What’s cooking? Class leaders Anna and Loula at the Costa Navarino resort
‘I’ve always wanted to know how to make tzatziki,’ says Jane, a fellow guest at Costa Navarino, a five-star resort tucked back from the glorious west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula of mainland Greece.
We’ve both taken an afternoon off from sunbathing, swimming and relaxing to join others who want to learn to cook – traditional Greek style.
We have gathered in a kitchen at a nearby stone-built home in the hills overlooking the historic Bay of Navarino. Holding court are the delightful Anna and Loula, who begin by teaching us how to make the refreshing yogurt and cucumber dip tzatziki, an essential accompaniment for any Greek meal.
Their day job is to cater for many a Big Fat Greek wedding but they also enjoy sharing their knowledge and love of local delicacies with visitors to Messinia, one of the least tourist-trodden regions of Greece.
Since we don’t speak Greek and the hosts have only a smattering of English, there is a good deal of gesticulating, demonstrating and pointing.
I’m later charged with grating three courgettes to mix with olive oil, eggs, chopped onion, mint, flour and salty feta before it is scooped into a dish and baked for 40 minutes.
Next is the preparation of hilopites, traditional Greek noodles. Flour, eggs, milk and salt are the only ingredients – along with a dollop of elbow grease to knead the doughy mixture into the right consistency.
Then the fun part starts – rolling out the dough with a long wooden pin thinner than a broomstick. Once I have made a circle the size of a giant pizza, I roll it up around the pin. I then take a knife and split it open lengthwise against the pin. This creates a layering effect of the flattened dough. I slice it – with direction from our hosts – into short, broad noodles which are then tossed in flour ready for cooking later.
While we are at work, we nibble on lalaggides – Greek pancakes – served with delicious golden honey.
A simple Greek salad and chicken in tomato sauce are also prepared, and in no time we are sitting down to savour the feast we have created.
Tempting: Costa Navarino’s Westin Resort has 13 restaurants. Pictured is a dish from Da Luigi, a buzzy Italian
The Greek area’s famous olives. Olive oil is practically compulsory with most meals at Costa Navarino and across Messinia
Over a late lunch, there is plenty of chat about other favourite Greek specialities, including kleftiko – lamb slow-cooked in spices.
The rough translation is ‘thieves’ dinner’ – so named because several hundred years ago, fugitives escaping despotic rule in Greece were forced to steal their rulers’ animals and then cook the meat in covered fire pits to avoid detection.
For those who prefer a less hands-on culinary adventure, they will find foodie heaven back at Costa Navarino’s Westin Resort. Award-winning chefs prepare exquisite menus with local ingredients in 13 restaurants. We sampled Armyra (Greek), Da Luigi (a buzzy Italian) and Flame, serving mouthwatering steaks.
But my favourite was the fish restaurant Barbouni. I selected my own sea bass from the display before having it freshly grilled. You can dine there only at lunchtime to protect nesting turtles from artificial light on their path to the sea at night.
Olive oil is practically compulsory with most meals at Costa Navarino and across Messinia. The region produces its fair share of the glorious ‘liquid gold’ from vast plantations of ancient groves.
Keeping cool: The vaulted ceiling in the lobby of the Westin Resort, a five-star property tucked back from the glorious west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula of mainland Greece
During our stay, we attend an olive oil tasting session at the resort, given by ‘sommelier’ Kristina Stribakou. She tells us that when tasting, you need to suck air through your teeth to experience the full flavour. It’s a noisy business.
Kristina explains how the most sought-after olive oil is extra virgin. And to get the best results for her own oil that she produces nearby, the juice from the olives must be squeezed out just as the fruit turns from green to purple. The process needs to be carried out at a temperature no higher than 14C – cold-pressed, in the jargon.
Her oil uses the native Koroneiki olive, which is unsuitable for eating but perfect for oil-making.
I couldn’t agree more.
- Sally Hamilton was a guest of Costa Navarino (costanavarino.com). Seven nights’ B&B costs from £1,750pp. Return flights with Aegean (en.aegeanair.com ) from Heathrow or Gatwick to Athens start from £80.
Basque in the glow of Michelin stars… How to spend 48 hours in San Sebastian
The city of San Sebastian in northern Spain’s mountainous Basque Country has grown from a humble fishing village into an international gourmet hotspot. The region now has more Michelin stars per head than anywhere else in the world.
The city, known locally as Donostia, is a delightful mix of old and new: narrow, cobbled streets, elegant avenues, Belle Epoque architecture and the pockmarked walls of the Hotel Maria Cristina, a reminder of San Sebastian’s warring past.
Gastronomic hotspot: The port area of San Sebastian, with the historic old town in the background
Get your bearings (and sensational views of the city) from Monte Urgull. It’s a 30-minute hike through leafy slopes to the summit, and easily accessible from the north-west corner of the Parte Vieja, the city’s old town, next to the fishing port.
En route you’ll pass crumbling military battlements and the ruins of a 16th Century castle. A British cemetery halfway up honours fallen soldiers who died in the two-month Siege of San Sebastian in 1813. At the peak, you’ll be greeted by a giant sandstone statue of Christ, and an exhilarating panorama of the city, its three beaches and hills beyond.
You don’t have to travel far to discover Basque history and culture. The San Telmo Museum (santelmomuseoa.com) is at the foot of Monte Urgull at Plaza de Zuloaga in a restored 16th Century cloistered Dominican convent. Don’t miss the huge paintings depicting historical scenes inside the church. The museum is open daily except Mondays, and admission is €6 (free on Tuesdays).
Quick bite: Dishes at a pintxo bar selling the Basque region’s answer to tapas
For truly unforgettable dining, try Akelarre (akelarre.net), one of the restaurants that helped spearhead the Basque food revolution. It’s perched on a clifftop on Mount Igueldo, where you can enjoy a €240 tasting menu while taking in sunset views over the Cantabrian Sea.
For those on more modest budgets, head to one of hundreds of vibrant pintxo (pronounced ‘pincho’) bars selling the Basque region’s answer to tapas, and wash it down with a glass of txakoli, the local sparkling wine. Watch as the waiter pours it skilfully into your glass from a height to reduce acidity.
Start in La Bretxa Market where stalls sell a dizzying array of meats, cheeses and olives. At the fish section, hake, snapper and monkfish are lovingly displayed like works of art.
For pastries, head to the marble-fronted Pasteleria Otaegui (pasteleriaotaegui.com), while delis such as Zaporejai (zaporejai.com) offer melt-in-the-mouth Iberico ham.
Watch surfers tackle the Atlantic waves at Zurriola beach, home to the city’s thriving surf scene. The summer months see barefooted locals wandering from beach to surf shops and cafes. Burn off those gourmet bites and catch a wave yourself – hire a board at a surf shop and take a lesson if you’re a beginner.
You can’t fail to miss the dramatic, cube-shaped Kursaal Convention Centre on the jetty. This futuristic-looking building, built to resemble two large rocks, hosts exhibitions, concerts, conferences and the city’s annual film festival.
Now stroll along the picturesque promenade curving around the sweeping golden sands of La Concha beach. Carry on towards the western end until you reach the steep, green slopes of Monte Igueldo. Take the century-old funicular railway through shaded forests to a small amusement park at the top. The views make this one of San Sebastian’s most popular spots.
By Max Woolridge
- Max Wooldridge was a guest of Kirker (kirkerholidays.com), which offers two-night tailor-made short breaks at the four-star Lasala Plaza hotel in San Sebastian from £499pp, including flights from Gatwick to Bilbao, car hire and breakfast. For more information, go to sansebastianturismo.com.