The person who first introduced me to Greece is Christopher Bakken, co-founder of Writing Workshops in Greece and author of Honey, Olives, Octopus. He is a 5-star Grecophile* whose knowledge of the country, the islands, the people, and the food is unparalleled by any American I’ve met, and I aspire to follow in his footsteps.
*assuming 5-star ratings exist for this
Therefore, he of course knew a thing or two about Ikaria. I sent him a message before my trip, and he kindly pointed me in the direction of two friends of his who are doing spectacular work in the organic wine and food industry. He recommended staying there overnight, but since I’d already booked my room at Thea’s, he suggested calling ahead for a wine tasting and maybe a meal.
On my last day in Ikaria** I called the winery, also known as “The Love Hotel,” to see if it would be possible to stop by. Eleni answered, and we spoke in a mix of broken Greek and English. I managed to convey that I was a friend of Christopher and wanted to visit and try some wine. “You’ll come for dinner?” she asked.
**it was not my last day, but I spent my entire trip thinking it was–I even packed my suitcase and went downstairs to check out the next morning, much to the concern of Thea. Is everything okay? she asked. Yes… I said cautiously, and then I went looking through all of my ticket bookings, only to realize I didn’t leave until the following day.
She indicated that they would prepare a family-style meal with everyone staying there, and she would add me (and my friend) to the dinner list.
“See you at 8!” she said.
Before she hung up, I asked where exactly the winery was located — the website didn’t offer an address.
She gave me directions to the village of Pigi.
“And from there?”
“From there?” she sounded confused. “We are on the left. If you miss it, ask anyone for Eleni and Yiorgos Kerimalis, they will know.”
So my friend Annette and I spent the afternoon in the port town of Evdilos, semi-close to Pigi, to ready ourselves for the evening. Annette is also a writer, a travel journalist from Holland whom I met on my first night in Ikaria. We hit it off immediately–two solo female travelers who love writing and eating. But as the evening rolled around, I could sense some hesitation.
“It’s just the idea of a winding mountain road, late at night, with no streetlights…”
Perhaps I should mention, if I haven’t, the roads in Greece are not like American roads. The two lane highways will sometimes fit two cars–and these are not American sized cars, either; these are tiny, half-versions of our vehicles. In the xoria, or villages, the road will barely fit one car, and with pedestrians, parked cars, and buildings blocking the view, it’s 100% terrifying. I don’t think I ever left 2nd gear in the villages. On our first outing together, Annette helped me navigate out of a parallel parking situation that would have otherwise been impossible–reversing up an incline, with a stick-shift, in a tight spot. Thus, she understood the dangers of driving in Greece, and the extent of my driving capabilities.
“It’s not you, it’s me,” she lied.
“It’ll be fine!” I said, truly believing it.
Of course, until that moment, I hadn’t considered that we were going to a winery, presumably to eat and drink wine…and then drive on poorly lit, steeply curved, narrow mountain road late at night. Was I supposed to not drink wine??
Due to our fretting, we decided to arrive early, to scope out the scene, and make an educated decision.
But as soon as we arrived, all of my worries vanished, and I knew we’d have to stay for dinner. The place was spectacular, like something out of a dream. Rows of grapevines and gardens, on a mountainside with a view of the setting sun, a giant stone house with a flower-adorned terrace, fresh cherry tomatoes on the table…
Voices drifted onto the patio from inside, and we were beckoned into the kitchen. We opened the door to find wooden tables, paneling, and shelves; herbs hanging from the ceiling to dry; jars on every shelf, pans decorating the walls; freshly made pasta drying on the table—it was akin to Martha Stewart’s fantasy kitchen. Eleni was putting finishing touches on a giant spanikopita–a brush of olive oil on top of a pita so big I don’t think I could’ve put my arms around its circumference. Eleni’s daughter was filming a live Instagram video while her boyfriend (and an employee of the vineyard) stood by to help.
We were warmly welcomed, with Eleni smiling and posing for Instagram, and then she invited Annette and me to follow her to the wood oven where the spanikopita would bake for the next 45 minutes.
We walked past rows and rows of grapevines, dark purple clusters hidden among bright green leaves. Yiorgos met us en route and told us about his and Eleni’s upcoming visit to the United States. They’ll be traveling around the northeast to talk about healthy cooking–their concept of organic and “Blue Zone” living. (Ikarians are among those who live longest in the world, thus being considered part of the Blue Zone.)
We crossed the vineyard to see the second part of the property, where they’re constructing a soon-to-be larger kitchen and dining space, and that’s where the wood oven is. Eleni put in fresh pieces of wood to adjust the temperature, and talked with surprise about how people who come to visit seem to love her food. “I don’t know, it’s just simple ingredients,” she shrugged. Then she smiled, a large grin, and I noticed her short hair was highlighted purple–only a hint to the spitfire, lively person she is–and she patted both of our shoulders. “Let’s finish!”
Soon after, others started arriving: Eleni’s niece and her boyfriend; a French couple who were staying there; a Greek and Swiss couple who were also staying there; a neighbor from up the road. We sat and talked on the terrace while Eleni and her daughter worked together in the kitchen.
Finally it was time to eat. There was one big “Yiamas!” as we clinked our first glasses of wine, a wonderfully crisp white that had a hint of sweetness–probably one of the best white wines I’ve ever had. Our plates quickly filled with pasta tossed with goat cheese, tomato salad, imam (a roasted vegetable dish), olives, bread from the wood oven, spanikopita, and the best fava Annette and I have had so far in Greece.
The table was swirling with English, Greek, and French words. Yiorgos told us about the probiotics in two of his dishes, one of olives and one of cheese, and how important they are to our health. He explained to Annette and me, because we both have specific nut allergies, that if we were to consume the appropriate probiotics, we could change our “gut biome” and be able to eat almonds and hazelnuts again without problem.
And then, of course, I told everyone about my dilemma of not being able to stay in Greece, and we had a grand discussion about whom I could be set up with. It was a lively discussion that ended with me giving out several business cards.
A handful of bottles of wine later (don’t worry–I kept myself to a responsible amount), after second helpings and an exceptional dessert made from grape juice, gelatin, and cocoa—no added sugar—we were, to say the least, full. It was hard to stop eating because the food was just. so. good. But as the 11th hour crept in, it was time to say farewell.
We packed up to leave, hugging all of our new friends. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had, and not even an unlit, winding mountain road that night seemed too dark.