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Chios: a True Greek Paradise
An immensely diverse, self sufficient island, a breath of fresh air, away from the crowded touristic Aegean resorts
The women of Chios love to talk about food, even to people they have just met. Twenty years ago, a lady from Avgonyma, talking to me over the fence of her house as I was locking my car, gave me a detailed description of how to prick unripe pistachios with a hair-pin, so that they would absorb the syrup and become a perfect spoon-sweet (fruit preserve).
The beautifully restored windmills at Vrondado were not grinding wheat or barley, but acorn cups used to treat the leather in the near-by tanneries.
Certainly the adjective myrovolos (fragrant) which is often used for Chios, is not an exaggeration.
Apart from the myriad wild herbs and flowers, there is also the aroma of the “golden apples” the island’s extensive citrus fruit orchards, as well as that of the roses and the other beautiful cultivated flowers that adorn every Chian garden and balcony.
The Mandarin-Scented Almond Cookies of Chios are enriched with peel and juice from the incredibly fragrant, heirloom local fruit.
In Kambos, south of the capital, one can get a glimpse of the charming way of life of centuries past by looking at the extraordinary villas and estates. Built mainly with the bright ochre-yellow and brick-red stone from Thymiana --the neighboring village-- the villas of Kambos have Genoese coats-of-arms over their arched gates, vast gardens and cisterns decorated with white marble columns and reliefs.
The very fragrant, indigenous variety of tangerines that were once extremely popular throughout the Mediterranean world brought wealth to the owners of perivolia (“citrus fruit orchards” in the Chian dialect). These mandarine/tangerines are now a European Union product of Protected Designation of Origin.
At the old orchard and the lovely Mandarin Museum in Kambos, besides learning the long history of the island’s citrus production, you can buy the most wonderful marmalades and preserves! You can also enjoy citrus granita, meze, and drinks in the garden.
“Columbus, when a little more than 21 years old, came to the island of Chios and fell in love with the East. For, Chios, more than Athens, more than Rhodes, more than Constantinople, had something the West did not have: the charm of fragrance; mainly of mastic but also of thyme, of sage..” so said Professor Paolo Emilio Taviani, a former vice-president of the Italian Senate and an expert on Christopher Columbus, in a speech given during the 1992 Columbus celebrations.
After the green valley of Kambos, there are the stony hills of mastichohoria, the fortified medieval mastic villages.
By-passing the most popular Pyrgi and Mesta, I prefer to walk around the almost deserted streets of Vessa, which, unfortunately, has been divided by the road, or visit Olympoi, a beautifully preserved unspoiled village, where people are still occupied with mastic production and not eager to rent out rooms.
The mastic tree, is a kind of wild pistachio shrub that only produces the precious mastic sap on southern Chios. The Mastic Museum dedicated to the precious product is wonderful.
The women painstakingly gathering the mastic tears in July had created this extraordinarily beautiful head scarf to protect themselves from the blazing sun.
For 300 years, under the Genoese, and later under Ottoman rule, the island continued to prosper.
In 1822, the Chiots joined in the revolt against the Turks, and were brutally punished by the army of Kara Ali. The resulting massacre of nearly 30,000 people, inspired Delacroix to create his famous painting Massacre a Chios, which can be seen at the Louvre in Paris. Cultural influences, which are apparent in many ways, were well assimilated. In the island there are three equally fascinating architectural styles: impressive villas and townhouses in and around the capital, beautifully preserved fortified medieval villages in the south, and interesting, simple, stone homes in the poorer northern villages.
The harbor of Chios is lively if not particularly pretty. Fast food restaurants, bars, pool halls with electronic games, and cafeterias, young people’s hangouts serving mostly frappe --the Greek version of iced coffee-- spread tables along the quay.
But a few minutes’ walk up the hill is Hotzas’ —the once booming old tavern. It barely survived the Covid confinement, and now the owner and his wife cook by appointment only for small groups of people and their food is absolutely wonderful!
Hotzas’ beans cooked in spicy olive oil sauce with tangerine pulp is a truly memorable dish!
On a small square, off Aplotaria, Manaras offers exquisite loukouma —fried dough puffs served drizzled with honey. He is continuing the business his grandfather started more than 50 years ago, and still uses sourdough starter --not dry yeast which, unfortunately, is now the norm at all the loukouma places in Greece.
I told him that in other islands women use mastic to flavor their loukouma dough and I suggested that he try it. “Are you crazy? Once I just changed the honey supplier and lost two thousand customers,” he replied.
Vradipus offers whimsical, creative dishes favored by the young crowd, under the canopies in the ruins of an old, grand building at Castro, the town’s oldest neighborhood.
Dafni’s at Kataraktis is still the most precious old-fashioned seaside tavern. Everything there is just as I remembered it from 20+ years back. The irresistible bread from Nenita, the delicious fried meatballs, and the sweet and crunchy local calamari which brought back childhood memories that I had almost forgotten…