Cuisine is when things taste like themselves
In Greek, xeno means stranger, but it is closely linked to the concept of xenia–hospitality to guests. British writer, Belinda Harley is not a native of the Ionian island of Paxos, but as an off-islander, she sees and perhaps appreciates Paxiot ways with the eyes of an outsider.
She has verntured onto the island in all seasons—not just for summer beach days. In the dark untouristed winter she cooks a Millennium Night Shepherd’s Pie to share with island friends and expat residents. In spring, she enjoys the fresh cheeses, roast lamb, and greens gathered on the hills that fuel joyful Easter celebrations.
While there is a British expat community on Paxos, Harley has immersed herself in Paxiot history and community traditions—many of which are closely wrapped up with food. She follows the writings of Archduke Ludwig Salvator who lived on Paxos in the 1880s and, she writes, was curious “about everything: houses, agriculture, fishing…children’s lullabies…marriage practices.”
Harley organizes the recipes to reflect island produce–Wild Things, Hidden in the Rocks: Fish and Shellfish–and island traditions–an extensive collection of pies, garden vegetables, preserving the seasonal harvest.
While many cookbooks trace the seasons, Harley captures another dynamic, the mix of expats and locals–all of whom do their best, to enjoy the island’s terroir. By immersing herself in both communities, Harley develops her own kind of authenticity. She records the grandmotherly spoon sweets made with local fruit and a local’s expertise in Costa’s Galaktoboureko–a milky custard wrapped with layers of shattering phyllo. But she also offers adaptations that please on and off-islanders–Amaretto Ice Cream, Jasmine Martini, Black Cuttlefish Risotto. Though the risotto may not be as trendy as you think, as a heritage of Venetian settlement.
The mix of traditions continues at the holidays, with expats cooking a taste of home into Mincepita, made with golden syrup and mincemeat at Christmas, and islanders celebrate a rebellion against the Turks with Smoked Haddock, Lemon, Potato and Bay Leaf Stew.
And this stew of tradition and authenticity will translate well into your own kitchen. There is nothing like eating a Greek salad in situ–a shaded spot, next to a beach, with semolina bread on the side and a plate of grilled fish to follow. But these recipes are the next best thing. Harley’s Rosemary “Ice Cream” of Frozen Yogurt is beguiling–herby, sweet, and heavenly if you serve it with fresh berries, as I did.
Harley captures the housewife heartiness in many Paxiot (and Greek) dishes. Briam is a traditional vegetable stew–like a ratatouille, but with a briny bite of feta cheese. Spiro’s Meat Paxos Pie is made with a bottom crust that is baked out of a layer of breadcrumbs and olive oil (could hardly be simpler) and is rich with a custardy topping of beaten eggs.
And Harley proves her understanding of local foodways with her recipe for Little Flowerpot Thyme Loaves–buttery risen breads, fragrant with herbs.
With real understanding, Harley has created an easy authenticity–more than a textbook of the Paxiot kitchen, a record of the spirit of island cooks. Not even the most churlish patriot could complain.