Cooking with Class in Santorini: Discovering the Greek Island’s Unique Gastronomy

Featured Post Cooking Class Santorini

As we bid farewell to our charismatic Greek cooking class Sous-Chef, Daniel, he shared parting culinary wisdom with a twinkle in his eye:

“Use your imagination and everything is possible. And remember – you needn’t measure – you must feel the taste.”

We’d come to the elegant, highly-acclaimed Selene restaurant on sun-drenched Santorini, Greece. We would spend the day learning about the island, its Cycladic neighbors, and their unique produce, cheese and wine. We would then try our hands at some of Selene’s trademark recipes and as a reward, savor what we’d prepared. As we strolled out into the Santorini sunlight after our cooking class and lunch, utterly relaxed, with creatively-stimulated minds and taste buds, we reflected on what an exemplary day it had been.

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Santorini’s Unique Produce & Growing Environment

Arriving in Selene’s bistro in the delightful medieval village of Pyrgos, we were greeted by vivacious Georgia Tsara, our cooking class instructor. We’d later learn that her passion for gastronomy had started when she was an eight year-old in her parents’ small restaurant, later propelling Georgia to her role as Selene’s restaurant manager and sommelier.

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Instantly, we were given a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. The table was adorned with a bounty of vibrant produce, and gourmet local products such as Santorini fava (small yellow peas), capers, caper leaves, tomato paste, and baskets of hearty bread as well as traditional cookies called Melitinia. Light streamed in via windows on the barrel-vaulted ceiling, illuminating the streamlined interior as we sampled each treat.

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We learned that the devastating volcano of around 1500 BCE, which some believe obliterated the legendary civilization of Atlantis, not only shaped Santorini’s legendary caldera and cliffs, it also created a unique growing environment. The volcano caused some crops like saffron and olives to vanish, and other newcomers such as the Santorini Mini Tomato, Santorini Zucchini and Santorini White Eggplant to thrive in the volcanic soil. Amazingly, grapes, capers, the protein-packed Santorini Fava, melon-flavored cucumber and kardanides survived. Equally impressive is that today’s produce does so well in this hot desert climate which is characterized by strong winds and little water.

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“Santorini’s produce tends to be more petite, with richer flavors,” Georgia explained, as she sliced a mini zucchini, then passed it to our tasting plates, all the while with a big smile on her face. As class continued, we noticed Georgia regularly exhibited the same bubbly expression whenever she unveiled a new delicacy. It was a pleasure witnessing someone so passionate about her work.

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A Challenging Winegrowing Terroir 

Transitioning into our course’s wine section, Georgia drew our attention to the restaurant’s wreath-adorned lights overhead, explaining that they were actually old grapevine roots. Instead of cultivating vines vertically on stakes, Santorini winegrowers train the grapevines to grow into a large basket shape low to the ground. In doing so, the grapes are protected with their own leaves. This shields them from intense heat and wind and allows morning dew to collect, which in turn provides essential moisture. The volcanic pumice in the soil also lends a hand, helping to protect against diseases like Phylloxera.

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Despite such adaptation against the elements, wine cultivation on Santorini is extremely challenging given the vineyards’ narrow paths. As a result, no trucks can access the area, and everything is done by hand. Today, there are ten wineries on Santorini. Incredibly, some of Santorini’s oldest vine roots are more than three centuries old!

Georgia introduced us to some of the island’s most common varietals – whites such as Assyrtiko, Athiri & Aidani and reds like Mavrotragano and Mandilaria, as well as blended wines like Rosé. Finally, she introduced Vinsanto, Santorini’s beloved dessert wine, which is particularly labor intensive during harvest time when the grapes are being dried.

“Farmers must go to the field three times per day to turn the grapes,” Georgia noted. “They leave them in the sun for seven to twelve days.”

Santorini wine

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Cheese, Glorious Cycladic Cheese 

Next, the cheese board made its grand appearance, adorned with eight blocks of beautiful cheese that had Shawn and me (cheese enthusiasts is an understated way to describe us!) responding in a Pavlovian fashion.

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“Greeks consume cheese all day long,” Georgia said as she gestured toward the tempting arrangement.

“This is a small sampling of cheese from the Cycladic islands. Every region makes four to five kinds, and on some of the islands, the goat population exceeds that of the humans!”

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Georgia explained that types of goat-milk cheese like Mizithra, Souroto, and Chloro are “feminine” in nature, given their more delicate flavors. Skotiri, Niotiko and Arseniko, on the other hand, are more “masculine” because of their strong flavors, which are developed during the aging process. An additional two types of cheese we tasted, Volaki and San Mihali, are made from cow’s milk, unlike the first six types of cheese. Georgia also pointed out that the so-called feminine cheese types are made during the second round of the cheese-making process, whereas the masculine ones originate out of the first.

