Cruising the Greek Islands Part 3 – A day in Santorini (and recipes for a delicious meze)

Santorini is a place I have always wanted to visit. Of all the Greek Islands I think it has the most allure.

At the distance viewed from my balcony on the morning our ship anchored the buildings looked almost miniature-like. Perched haphazardly on the cliff top the town looked every bit as charming as its many photographs portray. The cliff face was stunning, dramatic.

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This stop was the only occasion on the cruise that we needed to take tenders ashore. My husband and I headed to disembarkation directly after breakfast, eager to get started with our day – another hot, cloudless day awaited us.

We deliberately chose not to book a tour for Santorini. I wanted us to discover the island for ourselves and at our own pace. And it had always been a dream of mine to enjoy a long lazy lunch on a sun-drenched Santorinian terrace overlooking the Aegean.

Fortunately we didn’t have to queue long for the cable car once we reached the small port and were soon immersed in the streets of Fira, Santorini’s capital and largest town.

We had a lot of fun exploring the narrow streets, despite the crowds. It was a shame there had been another cruise ship in port that morning, making it extremely busy. Later that day we got chatting to some people and they told us there can sometimes be as many as five cruise ships in port on any one day. I tried not to imagine the chaos that would cause in the narrow streets of Fira. We were lucky it was the passengers of only one other cruise ship we were sharing Santorini with that day.

During our explorations we came across the Orthodox Cathedral that sits towards the bottom of the town. We had glimpsed its dome several times while walking and were keen to have a look inside when we finally reached it. We weren’t disappointed. Outside it was hot, noisy, busy. Inside the cathedral it was cool and peaceful. And very beautiful. Especially the frescoes, which I learned were painted by Christoforos Asimis, a local artist. The interior dome was particularly impressive. Unfortunately you weren’t allowed to take photographs inside but in a way this helped to make it the peaceful place it was – a haven from the bustle going on outside.

After walking the town we got in a spot of shopping. I’d have to say the shops in Fira were much like we’d seen in Mykonos and Rhodes previously but that didn’t stop me. My favourite purchase was a lovely gem of a necklace from one of the many jewellery stores.

After all that walking and shopping we decided it was time for lunch – the pièce de résistance of my day. It was a good thing we had already looked out a place we wanted to eat earlier in the day, which meant no hassle choosing somewhere once we were hungry.

Da Costa ticked all the boxes when it came to living up to my dream. The restaurant was modern but charming and promised traditional Greek food. Most importantly it had that incredible view I’d dreamed about.

With the caldera wall below us, we had a panoramic view over Fira and the volcano. Santorini is the most active volcanic centre in the southern part of the Aegean. In fact, what you see today is what remains after several large eruptions dating back thousands of years. From the ship that morning we’d had a spectacular view of the caldera wall and from our restaurant it was the opposite view. Magnificent.

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As for the food – delicious. We ate grilled vegetables, baked feta, stuffed vine leaves with tzatziki, crusty bread and the most incredible fried zucchini balls. My husband and I both agreed that the zucchini balls were the standout dish of the day. We almost ordered a second portion. Delicious food, local wine, blue sky, sunshine and spectacular views – I was happy.

When we finally dragged ourselves away from the table we realised it was too late to catch a boat to Oia, a village 11 kms northwest of Fira. It’s often referred to as the island’s most picturesque village. It is this village that you see in many of the postcards and photographs of Santorini – charming narrow streets with whitewashed buildings and blue-domed churches. Not to mention incredible viewpoints. This village is more traditional and quieter than Fira.

Some friends we made on the ship told us that they caught a boat to Oia from Fira port and then a taxi up to the village. They loved it. I do regret not making it there but I suppose it’s one of the sacrifices you make when cruising – not having enough time to properly see the amazing places you visit.

Of course, the answer to rectifying this disappointment is to make sure we return to Santorini at some point in the future. Next time I’ll make sure we spend a few days because I would love to see a Santorinian sunset – I’ve heard they’re quite something.

I’m fortunate that my parents visited Oia when they were on Santorini in 2009 and have graciously allowed me to share a few of their photos. A beautiful place.

 

And now I have a final tip to share with you. After some post-lunch exploring we decided it was time to head back to the ship. We had noticed earlier in the day a queue forming for the return journey on the cable car. We toyed with the idea of settling down at one of the quaint bars while we waited for the crowds to ease. When we realised it was unlikely to happen for some time we decided there was nothing else for it but to join the queue. I’m not great at the best of times when it comes to queues and it wasn’t how I would have chosen to finish our lovely day on Santorini.

Of course, there is always the donkey track option but it wasn’t for me. I don’t actually like having to watch the poor donkeys pulling such weight up a steep hill in the blistering heat. And I was equally uninterested in walking the track myself and having to step around what the donkeys leave behind.

