To those of you whose only experience of Greece is on a summer holiday, all I can say is that you are missing a trick or two. Of course, the Greek islands in July or August are without comparison. The familiar picture of sapphire seas under cloudless skies is one cherished by philhellenes and tourists alike, but there is another face of Greece, rarely seen by most visitors but offering a magic all of its own. This is the Greece of rugged, pine covered mountains and fertile plains, of farms and game hunters. This is Roumeli.
The opportunity of spending a weekend in the company of good friends in this spectacular setting was not to be turned down. After a dash along the main Athens – Lamia highway, for an hour or so, and then a more cautious journey for another hour, along winding village roads, brings us, in darkness, to Amfikleia. There is little to be seen apart from the brightest of stars – diamond studs on a velvet, black sky, and it is noticeably cooler here; for the first time this year we need our jackets.
Morning arrives, bright and golden and then we see where we are; towering above us is Mount Parnassus, the mythological home of Pegasus, Orpheus and the Muses, We are face to face with the ‘mountain majesty’ that humbled Byron and majestic it is – truly. The northern slopes are more popular with tourists visiting ancient Delphi, the famous town of Aráchova, and of course skiing, when the snows come; but we are exploring the southern side and we were not disappointed. The village of Amfíkleia is small, welcoming, with good tavérnes, and a very excellent shop selling local produce. Above the village there is access to a stunning mountain walk, up to the cave sanctuary of Holy Jerusalem – however we were beckoned by the call of the good tavérnes back in Amfíkleia.
And then on Sunday we find Tithoréa. Tithoréa clings tenaciously to the slopes of Parnassós; it is a small mountain village, with an enormous sense of community. Narrow winding streets take you up to the breath-taking views of Kachalás Gorge and in a small square a few steps away, we came across Tithoréa’s annual ‘Tsípouro Festival’ in full swing. Tsípouro, for the uninitiated, is a Greek spirit, similar to Italian grappa. In the past it was a way of getting the most out of the grape harvest. The pomace, that is the pulp and stems left over from pressing the wine, would be left to ferment and then eventually distilled. It is a clear, strong spirit and there is a fair amount of artisan production in villages all over Greece. Of course now it is not just a bi-product, it is a delicacy in its own right.
In Tithoréa, the gentlemen of the village, led by Kyrios Antonis, had set up the copper still, the ladies had supplied pies and cooked chestnuts, the charcoal had been lit for soúvlaki, the music was being played and the festival was on. We were handed crystal clear shots of tsípouro – smooth, strong – 40 percent proof – and heart-warming. Kyrios Antonis gave us a little bit of the background to the festival – it seems that to make good tsípouro you need abundant water and Tithoréa traditionally had good supplies – there had been seven springs in the village. But over the years the distillation of tsípouro had not been so popular – until, in 2004 the festival was instigated and has been going on ever since.
So we stood and sipped our tsípouro and nibbled our hot chestnuts and marvelled at this mountain community and how such a simple event can be such a fantastic attraction. But the real star in Tithoréa was further down in the village.
The busy tavérna, ‘Yialas’ stands on the main street, teetering on the mountainside, with stunning views over the plain below. On this winter’s day the fire pit in the centre of the restaurant gave a welcoming glow – but the real glow was provided by the exceptional, traditional food.
In Roumeli, sheep and goats reign supreme and so the meat mainly is, lamb; but here there are variations on the theme. There is mutton, ‘provatína’, from a sheep of two years or older, or zigoúri, the meat of a one-year old lamb.
We dine on perfect, charcoal grilled chops of mutton and zigoúri. The meat is tender and succulent, with just the right seasoning of salt and oregano. But that, of course, is not all. There is wine casseroled rooster and ‘tiganiá’ – a dish of caramelised onion, tomato and small pieces of sautéed pork.We are brought steaming bowls of chickpea soup – the type you usually only find at home.
And then there is a mystery dish, ‘maskoúri’ – after a little kitchen talk, Kyrios Kostas reveals a little of the process. It is made by mixing feta, yoghourt and salt and leaving it to ripen for about a month . The result is a slightly, salty but supremely creamy, cheesy dip. One to try when I get back home, for sure.
Desert is a spoon-sweet made from there own production of ‘choke berries’. So what is a ‘choke berry’ ….? They are the fruit of the aronia bush, looking like a blueberry but with, apparently, even more health benefits. Super-food attributes apart, the aronia spoon-sweet is delicious.
This is a real gem of a tavérna, with chefs, another Antonis and Kostas, totally committed to quality; both passionate about good food and perfect ingredients.
So, with the long road back to Athens waiting for us, we say our good-byes to Kostas and Antonis and to Tithoréa. I hope we can get back soon.
Taverna Yialas, Tithorea www.gialas.gr (firstname.lastname@example.org)