Experience the food and culture of Naxos

Breakfast at the family-run Nissaki Beach Hotel on Saint George Beach. Picture: Anita McInnes

ON our third day in Chora, which is the capital and port of Naxos, our group hired a bus and English-speaking guide so we could tour the biggest island in the Cyclades.

Our guide said the island was the most fertile of the Aegean islands, which explained why the island’s residents historically spent less time at sea compared with the inhabitants of some of the drier islands and more time farming and in cultural pursuits.

After leaving Choras or Naxos as the capital is also known, we headed into the centre of the island where we passed many olive groves.

The guide said if 10 per cent of the flowers resulted in fruit it was considered to be a very good harvest.

He said Zeus was the highest mountain on Naxos and its climate consisted of cool summers and warm winters with sometimes snow on the mountains for one or two weeks only.

Farming and agriculture accounted for 75 per cent of the island’s income with tourism contributing the remaining 25 per cent.

The island had plenty of water for agriculture – important industries were stock breeding, raising lambs, goats and cows and cheese making.

Also about 25,000 tonnes of potatoes a year were exported mainly to Athens.

We saw many temples and churches built on the tops of hills and mountains – some of them were built 600 to 700 years ago.

There was the occasional donkey to be seen but herds of goats were everywhere.

Our guide said the goats wandered into the hills during the day to feed and their bells could be heard when they returned in the evening.

Some goats were tethered and did not seem to be able to move too far at all but they seemed to be in relatively good condition.

The mountains of marble looked grey but the guide said this was caused by lichens and dust growing and collecting on the marble as it was in fact white.

But he said the best marble was found in Paros.

The purple-flowered thyme we saw in many places was good for honey.

We went for a walk at Phlerio to look at a kouros – a 6.4m statue, which according to Michael Toubis in Cyclades – The Aegean Islands is known as “the Greek” a name (Elinas) also applied to Phlerio.

The day trip included a stop near Phlerio to look at a kouros (a 6.4m statue).
The day trip included a stop near Phlerio to look at a kouros (a 6.4m statue).

Our bus stopped in the village of Chalki where we visited the Kitron distillery where the fourth and fifth generations of the Vallindras family continue to make liqueur from the citrus tree.

The citrus leaves are distilled in the same copper stills the family first used in 1896.

Apparently the liqueur was first called citrorako as the citrus leaves were used to flavour the vine growers’ raki drink.

We passed hills, which were being mined for emery (O3 Al2) – used to smooth marble and also make sandpaper and cosmetic emery boards for filing finger nails.

One part of our tour included views to Amorgos (the next place on our itinerary), which the guide said was referred to as the Islands of Paradise.

While on Naxos we stayed at the family-run Nissaki Beach Hotel on Saint George Beach.

When we first arrived at the hotel we were served some ouzo and then shown to a room with views over the outdoor restaurant and the beach, which in warmer weather I imagine would be swarming with people.

I did see a few swimmers and one day in distance I could see a group of water skiers.

The hotel with an outdoor and indoor lobby bar, a swimming pool with hydro-massage had a classy feel about it.

But I think the hotel’s breakfasts best represented the attitude the owners took to running their establishment – everything on the extensive menu was made from quality produce and all the dishes made with care as though the chef expected every diner to be a food critic.

Also for the first time on the tour I was impressed by the quality and variety of food that was available for someone like me who has a gluten intolerance.

One thing which I really enjoyed eating with Greek style yoghurt were hippofages.

Vasiliki Panourgia asked the owner’s wife (she managed the kitchen while one of their sons was the chef) and she said hippofages were a little berry, which grows along the coast in Europe and apparently the berry was carried by Alexander the Great on his journeys.

As soon as they could our tour leader Eva Cass and Dixie Stanford to take us to Scirocco.

The café restaurant first opened in 1995 when Nikos and Michalis Roussos persuaded their mother Katerina to run the kitchen.

After experiencing my first real Greek salad – made without lettuce, which always seems to be plentiful in the insipid Australian version of the dish – at a café near Syntagma Square in Athens the salad had become one of my favourites.

I also really enjoyed a Sirocco salad, which included figs and the lamb kleftiko (tender pieces of lamb with garlic, rosemary and cheese, baked in the oven).

So much did I enjoy the food from this restaurant that as we entered the port a week later on our way back to Athens after visiting Amorgos I wished we had thought to ask the Roussos family to prepare a picnic basket and have it delivered to the ferry.

Before we left Naxos for Amorgos three of the belly dancers in our tour group performed at the Venetian Castle, which is home to direct descendants of the Della Rocca-Barozzi families.

The dancers who are all students of Eva Cass performed before a crowd of tourists (and locals) who were attending a bazouki evening organised by Nikos Karavias affectionately known as the Count.

Ms Cass, who is of Greek Egyptian heritage, has got to know the Count during her previous visits to Naxos and has performed some of her own choreographies there.