Edible Destinations: Mt. Olympus
Straddling the northern Greek regions of Macedonia and Thessaly, Mt. Olympus is not a wealthy region and, until recent years, had few long-term tourism opportunities outside of mountaineering. In October 2013, the Colorado-based Edible Destinations began taking tourists on weeklong deep dives into food, culture, and adventure here.
Visitors are picked up from the airport at Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city and the commercial hub of northern Greece. They travel down the main north-south artery and then onto smaller roads to the southeastern tip of Macedonia.
The destination: Ktima Bellou, a rustic 5-star boutique hotel complex (with views of Mt. Olympus). Handsomely stone-clad in the style of Macedonian vernacular architecture, it sits just outside the village of Aghios Dimitrios in the midst of a large farm following sustainable practices. Guests here can swim in a pool or walk about 300 meters down steps to the northern Aegean.
From this base, groups of as few as four people take part in customizable tours, tastings, and classes. They awake every day to a breakfast of homemade delicacies such as custardy galaktoboureko in phyllo pastry and cups of thick Greek coffee. Lunches and dinners not spent out in the region are in the hotel restaurant.
Once in Macedonia, visitors find themselves in a multi-ethnic region influenced by the Turks, the Slavs and Bulgarians to the north, and the thousands of ethnic Greeks who had lived hundreds of years in Turkey and left in the massive postwar population exchange of 1922. Many of these ethnic Greek refugees came to Macedonia, bringing their complex, rich, full-flavored culinary traditions, much of it belonging to a type of Greek cooking described as politiki kouzina, or the "cuisine of Constantinople" (now Istanbul).
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Cordon Bleu-trained Greek chef Despina Karagiozi sets the stage for a week delving into this region's cuisine and wines. She starts with a chef's tasting dinner and a lecture on Greek cuisine from antiquity to today. The chef then guides visitors through a full week of cooking classes, teaching dishes ranging from rustic savory pies and stuffed vegetables (gemista) to stuffed lamb, shrimp baked in a spicy tomato sauce, and mezes (appetizers), plus desserts like orange-infused semolina cake.
One class involves the extraordinary visit of a monk from nearby Mt. Athos, the world’s oldest monastic republic and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where women have been banned entry to its many monasteries since the year 1046. The Medieval monks who cooked here, apparently wore tall white hats to distinguish themselves from all the other monks, who wore tall black hats — a practice that is said to be the origin of today’s chefs’ hats, or “toques blanches.” In his class, the jovial visiting monk schools participants — both women and men — in the centuries-old monastic diet of vegetables, legumes, and seafood with light dishes such as kakavia (fish soup), agioritiki (roasted eggplant salad with feta), and whole grouper (a Mediterranean fish) with okra.
The culinary tour also includes tastings of cheeses at a regional goat cheese farm and award-winning red and white varietals at a family-owned winery and is punctuated by a contemplative stop at ancient Dion, site of a sanctuary to Zeus and his daughters, the Muses. This place in the foothills of Mt. Olympus was holy to the ancient Macedons, including Alexander the Great, who assembled his armies here before heading east toward epic conquests. In between such visits, there is time for a nature walk on Mr. Olympus, so dense with flora it is a World Biosphere Reserve; a seaside lunch; and a little free time to make all these memories indelible.
[More information: Price per person, double occupancy, is $3,689 for a 6-night, 7-day stay; all packages are fully customizable and non-cooking companion rates are available. A standard package includes all breakfasts and dinners, four lunches, five hands-on cooking classes, wine and cheese tastings, culture and nature tours, and all local transportation. Round-trip airport transfers are included, but participants book their own flights. Fly round-trip to and from Thessaloniki via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines; high-season (summer) round-trip flights run about $1,300 per person.]