Beaten Not Boiled
Destination: Patmos, Greece
Mode of Transport: Grilled Octopus
They must have swam the Aegean Sea like gods when they were young. These days, in at the very least the autumn of their lives, the two of them sat on large gray rocks that lined the ocean beachfront instead of being in the water.
One had a pipe in his mouth, the other a cigarette. I couldn’t make out their names, as they laughed and jabbed at each other. The taller one, had a good belly on him, and at first impression, looked like he was just a typical elder fisherman just hanging around; but upon further review, that belly must have been backed up by some “good living”.
Wearing Boat Shoes that read Prada.
His tan was just right, and though he only donned a plain white tee shirt with weathered blue shorts, the tongue on his boat shoes had that little red stripe that read PRADA. With those kind of boat shoes, this man didn’t need to fish for his own meals.
The other man, who looked a bit older, and significantly shorter, had the more athletic build of the two. His skin and brown shorts were equally weathered and he looked every bit an island man, as he kept his shirt and shoes off the whole time. He looked to be more believable as a person having made his living off the sea, with his beard matching the color of the ash that was ready to fall off his cigarette.
Most of their laughter stemmed from their criticism of the two younger men that were a few yards away from them, wading in the shallow part of the water, taking instructions from them as to how to beat the octopus on the rocks correctly.
In the Greek Islands, in this case Patmos, they are known for their grilled octopus. But before they can be grilled and seasoned with olive oil, lemon, parsley and salt; they must be tenderized first.
[Tweet “In the Greek Islands, in this case Patmos, they are known for their grilled octopus”]
In the islands, the tenderizing method doesn’t start with boiling, but with a tedious beating of the caught octopus on the large rocks. It’s an absolute art, and takes a lot of muscle and time. This is what the two young men were learning from the two experienced gents, under the hot summer sun.
It was reaching noon. I already had my morning swim, so I decided to sit under an awning outside of a taverna facing the sea. I ordered a starter of taramosalata, which is a tangy, fish roe dip.
[Tweet “It was reaching noon. I already had my morning swim, so I decided to sit under an awning outside of a taverna facing the sea.”]
The consistency of the dip itself is creamy, and is arrived by taking the roe (usually from carp) and adding it into a mixture consisting generally of milk, bread, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. I spread my bread heavily with it, as I liked a good dosage of roe.
It was perfect with my dry white wine. I chuckled to myself as I continued to watch the play unfold between the four men and the octopus. The old men, without taking a breath from constant chuckling, were working the young men hard as they took turns pounding the tentacles on the rocks until their arms felt as rubbery as the octopus itself.
Having just come off a dip in the ocean..
Brenda, having just come off a dip in the ocean, pulled up a seat to join me. Her skin still had the sheen of water, as she let the sun do the drying as opposed to drying off with a towel. Her sandals, which had gotten wet from her feet, had what looked like a red clay residue that came from the somewhat volcanic colored sand beach.
[Tweet “Patmos, after all was where Saint John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelations.”]
There was something almost biblical about the way the sand looked. Patmos, after all, was where Saint John wrote the Book of Revelations. I waived the waitress over and ordered another drink after having had that sobering thought of the end of the world in mind. Brenda asked for a drink as well and also ordered a salad.
A good Greek Salad is very simple and beautiful. The onions are sliced paper thin and soaked in water as to take the bitterness out, this is then tossed in with cucumbers, tomatoes, black olives and feta cheese. A pretty girl, who introduced herself to me as Georgia earlier, brought the salad out to Brenda. My eyes remained set toward the sea continuing to view the four men and their octopus, as I sipped my wine and she ate her salad.
The tables had started to fill with other patrons; and Georgia, who seemed to have been the only person in the taverna that spoke english, came over to our table and excused herself for a few minutes. She took her apron off and walked toward the rocks where the two older men were. Their gesticulation became more and more animated as she neared, as if to put on a show for her.
The Octopus needs to lay on the rock to dry after being tenderized.
She gave the two of them a kiss on both cheeks and pointed them toward the taverna. They both got off their perch as per her command. The shorter one put on a short sleeved button down shirt and left it aggressively plunging, slipped his feet into driving moccasins and started walking over. The taller one stayed behind and waved the younger ones over.
One of the younger men grabbed the octopus they had laid on a rock to dry after it had been tenderized, before walking over. The other one dipped his head under the water one last time before getting out.
The taller older man caught up to his friend and they continued in their jovial way. They acknowledged us with a nod as they took the table perpendicular to where Brenda was sitting. The two younger men, didn’t quite have the same dynamic as they walked over. The one with the octopus went straight into the restaurant and the other pulled up a seats to join the two elders.
The young man, seated, had perfect features, but had a taciturn way about him. He didn’t smile and or budge when the two older men were jostling him. A few minutes went by, when the one that had the octopus came out to join them. This time carrying four glasses with ice and a bottle of Ouzo.
[Tweet “These two were drunk on life, they didn’t need Ouzo”]
He set it down on their table with a sense of authority, which led the elders to chuckle even more. These two were drunk on life, they didn’t need Ouzo. They seemed to have laughed at everything. The four of them sat and had their drink. The two younger ones didn’t do much talking, but seemed keen on listening to the elders. You could tell they were all happy to be there together.
