We spent a morning at the bustling and colourful Modiano market to stock up with fresh supplies as we passed through Thessaloniki. Greece’s second largest city is full of culture, history and vibrancy with the old town (and Turkish quarter) sitting on the hill behind the newly built city blocks.
Along with many other Greek goodies, we picked up a beautiful chicken that we then rubbed with a traditional Greek meat spice mix of red pepper, curry powder, garlic powder, ground cumin, black pepper and some ‘secret’ spices which the man at the market was not willing to tell me about.
The following morning we set off towards the mountainside village of Stena Nestou, about 200km’s away, hoping to find a remote camping spot tucked away from civilisation. It was a slow journey; the roads windy and we like to drive slow, passing through valleys and over farmlands’ on a mixture of loose and tarmacked surfaces.
As we climbed up the narrow hillside road in the direction of Stena Nestou we realized we shouldn’t struggle to find a remote spot, it was more a matter of deciding on somewhere that had a good view. We kept driving and as we reached the summit, the land opened itself up; on one side you could see the road winding its way down into Stena Nestou, behind us looked down over the flat plains of Xanthi with the Aegean Sea in the distance, to our right the Nestos river wound its way through the gorge on it’s way to the sea and to our left the mountains rose higher where animals roamed freely. It was perfect.
Without too much thought – we didn’t think we could get much luckier than this – we parked up and began building a fire pit from stones and rocks that were lying around. It wasn’t long before the fire was cranking, stoked with olive wood we had picked up from a fellow on the side of the road a few days prior. Once the flames had died down a bit, we started the chicken. Slowly turning it and using the different rocks around the fire, we lowered the rack and chicken as needed.
The smell of fire alone is something very special. When you combine this with the smell of flames intermittently licking the meat on the grill and the sizzling sound of fat as it drips into the fire below, you have something that is – for lack of words – doubly special.
As the chicken slowly cooked, being turned every few minutes, we par-boiled some potatoes before finishing them off over the olive coals, drizzled with a (very) generous amount of a Cretan olive oil from the region of Mirabello called ‘charisma’ and tossed with a potato spice mix the Greeks often use – made up of curry powder, dried oregano, garlic powder, onion powder and turmeric powder, plus the secret ingredients’ the man wouldn’t let me in on.
To accompany dinner – as the chicken rested – we mixed up a tzatziki, a very typical Greek sauce (although variations of a tzatziki can be found in neighbouring countries with their unique take on it) served with grilled meats. Tzatziki is usually made with sheep or goat yoghurt, but today in the markets we found an incredibly thick ‘Greek’ yoghurt, made from cows’ milk – the thickest yoghurt either of us had ever eaten. To this we added some grated (and squeezed) cucumber, minced garlic, olive oil and mint (from our little herb garden we have on our window ledge).
A couple of weeks prior as we travelled up the island of Evia, we came across the Avantis Estate and Winery in Mitikas. They have most of their vineyards around the island of Evia but they also own some land in Santorini. One of their wines we tasted (and bought a bottle because it was incredible) was a 100% Assyrtiko, a grape variety that is indigenous to the island of Santorini. The notes were a bit smoky with an amazingly creamy texture and balanced minerality.
Santorini has it’s amazing and very unique ecosystem; volcanic soil, small amounts of rainfall and slow ripening because of it’s lower summer temperatures. Add to all of this the cool sea breezes that drift across from the Aegean Sea, leaving the grapes with a light dusting of salt that add briny notes to the complexity of this wine.
The chicken was carved and dinner was served, the wine matching as well as we had imagined and just as the sun began to set, casting shadows and a golden hue through the valley below.
Bon appetit, or Καλή όρεξη! (Kalí óreksi!) as they say it in Greek.