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I’d previously thought that France was the world’s cheese capital, but after trying these unique Greek varieties, I must confess that the two countries might share that distinction. Some of the adjectives that I scribbled in my notes include: “creamy, buttery, a yogurt-like texture, fresh and light, essence of delicate herbs.”

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Selene’s innovative culinary team, exemplifying a philosophy of embracing local products in a creative manner, marinated Chloro cheese in Vinsanto leaves to produce a cheese that could be brilliantly paired with a glass of Vinsanto. We tried ‘Selene’s Cheese’ later during lunch and it was divine – particularly unique in the way that it alternated between sweet and salty flavors.

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Visiting the Folk Museum 

Before we went into the kitchen to learn from Selene’s award-winning chefs, Georgia whisked us off to the neighboring folk museum, which is situated in a traditional village. The displays inside the former winery depicted everything from the stomping of grapes, to bird catching, and the processing of fava. Afterwards, we better understood what unique and labor-intensive processes farmers went through and continue to encounter today on Santorini.

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Taken Under the Chefs’ Wings 

Upon entering Selene’s kitchen, we tied on our aprons and got to work with Chef Nikos Boukis and Sous-Chef Daniel Papatrianta-Fyllou and their team. Balancing a casual, yet professional, confidence with a playful personality, Daniel walked us through four recipes, giving us practical cooking advice that we’ll undoubtedly use in our own kitchen.

Santorini cooking class in the kitchen

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When I reminded Daniel of my gluten intolerance and ‘selectarian’ meat preferences, he enthusiastically tossed out options. Imagine my delight when three professional chefs commiserated about what gluten-free dessert to make for me. I was touched by their kindness and willingness to whip up something special. The gesture made me feel a bit like royalty.

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Enjoying the Fruit of Our Labor

In Selene’s fine dining room, Georgia coyly delivered a bottle of 2012 Sigalas Assyrtiko to our table. She then handed us over to waiter Constantinus, who expertly guided us through our four courses, while reminding us of their special characteristics.

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The wine, with 14.5% alcohol content, was a delightful choice. Sporting a lovely straw color that scintillated in the room’s late afternoon sunlight, the Sigalas Assyrtiko had finesse! Its most memorable feature was the lively mineral notes bestowed upon it by the island’s rich, volcanic soil.

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The Menu:

  • Cold Tomato Soup with Cheese Ice Cream
  • Fava with Mastic Sap & Seafood
  • Lamb (Shawn) or Chicken (Tricia) with Eggplant Puree
  • White Chocolate with Raspberries, Strawberries & Thyme
  • Strawberry Soup

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The courses were delicate in their presentation, but also in their flavors and textures. I loved the taste of the tangy tomato soup tempered with a dollop of rich, cheese ‘ice cream.’ It went particularly well with the crispy, homemade, gluten-free bread. My taste buds were aroused by the subtle flavor of the mastic sap emanating from the smooth, puréed fava that accompanied the seafood in the second course.

Next, I ate chicken that was tender and beautifully paired with the eggplant purée. Shawn feasted on the same dish, but with lamb instead of chicken.

Finally, the desserts were light but utterly satisfying in the manner in which hints of thyme, lime and peppermint tickled the tastebuds.

Everything came together, perfectly. Thanks to our cooking class and experience behind-the-scenes, we understood that Selene’s perfection had not come easily.

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Dessert

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Selene’s Cold Tomato Soup with Cheese ‘Ice Cream’

Tomato Soup Ingredients & Preparation:

  • 3-4 tomatoes
  • 1 stalk celery (Our instructor, Sous-Chef Daniel recommends peeling off the first layer of celery to make it less fibrous, giving it a more delicate flavor.)
  • 1/3 cucumber
  • 1/4 clove garlic
  • salt & olive oil
  • vinegar & freshly-ground pepper

In a blender, mix all of the ingredients together, except the olive oil. The mixture must become a fine purée first. Then, gradually add the olive oil. Strain the mixture. Freeze and serve.

Ice Cream Ingredients & Preparation:

  • 250 g. cheese
  • 500 ml. fresh milk
  • 100 ml. fresh cream
  • 40 gr. egg yolk
  • salt, fresh pepper

Blend the milk, fresh cream, cheese, salt and pepper in a saucepan and place it on a burner until the mixture starts boiling. Remove the pan from heat and let it cool. It must reach approximately 80 degrees Celsius (176 Fahrenheit). Whisk the egg yolks until they turn white and add them gradually to the previous mixture. After it gets cold, place it in an ice cream maker in order to freeze it.

Presentation:

Place a dollop of ice cream in the center of a bowl of cold tomato soup. Garnish with a delicate sliver of cucumber and fresh rosemary.

