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 become clear before year’s end.

“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.

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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

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.)

Larrys: a potential new favourite

A quick report on a quick, late-night visit to Larrys, the restaurant/wine bar that just opened in the small space on Fairmount East formerly occupied by Café Sardine and Bouchonné, among other predecessors.

Though the basic floor plan remains the same, the interior has been radically transformed. It’s brighter, arier and more modern – mid-centuryish even – but also less cozy and, as one member of our group pointed out, while the old decor gave the place an only-in-Montreal feel, the new one has none of that, could be in just about any city anywhere. Improvements include replacing the high banquette, tables and stools along the west wall with standard height versions and installing comfortable seating along the long edge of the L-shaped bar. Sound levels are bearable for once.

We were coming from a wine tasting and two of our group, pressed for time, went ahead of the rest of us. When we showed up, they were enjoying a bottle of hard-to-find Hill Farmstead beer. Their dishes hit the table as we sat down.

The early arrivers declared their food good but had a few nits to pick (the tomato sauce for the lamb-filled cabbage roll was said to be too sharp, for example). On the other hand, our dishes, all from the small plates side of the menu, were impeccable. The two tartares – beef (topped with a small egg yolk) and salmon – were cut by hand and more coarsely than is often the case, which, combined with the mild seasoning, let the main ingredient shine through, very welcome with meat and fish of such high quality. Accompanied by a creamy potato salad, the house-pickled herring fillets would have won raves at a Stockholm restaurant, while the pan-fried herring roe on toast with brown butter and capers was a knockout, a dish I’ve been jonesing for since the minute I finished it. A cheese plate consisting of two small slices of aged Louis d’Or was accompanied by a couple of hard biscuits and a fruit compote, both house-made.

Focused on natural wines and comprising a few dozen bottles, many of them affordable, the wine list is terrific. The servers are friendly, attentive and informed: ideal actually. Prices are reasonable. Divided three ways and including a bottle of a delicious, lightly oranged Italian white (the name escapes me) – but not the Ganevat Chardonnay generously offered by one member of the party – our light supper came to around $45 a person, including taxes but before tip.

If the quality of the cooking remains as high on subsequent visits, I can see Larrys becoming one of my favourite spots in town, especially for a late-night bite.

My dinner with C

Sorry but I have this deadline looming.”

“If only you’d called half an hour earlier. I just accepted another invitation.”

“I think I feel a cold coming on.”

“Thanks but it’s been one of those through-the-wringer weeks and all I want to do is veg out at home.”

“I’d love to but I have this lamb steak in the fridge and if I don’t make it tonight, I’ll have to throw it out.”

“You know, I’m really in the mood to cook. Why don’t you come over here instead?”

I’d been avoiding it for months. Tonight C put her foot down: I was going to have dinner at her place, no ifs, ands or buts.

Ah, C. One of the first people I met on arriving in Montreal in ’73. An honours English classmate at McGill – her first paper, “Vaginal Versus Clitoral Orgasm in Women in Love,” was written before she had personal knowledge of the subject and earned her a private interview with the lecherous prof. Later, an ESL teacher who travelled the world – Greece, Japan, Egypt, China, France, Spain, Italy, Mexico, India. A chain smoker who’s tried quitting a total of two weeks in the last 30 years. These days something of a boulevardière, hanging out in the cafés and bistros on rue Bernard. A lover of beer and guzzler of cheap wine. Dismissive of wine appreciation (“Well, it tastes like wine to me,” she stated after sitting through my encomium to Juge’s 1990 Cornas “Cuvée C”). Appreciative of fine food, though. Appreciative of bad food, too.

Always begins eating as soon as the food is set before her. Always grunts softly as she wolfs it down. Doesn’t talk while there’s anything on her plate. Has to have a smoke the instant she finishes eating, even if getting one means cutting you off in mid-sentence.

Probably the worst cook I know. Her cookbook collection consists of a single unconsulted volume, Diet for a Small Planet, which was already gathering dust on top of her fridge when I first met her.

“Well, can I help with dinner?” I ask.

“No.”

“Let me bring a bottle at least.”

“You’re always opening wine for me. Just bring yourself. It’s my treat.”

I arrive at the appointed hour. As usual, C greets me like a long-lost friend. She dashes into the kitchen and returns with two Molson Dry Ices.

“Here,” she says, handing me a bottle. “I know you like that microbrewery stuff but this was on special.”

She lights a cigarette and we chat for a while.

“Let’s move into the kitchen,” she says. “I’m making a pasta dish of my own invention.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Don’t you lift a finger. Everything’s under control. I just have to boil some water for the spaghetti.”

She grabs a two-quart saucepan and fills it half full.

“You might want to use a bigger pan and more water,” I suggest.

“I don’t have one,” she says. “And if I put more water in, it’ll boil over.”

I go back to nursing my beer.

“Now for the sauce,” she says.

A practical person, C never refrigerates her margarine (“It’s so much easier to spread”). This evening, she takes a mighty spoonful from the orange oleaginous blob and plops it into a skillet. When it’s sizzling, she reaches in the fridge and pulls out a white plastic container.

“I got some of those lovely little Matane shrimps,” she says, adding them to the skillet. (Matane, a village on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is known for its tiny crustaceans, sometimes called salad shrimp and always sold shelled and pre-cooked.) While the shrimp are frying, C checks the pasta water. “Well, you know what they say about watched pots. Really, I must get this stove fixed. Only two burners work and not very well at that.”

The shrimp continue to fry. After five minutes, C takes a container of whipping cream out of the fridge, pours it in the skillet and brings it to a simmer.

At last the water boils. C adds the spaghetti and salt and pours in some Crisco oil. The shrimp bubble away.

C sits down for a cig. And another. She goes to the stove, stirs the spaghetti, stirs the sauce, comes back for another smoke. The pasta has been cooking for 15 minutes, the pre-cooked shrimp for 25.

She stubs out her cigarette. “Well, back to work!” She opens the fridge, rummages around and emerges with three green canisters of Kraft Parmesan. “Don’t know how long these have been in here. Probably a couple of years. We’ll finish them off tonight though!”

She shakes the cheese into the sauce, stirs it and turns off the heat. She dumps the pasta in a mesh strainer, looks at it and says, “It always seems to stick together. Should I run some tap water over it?” She does so before I can reply.

The spaghetti goes in a bowl and is tossed with the sauce. She hands me a baguette and a knife.

“Here. Cut this, would you?”

The bread collapses under the blade.

“A bit mushy, isn’t it?” C says. “But if you go just before they close, you get two for the price of one. Care for some margarine?”

We sit at the table.

“I had a late lunch,” I say. “Don’t give me too big a serving. ‘Small firsts, happy seconds,’ har har.”

C stops talking and starts chowing. Suddenly she looks up. “Oh, the wine!”

She dashes into the kitchen and returns with a bottle of Chilean Cabernet from the corner store.

We eat and drink, the silence broken only by the occasional soft grunt.