Aegina, 24th September, 2021
Something makes me feel sorry for all those tourists that get jetted into Greek islands for their holidays. Ok, that’s probably a weird thought – obviously my concern has NOTHING to do with the destination. The Greek archipelago is truly a miracle, with over 150 inhabited islands, and not just the really well-known ones, like Santorini and Mykonos. Each and every one is unique and has something really special to experience. No, my problem is the actual means of arrival.
Greece is eleventh on the list of countries with the longest coastline in the world (China is number ten), so it’s really surprising that so many tourists never have that most magical of experiences – travelling to an island by sea.
Don’t get me wrong, air travel is miraculous in many ways, but it does take something away from the experience. Arriving on a Greek island by boat is truly exceptional. Apart from the delight of being carried over that expanse of perfect, sapphire water, when travelling by sea there is always a sense of boundless change. That intoxicating feeling that we have truly cast off from our own personal moorings, and, actually, any port is possible. Then there is the growing excitement of a destination emerging from the horizon; that distant, hazy shape gradually becoming an actual landscape, and the white cubes developing into discernible buildings.
Travelling by ferry in Greece is very much as travelling by train is in the UK. Surprisingly few islands have airports, so sea journeys are part and parcel of everyday life. Ferries have improved vastly in recent years, but the unchanging constant is the expectation of arrival, the approaching coastline and docking in that once-distant harbour.
The island of Aegina lies a mere 17 miles from Athens and is one of those many Greek islands that doesn’t have an airport, so arriving by boat is fortunately your only option. Leaving from Piraeus, you’ll find yourself in Aegina usually within a couple of hours – but WHAT a difference those few hours make. So near but, in spirit SO far. The tower blocks and traffic of Athens seem a whole lifetime away – here are white houses wreathed with magenta bougainvillea, sleepy glistening bays and crystal-clear, blue sea. So after a quick bag drop and a short drive out of the main town to the village of Perdika, there is the pure joy of swimming in the perfection of the Aegean.
Lunch is at Remetzo, a taverna overlooking the sun-spangled sea. There is grilled octopus, fried calamari, a proper Greek salad, spinach pie and a rather fine mizithropita – a type of cheese pie. But this is Aegina and so this is no ordinary tiropita. But first let me take you back to 1896….
When Nikolaos Peroglou bought a parcel of land close to Aegina’s coastline, he could not have possibly imagined that he was going to leave such an indelible mark on the future of the island. At first he decided to cultivate all sorts of different fruit trees, among them a few pistachios. Over the following years, most of the trees didn’t do so well; the soil was a bit on the poor side, and the fields were probably too close to the sea. The only thing that thrived were the pistachios. The conditions on the island of Aegina, with its hot, dry summers, mild winters and chalky soil, were absolutely perfect.
In 1994 the Aegina pistachio was marked as a product with protected designation of origin (P.D.O.) and pistachio production is a mainstay of the island’s economy. The word for pistachio in Greek actually means ‘peanut of Aegina’ – fistíki Aigínis. Pistachios are, in fact, seeds rather than nuts and the ones grown here are sweeter and better in flavour than those from Iran or USA. And when they are ripe and ready to harvest their fuchsia- tinged husks can be seen everywhere on the island.
Unfortunately, we had just missed the 12th ‘Fistiki Fest’ – a food and cultural festival celebrating everything to do with pistachios – but in truth everyday is a bit of a ‘Fistiki Fest’ here. Obviously pistachios are used extensively in the local food, like our mizithropita at Remetzo. A salty, sweet cheese pie, drizzled with honey and a tourmaline-coloured crust of crushed pistachios.
The main harbour is dominated by shops selling every type of pistachio product imaginable. I couldn’t resist the pistachio pesto and pistachio nut butter at To Fistakato. I do wish we’d had room to bring back some of the pistachio baklava – its colour of fine emeralds achieved purely from the amount of nuts used.
Rushing for the boat back to the real world, we stop for a few supplies from the stalls selling fruit and veg. Apart from the potatoes, onions and the rest, there’s something I’ve never come across before. It’s the rather uncharismatic atzoúri, or Armenian cucumber – a cross between a cucumber and a melon – which although not pretty, tastes incredible. Amongst all that there are two tubs of … well what do you think…? Home-grown pistachios of course.
- Remetzo Taverna, Perdika, Aegina https://www.restaurantremetzo.gr/en-index.html
- To Fistikato, Aegina Town, Aegina https://fistikato.gr/ (with special thanks to Marianna !)
- For more about the history of pistachio cultivation in Aegina, the excellent website Pistache http://pistaches.eu/en/history/
- Thanks to Pistache for the photos of N.Peroglou