As I navigate the twists and turns of the village roads, a beautiful woman with a feline figure suddenly appears before me! Barefoot, ethereal-like, with hair undone, she smells of salt and thyme. As I drive on, I come up with images, playing my favourite game: If the province of Pafos was a woman, what would she be like? She’d be very much like the woman in front of me – bohemian, all-natural, and ready to seduce travellers with her unpretentious charm. Mountains with the sea as a background unfold just across from me, while little villages with their scattered stone houses struggling to stand are visible left and right.
Along with Panagiotis, our photographer, and Anna Tselepou, as guide, we agree to begin our journey in the village of Letymbou. The formation of our little group is anything but coincidental; all three of us love authentic food. Moreover, Anna’s affiliation with Green Cluster, an initiative which supports small businesses through synergy, has allowed her to map out our culinary path on this adventure.
The dainty little streets lead me to the old church of the Saints Kirikos and Ioulitis, which is nestled underneath the shade of the dense trees surrounding it. I just love the smell of damp nature, the sound of falling leaves, and the look of the sepia coloured landscape around me. Everyone is right on time and we meet at Sophia’s Traditional House, just a few steps away. A humble “little palace”, filled with jasmine and basil, the air is rich with intoxicating smell of freshly baked bread and fragrant soap from the laundry, air drying outside. Mrs Sophia welcomes us with open arms. A group of Russians are having their breakfast with all of nature’s bounty, underneath her grapevine. I sit and observe her alert with her headscarf, clean apron, and ruby cheeks... She doesn’t even have time to catch her breath and yet, she is happy. Always by her side is her husband Andreas, her tireless helper. A table fit for a king is set in the blink of an eye, and covered with fresh halloumi cheese, eggs from the chicken coop, sugar and cinnamon pies, fruit straight from the orchard, as well as a variety of jams – all made by Mrs Sophia. “They ask me how I manage to do it all, but I was born and live for tradition!”. The idea of opening her house to the public was born a few years ago, when she lost her job. It was then, she slowly started to offer coffee and breakfast to passers-by. Eventually, those small groups of people turned into whole tour busses, and now her oven is constantly burning, day and night with “tavas” (meaning “clay pot”, referring to the receptacle in which it is customary to prepare this traditional stew made with lamb, rice and vegetables), “koupepia” (stuffed grape leaves) and “ofto-kleftiko” (roast lamb dish)... Before we head out, she offers us freshly baked bread for the road. Some people just completely win you over with their open soul.
Flavours just like old times...
Our next stop is Koili, where we meet with the “lord of black gold”. Thymios filled his “luggage” with experiences from Greece, Spain and France, before landing in busy Stasikratous. However, he felt as though he was suffocating there: “If I wanted to get a glimpse of the sky, I had to look for a crack between the concrete”. Thus, he packed up his belongings and along with his beloved Christina, headed full steam ahead to the village, where all his cherished memories were preserved. As he talks to me, all I see is the horizon, with mountains and trees in front of me. The only sound to be heard is birds chirping. “This is what a person needs to find inner happiness!”. Nino agrees with his master, wagging his tail and eagerly looking for new friends. It’s almost noon and the courtyard is full of youth. Three tall, handsome, young men walk in. I couldn’t resist and asked: “What do you feed these boys?” . “Carob honey of course”, Christina responds, with a hearty laugh. Thymios, beaming with pride for his product, lovingly hands a teaspoon of his “medicinal” carob honey to each one of us. His journey with carob honey began with his own need to find a product that satisfied him, something that he couldn’t find on the market until then: “I was looking for the aroma and taste of my childhood years”. Instead however, he found his grandmother’s paraphernalia – her pot, cauldron, and chopping board and promptly got to work. His first production was sold out in no time, as was the second one. He attributes his success to the love he gives his carob trees and the patience with which he picks the fruit: “I spend endless hours sitting on my stool. It’s like meditation for me”. “Carob King, Black Gold” is sold exclusively in his shop at Ibrahim’s Khan in Pafos.
