Surströmming party redux

Unbeknownst to me, my friend T was so titillated by the original surströmming party story that he ordered a can of the fermented herring direct from Sweden early last summer. The can was purchased through eBay from made-in-scandiavian.com and cost C$120 including shipping by air. Delivery time was a little more than a week. As a search will show, there are many other online purveyors and various brands are on offer. Our can was the elegantly packaged Mannerströms. By the time I first saw it, probably in mid-July, the initially flat can was noticeably convex due to the gas produced by the fermentation process.

So there we were with a can of the stuff. And since it was still fermenting, it was something of a ticking time bomb. Explosion wasn’t a danger then or even through the fall and winter, though it might become one as the weather warmed and the can’s shape moved beyond convex to spherical.

Our target date for opening it was late August or early September. There was only one problem: we didn’t have a venue.

In Sweden back in the ’70s, the only other time I’d encountered the delicacy, everyone insisted the cans should be opened outdoors, preferably under running water, and left to air for half an hour before eating. Many also felt the dish was best eaten al fresco, the better not to stink up the house.

But T’s flat doesn’t have an outdoors, not so much as a front stoop. He suggested we open and air the can in the pocket park across the street. I felt that was unfeasible. Not only would it render the park unusable by any but the most olfactorily challenged visitors, I suspected the police – or worse yet, emergency responders – might be called. Some party.

My deck might have been an option but it has no drain and my neighbours would likely be outraged. What’s more, they would know who to direct their anger at.

No, a more cunning plan was required.

Plan A: Some friends had rented a chalet in the Laurentians for a week. Maybe we could finagle an overnight invitation? After all, eating surströmming at the sommarstuga, far from neighbours, is the way it’s usually done in Sweden. Unfortunately, those plans fell through when the friends had to make a sudden return to town.

Plan B: Two friends’ centre city homes have very private rooftop decks. The advantage here would be that, while the odours emanating from the open cans might well offend neighbours, none would be able to tell where the stench was coming from. Unfortunately, both friends had read the original surströmming party post and were unwilling to risk spilling some of the juice on their wood flooring and rendering their rooftop unusable for the remainder of the season. Foiled again.

Plan C: Do a picnic in Mount Royal Park. The challenges seemed formidable, however. Would we be able to find a spot remote from other parkgoers? Would we attract the attention of park authorities or the police (“You think you can down shot glasses of aquavit with beer chasers in a public park?”), not to mention dogs and other fauna, which reportedly go crazy over the smell? And then there were the logistics of the meal, with key condiments being hot boiled potatoes and freshly made flatbread. While we didn’t rule out this option, it did recede into the background as our dithering stretched into September and October, with their colder, wetter weather and improved forest sightlines.

Plan D: Book a chalet and make a weekend of it. This would be a rather expensive option, especially as none of us own a car.

By now it was November and T was growing anxious he’d be stuck with the ever-expanding can through the winter and into June, which might be bustin’ out all over in ways the songwriters never imagined.

Fortunately, we had a flash of inspiration. Our friends, M and D, culturally and culinarily curious and always up for an adventure, have a centre city house with a sizeable backyard. What’s more, it abuts a back alley with a storm drain just beyond the backyard gate. We hadn’t thought of them before because they have many neighbours and the backyard, enclosed by a chain-link fence, is visible to all. But in mid-November, the neighbours wouldn’t be lolling around outdoors and their windows would be shut. Plus we’d be somewhat protected by the cover of night. Feelers were put out and not rebuffed. Plans were made.

As it turned out, M, D and another friend were already slated to join T, girlfriend MJ and me for the Met Live in HD simulcast of Thomas Adès’s new opera The Exterminating Angel, based on the Buñuel film of the same name, in which the guests and hosts of a dinner party find themselves mysteriously unable to leave. Hoping we wouldn’t meet a similar fate, we scheduled our feast for after the screening.

Opera over, we headed for M&D’s as the sun was beginning to set.

The first order of business was to start making tunnbröd, the northern Swedish flatbread (literally “thin bread”) that is the traditional accompaniment. While it is reportedly stocked at IKEA, none of us wanted to schlepp out to the store to see. At the surströmming party I attended in Sweden many years ago, the tunnbröd was hard and crisp, akin to matzoh. Countless YouTube videos and surströmming websites of a far more recent vintage indicate that the soft version, something like a tortilla, is now the norm. After a bout of surfing, I settled on a recipe that, unlike some, was cooked on a stovetop griddle pan.

It was now dark out and the temperature was hovering just above freezing. The earlier drizzle had stopped but it was still a gloomy evening. This was good because no one except us was likely to be outdoors. We prepared to open the can.

T had gotten us into this mess, so he was elected to do the duty. Because the contents of the can are under pressure, a jet of fermented herring brine is released when the can is pieced. If it hits anything absorbent – gloves, a jacket, a rug, the inside of a car – the only option is to scrap the contaminated object. So, by way of precaution, we cut arm and head holes in a large garbage bag, which T donned. A large bucket was filled with water and carried out to the back of the property. The can, a can opener and T’s hands were placed in a plastic bag, which was then submerged. By the light of cellphones and flashlights, T pierced the can (which emitted the expected pfffft), lifted it out of the water, removed the bag and finished freeing the lid.

The stench, the dictionary definition of putrid, had most of us shuddering. T was quickly directed to the storm drain, down which he poured most of the juice. The can was brought back and placed in an extinct barbecue, the idea being to hide it from passers-by and protect it from curious animals while it aired. We opened all the barbecue’s vents and beat a hasty retreat indoors to start the serious drinking.

While we waited, fingerling potatoes were boiled in their jackets with a few sprigs of fresh dill. Red onions were thinly sliced. The stack of tunnbröd was brought to the table. A small brick of butter was plated and set out, as were more dill sprigs. Shot glasses of aquavit and tumblers of beer were placed near each plate. As the SAQ no longer carries aquavit, ours came from Ontario. And as Swedish beer is, as far as I know, unavailable in Quebec, we opted for Tuborg from nearby Denmark (the Carlsberg sold in Canada is, unfortunately, brewed in Canada under licence).

