When I travel, I love to experience a local cooking class to get the full immersive experience into the culture and food of the places I visit. Last month, I had a blast with my family at a cooking class featuring green chile in Santa Fe, New Mexico and this month, I had the amazing experience of a Greek cooking class in Santorini.
This was my first (and certainly not last!) trip to Greece, and food was certainly a highlight. Like my colleague Kate, I hit the most popular destinations in the country: Athens, Santorini and Mykonos. Each place was different in its scenery and history, but all shared delicious food and drink. I was especially excited about visiting Santorini (aka Thera to the Greeks) because my friend Cheryl and I had booked a cooking class at a highly-recommended winery, Artemis Karamolegos in Exo Gonia, Santorini. But before we dig into the food, we must discuss the wines of Santorini.
The Wines of Santorini
Santorini is famous for its wines, especially its sweet, rich wine, Vinsanto which we tasted and cooked with in our class, but since I'm not a big fan of sweet wines, I'm partial to their rosé wines, which are nice and dry.
Santorini produces a range of wines from approximately 40 indigenous Greek grape varieties, principally Assyrtiko (80% of the island’s vineyards), Aidani, Mandilaria, Mavrotragano, Katsano and Gaidouria. The island’s wine industry dates back at least 3,500 years, and is likely even older.
This tree that is still producing grapes at the Artemis Karamolegos winery is over 700 years old. And although there are more than 14,000 acres of vineyards on the tiny island, viticulture is no joke. Yields are low and grapes must be picked manually. The sandy, volcanic soil helps retain water over the summer since it typically only rains during the winter, but there are no water sources on the island. They rely on captured rainwater, merely 10 inches a year, and a local desalination plant.
Because water is so precious, grape vines are kept close to the ground so that they can absorb morning dew. This also provides the vines protection from the island's high winds. You can see grape vines in circular wreaths all over the island, and supposedly, each complete circle represents ten years of growth. The basket-like way of pruning and "winding" the vines which is called "kouloura" and is unique to Santorini. Here are some vines just steps away from our rental in Finikia near Oia in Santorini.
The Appetizer: A Glass of Rosé
We arrived to the winery a little early for our class, but we were greeted hospitably (which was the case all over Greece) and seated in a lovely courtyard full of trees with olives, grapes and pomegranates. A glass of rosé was the perfect way to start our afternoon!
Pomegranate and olive trees at the winery
I quickly learned on this trip that while in Greece, you are on Greek time, and there is literally no rush to do anything, so our class was a little delayed to start. I was imagining what The Chopping Block's students in Chicago would say if we started a class late. Imagine the Yelp reviews I'd have to respond to! But I'll admit the laid back pace was a nice change for me.
We were in a group of ten people (no surprise that we were all Americans) and all couples except for Cheryl and I. Two couples were honeymooning (a popular activity in Greece), and all of the students were very nice. We each had a station with an apron, cutting board and knife, though I was a little surprised at the knife choice.
Since we only used it to chop cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, it was totally fine, but it wasn't the Shun knife I'm used to working with at home and in our cooking classes. And once I realized the wine was unlimited and constantly flowing during the class, I understand why the staff may have chosen a safer alternative for students to use.
Unlike at The Chopping Block, we didn't get our recipes until the end of class so we just followed the chef's instructions. Chef "Chris" (short for Chrysostomos) was engaging, informative and truly hilarious. He did a great job of speaking to everyone in the group, and he and his assistant made sure we always stayed on track. Check out the view behind him in the gorgeous kitchen that overlooks the winery's vegetable gardens!
The first course was the Santorini take on a traditional Greek salad. It's composed of perfectly-ripe Santorini cherry tomatoes, "Katsouni" Santorini's local cucumber, spring onions, capers, caper leaves (which I had never had before but now have a jar in my pantry - more on that later), olives, extra virgin olive oil, oregano, salt and fresh goat cheese called "chloro."
Now, about that cheese. Like any typical American, you can find a plastic box of Atheno's feta cheese in my fridge right now. I add it to salads regularly. However, American feta is nothing at all like Greek feta, and I never had a clue! Most feta produced in the U.S. is made with cow’s milk and deposited directly in brine. The result is a buttery and mild but very salty and dry cheese. In the E.U., feta is required to contain at least 70 percent sheep’s milk and up to 30 percent goat’s milk. Cow’s milk is never used, and the cheese is typically dry aged for three months to a year. Differing milk sources and aging techniques result in vast differences in texture and flavor. Sheep milk produces the sharpest flavors; goat milk mellows it. Aging adds complexity.
In Greece, cheese is so adored that the average person eats 50 pounds of it a year. The chloro we had is a fresh cheese made by Santorinian ladies that is hard to find in taverns or restaurants, and is even more difficult to buy on the open market. I could have easily eaten every bite of chloro in that salad and then some, so 50 pounds a year doesn't seem like a stretch to me!