So, here’s the tip (if you’ve only got the day in Santorini). Get a tender to port early, take the cable car up to Fira (or walk the track if you feel like a bit of exertion), have a look around and then catch the cable car down to port before the queues start. Take a boat transfer to Oia and have lunch there. Although I couldn’t fault our excellent lunch at Da Costa, if I had my time over again this is how I would have organised the day.

 

Thinking about what I wanted to cook this week it struck me how much fun I’m having churning out all this Mediterranean food in my kitchen. We’re nearing the end of winter here in New Zealand and the flavours of the Mediterranean are making me long for hot days and warm nights. Roll on summer!

As much as I would have liked to recreate the excellent zucchini balls we had at Da Costa, I’m not a fan of deep-frying at home. So I’ve improvised and gone with courgette and halloumi fritters – these gorgeous things are shallow fried in much less oil and taste fabulous. I’ve reverted to calling them courgettes because I got used to this name when I was living in the UK and it stuck. But in New Zealand they are also called zucchini.

I serve these fritters with my homemade tzatziki, which is ridiculously easy to make. If you’re able to get your hands on proper traditional Greek yoghurt it will be even better – the “Greek style” yoghurts at the supermarket don’t quite live up to the real thing.

The baked feta, once again, is a cinch to make as are the roasted vegetables. It all comes together to make a fantastic little meze.

 

Courgette and Halloumi Fritters

Makes 16 IMG_1942

3 good-sized courgettes

4 spring onions, chopped

150g halloumi cheese

Small bunch fresh oregano

Small bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley

½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons dried oregano

100g plain flour

Salt and pepper

3 eggs

Olive oil, for frying

 

Grate the courgettes and lay the shards on a tea towel. This will help to soak up the excess moisture. I like to also lay some kitchen towel over the top. Leave them for about twenty minutes.

Heat a frying pan on the hob.

Put the chopped spring onions into to a bowl. Grate the halloumi (or you can just crumble it) and add to the bowl. Finely chop the fresh herbs and add these, along with the cumin, coriander, cinnamon and dried oregano. Combine together then stir through the flour and seasoning.

Transfer the grated courgettes into the bowl and mix together well. Finally, beat the eggs in a separate bowl or jug and then slowly add to the courgette mixture, stirring as you go.

Your pan should be nice and hot by now. Add a few tablespoons of oil so that the oil covers the base of the pan. Take a dessertspoon of mixture and carefully transfer into the pan. I like to flatten it out a bit so that it cooks evenly. Repeat until you’ve filled the pan – although don’t cram them in. Depending on the size of the pan you’ll need to do this in two or three batches.

The fritters should only take a few minutes per side to turn nice and golden. Watch closely on the first batch so that you know your timing for the remaining batches.

Once cooked, transfer the fritters to a plate lined with kitchen towel.

There’s no need to eat these when they’re piping hot – they’re actually lovely served warm or even at room temperature. No stress.

The tzatziki to go with these fritters couldn’t be easier:

 

Tzatziki

250g Greek yoghurt

1 clove garlic, peeled and minced

Half a large cucumber, peeled, deseeded and chopped finely

Salt

Juice of a lemon

Bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped

 

Simply add all of these ingredients into a bowl and mix well. As to the garlic, I use my microplane grater and grate it straight into the bowl. Once everything is combined have a taste and see if you want to add any more salt or lemon juice.

 

Baked Feta

200g block feta cheese

A few fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped

½ red chilli, seeds removed and finely chopped

Extra-virgin olive oil

 

Drain the feta and dry it with some kitchen towel. Place it on a piece of foil. Scatter over the oregano and chilli. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.

Bring the edges of the foil together and scrunch to form a sealed parcel. Place on a baking tray and cook in an oven preheated to 200°C for 10-15 minutes or until the feta has softened.

 

Roasted Vegetables

Use whatever vegetables you like here. I’ve gone for aubergine (one of my favourite things to eat) and peppers. I love the peppers because their colours are so vibrant they can’t help but look beautiful on the plate.

1 red pepper

1 green pepper

1 yellow pepper

1 aubergine

Deseed the peppers and chop them each in half or quarters. Cut the aubergine into 1cm slices. Place the prepared vegetables in a lined oven tray, season and drizzle over some olive oil. Toss the vegetables so they all get slicked in the oil. Bake at 200°C for around forty minutes.

 

In fact, you can easily put the feta on a rack below the vegetables for the last fifteen minutes.

I like to serve it all with some warmed pita breads cut into pieces. You can give them a quick warm through in the oven by putting them on the tray with the feta for the last couple of minutes.

The tzatziki is also a great dip for the pita bread – or just smother the pita with some of that divine baked feta.

Now just eat.

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