I’ve just returned from the Greek island of Leros after a holiday where my family and I experienced a record number of minor injuries. It’s as though we were all drunk, all the time! My son bashed and chipped his front teeth on some stone steps, making them a bit piratey. My daughter tripped and fell face down on a steep tarmac road, cutting her nose and cheek. My husband lacerated his thumb so badly chopping salad that blood spurted around the kitchen. He also almost caused a car accident on a blind corner. And I, for good measure, trod on a sea urchin while swimming in some shallow water. I now have 9 small black spikes embedded in my left foot. When I went to the island’s local hospital, a young chain-smoking doctor told me to put olive oil on the urchin prickles daily to release the spines from my skin. How Greek!
Leros island is just 12km long and very steep, peppered with over 200 jewel-box-sized churches, vertiginous narrow roads just wide enough for one car and surrounded by turquoise shades of sea. Tourism never really kicked off here in a big way, and the pace of life seems pretty mellow. You can’t drink the tap water as it’s salty, so you fill up jerry cans at roadside water dispensers, which takes some getting used to. My friend Al who lives here says that some things are impossible to buy in Leros – such as greetings cards. He has to make his own by hand for every birthday! Nobody gives a toss about wearing motorcycle helmets, seatbelts or doing any recycling – you just shove all your rubbish together in the same bin bag, just like in the 1980’s. Apparently plastic bottles are burned in big bonfires to get rid of them, so you have to just suspend your eco beliefs for a while, there’s nothing to be done!
The food here is very good, and the best dishes are to be found in the beach-side tavernas. These are cheap and cheerful family-run restaurants where the decor is as old as time, and cats and dogs snooze in the shade. Food is calorie-dense, hearty, and all homemade. I developed an obsession with ‘pasticchio’, a gorgeous cinnamon-spiced beef and bechamel pasta bake, deep fried cheese balls and a syrup-soaked filo dessert flavoured with cinnamon and orange zest. My arse is definitely wider after 10 days of calorie bombing! Beware the local drink ‘Mastiha’ which is liqueur perfumed with resin from the mastic tree – it has the strong soapy flavour of ‘Badedas’ bubble bath. Even when mixed into a cake, Mastiha renders everything inedible. Restaurateurs seem to love bringing it over to your table at the end of the meal when you can barely see your own eyes from having calimari sweats. Sadists!
There is one particular quirk in Leros that I find mystifying: there are no dessert menus anywhere. You can’t order anything apart from ice cream. But you might be given a random pudding for free, whether you want it or not, but even that’s not guaranteed. In one cafe, we begged the owner for baklava with our coffee, and he had to send someone up the road on a moped to buy some. Lerians – you are missing a trick. If you offer desserts, we will buy them!
Here are some food highlights…
Pasticchio beef and bechamel pasta bake, spiced with cinnamon:
Portokalopita: orange and syrup-soaked filo dessert:
My favourite taverna on the whole island was the Gourna Fish Tavern on Gourna Beach. The owner was one of the happiest people you could ever meet – he sang non stop and smiled a goofy smile whenever he bustled over to the table. Free extra plates of homemade treats would appear, pudding was always on the house, whether you wanted it or not. Bless the Gourna Fish Tavern! I love its jolly curtains and ‘garden boat’:
I would crawl across hot coals for the Gourna’s speciality: cheese balls. Like warm, savoury doughnuts arrrrrrrgggggh:
Gourna Taverna courgette and mint croquettes, just gorgeous and crunchy:
Gourna Taverna wood-oven-baked aubergine, smoky and silky:
Gourna Taverna ‘horta’ – foraged wild greens that taste a bit like nettles:
The Gourna Taverna owner always plied us with free portokalopita. It was light, orange scented and no problem to eat, even after a massive lunchtime feast:
Elsewhere on the island the food was pretty good, but I always had the Gourna Taverna in my mind…
A Lerian speciality is salted cured mackerel, which is very salty indeed, in the manner of a giant anchovy. The first mouthful is great, but subsequent ones get saltier and funkier – you need something to cut through it. More lemon, please!
Fried shrimps from the nearby island of Symi – sweet, crispy little flavour bombs:
Gigantes, or, ‘big beans’. Some tavernas use tinned tomato sauce that tastes just like Heinz baked bean sauce, a bit weird. I brought home bags of dried ones, these extra large butter beans are so delicious:
I have a slavish love of spinach and cheese pies:
Baked chicken with lemon is a good sturdy dish, the potatoes drenched with chicken juice and suffused with lemony tang:
Veg shop in Lakki run by some big brothers:
Mini cornetto ice creams lurking in a cake shop freezer – about a third of the regular size:
Fishmonger in Lakki:
Super-fresh bream caught that morning:
I love the 1970s feel of the island’s supermarkets – they have curious lighting and lots of blowsy curtains:
Spanos supermarket in Lakki has interior stained glass windows, and a whole section devoted to church accessories:
But this is NOTHING compared to its freezer section, resplendent with a whole wall of wildly strange dioramas displaying puppet food traders:
Off license with a massive cuddly toy section:
And now to the strange brands:
Why would anyone call a washing powder ‘Essex’?
I love this jelly packaging, so nostalgic:
I love holiday menus with a passion:
And finally, this is one of the pointy urchin bastards. Needless to say, the olive oil treatment hasn’t worked. Just gotta wait it out, I think…