As I pulled the fresh buns out of the oven, I couldn’t resist tearing one open to release the delicious steam and devouring it while still hot – just to test the batch, of course.
And it made sense to eat when I could. On a busy day at the tavern, I ate nothing but bread and liquor: a glass of wine or a raki with customers gave me energy to keep going. On the road from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., nothing tasted as good as an ice-cold fix beer straight from the bottle – and I needed the calories.
Once all the customers had left, I jumped in the sea and then helped myself to a meal from the tavern’s kitchen: succulent tomatoes and goat’s cheese, made up in the valley and brushed with local olive oil; Roasted Potatoes with Thick Garlic Tzatziki; maybe a crepe loaded with our apple and cinnamon compote and cream.
I had first arrived at Agios Minas beach on the north of the Greek island of Karpathos in April 2016 with the intention of spending a few days walking to explore the traditional mountain village of Olympos and its surroundings. Karpathos was a large island and only a few hours by ferry from Rhodes, but the north was a wild, largely uninhabited area with few modern amenities.
Turns out the owner of the room I booked in Olympos also had a fish taverna on that beach about half an hour drive away. The path meandered down from the ridge into valleys full of olive and pine trees. I reached the white church dedicated to Agios Minas (Saint Minas), after whom many men on the island were named, and looked down on a perfectly curved beach. Dark gray cliffs covered with deep green lentisks encircled the bay, goats scrambled over the sheer scree, and the sea was the clearest blue I had ever seen.
It was a magical place, completely natural and untouched. So when Minas invited me to come back and help out with the tiny hotel and tavern for the summer, I couldn’t resist: live a really different life somewhere by the sea for a few months.
“Must be comfortable in beachwear,” he’d said, explaining what he wrote in waitress ads—and that was me.
I set up my tent in the field next to the tavern and make myself comfortable with a mattress and pillows. There was something wonderful about falling asleep with the stars and the moon and waking up with the sun and starting the day outdoors with a sense of adventure. Except for the goats, we had the whole valley to ourselves. To get a phone signal we had to go to the church on the cliffs.
We had electricity and water in the taverna which was also our kitchen with a cooker and two large fridge freezers all used and worn. The shower was a makeshift thing behind a cement block wall at the back, with a wooden door and open to the elements.
As the sun rose over the church on the cliffs, my dog Lisa was waiting for me and we ran through the field of olive trees down to the beach and jumped into the sea. When I got back, I remembered that the figs were ripe on the tree where I usually hung my laundry, so I grabbed a few sun-warmed ones for breakfast. I made bread dough, measuring cups of Cretan flour from the big sacks.
Summer started slowly, but in July, when people dreamily said, “You must have such a peaceful life here,” I could only smile. In the beginning it was like that and could be like that again, but in the high season when Minas and I ran a taverna and a small hotel in two different places without any other help, it was absurd.
I started waking up in a panic at night, convinced that a big fish was in the tent with me. Not alive, but on a tray, and customers outside are waiting for it. I dreamed I forgot an order. Still, most of the time it felt like a dream: waking up to a pink dawn over the olive grove, swimming in the moonlight, only hearing the waves or the wind; a kitchen full of creamy yoghurt and honey and tomatoes, olive oil and rosemary and fresh fish.
Minas was Greek-American, from Baltimore. The hotel in the village had been his grandfather’s house. He had built the seaside tavern out of an old farmhouse and gradually improved it. He is a trained refrigeration engineer, but likes to cook. I love fresh, natural food and don’t like it when it gets too messed up. Minas, on the other hand, would look at a perfect chicken breast or squid and come up with an intricate way to fill it. And that’s what you have to do when you cook for a restaurant. Visitors came from all over Europe and they loved his food.
There were two dirt roads down into the valley. One was a kilometer shorter than the other, but steeper and not ideal for an ordinary car. The other one, past the church, was a little less hair-raising and met the road closer to the village, so I took it whenever I drove the Lada up into the village to switch hotel rooms. Both roads were winding and narrow, with switchbacks and steep slopes. Both could come as a shock the first time, especially if you’re not used to riding in mountainous terrain. The Swiss didn’t mind too much, but the Dutch managed to burst into tears.