Where in the World?

Thanks & Disclosure: 
 

ευχαριστώ πολύ/ Many thanks to everyone at Selene for hosting us for this exceptional day of learning and fine dining. Your attention-to-detail, passion for what you do, sense of creativity and patience (with my gluten-intolerance and ‘selectarian’ meat preferences, in particular) are extraordinary. Special thanks to Selene owner, Mr. Hatzigiannakis, as well as Georgia, Chef Nikos, Sous-Chef Daniel, and Constantinus for everything you did to make our experience so special.

These words, experiences, images, and opinions are entirely my own. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.

Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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40 Comments on “Cooking with Class in Santorini: Discovering the Greek Island’s Unique Gastronomy

    • Thank you for your kind words, Tina. Santorini is rightfully on your travel wish list. The food and wine are unique and splendid (as you can see from this cooking class) and the history and geography are equally intriguing. I’m happy to share any pointers. :)

    • My pleasure, Valerie. We’re also eager to see if we can come close to achieving the restaurant’s greatness with that Cold Tomato Soup & Ice Cream recipe. :)

      Wishing you a wonderful weekend! Here in Germany’s Alps, it doesn’t yet feel like summer, so we’ll be indulging in recipes of the hot sort this weekend.

    • Grazie, Alessandro! The cooking class presentation was so beautiful, I couldn’t help but try to capture it. Now, imagine when my husband and I are out and about walking in a new place… he calls it “irregular walking” (stop, snap, repeat) :)

  1. Good wine, good food, a lot of cheese…fantastic!

    A lot of countries make good cheese. France is the world’s cheese capital because France makes over 300 different kinds of cheese.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • With so many different types of divine French cheese to choose from, are you able to name any favorites, Gerard? Whenever I go to French stores, I’m always amazed at the number of aisles devoted to fromage. :)

      Having always lived in countries where cheese is widely available, we found it interesting being in Southeast Asia last winter, where it is rare to find cheese. When we visited Cambodian and Laotian classrooms, the students asked us some of our favorite foods and we mentioned cheese. Many of these high school students had never tried cheese. I guess this speaks to the lack of dairy-producing animals there, lactose intolerance, or just higher costs for such protein.

      • I have a few favorite French cheeses. I love Saint André, Comte, Brie, Camembert and there are others.

        I wonder if in Southeast Asia there is a lack of space for cows to graze. They need a lot of room.

        I love cheese and wine – – they’re a great combination.

      • Ah, hearing names like Brie, Camembert and Comte, my stomach is growling. :) While in Normandy a few weeks ago, we were hoping to make it to the village of Camembert to visit some cheese-makers. Alas, time was too short.

        I’ve read that dairy production in Southeast Asia is on the rise, but I don’t remember having seen any dairy cows. Perhaps the climate is too hot too? In this post I did from Cambodia’s rural area where we stayed, we encountered these very gaunt cows, which were being used to help with the laborious task of tending to the rice paddies: http://triciaannemitchell.com/2011/12/29/bridgingthedivideonthebackroadsofcambodiastakeoprovince/

  2. Tricia, What a fabulous post – and incredible experience! When we were in Santorini we were intrigued by the vineyards that looked unlike any we’d ever seen … flat! But what delicious wine they produce. I’m so glad you included the recipe for Selene’s Cold Tomato Soup with Cheese ‘Ice Cream.’ While I was reading I was hoping to learn more about “cheese ice cream.” What type of cheese do you recommend? ~Terri

    • Terri, happy to hear that you enjoyed the post and that you’re going to give the recipe a whirl! I would recommend using a soft, mild cheese like Ricotta. We were equally intrigued by the vineyards when we toured several of Santorini’s wineries. The way winemakers train them to go in a wreath pattern to protect the grapes from the elements in ingenious. Do you remember some of your favorite Santorini wines? The white wine that we enjoyed with lunch after our cooking class has to have been our favorite. In fact, we’re now wondering if we could get something similar here in Germany. We loved that bubbly consistency!

  3. The brilliant blues – the glowing yellows – your first photographs took me away to the sunshine of Santorini. Back and forth I went – the food – the scenery – the people – the beautiful couple who took me there . How wonderful to spend part of your holiday involved food. The photographs told a marvelous story. Bon Appetit!! indeed!!!

    • Virginia, as an accomplished restaurateur, you would’ve been in your element at this cooking class! I loved observing these creative souls demonstrating such a passion for their work. I find myself trying to dress up our food in a different way, as a result, and cannot wait to try my hand at some of Selene’s recipes at home.

      What special dishes are you inspired to make this weekend?

