21st Century Sifnos

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The steep Sifnos Island hillsides that rise from the Aegean Sea are crisscrossed by dozens of centuries old foot and donkey paths. These tended rock walled paths still connect island towns. With the decline in the use of donkeys, Sifnos tourism promotes them as ideal walking trails, although a hiker will have to make way for goats and the occasional working donkey.

Sifnos Island

Eating breakfast on the terrace of multi-leveled Kampos Home hotel provides a panoramic vista of blue shuttered Apollonia and Artemonas gleaming in the sunlight. The whitewashed villages undulate like the Sifnos hills they’re built upon, connected by steep stone streets, many traffic-free. Margarita Loukianou and her husband created a bungalow village within a village when constructing Kampos Home in 2012. Complete with roof terrace Jacuzzi, the spacious ensuite rooms are individually decorated.

This acceptance that both ancient and every day reality still coexist is the unique pleasure of Sifnos. The narrow streets of Kastro may be a few thousand years old with irregular stone townhouses but more than one picturesque café takes advantage of the atmosphere. Perched on a cliff promontory at the edge of the sea, the oldest continuously inhabited town on the island has overseen a vibrant history since 1300 B.C.E.

Rich in gold, silver and copper Sifnians favored the oracles of Delphi in ancient days with ten percent of their wealth to ensure timely market forecasts. The Museum of Archaeology in Kastro, set in a building as atmospheric as its treasures, will, along with a visit to the ancient acropolis high above the town, provide both an ample introduction to the island’s importance and spectacular views.

Sifnos windmill

Picturesque ruins of stone mills dot the Greek countryside, favored settings for painters and photographers. An increasing number of survivors stand as municipal monuments for tourists or are repurposed as annexes for museums, homes, rental apartments and hotels. Yet on Sifnos Mr. Ionnis Trinas has constructed a rare new fully functioning mill, perhaps the first in a century.

Ionnis perched his impressive stone structure on a typically steep hill overlooking the Aegean Sea near the village of Artemonas. Retired from a lifetime restoring old mills, he fulfilled a personal dream by constructing one himself. He succeeded with astonishing speed in only 18 months. Astonishing because his hands personally constructed every wooden gear even the millstones. When the sails are set this pre-industrial machine’s great wooden gears rotate stones that turn his family’s wheat into the whole grain flour that becomes loaves of savory Greek bread.

At the modern Pottery Workshop Giannis Apostolidis just above the port town of Kamaras, potter/owner/artist Giannis continues an age-old Sifnian craft tradition. Like generations before him, Giannis digs the clay from the same island soil that until just 50 years ago was used by over 600 pottery workshops. Well wrapped, the clay stays fresh for years ready for Giannis to throw into a mastelo, the island’s iconic covered glazed baking dish. Although an island best seller, Pottery Workshop Giannis Apostolidis designs range from the fanciful to utilitarian but attention to traditional standards is a given.

On the very windy north side of Sifnos is the tiny seaside fishing village of Cheronissos hugging a crescent beach. The 300-year-old Keramika pottery shop is the oldest workshop on the island. Ioannis Depastas carries on tradition in a shop that alone is an architectural museum piece.

Yet hanging on the wall is a framed letter from a prestigious American civil engineering professor praising Ioannis for his ingenious designs. For years Ioannis has invented vessels from mugs to jugs that are unseen interior puzzles. Liquid can be poured out of the assumed spout only by holding/using the vessel in a specific manner individual to the design or else the result is water everywhere. The professor uses Ioannis Depastas’ designs in engineering lectures.

Sifnos Grilled lobster

Just down the beach from Keramika is Cheronissos Fish Taverna serving catch so fresh the spiny Aegean lobsters are still in a cage in the harbor and the fish of the day is whatever the chef’s brother has caught. Antonis Fyssas is the 3rd generation chef/owner of Cheronissos Fish Taverna. His grandfather opened the cafe 40 years ago and the chef’s brother is captain of a sizable fishing boat in the harbor that provides most of restaurant’s fish and seafood.

Within brief minutes of being pulled from the clear salty Aegean, the lobster was steamed and split. Brushed with olive oil and lemon, it was lightly seared over a wood fired grill. The lobster meat was delicate, almost creamy. The cooking process had been so quick from sea to table that natural salt blended with aromatic smoke to bind surf with turf.

