Far Side of the Mountains (Epirus)

By James Oseland

Published on July 19, 2010

_Simple dishes made with just a few ingredients characterize the cooking of this rugged, rural, and mountainous region in northwestern Greece. Fresh sheep's milk cheese and butter are cornerstones of Epirote cooking, as is corn, which was introduced from the New World in the 16th century and takes well to the region's comparatively cool, wet climate. _

Maria Tsomokou didn't look pleased. "This isn't local food," she said, poking her fork at a smoked trout salad. We were seated at a restaurant in Ioannina, a city of 100,000 people that is the capital of Epirus, the mountainous region in western Greece. "It's got mayonnaise in it; no real local cook would use mayonnaise." She prodded at the salad again. "This should be light, fresh, dressed just with lemon juice and olive oil, and maybe, at most, a little oregano." To be honest, it tasted pretty good to me. In fact, I was impressed by all the dishes spread before us, a patchwork of local specialties and Greek taverna classics: frogs' legs in a marinara sauce, smoked eels, skordalia (a garlic-potato spread) served with roasted beets and slices of fire-grilled toast, and that smoked trout salad. There was a spareness and immediacy about this cooking; it wasn't tricked up.

Then again, maybe it was the restaurant's stone floors and the damp, bone-chilling wind outside, for which the hearty food seemed tailor-made. The weather was a shock to me after flying in earlier that day from sweltering Athens, 270 miles to the southeast. The shimmering hot landscape of coastal southern Greece might as well have been another planet. "This is pretty typical weather for Epirus," Maria had told me when I arrived. She was 25, with long dark hair and striking eyes, and had grown up in Ioannina, the daughter of professors at the city's university, then left, then returned. Now she worked for a local winery and sometimes offered to show visitors around the region, which I'd heard a few people in Athens refer to as a mountain backwater. During World War II, I knew, Epirus had been a stronghold of the anti-Nazi resistance, and after the war, a redoubt for Communist fighters, many of whom fled north with their families across the border to Albania during the Greek civil war in the late 1940s. "It's hard for outsiders to understand this place sometimes," Maria said, "but this is where I belong."

After lunch, she gave me the grand tour. Ioannina, which sits astride a pretty, island-dotted lake, looked like a glorified alpine hamlet from the air. But on the ground it was a thriving city, offering little evidence of the poverty I'd heard afflicts the region, or of the financial crisis that was gripping Greece. This city was humming with life. The cramped, corridor-like streets teemed with people zipping in and out of shops: dress shops, shoe shops, toy shops, spanakopita shops, cafes, tavernas. The place seemed to move to its own peculiar, fast-forward pace, walled off from the rest of Greece by the curtain of snow-capped mountains that could be seen rising in the distance. Maria showed me the weedy ruins of the Ali Pasha Mosque, where the namesake Ottoman ruler based his court in the early 19th century. His famously brutal reign was part of a continuous Turkish presence in Epirus that lasted until the early 1900s.

The next day, Maria and I drove 40 minutes northwest of Ioannina to Zitsa, the village where the winery she worked for was located. The owner, Lesteres Glinavos, had invited us for lunch; before he became a winemaker, Maria told me, he was the mayor of Ioannina. As we drove, the city disappeared behind us, and soon we were in a picture-book landscape of villages perched preposterously on escarpments and mountainsides. Glinavos, a handsome man in his seventies, lived in a stone house on the winery's property; he and his Swedish-born wife, Anne Marie, welcomed us inside. I was glad for the shelter. A storm had kicked up, and from the house's windows I caught glimpses of lightning and wind-whipped rain.

Lunch came to the table, in its entirety, in a single giant roasting pan. In it was a whole roasted baby lamb, seasoned with nothing but salt and laid on top of crisp, golden potato wedges. This was meat in all its purity: robust, succulent, with brittle skin. I looked at Maria. This time her fork was poised respectfully over her plate. "This is Epirote food," she said after savoring a mouthful. The meal was startlingly elemental, beautiful. It was generous and unpretentious. It was just lunch, on a Wednesday, in Epirus during a thunderstorm.