      • Tricia, it is our first of the summer long weekend. Monday is Canada Day. It will be a busy day for our daugher-in-law Andrea. She works for Immigration and one of her demanding responsibilities is the organizing and participating in the swearing in of new citizens. Dinner has an ethnic theme and I will be making Asian Sloppy Joe Sliders. I will post the recipe later on Mrs. Butterfingers. XX Virginia

      • Virginia, Happy belated Canada Day! Hard to believe that a year has already passed since we saw celebrations in Ottawa. Hope the long weekend was relaxing. The Asian Sloppy Joe Sliders sound like fun for the carnivores in my life. :)

  4. It looks like you had such an amazing time. I can’t wait to visit Santorini myself. And the food.. I am so hungry right now :)

    • Kay, when we arrived in Santorini, and started digging deeper than its beautiful facades, I was surprised to learn that it has such rich history and very unique culinary traditions. It’s more than just a pretty place!

  5. Tricia – A perfect armchair journey in every way. I don’t know what I was most wowed by…the locale? The food? The wine? The people? The contentment and joy on your faces? Simply beautiful.

    • A Global Affair, so nice to hear from you three again! I’d say that all ingredients brilliantly came together to make this experience remarkable. Perhaps you’ll find inspiration in Selene’s refreshing recipe, and give it a whirl at your home on a sizzling summer day? :) Are you in NY or the UK now?

  6. I like how you captured the whole experience, I felt like I was there with you. The food looks absolutely delicious but after having a big breakfast, its too much :) lol
    Hope you’re enjoying your Sunday :)

    • Bashar, glad you felt as though you traveled virtually along with us. One of the great things about this lunch is how light we felt after we dined. Perhaps you could’ve of fit it in following your big breakfast after all. :)

  7. I’m glad to have found your blog; I’m gluten intolerant, too. Aren’t you glad wine and cheese are gluten free? I know I am, it’s a great fall-back!

    • Linda, the feeling is mutual! During our recent trip to France, I was especially pleased that wine & cheese are “sans gluten.” :) How is gluten-free eating in Ecuador?

      Have you found any resources online that have made gluten-free travel easier for you? These cards have already come in handy a few times for us; perhaps you’ve already seen them? http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/

  8. Hi Tricia… after reading this post, I’ve discovered something new about myself. I want your life!!! What an enriching experience for you and your readers.

    • The day was enriching indeed, Yvette. We often pinch ourselves and say how lucky we are to be on these adventures. :) Hope you’re enjoying some sunshine today – in AZ or FL?

      • Arizona now. I spent the last 5 days doing a solo drive across 7 states from Florida to move to Tucson. It’s been a dream to liver. I’m an Aussie so hot deserts are in my blood. :-) and I love photographing them.

      • Impressive that you made such a long drive without a driving helper, Yvette. Here’s hoping Arizona will live up to your expectations! Having driven through a bit of the state, I can see how you’d enjoy photographing its abstract beauty.

      • I’m creating a problem for myself though… too many photos to manage. I’m hoping to build a cache of stock images to sell, maybe as canvases, lets see. Monetising photos is a fascinating subject. I just have to stop treating it like a chasm to cross and darn well get on with it! :-)

      • Yvette, monetizing photos sounds like a great blog post topic. I’d be curious to hear what you’ve learned so far.

        I can relate to having too many photos to manage too. Whenever we’re out and about, my husband jokingly calls my photo snapping moments “irregular walking” due to the stop, go nature. :)

  9. Tricia, your experience looked delicious and phenomenal! We were married at the Selene (on the overlook) 8 years ago and hosted our reception there and the food looks just as good now as I remember it then. They truly capture the flavors of the island. I look forward to going back and eating there again in 2015. Thank you for sharing your visit!

    • Melodie, thank you for taking the time to share your experience. What a stunning place to have been married! The day of our cooking class, a French couple stopped by the restaurant to finalize details for their ceremony the next day. Though we’re very happy with the venues for our weddings (Lake Tahoe & Heidelberg Castle in Germany) we once considered having a wedding on Santorini. Your photographs must be beautiful. Do you have them online?

      It sounds as though you’re headed back to Santorini for your 10th anniversary – how long do you plan to stay? Lucky you! We really found ourselves intrigued by the island’s history, culinary traditions, and just overall loveliness. We would love to go back again. I could probably devote a lifetime just to exploring the Greek islands.

  10. Fantastic post, Tricia. I was transported into that cooking class with your beautiful pictures and rich text. I’m loving reading your blog posts about your Greek holiday, and getting envious by the minute!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Aarti; thank you. I think we’re feeling just as nostalgic for Greece as you and your family are feeling about France. I’ve been enjoying having recipes to come home with – they do an effective job of transporting us back to all the special spots we’ve visited. :)

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