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All around Messinia lie endless fields of olive trees, their silvery leaves shining everywhere you look. This region in the southwestern part of the Peloponnese has been known for its fertile land since ancient times. Some of the best olive oil in the world comes from here.

The capital, largest city and central port of Messinia is Kalamata, known around the globe, of course, for its famous namesake olives. It lies at the top of the Messinian Gulf, with a view of the water’s blue expanse. Above it towers the imposing Mount Taygetos. Together, the mountains, sea and land have created a gastronomic paradise.

The olive oil of this region, which, like the olives, has a protected designation of origin, is aromatic and thick, with a deep yellow-green color, fruity notes and a slightly bitter aftertaste – an indication of its rich antioxidant properties. We recommend the multiple award-winning Iliada by Agrovim or Doleon, both from Kalamata.

Kalamata olives come from the Nyhati Kalamon (Olea Europea var. ceraticarpa) tree, whose leaves grow to twice the size of other olive tree varieties. The drupes are almond-shaped, dark purple in color, quite meaty and full of flavor.

For local cheeses, we go to Polyphemos in Kalamata’s central food market. Named after the Odyssey’s one-eyed Cyclops, who also happened to be a shepherd and a cheesemaker, this shop is owned by the Petropoulos family, who have been making cheese and yogurt since 1960 at their nearby workshop. They use only high-quality local milk and traditional family recipes.

The most famous regional cheeses produced in the area are sfela, kserosfeli and talagani. Sfela is a hard cheese made of sheep’s milk that is aged and preserved in brine. It is similar to feta cheese but spicier and saltier and lower in fat content. Because of its spiciness, some call it the “cheese of fire.” Kserosfeli is made of sheep’s milk (or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk) and is similar to sfela except that it’s cooled at an early stage of maturing. It’s ideal for frying or grilling. Talagani made entirely from sheep’s milk doesn’t have a history as long as that of feta or sfela, yet its beautiful texture and buttery flavor when grilled or fried has made it very popular all over Greece.

Locals here often pair cheese with lalagia, crispy strings of dough fried in olive oil, which can be found in every single bakery around the area and several pastry shops. The ones made in the traditional way with leavened dough are highly addictive!

Diples are a popular dessert enjoyed all over Greece, but they originate from the Peloponnesus – and in Messinia we found superlative versions. The dessert takes its name from the verb diplono, “to fold”; diples are made with an egg-based batter that is rolled out into thin sheet-like stripes of dough deep-fried while being folded. After they cool, they are drenched in honey and sprinkled with chopped walnuts and sometimes cinnamon. They are considered “the dessert of happiness” in Greece and are among the treats enjoyed at Christmastime. Back in the day, whenever there was a happy occasion to celebrate, Messinian women would gather together to make diples while singing traditional happy songs. In Messinia, diples are still traditionally offered at weddings and baptisms, and each pastry is garnished with a sugared almond on top for good luck.

Tharouniatis pastry shop makes by far the best diples we have ever tasted. Light and crispy, it’s dipped in just the right amount of high-quality, thick thyme honey and topped with freshly chopped walnuts. We also love the lalagia here, and if you happen to be in Kalamata between October and March don’t miss the shop’s famous loukoumades (Greek-style doughnut).

The city of Kalamata is legendary for pasteli, a honey-and-sesame snack with a 6,000-year-old history. It was much loved by the ancient Greeks, and in the Iliad Homer describes warriors eating pasteli for energy before heading off to battle. Lambou Brothers in Kalamata is a family-run shop specializing in pasteli and has been in business since 1950. They offer a broad selection of flavors, many of which can be found in delis all over Greece.

Figs have had a very significant part in the city’s economic growth. In 1935 Sykiki, the fig producers’ association was founded in Kalamata. Today Sykiki manages annually about 3,000 tons of figs, most of which are dried and 92 percent of which are exported. At Athanasiou, a bakery and pastry shop established in 1938 with several branches around the city, there is a wide variety of dried-fig snacks, including heavenly glazed figs stuffed with walnuts and covered in bitter chocolate, fig-paste bars, fig jam and fig “spoon sweet.”

Pork is definitely the favored meat here. The local delicacy gournopoula is available on virtually every corner, especially during the summer months. A whole pig is slowly roasted for hours in huge ovens until the meat turns melt in your mouth tender and the skin crispy and delicious. Once roasted, the pig is kept in a glass display case which keeps it warm and sliced to order and sold by the kilo, sprinkled with salt, pepper and oregano. It’s best accompanied by ice-cold beer.

At Mitsos, a little eatery in Asprohoma near the entrance to the city of Kalamata, gournopoula is all it sells (along with some salad or fried potatoes to go with it), and locals here know it’s the best of the best.

The local pasto, or salt-cured pork, is an old traditional recipe that is still very popular and a great meze to go with ouzo or tsipouro. To prepare it, first the fat is removed, and then the meat is rubbed with salt and thyme and allowed to cure for about 10 days in the shade. Then it’s smoked over wood with wild herbs collected from Mount Taygetos. It’s washed and boiled in wine, local herbs and spices, olive oil and orange peel and then preserved in olive oil. We recommend the famous and award-winning pasto made by the Economakos family. Like so much else here, it pairs well with – what else – olives.

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Published on September 21, 2016

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