From Irakleia to Mykonos

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I took my first steps on Irakleia. I was 9 months old. And for 22 years, I spent my Easter and summer holidays there. For me, Irakleia is spring, it’s summer, it’s … ‘I arrive on the island and it’s time to take off my watch, turn off the switch. I am free.’

Irakleia is a small paradise where one may realize the true meaning of vacation. Time, literally, stands still. Unlike its Cycladic cosmopolitan counterparts Santorini and Mykonos, Irakleia (the largest of the islands known as the Small Cyclades) offers the alternative in holiday destinations. On Irakleia you let go of time. You feel free. You get closer to nature.

Part of the Natura 2000 network of natural habitats, its mountains serve as a nesting area for wild birds, while its terrain features eight numbered hiking trails. It is home to the seventh largest cave in Greece. It is Irakleia’s nature that inspired me to get into photography.

On Irakleia you let go of time. You feel free. You get closer to nature.

Of course, as one of Greece’s more remote and lesser-developed Greek islands, it features one-of-a-kind pristine beaches with crystal clear waters that “flirt” with the cliffs and the Cycladic light overhead. Beaches that remind me of my first fishing trips, my first dives into the sea and my first loves. Beaches such as Agios Georgios, Livadi, Karvounolakos, Vorini Spilia and Alimia.

At Alimia Bay, at a depth of about 9 meters and close to the beach, is the wreckage of a German Arado AR196 shipboard reconnaissance aircraft that sank during World War II.

In general, one might say that Irakleia in itself is a pleasant surprise, simply because of the fact that for such a small island, there are quite a few things to see and do. For example, I recommend that guests visit the fortified castle at Livadi; the old settlement of Agios Athanasios; and to seek out the spiral rock drawings on the island known as “speires”.

The people of the islands, hospitable and friendly, respect the local traditions and customs. As such, in Irakleia we host a number of annual religious fetes known as panygyria throughout the calendar year.

Highly popular are: the panygyri of Agios Georgios at Easter, the celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary “Panagias” on August 15, the panygyri of Taxiarchis on November 8th and Agios Nectarios on November 9th. It is important to note that at each celebration parishioners offer local culinary delights according to the products that are in season.

This early example of using seasonal products became a way of life for me. My favorite ingredients and products from the island are: xinomyzithra (a cream cheese with a slightly sour taste, mainly made with goat’s milk); honey (Irakleia is known for its thyme honey); fish; fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, savory).

At Bakalo in Mykonos — part of the Aegean Cuisine network of restaurants — I create dishes using products from 9 Cycladic islands such as: a mousse made with xinomyzithra from Irakleia and sauce of fig and rakomelo from Amorgos; a Cycladic cheese twist (tyrokoulouro) made with Naxos gruyere (graviera), kefalotyri cheese from Ios and kopanisti cheese from Mykonos; as well as a fava dish made with fava (chick peas) from Santorini with slow-cooked pancetta, sun-dried tomatoes and capers from Tinos.

Of course, one of my favorite hobbies on the island is to find local products that are in season and cook with them. These might include fresh fish, snails and picked greens (xorta).

My favorite dish – aside from grandma’s amazingly delicious eggs with fried potatoes — is a stew made with snails (known as karavolous) or snails with rice.

These are the products and tastes that I grew up with. These tastes are my culinary “memories” that stay with me and that characterize my cuisine: realistic, experiential, but above all, Cycladic.