Finally, the can of surströmming was brought indoors and placed in the centre of the table. The stench was overwhelming but, as is widely claimed, if you sit within a few feet of the fetid fish and inhale deeply, your nose soon comes to terms with the smell. Those further away enjoyed no such respite, and the kids playing nearby quickly decamped for an upstairs bedroom with a closed door.

In my earlier experience and in almost all online documentation, the surströmming – either whole or filleted – was intact, identifiable as fish, complete with tail and skin. But the fish in our can was slightly disintegrated, the fillets and bones sitting in a beige sludge. Its slightly disgusting appearance seemed not inappropriate, however. Plus it prompted T to quip that apparently “there are no great surströmmings, only great cans.”

Two of the party could not bring themselves to essay the delicacy. The rest of us placed a tunnbröd on our plate, smeared it with butter, added sliced or mushed potato and a couple of surströmming fillets cut into pieces, scattered on onion and dill sprigs, rolled it all up, braced ourselves and took a bite.

Reactions were one of mild surprise: it didn’t taste as bad as it smelled. In fact, it didn’t taste bad at all. The wrap format made it less of a full-bore experience than the way I’d eaten it in Sweden (a bite of fish on a fork with a piece of potato and some onion, followed by a bite of buttered crispbread), which isn’t to say that the individual components – especially the fish – weren’t detectable. But, a few retronasal whiffs aside, there was nothing putrid about the fish. It tasted like preserved fish, like a mild anchovy or sardine, and had definite umami. The potatoes worked as a foil, the butter added a creamy tang, the onions brightness and the dill a fresh note. That said, the star of the show was the bread. Taking about two hours – including rising time – to make, it had a fabulous, soft but chewy texture and a deep, nutty flavour.

The aquavit – smooth in texture and refined in taste – served its intended cleansing role to perfection. The beer delivered refreshment even as it reset the palate for another round.

Most of us finished our wrap. No one asked for seconds. The question was posed: was anyone keen on doing this again? T was, of course. MJ, who could not bring herself to try the fish and who soon doused herself with perfume before heading off to join other friends at Damas, and F, who ate just a nibble, weren’t. The rest of us were somewhere in between. I said I planned to maintain my current pace of eating the specialty once every 40 years. M and D report that their kids have about forgiven them for subjecting them to an experience they deemed bordering on traumatic (and they only smelled the stuff).

The following Monday saw an email exchange about the experience, part of which I reproduce below:

M: Our house didn’t smell after, though I did have to wash the hoodie I was wearing. And our backyard smelled distinct! And our can-opener has a vinegary tang that I’m reassuring D will dissipate with time…

L: German food critic and author Wolfgang Fassbender wrote that “the biggest challenge when eating surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”

J: That was certainly a singular gastronomic experience.

F: True story: When I got home Saturday night, my hair carried a distinct whiff of putrid swamp AND my pee smelled of asparagus…even though I consumed, literally, a single sip of wine and barely any herring!

M: A 2002 Japanese study dubbed a freshly opened tin of surströmming as the most putrid smell on Earth. Just a little FYI.

D: M tells me that the back alley still smells a bit where we dumped everything down the storm drain.

M: “Putrid stench” allegedly translates in Swedish to rubbad stank.

D: My Swedish colleague, Johan, shook my hand upon hearing of our event. He has also partaken before, but won’t do it any more. He thinks we should have been even more drunk before we ate it.

M: So because I ate the last of the cookies L brought over, I set about to making more for the boys. As I was doing so I kept getting WHIFFS OF SURSTRÖMMING.
What gives, I thought? Was it because I opened the drawer with the tainted tin opener?
No, still just faintly vinegary…
Then I looked at the butter I was using. It was the butter that C brought over that had merely been on the table while we were eating the putrid fish. I leaned in for a sniff. It had absorbed the smells. Good thing I figured this out before baking the cookies…

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The surströmming party

Long ago, when I was 17, I spent a year as an exchange student in Sweden. This account of one of the more memorable meals I had there was written in the early days of the Worldwide Web, which is why I can no longer link to the sources of the quotations. I’m posting it now for reasons that will soon become clear.

“Hellooo?” Rune’s voice precedes him up the stairs.

Ja,” I reply, rising from my bed where I’ve been reading.

“Ah,” he says as he appears at the door. Mats and Eva, my Swedish “brother” and “sister,” hover behind him.

“Would you be so kind as to change into something fancier?” he asks in his impeccable Oxford-accented English. “We’ve been invited out to dinner tonight.”

Mats and Eva look at the floor, trying not to laugh.

“All of us?” I ask, immediately suspicious.

“No. Just you and me.”

“What kind of dinner?”

The siblings break into a fit of giggles.

“Well,” he says, “it’s rather hard to describe in English.”

Something is definitely afoot. The last time I’d heard him use that phrase was when I found him in the kitchen, frying slices of a big maroon sausage for lunch. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Well, it’s rather hard to describe in English,” he said, handing me a plate and a jar of lingonberry preserves.

Later, after I’d eaten it, I learned it wasn’t at all hard to describe: flour bound with pig’s blood, a.k.a. blodpudding.

“I think I’d better stay home and study,” I say.

Nej, nej, nej,” he replies. “Meet me downstairs in half an hour.” He heads into his bedroom.

“Eva,” I say. “Where is he taking me?”

“To a surströmming party,” she stage-whispers. I blanch. She shrieks, turns and runs laughing down the stairs.

A little etymology. Strömming is the Swedish word for Baltic herring. The name derives from ström, the Swedish word for stream, which the schools of small silvery fish are said to resemble.

Sur is the Swedish word for sour.

Surströmming is the Swedish word for fermented herring.

Rune is waiting for me when I arrive downstairs. As we step outside, a taxi pulls up, the first I’ve taken in Sweden.

