The Cyclades – a Taste of Sea,
Wind, and Sun
Blue skies, dazzling white houses perched on rocky terrain, sparkling
waters, and magical sunsets. The Cyclades are the archetype Greek
islands. The distinctive geomorphology—many of these islands
are volcanic—combined with the sea, wind, and sun determines the
characteristics and quality of their products: fruit and vegetables that
don’t need a lot of water to grow, like olives, legumes, and Santorini’s favorsome tomatinia, a selection of cheeses and grapes, and an abundance of fsh and seafood.
The name Cyclades is derived from the Greek for circle, kyklos, as the islands of this archipelago form a ring around tiny Delos, the sacred isle of Apollo. The Cyclades are in the heart of the Aegean and are Greece’s largest island group, comprised of numerous islands and islets that belong to a single administrative department whose capital is Ermoupolis on Syros. Despite their shared char- acteristics, each island has its own color. Some of them bustle with tourists, others are tranquil havens; there are fashionable beaches and secluded coves, tourist traps and remote villages that make ideal retreats. Of all the Greek islands, the Cyclades probably have the greatest historical significance and interest. The Cycladic civilization that flourished here in the third millennium B.C. is famous for its exquisite art.
The most typical examples are the enigmatic idols from smooth white marble—abstract figurines that fascinated artists from Gauguin to Picasso and Modigliani. In the 13th century, the Cyclades emerged as an important trade center on Venetian sea routes between Europe and the East. The islands’ sea, wind, sun, and distinctive terrain determine the quality of their gastronomy. Grapes, olives, legumes, and vegetables that grow with little water—artichokes, capers, native tomato varieties, and wild asparagus—are most plentiful. Fish and seafood are a primary ingredient in soups, grilled, in brine, simmered with vegetables, or served as an accompaniment to ouzo, while meat dishes were reserved for feast days. The Cyclades produce several different cheeses, while wild herbs like thyme produce the distinctive honey used in various sweets.
According to myth, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on Naxos where she was found by Dionysus. Charmed by her beauty, the wine-god married her. Today, the island’s beauty charms visitors arriving at the port where they are greeted by the grand Portara—an emblematic monument that was the gateway to an unfinished temple dedicated to Apollo. Naxos has 18,000 inhabitants and an area of 390 square kilometers. It is the largest island of the Cyclades group and the most fertile, with tree-covered mountains, green meadows, and valleys with cool rivers. The soil produces flavorful vegetables (olives, tomatoes, onions, and Naxos potatoes, whose harvest is celebrated at a special festival in early August), fruits (cherries, morello cherries, figs, and citrus) used to make spoon sweets, preserves, and jams. The island also produces dried herbs and honey. The sun and temperate climate year-round are ideal for the cultivation of citrus, including bergamot.
Another distinctive citrus crop is the lemony-leafed citron used to make a special local liqueur. The citron is believed to have been brought to Greece by Alexander the Great’s army after it conquered Persia and was one of the first citrus species to arrive in Europe. In antiquity it was cultivated for its medicinal properties, but was also considered a symbol of fertility. A visit to the island’s first distillery will provide more information on the citron. Founded in 1896 by the Vallindras family, the distillery is located in Halki, the island’s former capital, and is now a museum. Visitors can learn about the secrets of distillation and sample three types of citron liqueur: green, with the lowest alcohol and the sweetest, pairs well with fish; yellow, the strongest and driest; and, the white, slightly sweet and ideal for mixing in cocktails. Cheesemaking is also a Naxos tradition; indeed, 14 percent of Greece’s dairy products are from the island.
Mykonos, the island
of the windmills
Located in the Cyclades’ northern sector, Mykonos is one of Greece’s prime tourist destinations thanks to its proximity to Delos, glorious beaches, a picturesque Hora(main town) with its labyrinthine lanes, dazzling white-washed houses with blue-painted doors and windows, and its intense cosmopolitan nightlife. Mykonos’s trademark is its windmills, which are visible from almost every spot in Hora. The island’s position on the trade route linking Venice, the gateway to Europe, with Asia as well as its exceptional climatic conditions that include strong winds year-round, spurred the Venetians’ decision to build their mills for grinding grains there. For centuries, these windmills contributed substantially to the island’s prosperity in the days before electricity. You can see how they worked at the 16th-century Boni Mill which houses the Agricultural Museum (an annex of the Mykonos Folklore Museum).
Located in the Ano Myli quarter in Hora’s eastern sector, it is fully operational. Indeed, every year it hosts a grape harvest festival held in September. Although Mykonos is closely associated with summer, its main gastronomic event is linked with cold weather. This is the hoirosfagia, or pig slaughter, held in autumn. One delicacy made with the meat is louza, salt-cured pork spiced with pepper and oregano, then left to dry in the air. Another is lean sausages with wild herbs. The pork is also used for stifado (stews) and grilled chops. Mykonos’s cuisine is also replete with seafood and fish dishes, such as red mullet fried with tomatoes and capers, tope shark with skordalia, grilled calamari, octopus meze, and mostra (rye rusk topped with tomato and kopanisti, a soft, sharp cheese) drizzled with olive oil.
the volcano’s untamed beauty
Santorini is one of the southernmost islands in the Cyclades group; the other is tiny Anafi. Santorini was formed by a volcanic eruption in 1625 B.C. that submerged the center of the original island which was known as Strongyli or Round. It destroyed the advanced civilization of the time but left the amazing ruins of its main city at Akrotiri, Greece’s Pompei. It also created the sheer cliffs, black sand beaches, and lunar landscape that make this island so spectacular as well as very fertile soil. Vines, wild capers, katsouni (wild cucumber), and fava thrive here, as do the delicious tomatinia, cherry tomatoes with PDO designation. Although Santorini is dry and windy, its pumice-rich soil captures the evening dew which is sufficient to water these plants.
The island also produces white eggplants, which are milder and less bitter than the dark purple variety. Santorini’s viticulture spans roughly 5,000 years (also see Wines chapter). Assyrtiko and Aidani, two unique native varieties, produce fine wines such as the sweet Vinsanto, the jewel in the crown of Greece’s white wines. Make time for a visit to one of the island’s wineries: Santo Wines, opened in 1992 and offers an impressive view of the caldera; Boutaris offers tours in several languages at its modern facilities; Canava Roussos, a family-run winery and the island’s oldest, was founded in 1836; the Hatzidakis Winery is located in a cave beneath the vineyards.