Bury St Edmunds award-winning food writer Nicola Miller falls in love with Kefalonia – the island, its people and the food
It was early evening, and we’d just arrived in Kefalonia. Walking across the tarmac, the ground staff greeted us with “Kalimera, welcome”.
I’d been told to expect a lovely greeting because Greece is pleased to welcome tourists as her borders reopen, but the warmth of their smiles made it clear that this was no customer relations exercise but Greek hospitality in action.
Known as ‘philoxenia’, it has multiple meanings, none of which translate adequately to English.
A generosity of spirit, acceptance and hospitality is at the heart of philoxenia.
It is an ancient reciprocal principle and a welcoming and non-judgmental state of mind rather than a series of actions.
Think of philoxenia as being a ‘friend to a stranger’. Homer’s Illiad refers to it, as does The Odyssey.
In the latter, it is clear that being a good guest is equally important.
Do not abuse the generosity of others and be reciprocal when you can because to fail to do so is an affront to the Gods. We were more than ready to be good guests.
Falling in love is wonderful, and I feel grateful that in my late fifties, I got to experience it again.
I lost my heart to Kefalonia. There is something incredibly special about this island. It’s easy to fall in love with beauty: As Lawrence Durrell wrote about the Ionian Islands: “This is where the blue really begins,” and Kefalonia is ridiculously, outrageously and serenely beautiful, but it is her people for which I fell.
“You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate,” he wrote.
The climate is one of open-armed welcome, and it is very seductive. You greet everyone as they pass by. They greet you in return. You chat, and they never laugh at your attempts to speak in Greek (and remember to learn the word for delicious – ‘nóstimo’ – because you’ll be using it a lot).
We stayed in Póros, a little seaside town off the main tourist beat.
In the nineties, most large travel companies pulled out of block-booking accommodation there for unfathomable reasons because it is a beautiful place.
Today, many visitors are older and independent, having first visited back in the seventies and eighties when the town was developing its tourist trade. They return every year.
Póros boasts easy access to mainland Greece and the islands of Ithaka and Zakynthos via regular ferries and dayboats that leave its harbour, making it an excellent base for island-hopping.
We stayed local, eschewing a car and enjoyed a calm and friendly daily routine instead of careering all over the island. We had time to chat and get to know the locals a little. We ate, swam, strolled and rested.
We lost ourselves in bright white light and endless, ever-changing blue.
The Octopus Mezze Bar was a short walk from our apartment.
Facing the pale pebbles of Ragia Beach and the clear Ionian Sea, the business specialises in shared plates of (mainly) Greek food.
It is run by co-founders Gerasimos (Jerry) Mariatos and Maria Viriraki, who were both born and raised in Athens, although Jerry’s family roots are in Kefalonia. Maria’s family hail from Crete.
The bar opened in June 2019 after the couple moved from Athens. “My wife Maria and I were working in different industries, Maria in corporate and me in the music industry as an executive. We were bored of life in a big city, so we decided it would be nice to start a new life together far from Athens, as our children had grown up,” Jerry tells me.
“The beauty and nature of Kefalonia are like nowhere else,” he adds. “The sea, the quaintness of the villages and the friendly people. . .”
I know what he means, even after a one-week stay. I’ve read that the Kefalonian people are super-friendly, adventurous and outward-looking, and we found this to be accurate.
They are incredibly proud of their island’s history and local food.
“Kefalonia produces fine honey, vinegar, cheese, extra virgin olive oil, local wines (and the famous Robola) and of course, all the freshness from the sea,” Jerry says. You should have seen the beam on the face of another taverna owner when I told him I thought the Greeks make the best chips in the world. They do. And the best honey.
In mid-May, the season was barely under way.
Hence, quite a few local tavernas were not yet cooking the enormous trays of moussaka and pastitsio and pots of goat or rooster braised in wine and served with noodles, designed to feed the summer crowds.
Still, we ate very well at Jerry and Maria’s place at all times of the day.