“You aren’t driving?” I ask.

He gives me a “duh” look and climbs in. Soon we find ourselves in a part of town I’m unfamiliar with, a new development full of comfortable houses the Swedes call villas. We stop in front of one that looks just minted.

“Here we go,” says Rune. “Lena and Thomas moved in last week. Tonight is – how do you say? – a housewarming.”

Rune rings the bell. A woman in her 30s opens the door and welcomes us in. Rune does the introductions. We are the first to arrive, Lena explains, taking our coats. We follow her to the plank-floored, off-white living room furnished with a mix of old and new pieces, including a sideboard on which sits a pitcher.

“May I pour you a Tom Collins?” Lena asks.

“Yes, but only a small one for our American friend,” Rune replies.

The doorbell rings and Lena soon escorts three more guests into the living room. Once they are settled, she excuses herself saying that she and Thomas must finish their preparations.

The conversation, or what I can follow of it, is friendly yet formal in that way peculiar to Scandinavia. At one point my attention wanders and I look through the sliding glass door into the back yard. I am surprised to see our hosts standing on the deck in their shirtsleeves – it is November after all – and even more surprised that Thomas is spraying water from a garden hose onto Lena’s hands.

“Rune,” I say, giving him a nudge. “What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s difficult to explain.”

“Give me a break! What are they doing?”

“The theory is that if you open the cans of surströmming like that, the water catches some of the gas and carries it into the ground. They’ll also leave the open cans outside for a half hour or so… Er, why don’t I freshen your Tom Collins?”

Surströmming is a specialty of northern Sweden. Its origins are shrouded in the distant past. Only herring from the northern Baltic, which are said to have a special flavour due to the water’s low salinity, are used. The herring are fished in the spring just before they spawn. Once caught, they are rinsed but not gutted. A typical recipe reads:

When the herring has been rinsed, it is put in a kolfat for a day or more, so that the water is drained; it doesn’t matter if the fish becomes soft. For each firkin of fish, take 7 marks ground salt at the beginning of summer, but 6 marks in the autumn, and mix it and the fish in a large container, stirring with the hands. Then pack in barrels and cover with salt. When the barrel has stood uncovered for 8 to 14 days, put the top on and turn the barrel over. The herring will go sour, but take care to make some holes with a tap so that you can air it during fermentation.

(This recipe was written down by the ethnologist Hülphers in the town of Härnösand in 1780.)

Fermentation allows the fish to be preserved with a minimum of salt, once a very expensive commodity.

These days, surströmming is packed in shallow cans about six inches in diameter. As the fish ferments, it produces gas, which causes the can to swell. By fall the top and bottom of the can are noticeably convex (the surströmming is considered to have reached its peak at this point). By the following spring, the cans are shaped like balls and explosion is a danger.

A schoolmate told me that his brother once drove home from university during a late spring heat wave with a can of surströmming in the trunk of his car and the unthinkable happened.

The car had to be scrapped.

Lena and Thomas come in from the deck, a strange odour trailing them. Two open cans sit on a table outside.

“Did you warn the neighbours?” one of the guests asks.

“It’s a new development,” Thomas says. “We don’t have neighbours yet. That’s why we decided to do the party now.”

The doorbell rings. “That’ll be Gunnar,” Lena says. “My, my, he’s late.”

A few minutes later, Gunnar enters the room, looking flustered. After the mandatory round of greetings, he sits down.

“I’m late because I lost Lena and Thomas’s new address,” he explains. “I called Information, but they didn’t have the number.”

“The phone’s going in on Tuesday,” Thomas calls out from the kitchen.

“Well, anyway,” Gunnar continues, “I knew the general neighbourhood and I knew what we were having for dinner. So I had the taxi driver let me off down the street and I followed my nose to the right house!”

“Brilliant, Sherlock,” says Lena. “Now, why don’t you follow your nose into the dining room?”

Serving advice from a Swedish surströmming site:

All of the people who is going to participate in the dinner must sit close to the can when opened and they should as soon as possible inhale the smell. If you are more than 20 feet away from the can, you will not be able to inhale a concentration big enough. This is the trick—you must as quick as possible so that you strike out your smelling sence. Now you are ready to start eating!

We guests are seated three along each side of the table, alternating men and women. At each place is a large plate. Smaller plates are at the two o’clock and ten o’clock positions. A snapps glass of aquavit and a tumbler of pilsner are at noon. Baskets of a matzoh-like bread, tubs of butter, plates of sliced onion and bowls of steaming fingerling potatoes are placed strategically around the table. Thomas leaves then reappears carrying a tray on which sit two cans. An overwhelming stench, nauseatingly putrid, fills the room. The cans are placed in the middle of the table. After a few doubtful minutes, I can breathe again.

Lena asks me for my plate. It returns bearing a small fish that looks dull, limp, a little sad.

There is, I am told, a proper procedure for eating the delicacy. First, you butter a piece of bread and place it on the small plate to the left. Then, using your knife and fork, you gut the fish and place its entrails on the small plate to the right. Then you cut a piece of fish and spear it with your fork, followed by a piece of potato and a slice or two of onion. Now, take a bite of buttered bread. Then eat your fish, down the aquavit, drink some beer and Bob’s your uncle. You’re ready to repeat the process.

I take a bite of bread and, with all eyes on me, raise the loaded fork to my mouth. I chew. The taste is nothing like the smell nor is it very fishy. In fact, I rather like it. And the potatoes are superb.

Det är bra,” I announce to smiles.

“Don’t talk,” Rune whispers. “Drink!”

The aquavit burns my throat but cleans the palate. (It was the one time during my year-long stay that I enjoyed the taste.) The beer has a cooling, thirst-slaking effect.

I repeat the process once more, finishing my herring. I ask Lena for a second fish and am greeted with bravos all around.

“The only thing,” Rune says, “is that you have to switch to the traditional drink for minors.”

