It happened quite by accident, really . . . a brief walk to look for a restaurant and we end up in a Greek cooking course. My wife and I were spending a relaxing two weeks on Poros with a couple of friends, soaking up the sunshine, Greek atmosphere, and of course the Greek food and wine. One day, we discovered a little restaurant called the Odyssey Apartments & Bistro, just a block off Askeli beach and decided to try it that evening. Greeks normally eat very late in the evening, so we were a little hesitant as we arrived at the restaurant quite early, but they assured us they were open and serving food. Our part-time “waiter” was a wandering Scottish fellow who was also running a sea kayaking business which was loosely associated with the restaurant and adjoining apartments.
Starting with some water and a couple of carafes of wine, we were soon involved in a lively discussion about Poros, Greek food and the local life. When we spotted a note on their literature about Greek cooking courses, he summoned the owner to explain this to us. This was how we met Katerina Sakelliou, a passionate Greek cook and culinary expert in the history and details of the ingredients used. We learned later she was married to a Dutch fellow, so she spoke Greek, English and Dutch! It was an interesting evening, as she spoke English with us, turned to her kitchen helpers and spoke Greek, and still managed to carry on a conversation with her friend Cleo, who was from Holland.
After a short discussion, we all agreed we would come back the next day and try this short course. In order to limit the time involved with preparation that evening, we decided to keep our menu to three main items – stuffed tomatoes and peppers, spanikopita (spinach pie) and chicken breasts stuffed with feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes . . . even so, an ambitious start.
We showed up at the restaurant/school at about five o’clock in the afternoon, and we were put to work cutting up vegetables, parsley, mint and dill. Katerina told us that all the ingredients were locally grown, like the herbs we were chopping that were gathered that afternoon. They either grew their own produce either on the island or on the mainland, or dealt with local farmers for the items they did not have. For instance, while we were chopping veggies and herbs, a young man on a motor-scooter pulled up to the restaurant with a large parcel – fresh local chickens for the meals served that evening.
As we worked, we were soon enveloped in a fragrant cloud of delicious aromas of all of the fresh herbs we were preparing. As the lessons continued, our Chef proceeded to explain each step, as well as relating short stories and even some historical background about what we were doing. We learned a clever way to hollow out tomatoes and peppers for their stuffing. Katerina was one of those cooks who rarely measured things. We would ask “how much salt, pepper, dill or oregano”.
The answer would be something like “Oh, about this much”, as she proceeded to add the ingredients, almost haphazardly. With the stuffed chicken breasts (which were to die for!), I wanted to know what she added as she cooked them, as these details were not covered in our basics. With a flourish, we watched as she added some white wine, poured in some fresh cream and then added a generous dollop of rich, Greek yogurt as the chicken breasts sizzled in the pan. It was all quite natural for her, all quite magic for us.
Without getting into further recipe details, the entire evening was a concert of laughter, eating, drinking, and interacting with the restaurant patrons. Katerina had set up a sign outside the bistro on which she had chaulked in English – “Tonight – Special Menu!! – Prepared by our Greek Cooking Students – Fabulous Spinach Pie, Stuffed Peppers and Tomatoes, Special Prices”. This brought a few inquiries from curious tourists who were walking by, many of whom returned later to enjoy our efforts. They were people from many parts of the world, all willing to participate in the food and fun provided by some other crazy tourists under the tutelage of an expert Greek Cook, in fact, several signed up for the next course. Well lubricated with wine and ouzo (included in the training course), we all acted as part-time waiters, cooks and restauranteurs which turned the entire evening into a rather crazy but very special event!
We know that from now on, each time we have Greek food, or even catch a brief fragrance of certain fresh herbs, vivid memories of our evening on Poros and our Greek cooking course will flood back.
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