The next day broke chilly and gray, again. Maria came by my hotel and told me she was taking me somewhere special. "My friend Jiannis Chaldoupis is fishing for us in the river near his house," she said. "He lives in a village not far from town." Jiannis, she explained, is of Gypsy descent and is a musician; he was going to bring the fish he caught to the village's only taverna, where they'd cook it for us. "Then, if we're lucky, he'll play his clarinet."

We arrived in the village, called Parakalamos, in the late morning. Unlike the kind of picturesque, touristy villages that often feel abandoned and somehow soulless, this one was very much alive and real. The handful of stores lining the main street were busy with customers, and the single taverna was already packed with couples, families, groups of friends. The owners of the place, a mother and son, were doing all of the cooking and serving. I asked if I could go into the kitchen, and they eagerly beckoned me in; the woman was preparing a dish of wild greens—spring onions, fennel, a local kind of cress, nettles, mint. She minced them and sauteed them in an extravagant amount of olive oil until just wilted, then sprinkled on a little salt and placed them on a platter, which she topped with a couple of eggs fried in olive oil. I looked at the dish. I had to eat this now. I asked for a plate of it. They gave me one, along with a big thick slice of country-style white bread. I'm not a fast eater by any stretch of the imagination, but I cleaned my plate in about 30 seconds. The gooey egg, the crispness of its edges, the bitter, green-earth taste of the limp greens: this was my dream food.

Then we sat down to the rest of lunch: roasted eggplants with fried potatoes; pasta tossed with a winey, slightly cured pork sausage; a Greek salad; Jiannis's river trout fried in olive oil with lemon. For dessert, there was goat's milk yogurt with mulberries and spring strawberries that had been poached in simple syrup and grappa-like tsipouro. What is this gorgeous food? I asked myself. How can sugar, fruit, liquor, and yogurt taste this good?

As we were emerging from our postprandial stupor, a few friends of Jiannis's showed up with musical instruments and, with no prompting, started playing; the sound quickly attracted a dozen or so people from outside, who strolled in and began to sing along. The song, I was told, was a melancholy one, about a woman who has died but is unable to release her soul to heaven. The music was frenetic, hypnotic. Once again I looked over at Maria. She was singing too. She looked at ease, happy, and gloriously in her element—less the urban intellectual than the glowing daughter or sister at a huge family reunion.

I slept deeply that night. In the morning, I awoke energized, hungry. I had one more day in Epirus. Maria said there was a family she wanted me to visit; sheepherders in a nearby town. When we got to their home, Zaharoula Basios, our host, a friendly woman with a big smile, had already finished most of the cooking. The weather was cool, but I decided to go out on a limb and ask if we could make a picnic of it. Zaharoula's husband, Ioannis, deemed it an excellent idea. I was given one of the pots to carry, and Maria found a blanket, which she used to pack up some plates and silverware. Then we left the house and marched single file up a hillside to a clearing surrounded by yellow wildflowers and wild oregano, which perfumed the air.

I helped Maria lay out our meal: a salad of blanched wild cress and baby lettuces; pappardelle-like egg noodles called chylopites that had been made by Zaharoula's son and were served with tender stewed hen; wild greens pie; and bone-in sliced pork shoulder pan-fried in olive oil and seasoned just so with salt and dried oregano. We ate it all with crusty bread and thick chunks of feta that the family had made a few days before.

While we were eating, the stormy-looking clouds that had been hanging over us all day suddenly parted. In an instant, the pristine alpine landscape lit up. Remnants of clouds skittered by. The air warmed and freshened. It felt like a clearing in the center of the world. I realized that Maria had accomplished an elusive feat: I felt at that moment that I understood Epirus, its warm and open people, its singular landscape, its sense of itself as a land apart.

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