| Another Reason To Visit |
Add this to your reasons for going to Santorini, one of the most spectacular island destinations in Greece: supporting local organic farming. Of course, like most tourists, I have come because this is also one of the most famous landscapes in the world. The island (known historically as Thera) is an active volcano that last erupted in 1,500 BC. That eruption created the impressive caldera with cliffs nearly 3,000 feet tall that wrap around 32 square miles of ocean. Fira, the island’s main town, sits perched atop these cliffs, overlooking the caldera. As my ferry nears the island, my mind has a hard time comprehending the approaching view: the cliffs topped with white-washed buildings look like snow-capped mountains that descend straight into a cobalt blue sea.
The eruption of Santorini’s volcano, one of the largest volcanic events in recorded history, devastated the island and the ancient Minoan settlement at Akrotiri, as well as settlements on nearby islands and the coast of Crete, located just 70 nautical miles away, where the Minoan civilization was centered. You can visit excavations at Akrotiri, which have uncovered one of the most important prehistoric settlements of the Aegean. The large town buried by ash has an elaborate drainage system, sophisticated multi-storied buildings, magnificent wall paintings, furniture and vessels, all of which give a glimpse of its previous grandeur and prosperity. To see the paintings and artifacts, visit the archeological museum in Fira.
I find Fira filled with shops, restaurants and hotels with views overlooking the caldera. It’s beautiful, but my friends and I need a quieter place to rest our heads and we want to visit the excavations, so we climb into a taxi and ask the driver to head toward the southern tip of the crescent-shaped island. Just before Akrotiri and a short walk down the road from our homestay, standing alone in a long stretch of dry rocky vineyards, we spot a small organic farm shop. This is where I come face to face with the hardscrabble life of the small organic farmer on Santorini.
Search out organic
Faros Market sells organic olive oil, fruit, jams, honey, vegetables and local wine. A friendly woman named Maria is the store keeper, and her father-in-law the primary farmer on their 20 acres. His family has been farming grapes, favas and yellow split peas, staple crops here, for generations. The family is committed to organic farming and Maria says about a third of the farming on Santorini is organic, though most are not certified in any way. She’s encouraged that more restaurants here are offering local organic products these days, so it’s worth searching out the ones that buy from local farmers. Small organic farmers, it goes without saying, will only be able to stay on their land growing food if people buy their products. Santorini has recently put into place new development rules to protect the vineyards. But there has been much encroachment on farmland for tourist hotels.
When I arrive at Faros, Maria is in conversation with a Canadian couple about the benefits of breast feeding and natural child birth. She has her baby with her in the market, as well as her three-year-old son, who, like most three-year-olds with a new baby brother, is whining and crying about everything. She has to stand holding them both while my friend Wendi and I help ourselves to wine and spoon sweet tastings. Our new favorite things are a fig and cactus fruit jam which is powerfully sweet and rich, as are the Santorini wines.
I had been wondering if the Greeks use the prickly pear cactus I see growing all over. Now it’s clear they use the fruits, but Maria doesn’t know about eating the cactus paddles. It’s my chance to tell her about the Mexican nopales salad, which is delicious and highly nutritious. A question I never find the answer to is whether the prickly pear cactus was introduced from the Americas to Europe or vice versa.
A delicious taste of another place
The vineyards on Santorini this time of year, past the peak summer season, are gray and bare except for the twisted vines which are trained into tight baskets and kept low to the ground to catch moisture from fog and protect them from the fierce winds. The soil is volcanic, rocky and ashy, with nothing growing between the vines; no weeds, nothing. This unpromising-looking soil, however, produces grapes without irrigation and wines that are world famous. There is a very sweet dessert wine made with sun-dried grapes called Vinsanto (like the Tuscan dessert wine). The volcanic soil also yields blended and rosé wine made from white grapes such as athiri, aidini andassyrtiko, and red grapes such as mandelaria.
Water is a very scare resource on these Greek islands of the southern Cyclades, so they have also developed drought-tolerant strains of melons, tomatoes and other vegetables. Maria gives me a packet of tomato seeds as a blessing to take home with me. I look forward to growing tomatoes without water in my garden in northern California, which also has water issues and a Mediterranean climate.
I buy lots of gifts for friends. Jams, wine, capers, olive oil and honey with almonds. In fact, shopping at small organic markets like Faros for locally made food products is the best way to buy authentic Greek gifts to take home. Most of the souvenir shops have trinkets made in China or imported from Europe. Finding things actually made in Greece has proven difficult. But food is the perfect solution. None of us really needs more “stuff,” but a delicious taste of another place is priceless.—Constance Washburn, Contributing Writer