- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

“It’s just like Greece used to be,” said my traveling companion, Clark. I agreed — even though I don’t have the vaguest idea what Greece used to be. What I can tell you is that Chios, one of the largest and least visited of the Greek islands, is certainly what we would want Greece to have been and to be still. (The same goes for Italy, Spain, England and, for that matter, the rest of the world.) It is friendly, charming, historically interesting, devoid of tourists and, of course, cheap in the best sense of the word.

I had traveled to Chios, just a few miles from Turkey, to eat and to visit the island’s famed mastic towns as a guest of the Chios Gum Mastic Growers Association. The restaurant sampling was rich with sweet pumpkin, fresh mushrooms, olives, fried cheeses and horta, the delicious wild greens sauteed in olive oil with lemon.

Sure, goat, lamb and seafood were on the menus, but the vegetarian dishes were varied and delicious and, as is often the case, offered the best value for the dollar. This makes sense. Traditionally, Greek cooking reserved meat for celebrations and for the very wealthy.

To make a beautiful Memorial Day meal, Chios style, or to accompany Greek bifteki burgers, buy a good bottle of ouzo — one that doesn’t burn as it goes down — and set out a bunch of little plates of vegetarian side dishes. Make it simple: a plate of olives, roasted or grilled bell peppers and eggplant, goat’s- or sheep’s-milk cheese (or a mixture of the two), cooked vegetables of any kind with lemon and olive oil, bread and any of the recipes that follow. Set out everything at the same time and let guests toast.

“Ouzo is a way of life,” according to historian and guide Thomas Karamouslis, who at the moment was drinking some.

“When you are going to have an ouzo, it’s three or four hours, several dishes and one knife,” said a woman from Athens, who also was sipping. “Ouzo does not have a main dish that goes with it.”

In the beautiful walled mastic village of Mesta, in the taverna Mesaionas, owned by a woman with family in Astoria, N.Y., (it seems everyone on Chios has family in Queens) I sipped ouzo and souma fig liqueur accompanying horta, roasted eggplant, batter-dipped and fried local cheese and a delicious feta-and-mastic spread that I slathered on bread. What more could anyone want?

Well, maybe intellectual nourishment, but there is that, too. Chios has long been a prosperous island with an economy based on the mastic resin from the evergreen lentisk tree. The medieval mastic villages peppered along the south end of the island where the mastic trees grow are collections of buildings that remain centers for processing the resin collected from the trees covering the surrounding hills.

The tree trunks are scored by hand with a knife; the drops of resin form and fall to the ground and are collected by hand. The mastic industry for centuries kept the island rich and somewhat protected from invaders, including the Genoese and then the Turks, who preserved the profitable business and enhanced it through trade.

Only on Chios does this particular variety of mastic tree grow and produce the resin that for thousands of years has been traded around the Mediterranean as what may have been the first chewing gum as well as for scenting incense, as a food flavoring and as a cure for a variety of digestive ills.

The market was strong in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia for centuries, but as time and political climates evolved, the need to enter new markets became obvious. Five years ago, the Chios Gum Mastic Growers Association began creating modern products and expanding into other parts of Greece.

Now Mastiha Shops can be found all over Greece and also in Cyprus and Saudi Arabia, and shops in Paris and New York are to open in the fall (www.mastihashop.com) selling mastiha-flavored cookies and candy, pastas and pasta sauce, oils and other foods, liqueurs, scents and all sorts of cosmetics.

In the pretty mastic village of Pyrgi, old women — dressed in black — still smile and greet the tourists wandering streets frosted with white and gray geometric patterns. In the tiny 12th-century Agioi Apostoloi, a church by the town square, you can see evidence of invasion in the eyes of the saints on the frescoes. They were chipped away by Ottoman invaders who took over the island in 1822, killing two thirds of the population. This event is depicted in Eugene Delacroix’s painting “The Massacre of Chios,” which hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, although a copy of it is in the Argenti Museum in the town of Chios. (The Argenti is well worth a visit for its historical papers, old maps, paintings and beautiful traditional costumes.)

At the Hotzas taverna in Chios town — applauded by locals as the best taverna in town — homemade ouzo is smooth as cognac and the perfect partner for sauteed pumpkin and onions, eggplant with tomatoes and tender deep-fried mushrooms the size of a man’s hand.

If it’s fancy food you are after, try the restaurant Acqua, overlooking the Aegean not far from downtown Chios, or the gorgeous Argentikon Luxury Suites (www.argentikon.gr) just south of town. (The Argentikon is not cheap, but it is five-star all the way, with beautiful gardens, restored period furniture and marble baths.)

For more traditional food and lodging, the pretty Perleas Mansion (www.perleas.gr) a short drive from Chios airport is well known for its setting among acres of fruit trees from which come Chios’ famous spoon sweets. Spoon sweets are preserves of fruit and nuts or vegetables in a thick syrup of sugar and spices.