“?”

“Milk.”

The wave of nausea returns.

“Can we compromise on water?”

Of course, the adults don’t stop drinking and soon become very merry. Most guests eat four herrings. I wonder what will be done with the leftovers. More beer, much more beer, is drunk.

Lena begins clearing the table and takes the plates into the kitchen. We hear her “oh, no!” over the diners’ din. A few minutes later, she returns, carrying a somewhat burnt fruit cobbler. Thomas follows with a coffee pot and a pitcher of cream for the dessert. The cobbler is served and Lena refuses the complements that are her due, so Gunnar stands on his chair and sings an improvised Ode to Burned Desserts and Their Cooks, with everyone joining in on the chorus. Lena acknowledges the thanks with a smile.

The doorbell rings. Thomas returns and explains that it’s the first of the taxis they’ve arranged to transport us home. First to arrive, Rune and I are also first to depart. As hastily as is possible at a Swedish dinner, we thank our hosts, wish everyone farewell and trundle off into the chilly night.

Greek winery tour: day three

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DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)

We had another full day ahead of us and had to be ready to go by 8 a.m.

Breakfast at the 1821 En Dolianis Boutique Hotel was a small buffet prepared by the woman in charge, who was friendly but didn’t speak English or French. It was the most home-cooked breakfast of the trip and probably my favourite: wedges of a frittata-like, sausage-studded omelet, roasted tomatoes, country ham, fresh orange juice, yogurt, mountain jams and honey, a small selection of breads and pastries and good coffee. We ate on the terrace, surrounded by trees in the fresh mountain air: a delightful, tranquil moment.

We were soon on the road, traversing the Peloponese (which took only a couple of hours), heading south on the E65 until about 50 km north of Kalamata and then west on the E55 to the Ionian coast. The landscape was greener than I’d imagined it would be and the going was easy.

Major highways in Greece are well planned, well marked and – a treat for us Quebecers – smooth. (We were told this was one of the benefits of EU membership.) Signs are in Greek with Latin transcriptions. Turnoffs for ruins and other tourist sites are clearly indicated. In some places, especially around Athens, some traffic directions in English are also provided. Of course, secondary highways and roads usually have signs in Greek only, but the pace on side roads is slower, leaving time for deciphering.

From what I could tell, native drivers, at least the ones outside Athens, are competent and considerate. Slow vehicles often moved to the shoulder to let faster vehicles pass. I don’t recall hearing a single honk during our travels outside the metropolitan area. In short, highways are unintimidating; non-Greek-speaking visitors need have no hesitations about driving on them.

Our destination winery was the Mercouri Estate near Pyrgos but we got there via a detour to Ancient Olympia, the site of original Olympic games.

Outside the entrance to the historic site sits a town devoted to tourists. And to go by the size of the parking areas and the scale of the restaurants, tourists must be legion, not that there were hoards at 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. Still, we managed to score some decent coffee – mine an espresso freddo, an espresso on ice – in one of the large main street restaurants. Here as elsewhere, the style was more traditional Italian than third wave, but the drinks were made with know-how and care.

A ten-minute walk down a tree-lined boulevard and over a mostly dry river bed brought us to the entrance to the archeological site, which sits in a narrow valley surrounded by forested hills and mountains. There we met our guide, a Dutch expat historian now settled in Greece. Informed, engaging and professional, she made our tour of the compact site even more special, as she was able to add details – about the placement and design of the buildings, how they were used, how the ancients viewed the games and place, how athletes were rewarded, how cheaters were shamed and so on – that the brochures and information plaques didn’t provide. Even today, the site feels hallowed, and entering the stadium through the arched passageway where Plato, Herodotus and Alexander the Great, among many others, once walked cannot but fill one with awe.

The archeological museum on the site is a must-see, well worth the price of the extra ticket. Among the many artifacts it contains are a number of magnificent sculptures, including much of the pediment of the Temple of Zeus, and an imposing statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Here, too, having an art historian as a guide provided insight – remarks on the differences between the Greek and Roman styles of sculpture, for example, and why the latter was inferior – that would otherwise have been lacking. This was the first time I’d visited a historic site with a private guide and the difference it makes is enormous.

A short drive – no more than half an hour – took us to the focus of the day: the Mercouri Estate. Set on a gently rolling plain on the edge of the Ionian sea, the winery comprises a complex of buildings dating back to the mid-1800s and filled with antique furnishings and equipment; walking into them is like entering another era. A beautiful park lies between the buildings and the Mediterranean. An abandoned Italianate mansion, where the owners once lived, exudes a melancholy air of sophistication and elegance and begs to be restored. Touring the estate’s small museum, which houses artifacts once used on the site (old farming and wine-making implements, school room supplies, posters from the 1800s and early 1900s advertising maritime passage to New York and Montreal, etc.) is like stumbling upon a magical attic that has been sealed for decades. It is, in short, one of the loveliest agricultural homesteads I’ve seen. Time there seems suspended, life seems sweet, the past is present. Our wine tasting (the notes for which will be found on Brett happens) and lunch under enormous umbrella-like pines, a gentle sea breeze refreshing the heavy air, peacocks calling nearby, was a moment of grace due partly to the setting but also to the owners’ gracious welcome.

