Santorini gets serious about romance, sunsets and food

CHRISTINE PIROVOLAKIS
Last updated 12:30 13/11/2013

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The island of Santorini - famed for cliff-side whitewashed Greek villages, ebony beaches and transcendent sunsets over the Aegean - may not yet have a reputation as a culinary and wine lover's destination.

But, that may be exactly why you would want to go there now.

A volcanic eruption 3,600 years ago, which some believe wiped out the ancient civilization of Atlantis, not only helped shape the island's breathtaking caldera and cliffs but it also created a fertile agricultural landscape.

The soil allows Santorini's native grapes, wild capers, cherry tomatoes, white eggplants and split peas, or fava, to thrive.

Today, the mythical ancient island is abuzz with a new generation of talented chefs who are showcasing Santorini's local products and enriching its culinary heritage with a spin on traditional favourites.

The Vinsanto restaurant was built around a 400-year-old wine cellar and is situated in the heart of the island's lush vineyards.

The restaurant, within the Vedema Resort in the medieval town of Megalohori, promises to take diners on a gastronomic journey with a distinctly Santorinian flavour.

At first glance the humble pot of yellow split peas slowing simmering with olive oil in the kitchen of Vinsanto could be confused with a village housewife's traditional dinner staple a few doors down the street.

But this is where the comparisons end.

Melina Chomata, the executive chef at Vinsanto and Mystique Resort's Charisma restaurant in Oia, transforms the island's unique pulse into a delicate, melt-in your-mouth dish of fava cream sauce with caramelized onions and sage served with grilled lamb cutlets.

"It is logical for chefs to embrace tradition. You cannot ignore it," says Chomata, one of the key figures in Santorini's current 2013 Year of Gastronomy, which includes special menus, cooking seminars as well as wine and food exhibitions across the island.

"In previous years, many Greek chefs would copy what their French colleagues were doing, but now they are really coming into their own and making use of our wonderful local products," she said.

"For example, fava beans have been cultivated on the few available acres of the island for more than 3,600 years, and the volcanic soil gives them a distinctive sweet flavour very different to the fava cultivated in other regions in Greece."

Taking inspiration from nearly forgotten ancient recipes and the archaic settlement of nearby Akrotiri, Chomata has designed an exclusive series of innovative dishes such as wild wheat risotto with sautéed calamari and thyme, spinach leaves with grilled octopus, tahini, dried white figs and Vinsanto wine dressing, and a chocolate mousse with pistachio flakes.

Many an aspiring cook has fantasized about running off to a culinary school in an exotic location, but the hefty price tag and time commitment for such courses means most would-be chefs never do anything about making that dream come true.

 Located in the picturesque cobblestone square of Megalohori, Raki - an authentic Greek taverna, offers affordable, hands-on cooking classes where visitors can create and taste traditional dishes, such as tomato fritters and steamed mussels with coriander and white wine supplied by the town's very own winery.

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Santorini boasts one of the longest continuous histories of wine grape cultivation in the world, with archaeological evidence showing it to date back almost 5,000 years.

With a tradition spanning three centuries, the Gavalas Winery produces mostly white wine, and a few reds, nearly exclusively from indigenous grape varieties developed in ancient times, such as Assyrtiko and Aidani.

"Santorini's vineyards are unlike any other in the world," says winemaker Giorgos Gavalas.

 The vines are trained into a kouloura, a wreath-shaped vine that sits directly on the ground and, over time, comes to resemble a basket.

"Its aim is to protect the vines and the grape from brutal winds and the harsh summer sun and to absorb the humidity of the sea," he said.

Vinsanto, a sweet dessert wine, made from a blend of Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri wines, remains the crown jewel of Santorini wines. This sweet dessert wine is aged in oak casks for at least three years and it takes 10 kilograms of grapes to make just one small bottle of Vinsanto.

Award-winning chef Nikos Pouliasis has strong ties to the island's gastronomic identity and his restaurant Koukoumavlos, overlooking the romantic cliffs of Fira, is a must for those who enjoy exceptional tastes pared with outstanding wine.

Renowned for his culinary artistry, Pouliasis is a genius when it comes to local ingredients.

Sample his masterful crayfish with white chocolate and ginger-lime sauce and the fabulous ouzo and anise infuse sautéed crayfish and prawns that is paired with fresh papparedelle.

For dessert, the warm soft cheese pastry with almond candy crust and Vinsanto wine sauce is superb.

"Food is an adventure which should tell a story and we are in one of the most romantic places on earth - Santorini - so I cannot help it if my food is passionate," says Pouliasis.

- MCT

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