Home cooks and high-end restaurateurs alike have taken to hedgerows and beaches to forage for wild herbs and sea vegetables over the past couple of years.
But 60-year-old George Demetriades, the larger-than-life owner of Seven St. Georges Tavern, just outside Cyprus’s Paphos, has been serving up incredible meze based on the flora in the woods and fields around the area he grew up in for the past 20 years.
“I’ve foraged for food since I was a little boy. That’s how I grew up, as a hunter-gatherer for healthy food,” Demetriades said.
“I wanted to make an institution more than a restaurant in order to be able to give visitors the chance to get to know the culture of Cyprus and not just fish and chips and the sun,” he added.
There’s no menu at Seven St. Georges, which is housed in a historic stone barn with a trellised terrace. They just keep bringing you mouthwatering little plates of food until you tell them to stop. Demetriades runs the place with two of his sons, Damian in the kitchen and Ben doing front-of-the-house.
Demetriades decided to open the restaurant after becoming saddened by the development of mass tourism around Paphos, with its accompanying processed and inauthentic food. As well as overseeing Seven St Georges, Demtriades runs day-long food lectures and foraging trips. He came to our interview armed with a stack of handwritten notebooks covering his thoughts on everything from how to run a restaurant through the history of olive oil to indigenous Cypriot vegetables.
All of the vegetable dishes are made from ingredients Demetriades grows on his small organic farm or forages from the surrounding area. He also breeds ducks, geese, rabbits and quails; any other meat comes from a local butcher. What’s on offer can change daily, depending on the season and availability.
Inspiration for the recipes comes from traditional dishes, Cyprus’s Middle Eastern neighbors and its former Ottoman, Venetian, Frankish and British rulers.
“We are the belly button of the Middle East, and Cypriot cuisine has never stopped evolving,” he said.
On a late summer afternoon in September we started our lunch with perfect pickled quails’ eggs dusted with wild oregano, fluffy cheese bread, roasted aubergines and wild leeks, potatoes with olive oil and greens and tiny marinated chilies.
There was also an amazing take on moungra, a traditional pickled cauliflower dish, and a rustic hummus drenched in home-pressed aromatic olive oil that bore no relation to the preservative-laden paste you get in many Cypriot tavernas.
The simple village salad and grated carrot in yogurt that came with it was incredibly fresh and flavorful, and the homemade whole-grain bread was dense, wholesome and pleasantly sweetened with raisins.
Next came pork-belly bacon slow-roasted with wild thyme – piggy comfort food at its best – and scrambled eggs with toasted nuggets of zucchini that somehow managed to taste like much more than its simple ingredients.
Goat kleftiko with potatoes was earthy and melt-in-the-mouth, and slices of roast lamb came with a sharp, deep-red apple chutney to cut through the oiliness of the meat.
There was also roast chicken with rice pilaf and slow-cooked beef with black-eyed peas, but we had to force ourselves to call a halt to the savory dishes at some point because we knew there would be dessert.
And dessert didn’t disappoint. Two wonderfully gungy puddings, one sticky date and the other chocolate, nodded to Cyprus’s time under British rule. But our favorite, a light lemon version, smacked us across the face with pure Mediterranean citrus flavor.
Lunch lasted for nearly four hours, and by the end of it, we were in a good-food coma and experts on seasonal foraging, the Latin names for most of the vegetables we had eaten and the history of Cyprus, all thanks to Demetriades.
“Meze is not just food, it’s culture,” he told us. “You eat, you drink, you talk, you relax and you take your time,” he said.