Eggs with sujuk (a dark red spiced sausage), tomato and feta; a classic strapatsada (scrambled eggs with tomato and cheese); wide, round pies stuffed with Horta (wild greens), spinach and cheese and bowls of fave (split yellow pea purée) to spread over pita; marinated anchovies, little balls of fried zucchini with tzatziki, and platters of grilled sardines were followed by cups of coffee and black cherry spoon sweets.
We were kept company by the bar’s two cats, one of whom diligently swatted away any flying bug that dared to approach our table. That cat earned an anchovy for its trouble.
All manner of ingredients cooked ‘saganaki’ style in a small two-handled skillet were on the menu, too.
Little pans of fried aubergines, shrimp and mussels issued from the kitchen, but our absolute favourite dish, and one which I found myself repeat ordering and never growing tired of, was the bar’s saganaki cheese dressed with black sesame seeds and wildflower honey. It was divine.
Put ‘fried’ and ‘cheese’ together and you have a siren song that travels around the Ionian islands as if carried by the north-westerly breeze of the Maistro.
On paper, you’d think fried cheese would not suit the heat of a Greek summer (it was already 26 degrees in May), but Jerry and Maria (and indeed most of the other places we ate at) deploy a very light hand which turns these little blocks of pan-fried cheese into something ethereal.
I noticed that in the local supermarkets, cheese suitable for frying was frequently labelled ‘saganaki’.
When I bought some, the counter assistant was concerned that I should know how best to prepare it for cooking. “You know to soak in water, yes?” she asked. I didn’t.
I loved how every staff member had suggestions on how one might get the best from their ingredients.
They grew used to me shaking the tubs of giant dried white beans, and mooning over displays of honey, huge dark pink and red tomatoes, enormous trays of baklava, syrup-doused circlets of cakes crowned with apricots and pistachios, and fridges filled with miniature ice creams wrapped in metallic pastel-coloured foil.
It felt easy and natural to show enthusiasm, and I wasn’t embarrassed to be a tourist. The staff didn’t make me feel like a rube from a cold northern land.
Jerry and Maria were kind enough to offer me their recipe for cheese saganaki with black sesame and honey, which I will pass on to you.
I have cooked it at home with honey from Michalatos Panagaggelos’s hives, based in the tiny village of Vlachata.
If you’re in Póros, you’ll find it for sale at the Leonidas supermarket.
It’s utterly delicious but made by bees that feed on thyme and the traditional black pine that grows on the island, and it is much more robust in flavour than the honey the Octopus Bar uses on their cheese.
To get closer to the flavour of their saganaki cheese, they recommend using light, floral honey.
You’ll need approximately 100g of high fat (45%) cow’s milk cheese per person, says Jerry.
Graviera, kefalograviera and kefalotyri are commonly used in Greece because they develop a crisp crust that encases the tender gooeyness inside. You can’t use any old hard cheese.
Each 100g slab is then cut into four squares but you can leave yours whole if you prefer. At your side, you’ll need a bowl of water at room temperature, a small plate of finely-ground semolina flour (which Jerry describes as yellow corn flour), a pot of black sesame seeds, and warm honey to drizzle. If you can’t get yellow semolina flour, use sifted, plain white flour.
Pour half a centimetre of sunflower oil into a shallow frying pan, and while it is heating up, soak each piece of cheese in the water then dredge in flour. Shake off excess flour before carefully placing the squares into the hot oil.
Fry over medium heat until the surface of each cheesy square is golden and, using tongs, drain any residual oil away from each square before plating up. Drizzle with honey, sprinkle it with sesame and serve straight away. You must eat this hot because the cheese will harden as it cools.
NOTE: In Suffolk, I buy my cheese from the Borakis Greek stall at Suffolk Events Farmers’ Market in Bury St Edmunds. There’s a honey stall, too. You can buy mail-order cheese from AgoraGreekdelicacies.co.uk and MaltbyandGreek.com. Odysea cheese products are stocked by many national supermarkets and by Ocado and Amazon. In Bury St Edmunds, we have Papaki’s Greek Deli, which is worth visiting because they have a good range of Greek foods
in stock. The Octopus Mezze Bar has a Facebook and Insta page and if you are visiting Kefalonia, find it at Póros, 280 86, Greece.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020
Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022