Zagori, a mountainous region of Epirus, is one of our favourite places! After our festive sweet creations, we decided that a sweet trip is the answer to the calories we consumed… First stop? Elafotopos village!
Elafotopos is a mountainous village of Zagori, at a 1.000 metres altitude. It is a quiet village, with its own beauty, not so touristic as other Zagori villages (Zagorochoria in Greek). Except for the tranquility it offers, its traditional character, with the typical stone rooftops, totally blends with the winter landscape this time of year. All Zagori villages are protected settlements, belonging to the Northern Pindos Protected Area.
The first thing to do was to go to the agrotouristic guesthouse Rokka for breakfast! There, we found handmade jams and fresh cake, homemade bread, local honey, yogurt of their production and fresh eggs from their chickens.
To gain some morning invigoration, we drunk handmade juice made with Cornelian cherries, one of our favourite superfruits. Lena, the owner, told us how she prepares the juice: she puts the fruit in a steamer, an old device she got from Austria. The device boils water in its lower part and the steam that it produces makes the fruit pop up and spill their juices. Then, Lena boils the juice with a fair amount of sugar for conservation purposes and makes a syrup. When serving, she dissolves it with water. An original, very healthy and delicious drink! With this device you can make any juice you want… This year Lena made also sloe and grape juice!
The day was wonderful and so we decided to take a first walk around nearby Vitsa and Monodendri villages. We walked from the first to the second to burn the breakfast we devoured…
In Monodendri village we visited the Rizarios Exhibition Centre of the Rizarios Institution. The museum is housed in a building of 1900, the Pantazis Mansion. These days in the museum takes place an exhibition of the pioneer and very important French-Swiss photographer Frédéric Boissonnas, who travelled for many years around Greece to take photographs.
Our country has two characteristic properties, brightness and transparency. Those properties defined the place we grew and lived in. Odysseus Elytis identified with these qualities. His poetry was full of light. But before Elytis, Fred Boissonnas, with his photos, encountered not only Greek light, but also Greek beauty and Greek memory. The moments he captured were, are and will remain magical. His creations give to the Greek light its most shining and genuine expression…From the exhibition in Rizarios Exhibition Centre (originally written in Greek, translated for the purpose of this article by Eat Dessert First Greece)
After our photographic travel in time, we headed towards the Monastery of Saint Paraskevi in Monodendri. The view along the short walk from the village to the monastery is amazing.
As we read on an informational sign in the monastery, it was built in 1412 AC by a lord whose daughter got cured after an incurable disease. The daughter, as soon as she became an adult, became a nun and took the name of Saint Paraskevi out of gratitude. Until 1940 it was a women’s monastery. Also, due to its position, it had been used as a refugee for villagers escaping the Turco-Albanians’ attacks. Women and children would resort to a path of the monastery leading to the gorge and a cave. Men would stay back for defence. Today, the monastery belongs to the Voutsas Monastery (Metropolis of Ioannina). The monastery is being restored solely with the support of the pilgrims.
In the monastery, father Ilias Hrisospathis paints icons on wood, silver lime or beech, in an elongated shape that corresponds to 70% of the depicted Saint. As he told us, each icon takes five hours to make, time that contributes to the indelible writing of our history on nature, on our trees. For father Ilias, young people are the “living church”, the moving force of our country. To support them, he offers hagiography lessons to students of the School of Fine Arts and the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Ioannina. As he told us, students learn an art connected to their studies, to be able to fight for finding a job in our country instead of taking the “emergency exit” abroad. A sweet initiative that we admire a lot!
Inside the hagiography workshop, father Ilias hospitably offers a warm beverage to the visitors, made with lemon balm, rustyback -a plant growing in the stones’ joints, reassembling fern- cinnamon, cloves and orange, a real medicine for the throat.
The sun was coming down, but, in spite of the chilly weather, we felt courageous and decided to have a cup of coffee at the square of Monodendri. We even sat outside… and we froze! But we had to eat something sweet, no matter what!
As in Zagori the weather is frosty, it was time to return to the warmth of the guesthouse.
