The moment the island of Ikaria comes into view the sea rocks almost on cue, jolting my anticipation even after 36 summers of landings here. From the salt-crusted railings of the ferry I can almost smell the honey and oregano, the island’s perfume.
I am a child, once removed, from this remote Greek island and yet it has shaped me probably more than New York, where I grew up. My father left Ikaria in 1937, spurred, like most islanders at the time, by callous poverty and tremors of war. He got himself on an English tanker by posing as a cook, made it across the Atlantic, learning on the job, walked into the U.S. from Canada, and eventually became an American. By default he never abandoned the skill that gave him his passage; nor did he ever free himself from the tugs of nostalgia for the island that was his birthplace.
Ikaria was a kind of Shangri-La in our family, a perfect place. My sisters and I grew up in its shadow, riveted by stories of the village that I finally visited for the first time in 1972 just after electricity had arrived. That visit changed my life—and diet. Back in New York I craved the intense flavor of roasted eggplant dips with feta and chiles. I cooked creamy, earthy fava and simply prepared shrimp with sautéed fennel that reminded me of the flavors I had tasted on Ikaria.
I had my first tastes of really fresh food there: cherries right off the tree that stained my cheeks and clothes; from my aunt’s garden tiny golden plums dripping sweetness; tomatoes that she struggled to grow because water is scarce; honey, viscous and deep amber from the pine that most bees on this island feed on; herbs like nothing we ever found on the supermarket shelf. My sense of Greek food is rooted in those first memories from Ikaria.
Located in the eastern Aegean, Ikaria, a rugged 100-square-mile island, is not too far from cosmopolitan Mykonos, but light years away culturally. After I married my husband, Vassilis Stenos, also a local son once removed, we moved to Athens and started a family. We began making the trip to Ikaria each summer and on weekends. Now we have our own house there which we built on my family’s land. On the island, my husband grows heirloom tomatoes, cherries, apricots, squash, corn and more from neighbors’ seeds. We press a little of our own olive oil from 200-year-old trees. Each summer I make upwards of 100 pounds of the Ikarian goat’s-milk cheese, kathoura. There have been summers where we’ve collected our own sea salt and made enough jam from nearby plum trees and wild blackberries to start a cottage industry.
Ikaria inspires me to cook simple dishes—creamy fava dip and roasted eggplant with local cheese and just a touch of hot pepper. In the fall, pumpkins appear and make their way into fennel-flecked pilafs. Having access to fresh whole ingredients keeps my cook’s palate honed and sensitive to the dulling flavors of processed everything. But I also spend 10 months of the year as a restaurant critic in Athens, picking at the artful creations of urban chefs, many of whom these days clamor to be part of the gel-and-foam set. The contrast is always instructive.
Today, the soul of Greek cooking remains the truly fresh ingredients, nurtured by the rugged landscape that has, as a Greek might say, “watered the bones”: ingredients that have always struggled to grow in an arid, sun-seared land and so are extra flavorful, ingredients that are so much a part of the national identity that not having them would be like not having the sea itself.
On this island, I learned to love the simple, friendly, healthy attributes that define Greek food for me. I count myself lucky to know what a tomato should taste like, and what fish tastes like as soon as it’s caught, before the rigor even sets in and you sear it on a grill; or to know the sharp, bitter taste of young olives just a few weeks in the brine. These are the things that have shaped me as a cook.
Diane Kochilas is the author of Mediterranean Grilling (Morrow, 2007) and several other books. She is consulting chef at Pylos Restaurant in New York City and runs a cooking school each summer on Ikaria (dianekochilas.com; youtube.com/greekfoodtv).