Interview: Maro Voulgari
The cuisine of the Aegean is wise
This year, the South Aegean has been designated as the 2019 European Region of Gastronomy, and Argiro Barbarigou, our own Argiro, is the Ambassador of South Aegean gastronomy. Representing the country, the Cyclades, our island, in this very significant institution, she answers our questions with a touching simplicity, reminding us that food mainly consists of three ingredients: homeland, love, and deeply-etched, indelible memories.
This year, the South Aegean has been designated as European Region of Gastronomy for 2019. What can this distinction mean for the culinary promotion and the tourist development of our islands?
The remarkable distinction of the South Aegean region as 2019 European Region of Gastronomy is not only important for the Cyclades and the Dodecanese, but also for the entire Greece.
This distinction came after a persistent struggle and months-long hard work put in by South Aegean Regional Governor, Mr. Giorgos Hadjimarkos, and his staff. What all of us who joined our efforts in this project recognized as our guiding principles were extroversion, and the connection of gastronomy with the tourism and culture of the South Aegean. The Aegean cuisine boasts one-of-a-kind recipes and flavours, prime-quality products and age-long history, and encompasses all modern international gastronomic trends since it’s, at its core, a vegan, vegetarian, slow-cooking, pescatarian, farm-to-table, sustainable, food-waste-reduce cuisine!
It is this cuisine that fuels thousands of visitors’ taste-bud memories every year, and, yes, it’s a perfectly good reason to choose a destination beyond its thousand-year history, its natural attractions, and the hospitality of its inhabitants. If a place emerges in the consciousness of its visitors as a culinary destination, this may be the incentive they need to visit it again and again.
In fact, gastronomy is an important factor we must take advantage of in order to maintain and strengthen tourism in our country, during and beyond the summer tourist season. Tourist packages enriched with cookery courses could be promoted, which could include attendance and participation in the harvesting and preservation of the products. Whenever I happened to host foreign guests outside the tourist season, they were impressed by our daily routines, our land-related activities in every season, and the shared cooking that, let’s face it, is impossible to experience at the peak of the tourist season!
What, in your opinion, makes the Cycladic cuisine outstanding and unique in the world?
Over the past few years, there’s been a shift in what people around the world think of as good living. The emphasis is now placed on health and longevity, freshly-sourced products consumed where they are produced, super foods, and cooking methods.
The cuisine of our islands and our habits have stood the test of time for thousands of years. The same ingredients have been on our plates every day throughout the centuries –pulses, greens, seafood, cereals, wine, fruits and vegetables, herbs, olive oil, dairy products and dried fruits such as sesame seeds and almonds.
If you’ve noticed, sesame, honey and almonds, are the staple ingredients of almost every dessert on our islands. From the distant past till today, the Aegean cuisine has been wise –it’s been guiding the islanders into using every single ingredient in its season, which is why we have so many recipes. Take chickpeas, for example. One day, chickpeas casserole was served on the table and, the next, leftovers turned into a new recipe: chickpea-balls kneaded with herbs and a few crumbs of bread, which had also been left over. Humble though they may seem ingredient-wise, these recipes are teeming with nutritional benefits!
We must all realize the value of the treasure hidden in the Aegean cuisine.
How do you feel as the “gastronomy ambassador” of the South Aegean region, and what privileges and responsibilities come with this title this year?
I really feel very proud of the honour conferred on me by the South Aegean Region. Of all the distinctions I have earned so far in Greece and abroad, it is this title that makes me recall, feel, create, dream and be confident that I will impart what my heart holds for the Aegean and our islands as an image, as taste, as narrative and as an unparalleled sensation to every corner of the world I’ll visit, and share it with anyone willing to live the “Aegean Islands” experience. This is really a great honour for me. And since for islanders the Aegean is not a mere destination, but another way of life, I feel responsible for initiating into the nutritional wealth and the greatness of simplicity the Aegean life embodies, the people I meet on my travels abroad, as well as journalists from big international publications, who will then transfer them to their countries. At the same time, I feel I have the duty to give a wake-up call to everyone, the young and the young at heart, so that they can realize what a bountiful treasure they possess.
Since 2017 you’ve been participating in the South Aegean Region action, “Aegean Mamas”. What exactly is this action about and why have you been visiting all the islands of the Dodecanese and the Cyclades?