Almost every day we saw someone approaching the tavern looking worried. On a typical occasion, an Italian walked in and asked, “Which street is better?”
“Which kind of car do you drive?” I asked. “Is it a Jeep or a Fiat Panda?”
“No, no…” It was another small rental car.
“Which road did you come from?” I continued, although unfortunately I knew the probable answer.
“This,” he said, pointing to the church.
I had to teach him that the path from which he had been rocked – and which he hoped to avoid on the way back – was the better of the two paths.
“We have a solution,” Minas piped up. “Your wife is scared, yes? Bring it with you and we’ll give you the solution on the go,” he added calmly.
The man was skeptical but willing to try anything. He went to get his still confused wife out of the car. Minas nodded to me. I went in with a bit of guilt and came out with an unlabeled bottle from the freezer and two shot glasses.
“No, no!” said the woman who had appeared through the door. “He can’t, he drives.”
“Relax, darling,” Minas said. “Just one finger, I promise. It will help.”
They still didn’t look convinced. I filled the glasses as Minas added, “It’s my birthday.”
“Birthday…?” asked the couple, brightening up. “Ah, happy birthday!” They suddenly smiled, feeling that this was a lucky day to have come here. It was a happy place.
They sipped the raki, relaxed and laughed. You would leave with fond memories. Maybe the return trip wouldn’t be so bad after all. They had no idea this man had them
celebrated many birthdays here – his own every day. Raki was one of the most important tools of the trade.
Our first “Lunch and Live Music Saturday” came in the middle of summer. As much as Minas loved to cook, he also loved to sing. The team got back together: Stamatis the fisherman had brought nice fresh fish, Tim came with a white Panama hat, his guitar and a thick song book, and Captain Nikos had brought people from Diafani on his boat. The sign on the beach beckoned with others, some in bathing suits and towels, and the restaurant was full by lunchtime.
I took orders and brought carafe after carafe of cold white wine, baskets of fresh bread and olive oil. If people were interested, I would take the box of fish out to show them and let them choose what they wanted. Between songs, Minas grilled fish and pork chops and whole squid stuffed with tomato and cheese. That’s what he loved: cooking and making music with friends.
I’ve roasted potatoes and sliced salads and smothered tzatziki with a drizzle of olive oil. I enjoyed the atmosphere, brought prompt service and my own goofy humor and smile, took away empty plates and made coffee and poured raki. Toned and tanned, I loved it. I barely had time to listen to the music – snippets of it The night of a hard day, Brown eyed girl and Minas’ signature tune, Simple man. I heard cheers and applause and laughter. And then it was over and everyone left. It was a success.
Our live music days were among the busiest days of the summer – not good days to wake up and find the water tank was empty. But that was the other reality of life in the tavern. We woke up with no water in the taps and once the hot water tank exploded. My hands were covered in cuts and burns and I couldn’t remember how.
Minas fell asleep on the bench as soon as people left. My tent was torn to shreds by wind and sun. We cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. I’ve lost so much weight that I shocked myself when I looked in the mirror. Nothing worked properly. There was music all the time. The aid quit without warning and the neighbors beat Minas. The kitchen ceiling fell down. But we got through it all. We laughed. We danced. I slept by the sea and watched the shooting stars.
When a table of four finished eating, Minas asked me, “Did you tell them it was my birthday?”
I got the raki bottle and four shot glasses.
“Thanks for being part of my crazy summer,” he said.
Take 3: Greek taverns
On the volcanic island of Nisyros in the Dodecanese, it’s hard to beat the special mezes in Oxos beneath the cliff-top monastery of Panagia Spiliani as the waves pound below.
We arrived at Donoussa in the Cyclades just before Christmas and then walked over a mountain to the end of the island. Nothing tasted as good as these lentils, tzatziki and feta.
In the center of this hilltop village there are two tavernas serving their own amazing Naxos products – roasts with potatoes and fresh salads with cream cheese.
Jennifer Barclay is a travel and food writer. Her new book Taverna by the Sea: One Greek Island Summer is available from Bradt Guides for £9.99/€12. bradtguides.com
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/i-was-offered-the-chance-to-run-a-greek-taverna-for-a-summer-heres-what-happened-next-41990419.html “I was offered the opportunity to run a Greek tavern for a summer. Here’s what happened next…’