As if waking from a dream, we climbed into the van for the short ride up the coast to the Mare Dei Suites Hotel. Arriving there was like entering another dream. This, too, is a time-suspending place, albeit one whose allure is of a different, resolutely modern era. The site is magnificent: a steep natural ampitheatre with wild, scrub-covered hills above and on either side and a small cove with a perfect sandy beach – reportedly one of the Peloponnese’s finest – below, the clear Ionian Sea lapping at the shore, the island of Zakynthos rising in the distance. Perched on the hillside, the suites are a cluster of small buildings connected by paved walkways and stairways. The architecture is clean and angular. The dominant hue is white, though foliage and brilliant touches of colour abound. With a separate, recessed entrance, each suite feels secluded and private. The interiors are high-ceilinged and spacious (mine was three times the size of a standard North American hotel room), sparsely but stylishly decorated. A king-size platform bed with a firm mattress dominated the tile-floored room. Above it hung a large abstract painting. One corner of the room was given over to a small sitting area with a love seat, low table and two chairs. A small kitchen sink, refrigerator and bar with stools occupied the adjacent corner. The seaside wall was floor-to-ceiling windows with sliding glass doors that open onto a well-furnished private deck nearly as large as the room. The bathroom – mine had an enormous shower, others had tubs – was as large as many bedrooms. I assume my suite was one of the more expensive panoramic variety, as the view over the Ionian Sea was breathtaking, especially at sunset, and the sea was near enough that I fell asleep to the sound of waves and the tang of maritime air. Swimming, whether in the sea or the large pool, was excellent. Despite one or two quibbles (see the soon-to-be-posted Day Four report), this was a place I’d love to return to and spend a few days unwinding.

Dinner that evening was a lacklustre meal saved by the setting, wines and excellent company, in particular Vasilis Kanellakopoulos and his two sons, the owner-operators of Mercouri Estate. Tellingly, I neglected to ask for the restaurant’s business card, so I’m uncertain of its name or even location (after bombing around the area on Google Maps, I suspect it may have been the Vriniotis Hotel and Restaurant in Katakolo). It and a neighbouring drinking and dining establishment were perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean with stepped terraces that take full advantage of the magnificent view. As was the case nearly every evening, we ate outdoors. Here though, almost without exception, the food looked better than it tasted. The Greek salad, for example, included chunks of fresh fruit and nuts and a sweet balsamic vinegar dressing, and some in our party were convinced the fries had been frozen. Ultimately, the fare seemed like it was aimed at tourists. Still, the wines, all from the Mercouri Estate, were delicious. What’s more, the conversation was lively and wide-ranging and the camaraderie tangible. The Kanellakopouloses are open, engaging and worldly; for example, Vasilis and I spent several minutes chatting about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani, not a book I would have expected any winemaker to have known about, let alone read. A memorable dinner then, but more for the surroundings and the delightful companions than the food.

We left around midnight and soon found our way to bed. It had been a very long but very special day.

GOING OVER
DAY ONE: ATTICA
DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)
► DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FOUR: ACHAEA (NORTHERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FIVE: MACEDONIA
DAY SIX: SANTORINI (CYCLADES)
DAY SEVEN: SANTORINI AND ATHENS
COMING BACK

Greek winery tour: day two

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DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)

A buffet breakfast was provided at the Sea Sight Boutique Hotel and, indeed, at most of the places we stayed. They nearly always featured a selection of juices, fresh fruit, cold cereals, yogurt, sweet rolls, bread, bacon, sausages and/or ham and spectacularly flavourful eggs. Vegetable dishes like baked beans and ratatouille also made regular appearances. With only one or two exceptions, the coffee was good and often excellent.

corinthcanalBreakfast consumed and bags packed, we climbed into the van. Our destination: the Peloponnese, where we’d spend the next three days. We skirted Athens and Piraeus and took highway E94 down the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, which connects the peninsula to the mainland. Just before reaching the Corinth canal, we left the E94, jogged west on highway 8 and crossed the canal on the Korinth bridge, parking in front of the south-end strip mall that houses the Canale Restaurant. We walked back onto the bridge for the magnificent if dizzying view of the narrow, steep-sided canal far below us. The mall was filled with tourist gewgaws but provided an ATM and facilities for a welcome pit stop. The coffee bar served a credible espresso too.

A short ride took us to Archaia Nemea, one of the four sites – along with Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia – of the Panhellenic Games of ancient Greece. It is also where Hercules completed the first of his 12 labours, killing the Nemean lion. Temple of Nemean ZeusBoth the Temple of Nemean Zeus, today with nine soaring (three-storey high) Doric columns, and the stadium of Nemea with its masses of oleander (used for athletes’ crowns), vaulted tunnel entrance (with 2,000-year-old graffiti), banked earth “bleachers” and sweeping view southward over the valley were places where time seemed suspended and the ancients not so distant, an impression no doubt enhanced by our being the only people present. The small archeological museum on the site is well worth a half hour of one’s time.

At Nemea we connected with Yannis Tselepos, our host winemaker for the day, and soon found ourselves in one of his prize vineyards, a hilltop parcel a stone’s throw from the Gaia Winery.

restaurant_kavosOur next stop was the town of Isthmia, on the Aegean coast just south of the canal’s east end. The destination: Kavos 1964 (Κάβος 1964), where we had one of the top meals of the trip. Situated seaside on a low bluff and shaded by tall trees, the restaurant’s outdoor tables, some under a pergola and others in the open air, overlook the clear turquoise water of Isthmia bay. Kavos specializes in local seafood and our feast included wild mussels, octopus, marinated white sardines, “white” (uncoloured) taramasalata, sea urchin roe, Greek salads with and without feta, sautéed gambas and a glorious platter of linguine with mussels, razor clams, roasted tomato, garlic and parsley. Dessert, which came after some of us took a quick dip in the bay, was fresh watermelon and cups of mastic ice cream topped with myrtle preserves. Tselepos sparkling and still whites made a fine accompaniment. The seafood was of a freshness Montrealers can only dream about and every dish was flawlessly prepared. A restaurant entirely worth the detour, especially as English and French are spoken.

We then headed south into the Arcadian highlands, driving past the Tselepos winery near Rizes to the tiny mountainside village of Ano Doliana, southeast of Tripoli. The landscape here is much greener than in Attica, with trees and undergrowth abounding. Actually, in one or two places the side of the road had been washed out by torrential rainfall a couple of days before.