Communal wood burning ovens are one hallmark of Sifnos. They’re still the destination for many clay pots made on the island. There are actually two in Vathi. One’s uniquely round located on the harbor’s edge. It is anchored to a base that swivels so that it can be moved to shelter the fire from wind. Residents pay an annual fee to a caretaker who maintains the oven and keeps a supply of wood on hand.

The village of Vathi is a classic beauty. The winding road descends from the hills and one’s first glimpse is the gleaming white buildings clustered in a crescent on a white sand beach in front of the interminable clear aqua water of the Aegean. Cars are parked at the entrance of the village because there’s nowhere else to drive. The few narrow streets – more stone paths than streets – were made for goats and donkeys.

 

Taverna Tsikali chef/owner Nikos Fratzeskaros and family slow roast lamb (mastelo) and cook chick pea soup (revithada) in hand thrown earthenware pots in the community based wood fired oven behind the restaurant. They produce cheese from goats and sheep on their farm just up the road and serve classic Sifnos dishes at their tree-shaded tables directly on the sand if the diner wishes. Gently lapping waves may be mere feet from the table as one dines on homemade phyllo dough encasing savory fillings and many varieties of fish and seafood.

The stone streets in the island capital of Apollonia, some almost staircases, are peppered with shops and cafes both practical and upscale. Nikos Neroutsos is a painter as deft as a chef and along with wife Mihaela Cayenne Restaurant Art Gallery achieves both monikers. The restaurant and gallery are set in a spacious location in the heart of town with a large front outdoor dining area. The eclectic interior highlights Nikos’ modern art. Professionally trained as a chef in Athens, his dishes express new Greek cuisine – using local products but tweaking grandmother’s recipes and adding modern presentations.Neroutsos

Octopus with tabouleh, papoutsakia (eggplant and tomatoes with creamy mizithra cheese ) and fried tomatoes with feta cheese ice cream were part of a succession of imaginative small plates. Grilled calamari with fresh herbs topped chickpeas garnished with beetroot puree for a dash of intense color. Dessert selections included Sifnos classic honey pie topped with a medley of stoned fruits and almonds, and panna cotta resting on a sauce of red berries spiced with cloves, cinnamon and a grating of fresh black pepper that provided a counterpoint of heat.

Saturday night is a traditional time to cook revithada (chick pea soup) often eaten at lunch after church on Sunday. Consisting only of chickpeas, water, onions, olive oil, salt and pepper it’s slow cooked in a ceramic tsikali overnight preferably in an outdoor wood fired oven. Its aroma is magical, absorbing subtle flavors from the wood.

Revithada Sifnos

When Manolis Chrissagelou, chef/owner of Restaurant Strofi, opened the oven the combined aromas filled the air despite being outdoors. Manolis and his wife/partner Olga presided over a succession of savory dishes that accompanied the revithada. Sifnos salads of olives, lemon, tomatoes, cucumbers and capers plus one of caramelized onions and capers were paired with equally classic fried balls of zucchini, chick peas and cheese: all light in texture. The islands have always been within the sea-lanes of the Eastern Mediterranean’s long history with easy mingling of regional cuisines. The chef’s chicken and rice pilaf sweetened with raisins had a decided Middle Eastern touch. Desserts are special to Manolis who prior to lunch had demonstrated the making of traditional Sifnos pumpkin cake rich with raisins, spices, honey and almonds.

 

Driomoni Restaurant is in striking contrast to the prevailing island look of past centuries. Chef/owner George Patriarhis along with his brother partner/front of house manager have situated Driomoni in a sleek modern building fronting an infinity pool on a dramatic hilltop setting with panoramic views. The pool, like many on the islands, is open to restaurant guests. Colorful light strips and imaginative decorations accent the white interior of Driomoni.

Patriarhis menu ranges from the traditional to new Greek. A mixed green salad with orange segments, thinly shaved parmesan and balsamic reduction was paired with pasteli, the classic thin sesame candy. Grilled local mushrooms in the oyster family were combined with smoked ham for a creamy, earthy dish. A stack of pork medallions sat on a red wine reduction accompanied by a compote of black figs, roasted peppers and eggplant.

