Uncle John is well known along the road to Eritrea. Since the 1970s he has been driving his Mercedes to the villa, stopping at the best shops and restaurants along the way for bread, macaronia, and fish. The lemons come from his garden.
To understand the flavors of this food, it is important to know that the Mercedes is old, with crank window handles. It has none of the luxury finish for the American market, but is a sturdy German car, equally good for driving into quarries as cruising the autobahn. And the villa is not so much a villa as a concrete bunker, but one artfully placed against a chapel crowned hill, amid a lush terraced garden, overlooking pristine ocean to the distant Attic peninsula. It is called the villitsa, a diminutive villa.
Uncle John is a successful businessman who has invested a bit of his profits to create this small piece of heaven. But Uncle John is also a construction guy; the profits come from building roads in Greece, thus the quarry to make his own asphalt and the familiarity with German machines. His easy way with shopkeepers and neighboring farmers comes from his own easy personality and a deep appreciation of what he has been given and what he has built.
There can be a marbled Athenian apartment and elegant banquets, and there are, but Uncle John returns to the villa, where he putters in his garden, boasts of his fruit trees, and is master of the grill.
We are not able to visit as often as we might like, but memories of seaside lunches at the villa sustain us for years. A picture of its rocky little beach and carpet of green anomalous lawn (inspired by his own visits to American suburbs) are pinned in my cubicle office, dusty and curled, my own little escape hatch.
But when we do visit, always in the summer, there is always a seaside lunch at the villa that follows a pattern established over decades. My husband spent more than one boyhood summer driving the road with Uncle John. The villitsa was newer then, not quite set into its hill, and the lawn still a great notion. But the lunches were the same. After a morning in the office, they'd swing by the quarry or a construction site to check on progress, then to the villa, to cook, eat, philosophize, and nap.
Ask Uncle John about any place in Greece - is the road finished, is this a nice place, how long will it take to drive there - and he can answer all those questions, but he can also tell you the local meze specialty or the sweet for which the town is famous. Visit his house in town and you are laden with bags sticky from leaked honey. You must try the baklava from Kimi, custard from the best patisserie in Chalkis, and a fried dough and honey sweet from Kalamata.
In years of driving the road to the villa, Uncle John has sussed out the freshest fish, the bakery with the cheese pie that is a specialty of Evia, the restaurant that makes the best macaronia. For thirty years, when the Mercedes stops shopkeepers fill bags, load plates, and send him on his way. On the drive back, he drops off the plates.
Cell phones, aluminum foil, and plastic trays have made marshalling the meal a little different, but the traditions of time are upheld. Sure you could cook your own macaronia, but why, when the Lykos restaurant makes it so well. The restaurant could cook the sardellas too, but why let them, when your grill overlooks the ocean and the little sardines are seasoned with a lemon pulled from your own tree.
Our lunch this year included cousins from Crete who had come to visit with cousins from America, brothers who have always been brothers, a sister-in-law who has been family for sixty years, and neighbors who are friends and caretakers.
This crowd required a Mercedes and a Volkswagen and even then it was a tight fit, but the day was warm and sunny and there are plenty of changes to comment on and old sights to recognize on the drive out. There's the abandoned factory on the edge of Chalkis whose fine architectural bones have kept it standing through another decade of neglect. There's a new super store drawing customers from the market in the center of town, which seems to stand through nothing more than habit. There is the traffic circle that Uncle John built. And there are the Venetian towers that are scattered through the Evian countryside, to protect 15th century commercial interests. They now seem as lonely as the soldiers who once manned them must have been. The stony fields that surround them are hardly more peopled than they were then.
As we tumble out of the cars to breathe the sea air everyone agrees, oreia, nice. It's been a while since the American cousins have visited, but not much has changed. The garden is a bit more lush, the lawn as neatly clipped as ever, the tiny Byzantine chapel on the hill continues to stake out its eternal view, and the distant hills are as unmarked as they were when the armies left them in pursuit of stolen Helen. Amid progress and decay, Greece remains.
The party splits, neighbor Anna and Uncle John to wash the sardellas and prepare meze. John's daughter, Vanna is back in the car for last minute shops, and children and visitors head to the beach. While Anna and John sluice the silvery fish in a colander with the garden hose, we beachcomb. There is no word for beachcombing in Greek, perhaps because the concept is so foreign. The notion that trash from the beach has any romance or aesthetic value is one for Americans. We gathered bits of smoothed marble, shards of ocean-sanded terrazzo tile, and an old crate marked "PERIKLES." When we spread our treasures on the table, Vanna asks with some gentle confusion "What will you do with them?" and Anna laughs, "Perikles sells fish in Chalkis."
They laugh when we take pictures of the sardellas begin cleaned, and laugh again when we take pictures of the bread and save its paper wrapper printed with an oven and sheaf of wheat. "What, don't you have bread in America?" No bread, not like this, or pebbles either. Well, we think, they don't know what they have, they take it for granted. But then Anna's husband, Thannasi brings a handful of plums and places them on the table in front of me. They are warm from the sun and seem to carry some of its light inside them. They are tart with just a hint of the sweetness that will ooze from them in August, when they'll be as big as tennis balls.
It is time for meze. Vanna says, with some apology in her voice, "It is simple food." But there is no need to apologize for the crisp cucumbers from Thannasi's garden, the bread from Amarinthos, a village down the road where the baker uses water milled wheat, tomatoes from the villa's garden and cheese from Crete, washed down with the fiery tsourkadia that Vanna has also carried on the ferry.
The wheat milled in Amarinthos has been grown and milled since ancient times, In fact the Romans found the island to be a useful breadbox colony. The wheat is also used to make an island specialty, hylopites, golden wheat noodles sold in tall plastic bags and served with butter and myzithra cheese in taverns all over the Evia.
Another Evian specialty, a cheese pie called tiganokouloures, makes it to our table. Unlike the more common tiropitas, this pie is made with a yeast dough, sandwiching a slim filling of grated cheese, and cooked in a well oiled pan on the stove until it is brown, crusty and cooked through. They are made in Kimi, on the island's eastern coast and sent to bakeries across the island, ready to cook.
There is Dodoni feta, the best, mild and milky rather than an assault of brine, and stuffed grape leaves, but the sardellas crown the meal. Anna sends them out sizzling from the frying pan and we crunch through them, urged by relatives who know we don't have these in America. But like in America, some children are picky eaters and will try only the most tentative nibble before they retreat to macaronia or cheese pie. Admittedly, the sensation of tiny bones and scales brushing your throat is a hard one to love and after forays are made by all of us, most are left to the older people at the table who appreciate this taste of mesogio, this spot that is for now the center of the earth.
As the meal winds down over honey-sweet slabs of karpouzi, and we spit the watermelon's seeds into the sea, someone avers that Onassis never had it better. Yes, says Uncle John, in fact, a ship owner wanted to buy this place and asked his price. "I just laughed," said John, "and told them, 'you can't afford it.'"
After the meal, the wine trickles through our bloodstreams, but before we drift into sated naps, Uncle John announces he will open this place as a restaurant. Anna will cook, his pretty little granddaughter Angelina will be the waitress, and he will be the maitre d', with a cloth draped over his arm, in the corner, counting the money.
We all laugh as if we have tricked nature out of a beautiful day. The troubles of war, illness, and the stock market have visited this group, but we have gathered again to look out over waves to misty hills that seem near enough to touch. I imagine that the people who built the little chapel on the hill above us enjoyed the same view and hope they were lucky enough to catch a day like ours.