Ano DolianaSitting in a forested natural amphitheatre at a little over 1,000 metres on the north slope of Mount Parnon, Ano Doliana is a magical place: a cluster of mostly old buildings, many of them stone, with steep, switchbacking cobblestone streets barely wide enough to admit our van. Ano Doliana was originally a summer village where locals living in Kato Doliana on the valley floor could escape the oppressive heat. Indeed, we found that, even in high summer, it was good to have a sweater or hoodie to don in the evening. These days, the village serves much the same function as before, though less for local valley dwellers than for visitors from Athens and other cities in search of a cool weekend retreat. On a Tuesday, the village was virtually deserted and I and two others in our party were the only guests at our inn.

That inn was the 1821 En Dolianis Boutique Hotel. The 1821 refers to the year of both the inn’s construction and the start of the Greek war of independence, which began in the Peleponnese, with nearby Tripoli being the first major city freed from Ottoman rule. A rectangular stone building that once served as the village’s primary school, the hotel has a large flagstone terrace at the entrance, a foyer with a soaring, wood-beamed ceiling and spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, several with thick stone walls, that, modern conveniences aside, transport you back to another era. The effect is both rustic and elegant. The bathrooms I saw had showers but no tubs, the rooms a four-poster bed with a comfortable, firm mattress, a desk, a small utility sink and a counter with a coffee maker. The valley-side rooms and terrace have valley views through the trees. What’s more, the village is exceedingly quiet, especially in the evening. As an escape from the hubbub of city life, you could hardly do better.

The rest of party stayed a short walk away in another old stone inn, Erasmion. All gave it thumbs-up, though to go by their descriptions, it was, building aside, a somewhat more typical modern hotel experience, albeit one that afforded an impressive view over the plain of Tripoli.

After settling in, we descended into the valley for a tour of the Tselepos Estate and a technical tasting of its wines, the notes for which are posted on Brett happens. Night was falling as we left the winery and climbed back into the mountains, ending up at a traditional taverna, To Dragoúni (Εστιατοριο Ψητοπωλειο Το Δραγούνι), several kilometres – along twisting mountain roads – from our inns but still within the boundaries of Ano Doliana. It was one of the only times we ate indoors, as the mountain air was too cool for al fresco dining. The fare included piperopita (similar to spanakopita but made with red peppers instead of spinach), zucchini omelette, Greek salad, a kind of porchetta (the restaurant’s specialty: salt-cured pork flavoured with citrus and roasted), more excellent Greek fries (these possibly cooked in local sunflower oil), sautéed greens (possibly foraged), house-made bread and, for dessert, honeydew melon, watermelon and a dense nut cake served with morello cherry preserves. Wines from Tselepos and other estates flowed. Down-to-earth, welcoming, authentic and, most importantly, delicious, this felt like another gem only locals know about.

It had been a long day and we were beat. We bid farewell to the Tseleposes and were soon in our beds, welcoming Hypnos’s embrace.

GOING OVER
DAY ONE: ATTICA
► DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FOUR: ACHAEA (NORTHERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FIVE: MACEDONIA
DAY SIX: SANTORINI (CYCLADES)
DAY SEVEN: SANTORINI AND ATHENS
COMING BACK

Greek winery tour: day one

[Hover over pics for captions and credits; click to embiggen.]

DAY ONE: ATTICA

Our plane landed at 7:30 a.m., so we had a few hours to kill before we could check into our hotel. We were met at the airport by the owner-winemaker of the first winery on our tour, Vassilis Papagiannakos, who led us to a couple of his vineyards in Markopoulo, just southeast of the airport. Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by fig trees, pistachio trees and grape vines, cicadas droning in the background.

Even early in the day, the temperature was warm and rising fast. In this part of Greece, the weather in the summer varies little from day to day: sunny, hot (mid to upper 30s), dry and very breezy. The wind is sun-driven and so is strongest in high afternoon and dies after sundown.

Aleppo pines and Agiorgitiko vines (photo: E. Lebel/oenopole)In one of the vineyards was a small chapel built in the 11th century using stones recycled from far older buildings, including maybe an ancient temple or two. Nearby, a low slope was crested by magnificent, centuries-old Aleppo pines, broader than they are high – bordering on umbrella-shaped, in fact – with coarse ridged bark and long, not very fragrant needles. The resin from the species is considered the best for retsina production.

“You see those fig trees,” said Vassilis, pointing to a large orchard across the narrow country road. “In a few weeks, you’ll be able to buy the fruit in Montreal. The farmer has a near monopoly on supplying Greek figs to the vendors at the Jean Talon Market.”

We were soon back in the van, on our way to Porto Rafti. We passed though Markopoulo’s town centre, with its attractive square and cafés with outdoor seating. In contrast, the outskirts along the highway were a little suburban blightish: a broken string of small strip malls and small businesses with parking in front, rendered less jarring and incoherent than their North American counterparts by the low level of flashiness and the buildings’ similar architecture. The amount of English on business names, signs and billboards was surprising, especially to someone from Quebec. There were also a large number of shuttered stores and abandoned buildings and construction sites – a direct result, I was told, of the Euro crisis.

Our first night was spent at Sea Sight Boutique Hotel in Porto Rafti on the Aegean coast, today mainly a resort town for Athenians. The hotel proper is located on the inland side of a small, two-lane highway that parallels the shore. On the sea side is an open-air pavilion with a bar and dining tables, a rocky beach covered with imported sand, lounge chairs, palm leaf umbrellas and the beautiful Aegean, turquoise at the shore, teal and navy blue farther out. Sea Sight Boutique Hotel, Porto Rafti (photo: Theo Diamantis)Steep-sloped capes on both sides of the bay frame the view; just around the north cape is where the ancient Greeks assembled to launch their attack on Troy.

The beaches here are open to the public. That being said, if you install yourself on one of the loungers or the sand, you’re expected to buy a drink or snack from the bar. The swimming was splendid though the waves and floor – covered with sharp-edged rocks – made entering and leaving the water a challenge. A tip: wear flip-flops on your way in and out, remove and slip them under the waistband of your swimsuit once in.