For one year and a half, through the South Aegean Region action “AEGEAN MAMAS KNOW BEST”, we’ve been visiting every island to bring together three generations, that is, young and old mums and their children, seeking to awaken people around the world to the wealth and importance of the Aegean diet, but also to discover some of its well-hidden culinary treasures. We then transfer these treasures across the world –Europe, the U.S., Canada– through relevant events held by the South Aegean Region.
We come in contact with older generations to record old-time habits that are on the verge of becoming obsolete, and local cuisine-related information, putting them down for the next generation to enjoy intact.
Along with the Region’s team, we impart all the above to school students of every age. And we manage to do this with frequent visits to the schools of all the islands, large and small, informing the students through an interactive process of discussion, game, cooking and exploration, and other activities. Meanwhile, we exchanged views with teenagers at TEDx youth.
How is the Cycladic cuisine welcomed in international fairs? Can these events pave the way for exports of new products?
I’m delighted to tell you that wherever we have presented the Aegean gastronomy, local products have had a huge impact on the public. And this is also shown by the distinctions the South Aegean Region receives in almost every international fair. A recent example is the tourism fair held in London a few months ago, where our stand won first prizes in presentation and taste.
Our actions can certain expand our products into new markets. Besides, as I told you, all the events we’ve been holding around the world aim at extroversion.
What’s a good chef made of? What makes up good food for you?
They’re made of perseverance, patience, diligence, dedication, concern, method, discipline, concentration, and the ingredients list goes on and the recipe will come out too long! Good food is one of the greatest pleasures involving all the senses.
What would you never cook?
I think I’d cook every edible ingredient and perhaps some more special and hard-to-find ingredients out of sheer curiosity alone –which I’ve already done.
What would be the perfect flavourful welcome for a foreigner visiting our islands for the first time?
If you want to convey to a guest your love for your home place, the best thing to do is to receive them in your home and offer them the flavours you yourself grew up with. If these flavors are unforgettable to you and you’re constantly seeking them, imagine what will happen to someone tasting them for the first time.
Fortunately, the current trend is for everything to be fresh and handmade in modern-day demanding kitchens. Do you think that investing in good-quality fresh raw materials is worth the trouble and the cost?
Well, this is also the philosophy of the Aegean cuisine. I take it for granted, I don’t have any doubts whatsoever about it, nor is there any compromise when it comes to quality. Using prime quality raw materials is a non-negotiable priority.
Could you give us your first food memory from the island, which you still remember with emotion?
I remember, when I was a little kid, Kortiano’s bakery in Naoussa. It’s been long gone now, but back then, on Sunday mornings, when I walked past it, the whole neighborhood was filled with flavours from the Sunday chickpea stew! And every September, when the same bakery constantly baked batches of “pastelaries,” figs with sesame seeds, for days in a row, the aroma would make me lose my mind. Even today, to me Sundays smell of Parian chickpea stew and September always has the fragrance of mature baked figs with notes of cinnamon and toasted sesame seeds.
I never go abroad without some pastelaries with me. Here, I should point out that it’s probably the healthiest snack in the world. These are the recipes I first learned to put together: chickpea stew, pastelaries and bread! No matter how many years may go by, they still remain my soft spots. And since we’re talking about a bakery, let me add that our islands have a great bakery and oven-cooking tradition.
The classic restaurant Papadakis has written its own history in Naoussa. If someone wants to get a taste of your “culinary philosophy,” where in Paros could they go?
Paros is a destination that provides visitors with a tremendously broad range of culinary experiences. Many entrepreneurs have understood the importance of good raw materials and authentic flavours. I can see that in relatives and friends who are restaurateurs and who go to great lengths to meet quality standards, but also in hoteliers who focus on breakfast prepared with PAROS-sourced products. It was a great pleasure for me to see my daughter Konstantina move, a few years ago, where she belongs, to Naoussa, Paros. And along with Yannis, her life partner, they decided to initiate the patrons of “Statheros” restaurant, to the Parian cuisine they have both loved through their family experiences.
Share the taste of our island with its visitors! Sushi can be relished in London and New York… On Paros they must taste Parian dishes and remember them after they leave. Create lasting culinary memories for every visitor! We ourselves make our place a gastronomic destination and give our island the goodwill it deserves.
A nice summer and a good tourist season to all Parians!