The jolly middle aged man with slightly rounded features and a walk that reminded us of Andre the Giant rattled off the specials of the day. This was a weekday in the Mediterranean and the specials were the only items on the menu. Goat stew, tzatziki, Greek salad, and Briam. I get such a thrill when I hear the words tzatziki and briam in the same sentence. Tzatziki is a traditional yogurt dip made with Greek yogurt, grated cucumber, lots of garlic, dill (and sometimes mint), olive oil, and salt. It is the perfect pairing with briam, a mix of oven baked vegetables, often with a base of eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, and tomatoes swimming in golden extra virgin olive oil.
When done right there isn’t a simpler meal that makes me so happy (a fresh tomato sandwich with cucumbers might be a close second). I was pretty sure that this was going to be the place that would do it right. My wife, Christine, and I were having our first meal on the tiny island of Ikaria, famous for it’s long living inhabitants. The island has one of the highest rates of people living over the age of 100 in the world and is known as “The Island where People forget to Die” from a New York Times article telling the story of a man who recovers from terminal cancer when he moves back from America to his home of Ikaria.
Christine and I sat on the ocean blue porch of the taverna overlooking the Aegean Sea.
Village wine is poured into small water glasses. It is slightly tart and sweet and is easy to drink. We fill our bread with tzatziki and speak with the Taverna owner’s son. They speak English well because they lived in San Francisco for 20 years. It is in this moment that I notice the feeling that surrounded me for the rest of our time on the island. Everywhere I went in Ikaria had an undercurrent of energy that felt ethereal, magical, and mystical. I don’t remember any other place in the world that felt this way. It’s the kind of feeling that sticks with you even months after leaving.
The Briam is brought to us along with a simple Greek salad. They, of course, have large puddles of olive oil surrounding them. I ask the owner of the restaurant about how the Briam is prepared. He is proud of his wife’s dish and talks about it with bravado and confidence about how it is made yet it is obvious he doesn’t have a clue.
After telling us exactly how it is made, he comes by later to tell us that he spoke to his wife and that there are few changes to his ideas. It is cooked in a Dutch oven for two hours at 200 degrees Celsius (about 400 degrees Fahrenheit). I meet his wife, her name is Koula.
After a number of attempts to get the recipe from Koula, she ends up giving it to me a week later, just 5 minutes before we are heading out to leave the island. I still can feel the magic of the island every time I make her recipe.