Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Golden Fava on Santorini

A magnet for honeymooners, Santorini has more five-star hotels and fancy restaurants than any other Greek island. Yet its signature dish, fava, is a humble staple food. This golden bean purée owes its rich, nutty flavor to Santorini’s volcanic terrain. An eruption blew out the heart of the island 3,500 years ago, and this natural disaster proved an unexpected blessing for fava farmers.
Its red cliffs frosted with whitewashed hamlets and fringed with black sand beaches, Santorini has a savage beauty. The volcanic eruption that created the flooded caldera, or basin, in 1500 BC also buried the island’s biggest settlement at Akrotiri. This Bronze Age city was discovered barely 30 years ago, buried beneath 33 ft (10 m) of ash. Recreations of the stunning frescoes unearthed at Akrotiri are on display in the island’s capital, Fira, which can be reached by a thrilling cable-car ride from the port of Gialos.
The dramatic landscape makes for wondrous sunsets, but made it difficult for locals to eke out a living until the advent of tourism. Only a few crops can be coaxed from the island’s arid soil – succulent grapes, sweet white eggplants, cherry tomatoes bursting with flavor, piquant capers, and the resilient fava bean. More prized (and much pricier) than fava grown elsewhere in Greece, this plain little bean has been cultivated on Santorini since the Bronze Age, its flat plants able to absorb moisture from the porous pumice stone. After harvesting, the beans are left to dry, then stripped of their brown husks to reveal yellow grains, bright as jewels.
Primarily a Lenten food in much of Greece, fava is eaten year-round on Santorini and always served warm. Simmered gently until it dissolves into a smooth paste, fava remains a popular foil for seafood – it forms a pillowy bed for octopus stewed in sweet wine, salty sardines, or crunchy calamari rings.
Amazingly versatile, it might be topped with raw onions, doused in lemon, or flecked with dill. Fava pandremeni (“married fava”) is a lyrical euphemism for leftover fava jazzed up with fried onions, capers, and a swirl of tomato paste. The less evocative fava tis grias (“crone’s fava”) is a winter variation with smoked pork. As it cools, a well is made in the fava and filled with olive oil; hence the Greek expression “there’s a hole in the fava,” which loosely translates as “there’s something fishy going on.” Once a peasant food, fava is now an expensive gourmet product cultivated by fewer than 200 farmers.
Most producers focus instead on the island’s wines, following a tradition as old as Akrotiri. Vaulted wine cellars and humble cave dwellings have been converted into glamorous hotels teetering on the brink of the volcano, with infinity pools suspended between sky and sea. They make ideal vantage points from which to ponder whether the flooded crater does indeed conceal the lost city of Atlantis.
 Three Days on Santorini
For all its black-sand beaches and wealth of antiquities, Santorini’s main attraction is the spellbinding volcanic caldera. Boat trips to and around the islets are a must.
Sailing into the caldera is like floating into an open-air geological museum. Sizzling in the center is the crater of Nea Kameni, which you can climb if you dare. Wallow in the hot springs of Palea Kameni, then shin up the Islet of Thirassia to Manolas, a clifftop time-warp with astonishing views of the archipelago.
Hike the daredevil path running along the rim of the caldera from Fira to Oia, the quintessential Cycladic village. Zigzag down the red cliffs for just-caught fish and iced ouzo at Ammoudi, a fishing port with half a dozen good tavernas.
Admire reproductions of the frescoes unearthed at Akrotiri at the Petros Nomikos Foundation in Fira. Travel south from Fira to Vothonos, where you can buy top-quality fava beans to take home at the Yiannis Nomikos Estate. Continue onward to Pyrgos, a beautifully preserved village built around a medieval castle. GETTING Santorini Greece
There are direct flights to Santorini Airport from Europe, and regular domestic flights from Athens. The high-speed ferry from Athens takes about five hours.
WHERE TO STAY IN Santorini Greece
Zannos Melathron (moderate) is a grand manor house in Pyrgos. www.zannos.gr Kapari (moderate) has spectacular caldera views and snug rooms. www.kaparisantorini.gr Perivolas (expensive) offers laid-back luxury on the outskirts of Oia. www.perivolas.gr
FURTHER INFORMATION www.santorini.net
 The Best Places to Eat Fava
Selene expensive
A mentor to many of Greece’s finest chefs, Selene’s Yiorgos Hatziyannakis was one of the first restaurateurs to put indigenous dishes such as fava on the menu. But there’s nothing rustic about his refined reinterpretation of classic Greek dishes. Since opening Selene in 1986, he has created more than 20 variations of fava: mashed with the crystallized sap of the mastic tree and served with smoked mackerel and almond flakes; fava fritters stuffed with tomato and caper confit; fava risotto with grilled sea bass; and even fava ice cream garnished with caper leaves as an intriguing amuse-bouche. Other local ingredients are showcased to equally startling effect in dishes such as white eggplant salad with octopus carpaccio and millefeuille with cherry tomato marmalade. An informal wine bar below the restaurant serves less experimental but equally sophisticated Greek cuisine at half the price. The restaurant also holds cooking classes once a week. Pyrgos Village, Santorini; open 7 PM–midnight daily, mid-Apr–mid-Oct; www.selene.gr
Also on Santorini
There are also many less expensive places to try fava in Santorini. At To Psaraki (The Little Fish) (www.topsaraki.gr; moderate), award-winning chef Thanasis Sfougaris has gone back to basics. His fava pandremeni, topped with caramelized onions, is divine, and a phenomenally good buy. Ta Dichtia (www.tadichtia.gr; moderate) sits on a pretty terrace on Perivolos beach, serving lemony fava, cuttlefish, and bulgur pilaf, and baked grouper. Kyra Roza (+30 22860 24378; inexpensive) is off the beaten track at Vourvoulos, but attracts off-duty chefs with its creamy fava, crispy red mullet, and mint-flecked domatokeftedes (tomato fritters).
Also in Greece
Santorini locals mourned when Chrysanthos Karamolegos, one of Greece’s most inventive chefs, moved from the island to Halkidiki. His restaurant Tomata (www.sani-resort.com; expensive) features fava in unusual ways, such as paired with sea bass in ouzo vinaigrette, or with feta croquettes and watermelon coulis.
Around the World
Greek-American chef Michael Psilakis has single-handedly elevated Greek cuisine several notches. He has moved on from the Michelin-starred Anthos in New York, but you can sample his innovative fava with sea urchin sashimi as part of the post-modern meze at Eos at the Viceroy Hotel, Miami, FL (www.viceroymiami.com; expensive).
 Santorini Wines
Santorini’s mineral-rich terroir yields some of the most delicate and distinctive wines in Greece. Around 40 indigenous grape varieties have been cultivated on the island for centuries. The bone-dry Assyrtiko and potent Vinsanto (unique to Santorini) are world-class. Wineries all over Santorini offer tours and tastings. Savor the sunset with oaky Oia Vareli and stuffed vine leaves straight from the surrounding vineyards at the peaceful Sigalas Winery (www. sigalas-wine.com) in Baxedes. Or drink in the 360° views with a glass of crisp Nyxteri from the Santo Cooperative’s Enotourism Center (www.santowines.gr).

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