuffed with honey, sesame seeds, breadcrumbs, cinnamon and clove powder, and orange zest. We fry it and then sprinkle it with icing sugar,? Margarita explained, telling us that Anafi used to produce large quantities of sesame and some families still cultivate it.

The island also produces fragrant honey from bees that feed on wild thyme and other flowers.

?Up until 1950,? Margarita continued, ?the island didn?t import anything other than coffee and fuel. Everything else was produced here. Families were self-sufficient; they had their vegetable patch, their orchards, their fava and wheat, and their livestock. There were a lot of goats on the island up until around 1980.?

Beside her, Betty was browning pieces of goat in a large pan to simmer later in tomato sauce flavored with cinnamon and red wine.

Saffron

The ?tyropita? is not your usual cheese pie in phyllo pastry. Here, it is like an envelope stuffed with soft cheese, mastic gum and locally grown saffron, which is then baked until puffy and golden.

?We gather the crocuses in November,? Margarita said of how the saffron is collected. ?We spread out on the hillsides, which are covered with the flower, to collect them. Then at night we sit down and remove the tiny stigmas.?

The saffron is also used to flavor rusks, which are made in almost all homes on Anafi.

?You would have seen in the main town that many houses have two outdoor stone ovens,? said Margarita. ?One is small and was used to cook food and the other is big, used to cook rusks, which were not kept for the family, but sold to ships coming from Crete and stopping here to restock.?

As far as cheese is concerned, Anafi has 13 shepherds with a few animals each, who make cheese for local consumption. ?There is only one large herd and we buy some of that cheese, but it?s not enough to use in the taverna,? Margarita explained.

We went out onto the porch, to roll out the pastry for the ?hylopites? pasta. The place was starting to fill up. We let the pasta dry for a few minutes and then went back into the kitchen to cook it with an oil, tomato and garlic sauce. Simple and very Greek.

RECIPE

?Hylopites? and a simple sauce

Ingredients

(Serves 4)

500 gr all-purpose flour

250-300 ml lukewarm water

3 large tomatos, peeled and grated

3 cloves garlic, finely sliced

5-6 tbsp olive oil

Basil, finely chopped for serving

Myzithra cheese, grated for serving

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the ?hylopites? pasta, put the flour in a large bowl, add a pinch of salt and begin pouring in 250 ml of lukewarm water, kneading until you get a firm dough. You don?t want it to be too soft, or it will fall apart. If it?s too dry, add a bit more water gradually until you get a solid, but malleable consistency. Roll out the dough into a sausage shape and cut into one-inch slices, rolling into a ball. Roll out the balls on a floured surface with a rolling pin, as thinly as possible. Sprinkle some flour if the dough starts to stick. Cut the rolled-out dough into 3-4 cm squares and pinch together the two of the four ends to form a small pocket that will hold the sauce better. Place the pasta in a tin or tray lined with a piece of cloth and make sure the pieces are not stuck together. Allow the pasta to dry for around 5 minutes at room temperature until it hardens slightly. Boil in a pot of salted water for no more than 4-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, cook the garlic for just a few seconds, and then add the fresh tomato, salt and pepper. Cook for around 10 minutes until the excess liquid has evaporated. When the pasta is cooked, place it in the sauce with a slotted spoon and bring to the boil once more. Serve hot, with a dash of olive oil, grated cheese and chopped basil.