Sea Sight is a small hotel and some of the rooms do indeed look out over the bay, though mine didn’t. The staircase and doors to the suites are outdoors and all rooms have private patios or balconies. Furniture and fittings are modern and stylish if, in places, a little worn. The beds are comfortable, temperature control is individual and, in July, the air-conditioning is welcome. My efficiently designed bathroom was fitted with a deep Jacuzzi-style tub and handheld shower wand. The staff speak English and are friendly and helpful.

Lunch in the beachside pavilion was a fine affair: a selection of meze, including octopus, sea urchins, Greek salad, expertly fried zucchini and eggplant, tiny shrimp and larger prawns, followed by impeccably fresh, impeccably grilled fish with vleeta on the side, all watered with Papagiannakos whites. Fresh watermelon and peaches were offered for dessert. An espresso from the beach bar was expertly pulled.

We were given the afternoon off to swim, bathe and nap, and told to assemble at 6 p.m. As a result, and despite hardly sleeping on the plane, jet lag was not an issue.

At the appointed hour, we piled into the van and headed to the architecturally stunning Papagiannakos winery on the outskirts of Porto Rafti for a tour and formal tasting, the details of which which will be found on Brett happens.

Afterwards we travelled around 10 km south-southwest to the old-town section of the village of Kouvaras for a memorable dinner on the streetside terrace of Gavrilis Taverna (Γαβριλης Ταβερνα), a butcher shop cum restaurant, where you pick your meat at the counter and they cook it to order. The dishes began arriving within minutes of our sitting down: tzatziki, tirokafteri, whole wheat bread and Greek salad with delicious feta on the side, all an ideal match for the excellent Papagiannakos retsina. There then appeared a platter of lamb pluck (offal, including lung) that had been chopped, tossed with flour and fried in local olive oil – a dish that conquered the resistance of even the most squeamish among us – followed by grilled “mother of lamb” (mutton) and Greek-cut lamb chops (some of the best I’ve eaten anywhere, Greek-cut or not) with sides of almira and the first of several memorable encounters with genuine Greek fries (fairly thin potato wedges placed in a frying pan, covered with cold olive oil and heated, the initial cool-temperature cooking followed by medium-high browning acting like a one-step version of double frying). A sweet old dog was loitering in the street below the terrace; we tossed him a few bones. There followed terracotta pots of sheep’s milk yogurt generously laced with very herbal local honey and studded with rehydrated raisins and chunks of quince. Plates of fresh watermelon – this part of Attica is a main source of the fruit in Greece – brought the meal to a close.

This family-run restaurant, not mentioned in any tourist guides I’ve seen, provided the perfect ending to our first day in Greece. Unpretentious and authentic, featuring top-quality local ingredients simply and knowingly prepared, served graciously with a minimum of fuss and eaten convivially outdoors on a balmy summer evening: the genius of Greek dining.

Markopoulo figs (photo: Theo Diamantis)

GOING OVER
► DAY ONE: ATTICA
DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FOUR: ACHAEA (NORTHERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FIVE: MACEDONIA
DAY SIX: SANTORINI (CYCLADES)
DAY SEVEN: SANTORINI AND ATHENS
COMING BACK

Greek winery tour: Going over

In early July, a group of seven Montreal wine and food geeks, including me, travelled to Greece to visit six wineries in as many regions in seven days. The trip was arranged and paid for by the wineries concerned with assistance from the European Union and the Greek government; I offer all of them – especially the wineries – my warmest thanks. In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be posting reports on the estates visited and many wines tasted on Brett happens and on everything else here. As the hotels and restaurants, some of them far off the tourist track, were chosen by the winemaker in each region, they can be considered recommendations from locals in the know.

What to take
In the summer, the generally hot, dry weather and casual dress code in all but the fanciest establishments mean you don’t need to pack much. Comfortable walking shoes, sandals and some flip-flops for the beach are the only footwear required. You’ll also want a couple of pairs of shorts and a selection of t-shirts, preferably light coloured. Pants of some sort are a good idea if you’ll be spending time in the cool mountains. A sweater or hoodie is also welcome in the mountains or even on the islands on some of the windier evenings. Men might want to make the pants chinos or slacks and to pack a short-sleeved buttoned shirt if they plan to dine at tony restaurants. Women might consider packing a summer-weight dress or skirt for the same purpose. Sunglasses and a hat are virtually essential, as are a swimsuit and a quick-drying towel if you plan to spend time on a beach.

Buying a couple hundred euros before heading over will let you hit the ground running. If you run out of cash while there, ATMs that accept foreign credit and debit cards are found in many cities, towns and tourist spots; the exchange rate is good, the service charges are reasonable and the withdrawal limits imposed on Greeks in the wake of the euro crisis don’t apply to foreigners.

I don’t carry a mobile phone but everyone else in the group did and had no problems texting, instagraming and calling with theirs.

Flying there
Our non-stop flights between Montreal and Athens were on Air Transat. It’s nine hours going over and an hour longer coming back. Heading east, we were on an Airbus 323-300 with 2-4-2 abreast seating in economy class. Having long legs and hoping to catch some shuteye, I paid for an extra legroom seat – specifically 4H, an aisle seat next to the window seat in the first row behind the club class section. Unlike the four seats in the middle of the row, which faced a bulkhead wall, a half-length privacy curtain was all that separated the side seats from the club class seats in front of them. This meant I had enough room to stash my backsack under the club class seat and still stretch out. A strut under that seat did interfere with lateral movement, a minor impediment that didn’t apply to the window seat (4K), which had more forward legroom than most first class seats do and which, along with 4A on the opposite side of the aircraft, must be the top pick for those not travelling club. Other advantages of sitting in this row were the relatively little aisle traffic and being first in line for food and drink service.

Air Transit recently upgraded the interiors of their aircraft and the new economy class seats are comfortable enough. Seatback screens with USB and earphone ports are provided. The entertainment system is serviceable, though you won’t find any art films among the choices. The food – a selection of sandwiches – was forgettable and hard to unwrap (even the flight attendants complained about the wrapping).