In the evening we sat in the living room, by the fireplace, and Lena told us about her life. She became a hotelier to find a place for her looms. The agrotouristic guesthouse Rokka was born five years ago to house each one’s love for his occupation: Lena’s love for the loom and the garden, Kosta’s love for livestock, Katina’s (Kosta’s mother) love for cooking and Lakis’ (Kosta’s brother) love for cultivating.
Lena is a professional weaver. She attended a housekeeping school in Ano Pedina, Labriadios School, where she studied weaving. Unfortunately, the school closed fourteen years ago, due to the lack of students. Lena continues the tradition with her heart, she wishes for the looms to come out of the warehouses, and for people to learn to work with their hands and their minds. So, she offers loom seminars to the visitors, if they want, or at least she shows them the machines and the materials to gain an idea. Especially kids get crazy for weaving with the loom!
A seminar about the circle of wool by Lena
In the summer, there are more outdoor activities. Visitors go to the fields in the plain, at a 900m altitude. They learn how lentil plants looks like, how to gather wheat, how to clean potatoes from weeds… The people of Rokka guesthouse produce their own chickpeas, lentils, wheat, grass peas, bake bread made with their own wheat, turn wheat into frumenty, they even grind wheat with children in a small mill to make bread.
For Lena, a simple meal in the restaurant has no meaning, if it isn’t combined with an ecotouristic activity. For example, following the sheep has a different value… Kostas and Lena have 400 sheep and produce domestically yogurt, cheese and butter for the guesthouse and their home, on a small scale. They also have chickens, geese, turkeys, a female donkey and some goats… Kostas wants to get cows too. When children come to the guesthouse, they love it! They hug the sheep, get crazy with the animals and thus learn to respect nature and environment.
Agrotourism is a type of tourism that has very recently started to evolve and we are really glad about it! Activities in nature, local food and products, experiential acquaintance with local customs, habits and traditional professions, what else to ask for in a trip?
According to Lena, with agrotourism you can promote your place, its gastronomy, local products, and its fits many regions of Greece. Her experience shows that there is a need for such a type of tourism. As she told us, there are kids who can’t tell a goat from a sheep or adults who don’t know how authentic feta cheese tastes like. It is also a way to promote our country abroad. Foreign visitors get excited about hiking in nature and are very open to learning about our tradition.
With agrotourism you can follow your food, as Lena says, you can learn where its ingredients came from, and thus make a different gastronomic trip. You don’t just eat food, you come in contact with its place and produce. The food in Rokka guesthouse’s restaurant is amazing! Prepared with their own vegetables from the garden and their greenhouse, meat from the animals they breed, their own dairy products, bread made with their own wheat… Fresh comfort food, with local flavors and warm aromas that we enjoyed with our hearts!
On the next morning we woke up early for a cooking class with Mrs. Katina. She showed us how she makes a traditional alevropita (meaning flour-pie) quickly and easily and gave us an insight to its history.
Alevropita was the food of “survival”, because it needed simple ingredients that people in Zagori usually had at home and it could be prepared quickly and easily. This means it was a traditional zero waste practice, that used ingredients that were available each time of the year. As Lena told us, food made with fresh, local ingredients tastes the best, because when transported in long distances, the ingredients lose their quality and taste. We totally agree, based on everything we have tasted!
Alevropita didn’t even require cutlery, they would just break the pie with their hands and eat it right away, as it tastes better when eaten warm. For their everyday agricultural and livestock occupations, people in Zagori would take other local pies with them, those made with phyllo dough, as they could be transferred easily.
In the summer, they would make a variation called alevrokolokytho (flour and zucchini pie). It was made with sour milk, especially on August when zucchini is bigger with a lot of flesh. Also, then was the time when Zagori had a lot of sour milk. It is a liquid produced when making butter in the trobolitsa (a wooden vessel). Mrs. Katina informed us that in August you can make only butter and galotyri (a local cream cheese), as the milk of the sheep has a different consistency.
People in Zagori would store their products in the katoi, the lowest flour of their houses. In the katoi they would also keep their livestock. There, they had hanging cupboards, called musketa, covered with a window net for protection, and inside they would store their food provisions. Το conserve the butter they would melt it. This way, even today, butter doesn’t have to be refrigerated, it can be stored at room temperature, according to Lena.