Manolis Chrissagelou

Manolis Chrissagelou, (w/pumpkin) chef/owner of Restaurant Strofi, Sifnos

Imagination and effort is obvious in Driomoni’s deserts. Metriza cheese mousse sat on a biscuit base in a clear glass with a sweet olive marmalade topped with chopped pistachios. Freshly made ice cream was flavored with mystica and pistachio baklava with house made vanilla ice cream used homemade vanilla “extract” (infuse 8 ounces vodka with 3 vanilla beans for 2 to 3 months – top off as used).

George and his brother enjoy combining flavors in their house made drinks including racomeli (raki infused with honey, cinnamon, cloves, orange and lemon), inomeli (wine with honey) and lemoncillo made with tsipouro and local lemons giving it a pleasant tart note rather than syrup sweet.

The busy harbor front of Kamares bustles with seafood. Parasrevi and Antonis Chrisos serve what’s fresh off the boat at Arazoleoli Restaurant. Shrimp and mussel balls were coated with sesame seeds and octopus, of course, was grilled in olive oil and herbs. Another dish topped shrimp with shredded phyllo, tomatoes and lemon slices. White wines from the renowned Ktima Gerovassiliou were a highlight. The Malagousia was partially barrel aged adding hints of honey to its lemon tones, and an Assyrtiko blend was semi-dry, like a chardonnay, with notes of citrus and fresh mowed grass, light on tannins.

Loukoumades with maraschino cherry ice cream at Giorgos Psaraftis Patisserie Petzoula, Sifnos

Sifnians certainly seem to have a sweet tooth patronizing many small sweet shops and bakeries. Giorgos Psaraftis Patisserie Petzoula sits perfectly within the historic core of Artemonas. His products are frivolous and sought after by islanders. Using state of the art equipment, he makes his own small batch ice cream with a base of Italian meringue and a custard sauce of heavy cream and eggs. Additions can be endless and include strawberry, almonds, caramel, and maraschino cherries. It has a smooth yet dense texture.

Loukoumades in Sifnos

Melopita is the island’s classic honey cheese pie taking its distinctive aroma from herbal thyme flower honey. The original recipe calls for anthotyro cheese, a soft ricotta like cheese. The somewhat easier to find myzithra can be substituted. If neither is available from a supermarket or Greek grocery, a well-drained ricotta cheese works well (drain through cheesecloth overnight in refrigerator). Sheep and goats milk cheese is high in fat giving the cake a creamy dense texture. Dust with cinnamon and drizzle with additional Sifnos wild thyme honey.

Honey donuts contain no dairy making them perfect food for the Lenten season. Loukoumades are little bite-sized fluffy sweet honey puffs (the Greek version of donuts) that are deep-fried to golden and crisp perfection. Lloukoumades are traditionally served soaked in hot honey syrup, sprinkled with cinnamon and garnished with chopped walnuts or toasted sesame seeds.

Katina Theodorou rolling almond macaroons, Theodorou Sweet Shop, Sifnos

Katina (90) and Nikos Theodorou (85) have made almond macaroons nearly their entire lives in the same Artemonas building. Founded by Nikos’ father, Theodorou Sweet Shop is famous for its Sifnos almond honey macaroons. With the exception of the small front sales room with its glass case, Theodorou Sweet Shop is still a home. Nikos was in the back garden weeding the potatoes.

Opened in 1933 and now in the third generation, their son Vasilodimos Theodorou still uses family heirloom copper kettles, pans and utensils on a wood charcoal stove to prepare the various recipes. Often Katina is part of the group hand forming the macaroons into their distinctive plump cylinder before rolling in sugar. In Greece the family remains the backbone of society; it’s tradition.

 

Church of Seven Martyrs, Kastro, Sifnos

How to get there: Sifnos in the Cyclades Island group is reached by ferry from the mainland port of Piraeus (5 miles from Athens center) and a few other islands. For ferry schedule and reservations: http://www.ferries.gr/greek-islands-ferry/ferry_piraeus.htm

Disclaimer: the author was a guest of Rented Rooms & Apartments of Sifnos Owners Association.

Travel with Pen and Palate to Greece every month in the Hellenic News of America

Posted on May 24, 2015 by Travel with Pen and Palate in Food, Wine & Travel, Greece, Greek Culture, Latest News, Regions of Greece

Marc travels, cooks, eats, observes, interacts, lives and writes. Please read more about Marc on our About Us Page!

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