Words and photos by Jim Bamboulis
When our tour guide finished her animated phone conversation, whispered the change of plans and new directions to our driver, turned to us and asked whether we’d be interested in visiting a farm, we all looked at each other with a reluctant, yet eager look in our eyes. When she added that it was a family farm where guests do their own cooking, our reluctance turned to giddiness.
We were a small group of four media members from Canada, invited to Greece to promote one of the country’s staple products, feta cheese. Along with our tour guide and driver, our bus crisscrossed a good portion of the mainland, hopping from feta factory to feta factory, sampling not only the iconic cheese but regional food from locals who knew where to find it. By the time we got to Volos, a port city a few hours north of Athens and home to the mythological Jason and the Argonauts, we were exhausted, with barely enough energy to keep our eyes open. That explains why this spontaneous announcement was met with both hesitation and excitement.
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Mount Pelion is located in the heart of Greece, overlooking Volos from the north end of the city. Home to 24 hillside villages, each sharing in the richness of the soil and mineral-rich waters, Pelion is said to have been the summer residence of the Olympian Gods as well as the Centaurs. Romantically, it’s considered to be a seductive mountain that simultaneously puts you in the middle of lush, bright green rolling hills and offers incredible vistas of the distant, royal blue Aegean with its graceful, mythical currents.
To a food lover, Greece is a tantalizing adventure of the senses. In a word, it’s heaven. The country has been blessed with an abundance of naturally delicious products and in turn, recipes for millennia. Greeks in general, take an immense amount of pleasure in preparing food for you, feeding you multiple servings of every dish, making sure you’re full, even beyond full. Then they give you more food and make you feel guilty for not eating more. It’s in the DNA.
On top of that, Greek food is arguably as famous as the country’s history and on Mount Pelion, there’s one family that has combined the two, taking it upon themselves to keep the region’s culinary traditions alive for the world to experience. To showcase the heart and soul of Greek food through unmatched hospitality and a natural desire for togetherness. Because after all, food is the great unifier.
Halfway up the mountain, our bus stopped and dropped us off at the top of a steep driveway. We’d walk the rest of the way until we reached Karaiskos, a family-owned and operated farm that’s been offering cooking experiences since 2012. On their website, the mission of Karaiskos Farm is to offer guests the culinary experience of a lifetime, in Greece. Little did we know at the time but without a doubt, this was to be an experience never to be forgotten.
Here, you’re not just strolling around, admiring the mountainside and adorable farm animals but the family encourages everyone to participate in the making of the dish they’re about to create for themselves. Warmly greeted by the family, we were joined by a local cook, given a tour of the farm and a crash course of the various herbs grown on it. We had no idea what we were about to get ourselves into but it didn’t take long before we were put to work.
You know those moments during an experience that everything just hits you at once? Thankfully, I was able to capture the essence of this particular moment. I closed my eyes and inhaled the mountainside thyme and sage. Ran my hands through fresh mint and chamomile. Looked around and appreciated where I was, who I was with, what we were all doing. I felt like running down the hill like Maria, singing Sound of Music but there was no time for that, and it would have just been odd of me to do that.
We all perked up quickly and collected the ingredients that we’d need to create our dishes, including fresh eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beets, and figs. You see, Karaiskos Farm is an ecological paradise where organic fruits, veggies, and herbs aren’t and have never been a fad. The farm is a reflection of a way of life that’s been practiced and cherished for thousands of years. Here, ingredients come from a few feet away, not from across the world. Here, traditional recipes are born from intoxicating culinary treasures.
A meze table is set up. On it, olives, eggplant, and tzatziki spread on fresh bread, ouzo, and feta cheese, of course. A beautiful, appetizing spread that does what’s it supposed to do: tickle the taste buds. But we can’t partake just yet. There are dishes to be cooked, and we’re responsible for executing them all. Music plays in the background, laughs are exchanged and conversation flows easily all while the staff guide you through the cooking process in the outdoor family kitchen overlooking the vast valley, offering tips and info along the way.
Depending on the day, and the season, what guests pick and prepare can vary. On this day, our menu includes Spetzofai, a locally-inspired rustic dish that’s super easy to make and includes sausage, peppers, onions and wine all in a beautifully light tomato sauce. Strapatsada is a perfectly seasoned dish that includes scrambled eggs and tomatoes mixed with peppers. Along with boiled greens, our meze beauties also make their way to the main dining table, which is set up on the slopes of Pelion. Along with paired Greek wine, we ‘re ready to break bread and enjoy not only what we gleefully laboured to prepare, but celebrate the spontaneous congregation of total strangers seamlessly becoming family and friends over a delicious meal in an idyllic setting.
Grateful, full and full of life, we digest and take it all in. I want to stay longer but our bus is leaving soon, scheduled to take us to our next stop. The steep driveway that led to the farm is now an agonizing walk uphill, and we all hope our next stop involves a nap of some sort. Reflecting on the experience amongst ourselves, we were speechless. Not because we were too stuffed to talk but because a spontaneous, off-the-beaten-path, un-planned excursion, turned out to be an experience so magical that it will live eternally in mind, body and soul.
Some would say, that’s the beauty of travel. Others still would say, that’s the beauty of travel, in Greece.
To learn more about Karaiskos Farm, how to get there, what to expect and what to experience, click on this link. And if you go, make sure you go hungry. The anticipation will make you suffer but the payoff is the ultimate reward!
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food, and cultural experiences.
I’ve created content and collaborated with everyone from Lonely Planet, Trivago, Nevada Tourism and The Weather Network to New Brunswick Tourism, Yellow Pages, Tourism Toronto, and Airbnb. Safe travels, y’all.