Edited by Paulina Björk Kapsalis
Sitting down to enjoy a traditional meal in Messinia, you’re suddenly struck by the fact that every single ingredient used has been sourced locally. What’s more, the food you’re about to enjoy is part of a deeply rooted culinary tradition unique to this corner of Greece.
Here in this ancient region, the phrase “locally sourced” takes on a whole new meaning. Indeed, the distance from the olive groves, farm fields or offshore fishing spots to the table is often no more than a few kilometers. It’s always been this way; the heart of the Messinian diet has remained unaltered since ages past. Food products have been prepared in the same way for hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years. The locals are blessed with an agricultural bounty which they transform into delicious, largely plant-based delicacies year-round, and the staple meals in almost every home are traditional fare, cooked using recipes passed down through generations. These dishes, faithful to the past and to the region, were created to highlight and bring out the most from the delicious raw ingredients of this land, which is why they taste so good. It’s also why they are best enjoyed here. You have stumbled upon a truly authentic gastronomic experience, and an unchanged farm-to-table philosophy that existed here long before it became a worldwide trend.
The treasured olive oil of Messinia, famously dubbed “liquid gold” by Homer, has always been one of the main sources of income for the region. During the Age of Enlightenment, seafaring merchants took Messinia’s oil to ports all around Europe. Today, back here at the source, it’s still the biggest star in the kitchen, where it’s drizzled raw over food and used in cooking, too. (“Ladera” – literally “oily” – dishes, a main component of Greek cuisine, consist of seasonal vegetables cooked in copious amounts of olive oil until tender.) The best-known olive varieties are Koroneiki and the famous Kalamata table olive. Around 250 olive oil presses operate in Messinia, producing an average of 50,000-55,000 tons annually, 95% of which is cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil.
Local olive oil is used in the production of other foodstuffs as well. Messinian mustard, for instance, is made with extra virgin olive oil and natural herbs from Mount Taygetos; producers also replace the regular vinegar used in other mustards with the local balsamic variety, and substitute local honey for sugar.
Another liquid staple of the Messinian diet is, of course, wine. Fresh, fruity whites with flowery bouquets and rich, spicy reds complement the flavors of the meal. The countryside is dotted with vineyards, many owned by local families that make their own wine. Some even preserve age-old methods of grape crushing, the first step in the art of traditional vinification. These vineyards also produce the area’s highly regarded balsamic vinegar, made from sun-dried grapes aging in oak barrels. Based on the traditional Greek recipe for sweet, dark vinegar known as “glykadi,” the balsamic vinegar of Messinia has a unique sweet-and-sour taste that differentiates it from any other in the world.
The local honey, too, is aromatic and highly flavorful; this is especially true of the honey produced from the nectar of the rich flora on Mount Taygetos. The best local sweets are flavored with honey; the famous pasteli of Kalamata is made with only two ingredients, superb local honey and sesame seeds (note, there’s more calcium in this delicious candy bar than in milk, cheese, or nuts), while the incredible “diples,” or honey curls, are folded pieces of deep-fried dough, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and crushed walnuts. They are traditionally served at wedding celebrations as a symbol of the couple’s sweet life together.
At Easter, every Messinian home will heat up a pot of olive oil to make lallagia, another type of dough fritter similar to Italian breadsticks, to be served as an appetizer ahead of the meal on Easter Sunday. During the rest of the year, they’re enjoyed as a snack, either on their own or with honey or cheese. One of the most traditional products of the region, they’re a must-try for visitors (guests at Costa Navarino can also learn to make them during the Authentic Village Cooking experience).
Other food items, including currants and figs, have made it onto the international market. The history of currants in Messinia goes back thousands of years, and they are still used in traditional recipes for stuffed tomatoes, bread, and cakes, or enjoyed as they are. The region is also one of the largest exporters of currants in the world today. Figs, which have also grown here since ancient times, are now cultivated mainly in the municipality of Messini and in areas around the city of Kalamata. They are a high-quality item that has become an international delicacy.
Talagani cheese is a local delicacy you’ll have a hard time finding elsewhere. A flavorful white cheese produced chiefly in the region of Gargaliani, it’s akin to Cypriot halloumi but is made using only sheep’s milk instead of a mixture of goat’s and sheep’s milk. Like halloumi, it’s often grilled or fried.
With all of this to offer, and with incomparable flavors from a cuisine still rooted in its own agricultural wealth, Messinia deserves to be one of the world’s leading gastronomic destinations. If you have yet to discover it for yourself, what are you waiting for?