Athens airport
Athens International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos” is a clean and modern facility constructed for the Olympics. It’s less of a shopping mall/food court than many North American airports and prices, even after you’ve gone through security screening, are reasonable (unlike at YUL, where 500 ml of Evian costs $5 and a pint of draft beer runs $13). Getting around is straightforward though necessitating quite a bit of walking, and there are some bottlenecks, most notably at passport control. Still, we were loading our suitcases onto our van within an hour of landing.

The airport is located east of Athens, and a high, steep hill, long ago stripped of its covering pine forest, separates it from the city. Though we didn’t use it, there is a subway station at the airport with a direct if pricey (€12) connection to downtown.

► GOING OVER
DAY ONE: ATTICA
DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FOUR: ACHAEA (NORTHERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FIVE: MACEDONIA
DAY SIX: SANTORINI (CYCLADES)
DAY SEVEN: SANTORINI AND ATHENS
COMING BACK

Mavi is no more

Since I’ve not seen mention of it anywhere, since it’s not hipsteriffic or “hot” enough to be on Eater‘s radar and since it deserves not to pass in silence, I thought I’d mention it here: once one of the city’s best Portuguese grills, Rôtisserie Mavi in Côte-des-Neiges is no more. The space had been dark for about three weeks and emptied out for about two. Yesterday evening, the windows were papered over and a big À LOUER sign had been put up. The demise was gradual and began a couple of years ago after the restaurant moved to a new location.

Business was usually brisk at the original spot on Gatineau a block and a half north of Queen Mary. Maeve Haldane provided an excellent snapshot of it in a 2006 Hour review that, amazingly, is still online. Unfortunately, that building and several of its neighbours (including the one that housed Boucherie de Paris) were slated for demolition to make way for condos. Maria, Mavi’s driving force, started looking for a new venue – not an easy task, as all candidates had to have a charcoal-burning permit. As it turned out, the most appealing option was a short block north on Gatineau, a locale that had previously been an Iraqi restaurant (the owner actually referred to it as a Basra restaurant) called Aseel BBQ.

On paper it looked great: a relatively roomy open kitchen with a large charcoal grill, about twice the square footage as the old space, large windows and a paving stone terrace in front that was wide enough to hold a half dozen tables. Rent was higher than Maira was used to paying but she figured she could cover it with increased business. She signed a multi-year lease and applied for a liquor permit.

Imagine her horror when the RACJ announced they wouldn’t be granting a permit because the new locale wasn’t zoned as a restaurant but as a dépanneur. And not only did that mean she couldn’t serve booze, it meant she couldn’t have more than 12 diners in the restaurant at a time.

She appealed to the borough and went to several borough council meetings. At the one I attended, she took advantage of question period to ask the borough mayor, the now disgraced Michael Applebaum, if he would intervene. His response was in equal measures smarmy, dismissive and condescending. “I have been to your old restaurant,” he told her. “The best grilled chicken in Montreal. The best. But why are you complaining? That restaurant could barely hold a dozen people. Don’t tell me otherwise – I’ve been there.” (In fact, it could and often did hold nearly 40.) “If you want a restaurant permit, you’ll have to apply to have the building rezoned. It’s as simple as that.”

Except it wasn’t. A week or two later, the building’s owners and I accompanied Maria to a meeting with the mayor’s underlings at the borough offices on Décarie. The functionaries were cool and unhelpful. Despite there being a restaurant immediately next door to Mavi (Cracovie) and another one door up the street in the opposite direction (Il Galateo), the space was zoned as a dépanneur period. Maria’s only option would be to launch the rezoning process. After receiving her request, the borough would study the question, which among other things would entail hiring, at Maria’s expense, an outside firm to conduct a survey of neighbourhood residents. Then, assuming borough officials decided to allow the rezoning, announcements would be posted in the neighbourhood and made in various publications, again at Maria’s expense. If any residents formally objected, a referendum would be held, yet again at Maria’s expense. If the result was in her favour, the space would be rezoned. If not, it would remain a dépanneur and Maria would be out many thousands of dollars for naught.

As Mavi was a mom and pop operation run on a shoestring, this was as good as a no.

“But,” I objected, pulling out online reviews of Aseel BBQ and some Google Streetview shots that showed the resto’s sign, “the place has been a restaurant for several years. Aseel was halal so no alcohol was served but it was still a restaurant. It had a menu on big panels above the counter. It sold nothing but freshly prepared food for consumption on site or takeout. The owner even built a banquette along one of the walls.”

“Well, if we can establish prior use as a restaurant, you may have found a loophole,” one of the functionaries said. “Can I keep these documents,” he asked me. “We’ll get back to you,” he told Maria. They never did.

Alcohol sales are a profit centre for restaurants. They’re also a big draw. Without them, Mavi began its slow decline. Fewer and fewer patrons decided to dine there until, at the end, it was little more than a very spacious takeout counter staffed only by an increasingly tuckered-out Maria.

Last fall, I suggested to Maria that she turn the unused half of the restaurant into a Peluso-style beer store, something the neighbourhood sorely lacks. It would bring people into the space, people who might also be tempted to buy dinner to go with their six pack. And since she’d probably offer beer deliveries, she could again offer food deliveries, which she’d stopped doing before the move. Beer sales + increased food sales = profit, or so it seemed to me.

She found the idea interesting but by then it was too late. And so the city has lost one of its better Portuguese grills and the neighbourhood’s food options have shrunk even further. CDN used to be a top spot for home delivery, with options like Chinese, Greek, Haitian, Portuguese and even Uighur. Now it’s mostly pizza and shawarma.

RIP Mavi. And best of luck, Maria, wherever you are.

(Note: The above description of the exchanges with borough officials is based on my somewhat fuzzy memory and the associated quotes are summaries of what was said, not actual quotes of the discussions, which in the event were entirely in French.)