The alevropita of Mrs. Katina
Ingredients for the alevropita
The ratio is super easy to remember, 2-2-2! All the ingredients are homemade in Rokka guesthouse, handmade milk, butter and feta cheese from their own sheep, flour from their wheat grinded in the watermill of nearby Kalpaki village and eggs from their chickens.
|2 cups of liquid (water and milk or water and yogurt or water and sour milk) depending on what was available|
|2 cups of flour (wheat or wholegrain)|
|200 gr of feta cheese|
How our alevropita was made
For the alevropita, Mrs. Katina used a traditional low copper pan called sini, that is ideal for baking pies.
Mrs. Katina greased the pan with butter and put it in the oven. She mixed water and milk and beated the eggs. She poured the eggs to the liquids and then added the flour, as much as it took to gain the consistency of a crepes mixture. She transferred the mixture into the sini (special pan) and added feta cheese, crumbled, to go everywhere. And lastly, the secret ingredient: some homemade sheep butter in small pieces for enhanced flavor! Then, the pie got baked in a very hot oven, at 250°C, for half an hour.
As soon as it got out of the oven, a delicious smell filled the room. We cut the pie with a ksistra, an old copper spatula for cutting and serving pies. As the alevropita got cut, the crust on the bottom made a yummy noise… the pie literally disappeared in a minute!
After getting energy from our breakfast, Kostas and Lena took as to their farm in Ano Pedina village. There, we collected eggs from their chickens, picked lettuce for our dinner salad from the greenhouse, cut a purple cabbage to bring home as a souvenir and became friends with the sheep and lambs, as we love animals! It is important that both the field and the livestock are bio certified. In the field they don’t use pesticides at all, instead they change the position of each species every year, so that weeds take longer to find them again. Livestock consume only bio animal feed and of course they are treated with responsibility and respect.
Later, we made a stop at Porfyron Hotel in Ano Pedina village. There, we were welcomed by Mrs. Rita, who comes from the Netherlands and works in Ano Pedina since the 1990s. She treated us with delicious sweets and discussed life in Zagori. Mrs. Rita makes homemade local products, 80 different liqueurs, jams, spoon sweets, herbs.
Mrs. Rita has written a book in Dutch, titled Smaken van De Griekse Zagori (meaning flavors of the Greek Zagori), published in 2016, in which she promotes the gastronomy of Zagori with recipes using seasonal local products for the twelve months of the year, along with local traditions and activities. She told us that she would like to publish it in Greek or English, or in both languages, as there is a lot of interest by the visitors for her writings.
Back in Elafotopos, we took a walk around the village, strolling the stone streets between the stone-built houses, and reached its end. Buildings in Zagori are made with stone as it abounded in the area… Another case of traditional practices that use local materials, another type of zero waste philosophy.
Since we ate all the sweets Mrs. Rita offered us, we decided to take a walk in nature. We took the central road and found ourselves in a serene landscape, a route between mountains on one side and a deep cliff on the other. We recommend this walk as a light physical activity when the season or weather make hiking paths more difficult or dangerous.
On the way back we passed by the church and spring of Saint Athanasios, next to the cemetery and the ossuary. As Lena told us, many foreign visitors are interested in visiting the ossuary, as it is something they don’t have in their countries.
This was the end of our walk. We returned to the guesthouse to spend the rest of the day by the fireplace with nice discussions, tsipouro (a traditional Greek alcohol drink), tasty food and good company.
When it was time to leave, we got sad as we had trully become friends with everyone we had met. Elafotopos village said goodbye to us with a snowy morning to comfort us. Thankfully our sweet trip continues!
Finally, we warmly thank the agrotouristic guesthouse Rokka and its wonderful team for the stay, activities, great breakfast and dinners, as well as the information they gave us, the Rizarios Exhibition Centre of Rizarios Foundation for the permit to photograph the exhibition and the information, father Ilias Hrisospathis of the Monastery of Saint Paraskevi in Monodendri for the mini interview and the live hagiography lesson he was willing to give us, and Mrs. Rita of Porfyron Hotel for the products, the book and the information she offered us. Finally, we thank grandma Vasilo for the permission to photograph her with her donkey.
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