We enter Droushia. Oops, hold on! A little old lady greets us kindly, as we patiently wait for her goats to move out of our way. They finally give in to her continuous calls, “brrr!”. I can’t recall the last time I experienced something like that. We head to Maria’s dairy shop (Droushia cheese factory). She is an incredible young woman that runs a business and simultaneously raises a family of six. She is restless, dynamic and brilliant all at once. By the first handshake, the table is already full of an assortment of cheese: Anari, halloumi and traditional “halitzi” – a distinctive product for which she won the acclaimed “Gastronomos” award. Her father, Mr Andreas, sits proudly beside her. “Every single wrinkle on his face tells another story”, she teasingly tells us! She says that her childhood years were full of love and warmth. Being a family of breeders for generations, they grew up with animals around. “Our goat used to come to our door every morning, so we could have milk and head off to school”, she reminisces. The idea of the dairy shop was created one night during the family dinner: “We had to do something; my husband worked at the quarries and our finances just didn’t add up... We had a few animals… The next day, we started looking into it and we all got down to business, young and old!”. We look at her in awe! Suffice to say that we leave with our hands full of goodies...
The routes of tradition
En route to Miliou, nature has set up a party for us. I dream of spring time when the ethereal aroma of orange blossoms fills the air. The colourful hives to both our right and left look like houses of a miniature town. Like two awkward giants dressed in white suits, Polydoros, and his father-in-law Petros, introduce us to the wonderful world of bees. They harvest thyme honey at this time of year. Mr Petros has been chasing his dream since he was a child; he used to capture bees in matchboxes and place them between the wall cracks, in an attempt to create his own beehive. Today, together with his dedicated son-in-law, they have realized their vision by harvesting high-grade honey which has received international recognition. Their thyme honey “Ayii Anargyri” has won the golden award in London, while their flower honey has won silver.
It’s early afternoon, at Statos - Ayios Photios and we are greeted at the alley by Michalis Kimonos, the mayor. This alley is where the famous Rural Festival takes place yearly, whereby vendors lay out their selection of products including “trahanas” (a tiny, pebble-shaped grain product that is made with either semolina, wheat flour, bulgur or cracked wheat), “soutzoukos” (a traditional, chewy sweet made from grape juice), “tsamarella” (a lunch meat), and sausages – and sell out regularly! The little houses are tucked neatly between the rose and hibiscus bushes, while the silence is broken by a rooster... with a broken biological clock. As we carry on walking, we meet Mrs Niki on her veranda, grating almonds for the “soutzoukos”. She cuts away pieces from the sun drying threads and has us taste it. Meanwhile her husband Xenis shows us the “trahanas” workshop. Inevitably, my mind travels to wintery nights with bowls of “trahanas” soup and a warm blanket.
Further down, we find sweet Elena along with her mom, Androulla, preparing small batches of “palouze” (traditional Cypriot sweet delicacy) for the festival. While enjoying the velvety texture on our palates, we enter a “time machine” with her, and revisit her 6-7 year old self: “We used to wake up in the middle of the night to cut trahanas on our rooftop. All the women used to gather and the village looked like a manually operated factory. Our father was kneading downstairs”. Nowadays, things are done more professionally at their small factory.
Mr Charalambos is making charcuterie at the adjacent house: lountza, pastrami and sausages are made in the traditional method his father had first used, using strong and fragrant wine from his vineyards. While preparing some nibbles, his wife Frederiki, sprinkling the “tsamarella” with salt and oregano, confesses to us with a laugh, that their marriage was arranged, but “thank God he turned out to be a stand-up guy!”.
Delicacies sprinkled with love (“meraki”)
At dusk, we find ourselves in Kathikas –a little gem of a village– that beckons you to explore it. We make a stop at the beautiful chapel of Ayios Onouphrios, with the vineyards behind it stretching as far as the eye can see. Anna is adamant that our food tasting cannot end without first visiting Petradaki. It’s 7 pm on a weekday and the restaurant is already packed. The dishes that come out of the kitchen are like small works of art; delicious kotsi (pork shank), moussaka, fried ravioli, falafel… Every dish is sprinkled with unbelievable love (“meraki”). Pampos is on top of the pots and pans, putting his creativity and mastery to good use, while Niki is simply everywhere –in the kitchen, the dining hall– she never misses a beat! It took them ten years to build it, they tell us. “Little stone (petradaki), by little stone, hence its name”. Niki is the one responsible for the tasteful decoration. As for the flavours, what makes them so unique, are the ingredients that all come from their own produce – wine from their cellars, vegetables from the farm, and dairy products they make themselves. Even though our journey leading here was full of overindulgence, we just can’t resist. A feast is arranged while the flames in the fireplace flicker and dance about. Our pleasure is heightened by the company present and our journey ends with a bang! To give our adventure a perfect end, we are handed a pack full of “bourekia” (a type of pastry) and divine coconut cake for the way back... bliss!