In Messinia, the southwestern part of the Peloponnese, I found the spirit of Tuscany in Greece. Specifically at Costa Navarino. It’s not just the curvaceous rolling hills or cypress trees lining the roads. Nor is it only the vineyards that cover patches of green land with olive groves that seemed to fill the rest. It was also the scent of lavender, the touch of sun on my skin and fullness of the space that coaxed deep breaths.
We were nearing the end of the epicurean journey in Greece and our last stop was Costa Navarino. I was unfamiliar with the destination and it turns out not many Americans venture this far out west on the mainland. A three and a half hour drive from Athens made for a scenic route but long nonetheless. Those from the UK can benefit from direct flights to Kalamata airport and face a more palatable forty five minute drive winding through small villages. But once we were within the Costa Navarino complex of golf courses, resorts and dunes and settled into a meat feast at Flame Restaurant the long journey seemed like a distant memory.
Costa Navarino dining
Dining in Costa Navarino was very much a sensory experience. It took me down memory lane to my first Greek experience, rendered me speechless with the mesmerizing decor at Barbouni and warmed me with the comforts of a traditional home cooked Messinian meal.
We must have stood by the entryway to Barbouni, spellbound with our necks craned with cameras and phones in front of us, for a good fifteen minutes before we resolved to sit for lunch. Barbouni, Greek for red mullet, is an open air restaurant that sits on the Dunes beach by the Ionian Sea. When a breeze passed through the ceiling fluttered and hanging lanterns danced. The fabric attached to wooden beams of the ceiling was designed to mimic the graceful movements of the red mullet. As sunbathers walked about the sandy beach Mediterranean classics like grilled octopus, fried calamari, deep fried sardines along with fresh Greek salads were laid on the marble table. I cannot recall whether we could hear waves from the sea or just how warm the chocolate cake was but I do know that the interior design of a restaurant had never captivated me so.
At night sea turtles have been known to arrive at the beach to lay eggs, in order to not disturb them the restaurant is only open for lunch and early dinner.
When I think of a gyro I think of a poster plastered on the grease stained wall of the Greek-owned pizza parlour I lived above as a kid. Swayed by the image of glistening chunks of unidentified meat that was bursting out of a pita wrap layered with purple onions, tomatoes, lettuce and white tzatziki sauce my mother opted out of pizza and decided to split a gyro with me.
At Souvlakerie, I dined alone and savored every morsel of their pork gyro. It brought back the sweetest childhood memories until I realized that in Greece gyros are loaded with fries (which makes so much sense) and could not help feeling a little ripped off by the “American” version I grew up with.
Messinia cuisine & experiences
Glutton I may be but it is always the intersection between food and culture that interests me the most. While Costa Navarino might be a golfer’s paradise here are some of the food experiences I was lucky enough to take part in:
Olive harvesting & tasting
I arrived in Costa Navarino just in time for the beginning of olive harvest season. Strands of olives hung like earrings on the thousands of olives trees planted throughout the resort. I watched the two gardeners hand prune a tree of Koroneiki olive variety not far from Chef Dimitris Melemenis’s organic garden and worked with great efficiency in separating olives from its branches with a rake before storing the green gems in linen bags marked for the olive mill for cold pressing.
Later at an olive oil tasting workshop held in Costa Navarino I learned about the nuances of olives and its oil. I’ve never given thought to the different characteristics of olive oil before and how similar it can be to wine. Like Greek wine olive oil should be paired with food suggested olive oil expert and art historian, Christina Stribacu. To be considered a good extra virgin olive oil (evoo) there should be a balance among three key characteristics: fruity, bitter and spicy. The Navarino Icons evoo, Costa Navarino’s brand name olive oil made from Koroneiki olives (the queen of Greek varieties), was buttery on the palate with notes of banana and grass. Some of the tips Christina offered, which I still abide by two months later, include avoiding olive oil sold in transparent bottles since light is one of the enemies to quality and opting for smaller bottles because contact with oxygen also alters quality. Lastly, it is also a common myth that extra virgin olive oil cannot be used for frying; it can and is a healthier alternative to other oils.
Messinia cooking class
On Alison’s last evening in Greece we ventured out to Pylos, a neighboring town, for a traditional cooking class with Ms Lula and Ms Ana. They had quite the Messinian menu in store for us including a dish of salt pork scrambled with eggs and tomatoes (kagianas), baked tourlou consisting of garden vegetables and handmade pasta called hylopites tossed with myzithra cheese. All this time I thought a pasta machine is required to produce the ideal sheet of pasta but having seen Ms Lula use nothing else but a rolling pin convinced me that handrolled has its merits. It was gratifying to feel the dough succumb to pressure, flattening and shaping underneath each layer of rolling out the dough. Even more delightful was enjoying fresh pasta sopping with the savoriness of the kagianas. Dinner was served family-style and ended with all participants groaning congratulations to each other on a meal well done.
Note: I was a guest of Costa Navarino and worked in collaboration with The Luxury Collection on this piece.