Lesvos – The island that invented Ouzo

Summer nights should be like this.

Moonlight over an endless sea, the waves slowly hitting the pebble beach.
Music, laughter and the click of the glasses raised for health coming from a distance.
The sweet smells of fig, pine, thyme, flowers and herbs are mixing in the air.
The arms of your lover around you.
Summer nights should exactly be like this.
Those were my exact thoughts as I was gazing down the Aegean sea on my first night at Lesvos Island – or Midilli as we Turks call it.


Lesvos is not the most picturesque of the Greek islands like Santorini, Symi or Halki. But it has lush green hills of pine and olive trees, cute villages and maybe most importantly, it has the ouzo factories that export this signature drink to rest of Greece and the world.
And, it’s just 35 minutes (or 1.5 hours if you take the car ferry) from the Turkish town of Ayvalık. So, we decided to spend a few days there.

Lesvos is a fairly large island with small roads winding up the hills and down to the beaches. The ferry port as well as the airport are at Mitilini on the south east of the island. After some internet research we decided to stay at Plomari , about an hour to the south of Mitilini a quiet fishing village with beautiful beaches and ouzo factories.

After a long day , we arrived at Plomari around 9 pm and found our apartment at Firini Studios. The host, Hermes was one of the best hoteliers I’ve met in a long time. He was extremely kind, friendly and generous with his little gifts and valuable advice without being overwhelming.

Since we were fairly tired and equally hungry, we took his advice and walked to the nearest tavern – named a bit strangely as ‘Somewhere else it’s raining’ at a street corner. It had no view to speak of, its four or five tables were full with locals and it turned out to be one of the best meals we had on the island. Eleni, the cook / owner asked us if we wanted to taste what she had prepared for that night or if we wanted to order something more typical. We opted for her suggestions and in return she approved our ouzo choice , the Barbayanni. ‘Very good’ she said. ‘They still do it the old way’. On that positive note she brought us our first bottle of Evzon, a special brand of Barbayanni normally reserved for local consumption and dish after dish of deliciously prepared specialities. I especially liked her salted red mullets, little fried whitebait, beef casserole with rice noodles and the green beans with the garlic sauce.

The atmosphere was relaxed, with people enjoying a night out and Eleni stopping at every table to share a laugh. ‘You did good to taste everything’ she told us when it was our turn and then went on explaining why she prefered Barbayanni Evzon; something to do with herbs and old recipes. Whatever the reason, it was very smooth. The bill was EUR 28, a very reasonable price for such a good experience. On the way back, we stopped to watch the moonlight over the sea. It was pure bliss.


We spent the next two days exploring the island and checking the beaches. When it comes to sea, we are very spoilt, having spent the summer on our boat at the Turkish Riviera. Nevertheless we enjoyed the crystal clear if not cold waters of Lesvos with its pebbled beaches. But most of all we were amazed by the sheer number of olive trees. The hills were silver green with them.


On the road we saw many abandoned olive oil factories, beautiful stone and brick structures with large courtyards, mostly near the seaside. I couldn’t help but think how great they would look if they were turned into houses, restaurants and small hotels. I’m sure in about five years they will all be renovated and will cost thousand times what they cost now and I’ll beat my head for not investing in time. Then again, maybe not.

And of course there’s the Greek cuisine. We stopped at various taverns around the island for some memorable lunch and dinners. I like Greek food and I most definitely don’t want to start another Turkish Greek feud, but in my opinion, when it comes to grilled octopus or any kind of aubergine dish, they have to learn a thing or two. So we chose among other specialities which we truly enjoyed.

Seven Seas was a nice tavern down by the Plomari harbour with typical Greek specialities; maybe not the most original but definitely very delicious and fresh; the grilled calamari was juicy and the sardines were huge and super tasty.


Another place to mention was the tavern ‘H Moupia Toy Mypibhah’ or the ‘Tavern under the Mulberry Tree’ at Skala Skamnia near the town Molyvos at the northwest coast of the island. We went there because of the glowing recommendations from our friends Rhona & Nurkan and were not disappointed. Skala Skamnia is a lovely little fishing village with a small church on the rock, little shops selling handmade jewellery and objects and a huge mulberry tree with a great tavern underneath. It’s a popular tourist destination and there was even some traffic in its tiny town square.


Everything we tried was superb, especially the stuffed courgette flowers, the tarama and the house speciality seafood spaghetti. When we mentioned to the owner Vangelis our friends’ greetings, he insisted to send us another quarter of their house brand ouzo and an excellent salted sea bream that was to die for; both on the house. The bill was EUR 44 that day, a bit on the expensive side for Lesvos, but considering the location, the quality and the quantity , quite well priced.

Atelier Pitsiladi

We decided to go for ouzo shopping on our last day. There was a local brand, the Pitsiladi that we wanted to sample and we asked Hermes if he knew about it. Of course he did. Yannis, the owner-producer was a good friend. He told us it’s very good, very local and the owner uses more herbs than anyone else, a very old secret formula and fire with olive branches and he only produces in small quantities. Therefore it’s more expensive. Then he sent us to downtown Plomari to find Yannis and his small ouzo atelier. After a few wrong turns we gave up trying and decided to ask directions to one of the shop owners. He took our query to the hearth and leaving his shop, guided us through the narrow alleys. When we reached the atelier it was closed. But our guide just signalled us to wait and ran down the street in search of Yannis’ house. While waiting, one of the upstairs neighbours opened her window and told us to wait for five minutes, Yannis was living close by. At least that’s what we guessed she was saying, with her nice smile and rapid sign language. It seemed all neighbourhood was thrilled that we made the effort to try their special local brand and were doing their utmost to make it happen for us. In the end we couldn’t meet the famed Yannis, but his son Yorgo came to open the shop for us, sold a couple of bottles of their famed ouzo and sent us away with some presents. On our way back the lady upstairs was waiving happily.

Downtown Plomari was full of shaded narrow alleys, small shops selling everything from fresh fish to baby clothes to vegetables and many many cafes where old men sit and play card games. Shop owners were sitting at chairs in front of their shops, chatting with each other and passerbys. It was lovely just to wander the streets and watch the people. At one point I got the feeling that I was on the set of a Fellini movie which was mistakenly shot in Greece instead of Italy.
Afterwards we went to Barbayannis to buy a couple of bottles. After a quick tour in their ouzo museum we met a gentleman there who explained us in great detail how exactly they were producing the top quality ouzo (you guessed it, lots of herbs, the mandatory old formula, and something to do with 100% alcohol) , and how all other big producers are all messing up this heavenly drink, especially the ones in Crete and mainland Greece, not to mention the fellow producer, Plomari. Apparently it was acquired by Coca Cola and forgotten the old ways, which was an unspeakable shame.

Family Barbayannis

Then he went on telling us how the rakı producers down in Turkey were also getting it wrong. Wars have been started for less, but he was just enthusiastic about his product so we nodded,made the appropriate noises and thankfully he let us go and buy a few bottles to take back home.

All this for 8 EUR

On the way back to Mitilini we decided to stop for lunch at one of the villages and found a seaside cafe at Skala Sikountos. The owner Niko told us that there was a menu of five mezes, including shrimps and fish and the ouzo for a total sum of EUR 8. Naturally, we ordered it. Since we skipped breakfast in favour of ouzo shopping we decided to splurge and ordered two menus, to the slight dismay of our waiter. It was the perfect little lunch to end a perfect little holiday.

 

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