It is the last in my Around the World in Six Suppers, and for the final mystery destination we leap from the virtual to the real world. Yes indeed! We said – hang the staycation! We need a proper holiday!
I know. So much for our good intentions to stay at home this summer and save some money. Our resolve seemed to weaken as the British weather deteriorated. And when our good friend Mikey suggested we come see him and his family on the Greek island of Kefalonia it was too hard to resist, particularly since he is a winemaker and promised us lots of good wine too.
For the last week of the school holidays, we therefore found ourselves on this beautiful Ionian island, most commonly known as the setting for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and home to a wonderful tradition of fine food that’s simple and unfussy.
Mikey first came to Kefalonia around five years ago to make wine for Gentilini, one of the largest vineyards on the island. He now lives here with his lovely wife Yvonne and their two gorgeous daughters.
Although we couldn’t really justify a trip abroad, I have to admit it is just what I needed. There’s something about soaking up properly hot sunshine and swimming in warm seas that allows me to truly relax and switch off. Kefalonia was absolutely perfect for this: never a cloud in sight, crystal-clear turquoise seas and temperatures rarely dipping below the mid-thirties. Every view was a picture postcard and as soon as we stepped off the plane, my family was grinning from ear to ear.
As we were only there a week, we weren’t tempted to try and do too much either. Mikey acted as the perfect guide to the island. Despite being insanely busy with the grape harvest and starting work at 6am each day, he succeeded in helping us find the best places to eat and drink.
From drinking mojitos on the beach at Megali Amos…
… and organising a fantastic Greek barbecue at the winery…
… to a marvellous traditional meze overlooking the harbour at Kiani Atki…
… and devouring gyros at Ladokoola, Mikey’s favourite ‘chuck it all on the table’ restaurant.
No surprise I came home a few pounds heavier!
But my favourite meal of the holiday was the one Mikey and Yvonne cooked us one evening at their home.
They invited us over for a very traditional meal of pastitsio, often talked of as Greece’s version of lasagne, served with horiatiki, the ubiquitous Greek salad. And of course, lots of good Greek wine, robola and rosé.
I’ve never eaten pastitsio before but it’s certainly a recipe I know I’ll be cooking again and again back at home. Our two girls gobbled theirs up without a peep while the grownups reminisced about the old days in Bristol.
The pastitsio recipe in the Kefalonian cookbook Mikey and Yvonne gave me as a gift calls for tagliatelle pasta but Mikey prefers to make his with penne, while Yvonne says she uses little macaroni. So it seems anything goes really; make use of whatever you happen to have in the cupboard. For an authentic pastitsio, you should use the local kefalotiri cheese but any hard sheep’s milk cheese should be fine, such as manchego.
According to Mikey, a proper horiatiki or Greek salad should be served at room temperature – not cold from the fridge – and made well in advance so that the salt has plenty of time to work its magic on the tomato and cucumber, extracting some of the water content and intensifying the flavours. It is served simply with good olive oil but no vinegar. And of course, you need plenty of really good black olives. Yvonne had made her own and they were like nothing I’d tasted before.
Mikey prepared his horiatiki before taking us all down to the local beach for a wonderful evening swim as the sun began to set. If only we could always swim in the sea before supper…
2 large beef tomatoes
1 red onion
1 green pepper
large pinch of salt
handful of black olives
150g Feta cheese, cubed
large pinch of dried oregano
large glug of quality olive oil
Cut the tomatoes and cucumber into large chunks and throw into a large serving bowl. Slice the red onion and cut the pepper into thin strips, and add to the bowl. Sprinkle with a decent pinch of salt and mix it all really well. Add the olives, Feta and oregano and smother with a good peppery olive oil. Toss gently to make sure the oil covers everything well and leave for half an hour or so before serving.
2tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
600g minced beef
100ml white wine
500ml tomato passata
1 tbsp tomato puree, dissolved in a little hot water
salt and pepper
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
600g penne or other small pasta
handful of kefalotiri or other hard sheep’s milk cheese, grated
For the Béchamel Sauce
1 litre milk
6tbsp plain flour
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp butter
Preheat oven to 190°C/gas mark 5.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the onion until soft. Add the minced beef and cook until browned. Pour in the wine and cook off until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the passata and puree and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle in a little cinnamon and nutmeg. Taste and add more if required. Bring the sauce to the boil and gently simmer on a low heat until the sauce has thickened.
To make the béchamel sauce, pour the milk into a pan and heat gently. When the milk is warm, slowly add the flour, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Season with salt and pepper and a little nutmeg. Once the sauce has thickened, stir in the egg and then the butter. Check the seasoning again and remove from the heat.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the penne according to the packet instructions. Drain and rinse with warm water to prevent the pasta from sticking together.
Butter the bottom of a large ovenproof dish. Put half the pasta along the bottom of the dish and press down firmly. Pour the meat sauce over the pasta and smooth over. Cover with the rest of the pasta and again press down well. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top and sprinkle with the grated cheese.
Bake in the oven for around 40 minutes, until the top is golden and the cheese is bubbling. Leave to stand for quarter of an hour to let the béchamel sauce set slightly before serving with the horiatiki salad.