Newsflash….this article won the Telegraph’s Just Back competition and was published in the Saturday print version on August 27, 2016 and online on telegraph.co.uk on August 29 – *surprised and chuffed*
My latest entry in The Telegraph’s Just Back weekly travel writing competition:
Joanna pulls me into the kitchen before dinner. A necklace of walnuts, sewn together on a thread, has been coated in grape must, rolled in flour and “boiled with ash” – charcoal? – before being strung up on a makeshift washing line.
She leads me down to the boiler room, where several pieces of nutty jewellery – zmpeki – hang for 5 or 6 days, to soften and infuse before being offered to guests.
Tradition echoes everywhere in the Thoukididis Guest House, restored by Joanna’s father over 8 years and now a faithful reproduction of a 19th century Zagorian merchant’s home.
You can taste the pride and love in every dish Joanna serves up in the small restaurant. Gigantes plaki – giant white beans – arrive, with spinach, leeks, sorrel, spearmint and parsley. “Anything from my garden”, near the Guest House in the stone village of Kapesovo, one of 46 settlements of Zagori. Known collectively as Zagorohoria, these sparsely populated villages sit high in the Pindus mountains of Epirus in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.
“My father’s mother came from Turkey. I like to combine the cultures in my cooking”, Joanna tells me the next evening. Zucchini fritters with yoghurt appear, sprinkled with parsley, dill and spearmint; stuffed tomatoes with rice; minced meat, mashed potatoes and porcini mushrooms, foraged earlier from the side of a mountain track.
Historically, the Zagorian region relied on family members sending money back from where they found work – Turkey, Egypt, southern Greece – to survive. But some villagers are slowly embracing independence, proud to share their heritage with outsiders.
After dinner, I wander down the narrow stone alleyways to the plateia, the heart of the village and inevitably shaded by the vast, gnarled limbs of an ancient plane tree.
I’m welcomed here too, by Joanna’s mother and father, at Sterna. The tiny shop is named after the 13 metre deep well, built in 1848 to collect rainwater for the villagers. The symbolic sterna is now an illuminated feature in the middle of a Zagorian treasure-chest. I’m offered tsipouro, the traditional ouzo digestive. Then a few aperitif liqueur flavours, all made from local ingredients: walnuts, cranberries, fig. And bitter orange, surprisingly infused with coffee beans. And a Greek coffee, as black and treacly as a vat of molasses.
During the daytime, try homemade lemonade or sour cherry juice, served in wide-rimmed jam jars and topped with a single, fragrant mint leaf. Or buy mountain tea, foraged from near Kapesovo and sheafed like an archer’s quiver. Some bellows for the winter fire, perhaps, made from local black elderberry wood.
My final breakfast from Joanna is a banana and peach smoothie; fried egg, with ham wrapped around grilled cheese as comfortingly as a Zagorian welcome; homemade bread, jams and cake.
I leave Kapesovo reluctantly. But as I begin to climb the 1,200 ancient stone steps towards the next village of Vradeto, I smile and wonder whether the packed lunch in my rucksack might include a piece of peach cake.