Legend has it that Poseidon, lord of the seas, spotted the Sea Goddess Amphitrie dancing on the island of Naxos. He immediately fell in love – of course he did – and after chasing her to the ends of the world he broke off a little piece of paradise, dragging a fragment of Corfu south, just for them. Paxos became their refuge…and Antipaxos…one can only imagine!
The small, mostly uninhabited island of Antipaxos lies roughly three kilometres south of Paxos. The interior of the island remains traditional and undeveloped but comes with a rich biodiversity. Artichokes and broad beans grow wild and free, spreading unchecked in the sun. Grapevines thrive here with the local wine highly regarded and the island is rich in flora and fauna. But this just scratches the surface. In previous summers I had heard stories of all manner of treasures hidden in its castaway rock pools and I was aching for an opportunity to check.
My approach to food on Paxos has always been driven by the seasonality of local ingredients. There is something so organic about walking through the square in Gaios to choose ‘fresh from the sea’ fish. There is no form or order. No polystyrene boxes, no filleted fillets sitting on ice and faux vegetation. Fish fall from the bag: a large cuttlefish, a small lobster, a couple of sea bream perhaps and anchovies. To know you are using freshly picked or caught food is at the centre of what we try and do on Paxos. It is not always possible but the provenance of ingredients has always been important. The story behind when, where and by what means something was picked or caught adds a level of narrative to the preparation and presentation of our food, something we are always keen to pass on to our guests.
I will take advantage of any and every opportunity I get to better understand the ecosystem in which we work and the seasonality of the ingredients we use. Whether it’s free diving for fish on the west coast (more of an observatory capacity if truth be told) or beating down trails in late autumn in search of blackberries – I enjoy making use of what exists here on Paxos. So when another opportunity presented itself in early May to head across to Antipaxos I could hardly resist.
I had heard stories of caper berries, samphire and persillin, wild leeks and blackberries, and it was my
intention to investigate such claims. We boarded Niko’s new boat – a purchase from the previous autumn that he was very proud of – in the late morning. The day was a typical mid spring occasion, the sun beating down on, let’s say refreshing Ionian waters, a breeze in the air and distant clouds looking to ruin the party.
The group was a mixed crowd of good friends but international in complexion. Two French brothers who have grown into close friends over the years were joined by Federica and Makis both from the island as well as two friends from England, over to enjoy the early season. We left the harbour behind at speed, skimming the flat calm waters of Gaios and heading south. We crossed the channel with beers open and passed by Vrika beach, Niko blasting his horn to a small gathering on the otherwise empty beach.
The beaches of Vrika and Votoumi are unparalleled in the region. Expansive white sand stretching across wide bays, extending into crystal clear shallow water. The summer months see a swell of holiday makers, cruise boats come and go and yachts anchor precariously in the fine sand. But for now the beach was empty and we were headed elsewhere. We motored past the port and tied up to a rock outcrop, offloading beers and personnel. Keeping a close eye for snakes we cut a rough track through the shrub making a beeline for Makis’ place and the old lighthouse. Along the way we found collections of gently perfumed salt collecting in dried up rock pools, somehow palliative and sweet.
We returned to the boat a little while later in good spirits. The clouds were growing in confidence as we headed for the rock island of Dascalia. Exiting the boat we struggled to keep our footing on the slippery shoreline, Makis the only one able to somehow make it ashore gracefully. He immediately set to work, a small pair of pliers strapped to his ankle, dislocating limpets and small sea snails from the coastal rocks. I left him to it, making the short swim in the cool water to the main island and scrambled barefoot up its rockface to the grassy top. Seagulls alerted by my presence swooped like Stuka dive bombers to protect their nest. Among the rough roots, caper leaves reached sunward growing amongst flowering rock samphire. Sea persillin, acidic and salty little leaves were everywhere – a foraging dream.
With my pockets full of sea herbs I eventually conceded to the increasingly persistent demands of the gulls and retreated to the cliff face – diving into deep blue water to make my escape. By the time I had returned Makis had filled a bucket with the sea molluscs, picking the limpets from the shells and eating them raw. ‘Let’s go’!
As we made it back to our island home a plan had formed and I was keen to get back to my little kitchen. While the limpets are delicious raw, tasting like the sea from where they came, I wanted to cook them. Olive oil hit the pan first, followed by garlic, white wine, and samphire. The little shells were then cleaned and added to the mix. With the lid on they steamed slowly, releasing their liquor and after ten minutes the limpets had released from their homes falling into the broth. The snails were more difficult and I set about popping out the sweet flesh with a small fork. As the broth reduced I added a pinch of Greek saffron bringing a delicate note of spice to proceedings. The dish was finished with some of the salty caper and sea herbs. Delicious!
This was by no means a quick meal but it was a solid return on our investment that day. We had found our dinner, we had climbed, dived and slipped our way to a meal that was entirely free and provided by the land and sea. We left behind only footprints and took only what was there in abundance. Practically speaking it will be hard to replicate this dish over the coming months, time constraints will limit such free time to the margins of our season but I will no doubt be back on Antipaxos soon … and I might just take a bucket!
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