As Odysseas Elytis, the late Greek Nobel laureate poet, once said, “If you deconstruct Greece, you will in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you reconstruct her.”
It’s not hard to appreciate the clarity of this adage, especially for anyone who has traveled to the Aegean Archipelago, where the people, farms and sea of Greece have been interlocked in unadulterated tradition since Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine,” called the island of Kos home circa 400 B.C. How this complex kaleidoscope of islands unites today has come to define the spirit of Greece tourism, a destination far too varied to see in a single summertime.
Already responsible for absorbing 40% of Greece’s tourists, the South Aegean region recently succeeded in further promoting Greek island life by winning the chair for the European Region of Gastronomy for 2019, a distinction issued by a Barcelona-based organization with support of EU institutions. The region, comprised of the Cyclades and Dodecanese groups, which includes 50 inhabited islands, is hoping that hosting foodie events with the organization will shine light on the diversity their islands have on offer, which extends far beyond the whitewashed homes of the postcard-famous Santorini.
“We have 50 islands, which is like having 50 different people. All have a different identity; a different personality,” attests George Hatzimarkos, the governor of the South Aegean regional government.
The South Aegean region has a long history of being exchanged between the hands of ancient empires, which has influenced the gastronomical output of the islands. Today, each island has formed a specialty, with the only true common denominator coming back to the region’s roots in the cultivation of wine. “The first standardized businesses that substantially contributed to the region’s local economy were wineries,” says Hatzimarkos. “Wine is a fundamental aspect of our cultural heritage, closely related to the history, economy and traditions of the South Aegean Islands,” he adds.
The impact that viticulture had on the South Aegean Islands’ economy would directly influence the region’s focus on gastronomy. “Winemaking urged residents in the countryside to work in agriculture, resulting in less intense urbanization on the islands,” reveals Hatzimarkos. “This has also substantially contributed to the preservation of the agricultural family,” he adds.
Among the agricultural assets of the South Aegean region are 50 wineries, 47 oil mills, 22 olive oil packaging plants and 20 honey plants, all currently in operation, with some islands carrying a stronger reputation for their brand of food than others. Knowing the difference is truely knowing the South Aegean Islands.
“There is lopi, a special bean type that is cultivated in the Kattavia village on Rhodes,” says Hatzimarkos, speaking of the region’s largest island. “Then there a special type of oval-shaped tomato from Kos, and a totally different type of tomato from Santorini. Also, there is makarounes, a special pasta made only in the Olympos village of Karpathos island,” he adds.
Today, there can hardly be a plate in Europe that has not in some way been influenced by the South Aegean region, whose traditions have reached the palettes of many across the continent, starting with the Balkans, where the yapraki, an hors d’ oeuvre-sized vine leaf stuffed with rice and minced meat, can be found.
“It is a common truth that our islands are at the edge of Europe and provide a gateway to the East, which has consequently influenced us and the rest of Europe in terms of culture, food and eating habits,” observes Hatzimarkos.