Cheryl with our Santorini Salad
Fava with Onions, Capers and Caper Leaves
They whisked away our salads to be enjoyed later while we watched the chef prepare the fava dish. This was a new dish for me, and I was interested to learn that Santorini Fava is what’s known as a ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ or PDO. That’s because the particular beans grow on the island in the rich volcanic soil and have been grown there exclusively for 3,500 years! And they must come from the island to be known as Santorini Fava because of the designation. Taste wise, they are known for having a velvety texture and being sweeter than other Fava beans. Of course, I had to buy a bag at the winery so I could recreate this fantastic dish at home. If you don't have access to Greek Fava, you can substitute yellow split peas.
This dish can be served as an appetizer, side or as a dip served with pita bread. It's definitely going on my next Greek meze platter! Chef Chris served our tasting sample with a drizzle of olive oil, fresh diced raw onion and of course, more capers and caper leaves.
I was so enamored with the caper leaves I sought them out at a grocery store in Athens before returning home. In addition to salads and fava, they can be used however you would normally use capers themselves. So, I plan to use them in every piccata dish I make from now on (usually Grouper Piccata which I think will be delicious) as well as tomato sauces, soups, stews and braised bean dishes.
The standout dish in the menu we made during class was definitely the Tomato Fritters for me. We watched the chef make the fritter batter consisting of more Santorini cherry tomatoes, onions, parsley, dill, mint, oregano, all-purpose flour and self-rising flour. There was also a pinch of sweet paprika and cinnamon in the dish, and Chef Chris wanted all of us Americans to taste the difference between Greek cinnamon and what we are used to in the States. I was blown away at how spicy and pungent it was! So, of course, I had to find some at the Athens grocery store and bring some back. Can you tell I went to Greece with a very large suitcase not completely full? I had to fill it with food, art, clothes and gifts to bring back!
After Chef Chris had the batter ready, we took turns forming the fritters and frying them in oil. This was really the only hands-on cooking we did during the class, but I'm definitely a demonstration-style class fan, so I was totally fine with this. I think you learn so much more by watching the chef rather than jumping in and doing the cooking yourself. So, the format of this class was perfect for me. Besides, it was really about the ingredients rather than cooking techniques. They were the stars of the show!
Cheryl frying tomato fritters
We tasted some of the fritters both with and without the feta. Honestly, I loved them both, but I'd probably serve them with the cheese once I make the fritters at home. I've already sought out Greek feta available in my supermarket because unfortunately that was one food I couldn't bring home in my suitcase!
The final dish was Pork in Vinsanto Sauce. The pork was cut into small pieces and sautéed before adding an entire bottle of Vinsanto wine. Considering the bottle cost $40 euros (almost equivalent to U.S. dollars right now), this isn't a weekday dish; it's for special occasions. The chef flambéed the wine which is burning, or “flaming,” off the alcohol in a food by igniting it. It was definitely an ooh and ah moment for the students!
The pork was perfectly cooked and its savoriness was a nice complement to the sauce which was rich, thick and sweet, but not too sweet.
Once the cooking was done, we had time for a few photos. The assistant was also a very good photographer and even threw in some artistic shots through a wine glass. This definitely wasn't his first rodeo with a group of tourists who wanted Instagram-worthy photos!
We went over to the winery for more photos and shopping. I took home the fava as mentioned but also a beautiful bottle of rosé which we enjoyed while hanging out in the pool the next evening.
At this point, we could have left the winery full and happy (and perhaps slightly buzzed), but we were shocked to learn that we were invited to sit down together as a group at the restaurant and enjoy a full meal family-style of the dishes from the class. So, we enjoyed the salad we made, more tomato fritters, and another plate of pork which was even better when served along with the fava.
By this point our ride was waiting, so we had to leave, but the staff was kind enough to bring us a tasting of a dessert of fried cinnamon crisps (with that lovely Greek cinnamon) and gelato paired with the Vinsanto dessert wine.
This cooking class blew away my expectations and was beyond fun. We met some very cool people (we even ran into one of the couples multiple times later in the trip), had a fantastic time amid the most picturesque scenery and were quite possibly the fullest we've ever been (and that's saying a lot considering how much we ate on this trip). We were very impressed with the staff's knowledge, skills and the hospitality they showed, as well as the quality of ingredients and delicious wines. I would highly recommend the cooking class at Aroma Avlis (the winery's restaurant) if you are ever lucky enough to get to Santorini.
And if you can't get to Greece but are near The Chopping Block in Chicago (or really anywhere for our virtual classes), we can transport you to faraway lands with our wide variety of cooking classes. From Mexican tacos to banh mi burgers inspired by Vietnam to Japan's sushi and bistro fare from France, here are just some of our upcoming global offerings:
- Hands-On Sushi Workshop Friday, October 7 6pm Lincoln Square
- Hands-On Regional Street Tacos on the Patio Friday, October 7 6pm Lincoln Square
- Virtual Banh Mi Burgers Friday, October 14 6pm CST
- Hands-On French Bistro Saturday, October 22 6pm Lincoln Square