Dining with Dionysus

A cooking school in the Greek islands shows that simplicity plus necessity equals great cuisine.
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Slideshow: "The Grecian Formula"

Corby Kummer reveals the secrets of Greek cuisine in a narrated photo tour from his Aegean island cooking class.

Cooking classes change the way you look at the world—or certainly the way you look at what’s on supermarket shelves and in your refrigerator. Thus the logic of cooking vacations, which put you in literal touch with another culture and make you want to try things, once you see up close how easy and sensible they are. Most cultures, after all, evolve cuisines that require minimal equipment and technique (unless, of course, they are French).

Aglaia Kremezi and Costas Moraitis offer cooking courses on the Cycladic island of Kea, the closest island to Athens, that are true vacations. The couple welcomes and entertains students, making them feel like friends (and sending reassuring personalized logistics e-mails beforehand; the Web site is www.keartisanal.com). In just a few days, students come to understand Kremezi and Moraitis’s love of the island and what grows there. The couple’s approach, based on letting what is in the garden tell you what to make, is so flexible that you go home with a new impetus to visit the farmer’s market.

   MED SPREAD: Kea's bread, yogurt-custard
   pies, fresh anchovies, and tomato salad

Many courses are intensive and technique-heavy. This one isn’t. Instead, it is designed as a week that will give you a very enjoyable view of a culture, and demonstrate the equation every cook should know: simplicity + necessity = great cuisine.

I was surprised by Kremezi’s relaxed approach, because I have long known her as an intellectual firebrand—on top of every piece of nutritional (and political) news, the kind of researcher who won’t hesitate to go to an obscure regional festival to find the one old woman or man who still makes a rustic pie with phyllo layers, and then consult Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking, on why they put raki, the traditional liqueur, in the dough. (The answer: to keep the crunch. Her substitute: vodka.)

Both Kremezi and her husband spent time at English-speaking universities: she studied photography and cinema in England; he, biblical texts at Yale. The house where students spend the week (and can check their e-mail) is filled with reference books on art and modern Greek culture, and with folk art Kremezi collected while researching her own books on the cooking of the Greek islands and the Mediterranean (her Mediterranean Hot and Spicy will be published next spring).

A great advantage over other cooking experiences abroad is that Kremezi is so attuned to the tastes, available ingredients, and habits of American cooks. Five of her nine books have been written for the U.S. market (the others were for Greece), and she is a hands-on consultant to two leading East Coast Greek restaurants, Molyvos, in New York City, and Zaytinya, in Washington. Her recipes can require some adjustment at home, but they are likelier than most to work the first time. And anyway, the point of any cooking class is to make you trust your hands and eyes over a printed page or computer screen.

More than long kitchen sessions, convivial meals on the stone terrace under a grape arbor and long afternoon hikes and boating excursions are the order of the week. American friends who live on the island join most meals, and the excursions are led by the American-educated Kostis Maroulis, the third partner in Kea Artisanal. Maroulis came back to Kea to revive a family farm and sail his soultana, a very rare traditional wooden boat he commissioned from a craftsman on the island of Lesbos. It is his pride, and he always take students in it for a sail.

Classes are in the morning, and start with a general discussion of the ingredients being featured in the day’s menu. Students participate at will, assisted by two women, both sharp cooks, who give notes on technique and keep the pace moving toward getting lunch on the long table. Touching, working with, and often picking ingredients in the garden gives students a new confidence. I came back resolved to make my own fresh cheese using nothing more than milk, cream, and lemon juice, and to pick grape leaves as wrappers for transcendentally good and simple stuffed grape leaves. I even wanted to tackle octopus, if it could taste anything like what Moraitis—the organizer and general fix-it guy, who claims indifference as a cook—achieves on his grill. And I knew that one dish would become a kitchen staple: risotto made with orzo and thickened with a common Greek ingredient that magically reveals its power to make an instant, creamy sauce.

Kea, a brief ferry ride from Lavrion, a port near the Athens airport (though a long drive from downtown), is standard- issue Greek island: dramatic hills and mountains descending straight to the sea, Mediterranean bushes and trees and vines blooming everywhere, towns looming high in the mountains like enchanted cities, crescent-shaped fishing villages appearing suddenly around a bend. It is exceptionally dry, and so a distinguishing architectural feature is meticulous dry stone walls that shore up streets, buildings, and the steep terraces that make practically every bit of land tillable. The island traditionally lived on dairy and meat farming; now the economy is based on tourism and construction, and the road along the water is lined with stucco-walled condominiums for which Athenians pay startling prices. White wooden hives can be spotted on seemingly every terrace: honey (and yogurt) on Kea, like everywhere in Greece, is just better.

The course begins with a walk around the garden, which Kremezi and Moraitis have made flourish in the eight years since they decided to live full-time on Kea. Kremezi’s grandfather grew up on the island and taught her how and when to pick wild greens, an essential Greek skill. (Surprisingly, the diet on Greek islands includes anything that can be grown or found on land but very little from the sea: fish that can fetch a price goes to mainland markets. The disinclination toward fish is reminiscent of Sardinia, where the sea was associated with invaders.) We picked grape leaves on the first morning—young, soft, matte- surfaced ones, as Kremezi instructed, not shiny older ones—to blanch for wrappers around a rice stuffing freshened with fennel bulb, parsley, dill, mint, and lemon.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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