With hordes of tourists, spewing forth from four or five huge cruise ships perpetually anchoring on Santorini's shores from spring to late fall, Selene's original site in the village of Oia is now over-built.At a time when most upscale Athenian restaurants served bad imitations of French and Italian dishes, Selene dared to experiment in the vernacular with mashed yellow split peas—the Greek fava, a traditional Santorini product. Hatziyannakis insisted that the restaurant's menu showcase the tiny and densely flavored tomatoes of the island, the bulbous capers and their leaves, hard barley rusks, and sweet white eggplants—all ingredients indigenous to Santorini. He is a pioneer who inspired many younger restaurateurs, and helped promote not just the food but also the wines of Santorini, which are now among the most popular of Greece's vineyard exports. When, about 15 years ago, The New York Times included Selene in its list of the 10 most spectacular restaurants in the world, it was no small accomplishment if you consider that our country has practically no gourmet restaurant tradition.
Now, unfortunately, like many other magnificent world destinations, the island of Santorini has fallen victim to its own success. With hordes of tourists, spewing forth from four or five huge cruise ships perpetually anchoring in succession on Santorini's shores from spring to late fall, Selene's original site in the village of Oia (pronounced "ee-ah") is now over-built and the surroundings lack the local color of which its owner was so proud. This year Hatziyannakis decided to move to Pyrgos, a less spoiled village in the center of the island. He chose a space that sits atop a charming private museum that demonstrates the Santorini of the past, a time when the island relied not on tourism but rather on its meager, but important, agricultural production.
Excellent tomato paste was produced in nine factories up until the mid '70s, Hatziyannakis told me, showing me the wonderfully illustrated stages of the production process in the museum. The local variety of non-irrigated small tomatoes, which recently started to be cultivated again, produces a dense paste that bears no relation to the tomato paste of the Peloponnese or the north of Greece, the basic regions where peltes (tomato paste) is now manufactured. Delicious fava that the inhabitants of Santorini cultivated and peeled in hand-operated stone mills, along with exported wine and the income sailors brought to their families, was the core of the island's economic life up until the mid-'70s. Now I heard that property in Santorini is sold at prices that rival those of Madison Avenue in New York City!
Still recovering from the unfortunate death of his beloved partner and wife Evelyn, Hatziyannakis has managed to re-invent his successful restaurant, and with his dedicated team he is once again offering one-day cooking classes. His daughter, who studies in Athens, is not interested in continuing her father's dream, but Hatziyannakis is not ready to stop trying to preserve the old island ways. And if I can judge by the family of three Americans who insisted on a private lesson at any cost (which I witnessed on the day I visited Selene), I am sure this trademark Cycladic restaurant, and the traditions it carries, has a long life ahead of it.
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