A handful of women at Perleas Mansion produce and bottle a wide variety of spoon sweets (cherries, figs, sour orange, lemon, apricot, quince, chocolate and orange) from the surrounding gardens and sell them at the bed-and-breakfast inn and at various spots around Chios town.

The serving ritual is to dip a spoon into the spoon sweet, pull it out loaded with fruit and syrup and place it in a glass of cold water.

Eat the spoon sweet, drink the water and salute the host. Perleas Mansion serves breakfast daily and dinner several times a week.

Spoon sweets also are good on ice cream, pancakes, biscuits, cheesecake or as a glaze for poundcake, and they come with and without mastiha flavoring.

Fortunately, you don’t have to visit Greece to eat wonderful Chios-inspired foods or buy mastiha flavoring, which has long been sold in Greek markets in the United States. It’s a flavor like nothing else, and it blends particularly well with dairy products and oranges, both of which are its natural neighbors on the island of Chios.

Driving the island is easy enough during the day. Skip night unless you are a fan of winding roads on sharp cliffs. Another option might be to rent a car and driver for the day at one of the many travel agencies that line the harbor of Chios town. If you are looking for a brilliant guide and historian, contact Mr. Karamouslis (cell: 30/693-7786213). He generally spends summers in Athens and winters on Chios, where the climate is mild, the people are kind and gentle, and the food wonderful and cheap — again, in the best sense of the word.

Feta and mastiha spread

You can make this without the mastiha powder, but it’s much better and distinctive with it.

3 ounces feta

3 ounces chevre, with or without herbs

2 teaspoons minced onion

1/4 teaspoon Chios mastiha powder (see Note)

1 to 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt

White pepper

Country bread

In a food processor, blender or bowl, combine feta, chevre, onion and mastiha until smooth. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons yogurt, to desired consistency. Season to taste with white pepper and place in refrigerator to cool and firm up a bit, about 1 hour. Serve with bread. Makes about 1 cup ; serves 4 to 6 as a side dish.

Note: Chios mastiha powder is available at Greek grocery stores and some Middle Eastern markets.

Sun-dried tomato salad

The recipe that follows is based on a dish sampled at Iakovos taverna near the bay in the town of Chios.


½ teaspoon sugar, optional

1 cup sun-dried tomato packed in olive oil, drained

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons capers, drained

1 tablespoon crumbled feta

1 teaspoon parsley

Bring a medium saucepan filled with water to a boil. Add sugar, if desired, to smooth out slightly acidic tomatoes. (The sugar is added when the sun-dried tomatoes are not made from sweet ripe tomatoes, as they are in Greece.) Add tomatoes to simmering water, count to 45 and remove to colander to drain. Rinse with cold water, pat dry a little and transfer to a plate. Drizzle with olive oil; sprinkle with capers, feta and chopped parsley and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish.

Tzatziki (Greek cucumber yogurt sauce)

The recipe that follows is based on a dish sampled at Iakovos taverna near the bay in the town of Chios.

2 cucumbers, seeded, peeled and grated


2 cups Greek yogurt

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons minced fresh mint

Place cucumber in a colander, sprinkle with salt and let drain for 20 minutes. In a serving bowl, combine yogurt, garlic and mint. Add drained cucumber to yogurt mixture, stir and let marinate, refrigerated, for several hours or serve immediately. Season to taste with salt, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish.

Chickpeas and tomatoes

This recipe is based on a dish sampled at Bapoyako taverna in the town of Chios.

1 15-ounce can chickpeas

2 tablespoons chopped onion

1/4 cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus parsley leaves for garnish

In a colander, drain and rinse chickpeas. Saute onion in olive oil until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and hot red pepper flakes and saute until garlic is softened and fragrance is released, 30 seconds to 1 minute. (Do not let garlic brown.) Add chickpeas, tomatoes and parsley; cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish.

Spinach and phyllo bundles

The recipe that follows is based on a dish sampled at Bapoyako taverna in the town of Chios.

1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry

2 scallions, both green and white parts, sliced

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup crumbled ricotta cheese

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

8 ounces phyllo dough

1 cup butter, melted

Fresh spinach, washed and dried thoroughly

Combine spinach, scallion and feta, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses. Lay 2 sheets of phyllo dough, one on top of the other, on a board. (Keep remaining sheets covered with a slightly damp cloth.)

Brush generously with melted butter. Cut into strips 4 inches wide and 7 inches long. Place about 1 teaspoon filling on one end of each strip. Fold sides toward center, then fold end over to make a square.

Allow some air space inside so that filling has room to expand during baking.

Continue folding phyllo until spinach is wrapped in a small square packet. Press in edges of dough to seal, using more butter.

Repeat making squares with remaining strips and filling. Butter tops of bundles, pierce several times with a sharp knife so steam can escape, and place on an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake in preheated 425-degree oven for 5 minutes, or until just starting to brown.

Turn up heat to broil and place in broiler for a minute or two until bundles are golden. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes about 15 servings as a side dish.

Kim Upton is editor of Tribune Media Services’ FoodStyles feature service and author of “How to Zest a Lemon” (Sterling).

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