Do you ever catch yourself being extremely obnoxious? I feel like that’s a daily occurrence for me. I’m not sure if that means maybe I’m just actually obnoxious? I’d like to think I’m not but then, well, who can really make that own judgement about themselves? What I can say though, with absolute certainty, is that I have been extremely obnoxious for the last fortnight.
I have just returned from a two week stint in Greece, the majority spent on the island of Hydra in the Saronic Gulf. The first I was on holiday; the second I spent working from the island. And boy, did I milk it. My Instagram was a reel of obnoxious post after obnoxious post. Oh, you’re in the office? Bugger, I’m working from a beach club and just took a quick lunchtime dip, lobbing myself off the swimming platform into the almost baptismal Aegean waters below. You’re sweating it out on the tube? Sucks to be you, I’m just taking my morning walk along a eureka-inducing coastal path. Overcooked chicken for dinner? Sorry about that, let me just share my glorious grilled fish with you, or perhaps this plate of slow-cooked pork belly with impossibly crispy crackling will delight you?
Today, upon my return to England, I retrospectively put myself through the torture I’d been subjecting all my lovely friends and followers to for the past two weeks. I sat in the lumpy chair at my desk and scrolled past photos of me lounged in the sun, legs flung up on the rock wall, laptop sat on the table next to me, the sparkling water just a few feet away. I felt beads of sweat accumulate on my upper lip somewhere deep down on the Central line as I looked at a photo of last Monday’s pre-work stroll along a pathway that seems to simply evaporate into the ocean beyond. I pecked at a legume-packed lunch while devouring images of a seaside meal defined by plates of crispy calamari, tangy taramasalata and silver ribbons of lip-puckering marinated anchovies. That was, perhaps, the most painful of them all.
While the last two weeks have been like something out of a dream, it is the food that I carry with me when I return home (and not simply around my waistline). Long after the last remnants of salt water have been washed from my skin and my tan begins to fade, it is these meals in often ramshackle Greek tavernas that I dream of. Days on Hydra can’t help but take on something of a rhythm; there is so blissfully little to do that you can’t help but follow the same vague timetable for every day. Meals end up the same way; a select few dishes ordered on frequent rotation because they’re so good you couldn’t possibly see them on a menu and not want to eat them.
Take, for example, a dakos salad. Hailing from the island of Crete, this is like the more sophisticated older sister of a Greek salad. Cretan husks (twice-baked bread made from barley flour that has an extremely coarse texture) are topped with juicy diced tomatoes, capers, kalamata olives, onion, herbs – usually oregano – and a liberal amount of olive oil. The husk soaks up all the juices, softening its hard exterior and making it the perfect vessel for the goodness above. Once you’ve eaten one, it’s almost impossible for it not to feature in your email. Or, say, the humble tzatziki. How are you supposed to not start your dinner with the tangy, creamy, cucumber-studded dip mopped up with a piece of fluffy bread? It’s sacrilege!
View on Instagram
There’s this one restaurant on Hydra called Giasemi. We took a punt the first night we went and ordered the pork belly off the specials menu, not really sure what to expect. I’m not yet decided if that was a good decision or a bad one because what arrived was comfortably the best pork i’ve ever eaten in my life, and so we were of course forced to return multiple times during our trip, like sailors answering the call of a siren song, something that I’m sure has had a long lasting impact on my cholesterol levels. Slow cooked for hours with just some salt, olive oil and oregano for seasoning, the fat had rendered beautifully so that the meat was tenderly falling apart, the fatty layer going with it like butter and the crackling, somehow, remaining crispy and salty and entirely moreish.
Another dish we returned for time and time again was the baked feta at Ostria where the service is hysterical and the chef asks you to come into the kitchen and choose your fish from whatever he had caught that day. The crumbled up cheese is topped with thinly sliced tomatoes, red peppers and a pinch of chilli flakes and left to bubble away in the oven until the whole thing is a molten bed of salty, umami joy just asking to be scooped up with whatever carbohydrate is available – or simply straight from a spoon.
Then, of course, there’s the aforementioned meal I was salivating over pictures of. Taverna Marina is a little restaurant hugging the sea on a rocky outcrop between two beaches. Tables are about as close to the ocean you can possibly get, and Marina – at 80 years old – still runs the joint. If she’s not manning the stoves, she’s sitting at a table in the shade sipping a drink and observing the hubbub of the restaurant beyond. Their crispy calamari is the best on the island, as is the taramasalata, so of course we ordered them every time. I suppose you could come and branch out but why would we, when we had found the perfect order?
Every meal was, without fail, washed down with copious amounts of house wine, and punctuated by an icey shout of cloudy ouzo, the aniseed hit helping to digest the inevitable over indulgence of the hours preceding it. There are of course many European countries that seem synonymous with perfect summer cooking, but I truly don’t think any beat Greece. There is simply nothing better than hiking the gravel path from one end of the island to the other, throwing yourself off the rocks for a reviving swim, drying off in the searing heat and then pulling your salty body to the nearest wicker chair for grilled seafood, innumerable dips and salty, crispy salads. Trust me – i’ve got the dribble-inducing memories to prove it.