Brenda had joined me in my intrigue toward the four of them.
At this point, I can tell that Brenda had joined me in my intrigue toward the four of them.
“The good looking one doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself”, she said.
“Either he thinks his brooding is part of his charm, or he’s taken his share of abuse from the two old ones”, I replied. “Either that or he’s not too smart”.
“I think the latter”.
“Not too smart?”
“No, taken his share of abuse”, she said, almost consoling him.
Brenda enjoyed her salad which was dressed very lightly with just some lemon juice and oil. As she was about to finish her plate, Georgia came out with small servings of what looked like lamb meatballs and spanakopita, which was a spinach pie.
These little plates she told us were called mezethes. I’ve always enjoyed being able to have a wider range of taste offerings rather than big portions, so mezethes joined company with dim sum and tapas in my growing culinary dictionary.
The taverna had filled up, and Georgia was now joined by other young women taking orders and doling out plates upon plates of mezethes to the tables. You had your olives, your stuffed grape leaves, etc…The energy was wonderful, the room was filled with locals, lovers, families and travelers with a smattering of english and german spoken here and there.
The sun seemed to have gotten the best of everyone as the fair haired women inspected their skin to see if they had gotten burned, the kids needed a nap, and every man seemed to have been ordering a cold drink before they can even sit down.
Htapothi Scharas (grilled octopus)
After having finished their Ouzo, the tall older man got off his seat and went into the kitchen of the taverna. Minutes later, he arrived back to the table with a big plate of grilled octopus. The aroma was unbelievable and it looked to be the perfect afternoon meal. He must have heard Brenda gasping and me staring as he walked by. He cut off a few pieces of the tentacles, put it on a plate and without hesitation or asking, he smiled at us and set the plate in front of us on our table. He pointed at it and said, htapothi scharas (grilled octopus); then in perfect english, he orders us to eat. I raised my glass to thank him, and he lifted his and saluted, “yamas”.
[Tweet “I raised my glass to thank him, and he lifted his and saluted, “yamas”.”]
“Catch of the Day”, he said and pointed at the two younger ones; while the other old man, winked at Brenda, said something that seemed to have been quite a compliment toward her, and started laughing again. At this gesture, even the young taciturn one had to shake his head and smile.
“You have to watch him”, the older taller man said of his friend. “He likes the girls”…
I laugh along, and we all toasted to the moment.
We all enjoyed our octopus. It was perfectly tender. It was presented with a simple dressing of olive oil, lemon, parsley and salt. On the side was another sauce, which seemed to be reduced balsamic vinegar and capers. We all prefered it the way it was, with the pure taste of the sea. I have never had a better one since.
Before we left, Georgia offered us some yogurt and honey. I never appreciated yogurt until then. And since then, I have had a lot of yogurts, hoping to recapture that taste. In actuality, it’s the moment I continue to long for.
Ironically, when I hear or think about the Book of Revelations, I don’t equate it to Judgement Day or anything of the ilk. It actually makes me think of Patmos, and how beautiful a place it must have been for Saint John to write there. Maybe it was the off colored sand that had given him visions of the apocalypse. But for me, Patmos, inspires me to eat, drink and laugh (which may lead me to my final judgement yet). If there was a revelation to be had from that trip, it was that both Brenda and I needed to fill our lives with more moments like these.
[Tweet “It actually makes me think of Patmos, and how beautiful a place it must have been for Saint John to write there.”]
We can’t always get away and go to the Greek Islands, but when we have a hankering, we transport ourselves there through the food. Most recently, we happened upon a couple of wonderful Greek Cafes in our beloved New York.
First, a decor sensible place named, Greecologies, in which yogurt is made on premises. They also have greek inspired products, such as preserves and honeys. Try the unstrained, traditional style greek yogurt with pine tree honey.
The other is Pi Bakerie. where they offer every greek pie imaginable. There is of course the perennial favorite, spinach; but my new favorite is the pastisio, which is a pie filled with ground beef and bechamel. If it’s a meal you’re looking for, look no further than Pylos at the Lower East Side, they have a great Greek wine offerings and the taramosalata served with warm pita bread is fantastic.
It’s been very cold, and I yearn for warmer climes
It’s been very cold, and I yearn for warmer climes, so I have frequented Greek eateries in hopes that I find warmth in the cuisine. When I do, I think about what may have happened to those octopus aficionados, especially the two elders. They must be at the winter of their lives at this point, and I wonder how many more generations they taught the art of octopus tenderizing to; and how many more times they were able to swim and cut the waves like the gods they were.
Did you enjoy this Octopus Dish? Then, please share it with your friends, we’d be so grateful. Remember: Let’s travel the world, One Dish at a time.
Travel TIP: Right before leaving on our Long-Term travels, we decided to treat ourselves to a few staycations in NYC because we had been staying at Brenda’s parents’ house for 6 months, in NJ. There were nights that we were just too tired to trek our way home. The hotel we enjoyed the most was the Grand Hyatt in Midtown, which is so close to everything and conveniently located next to Grand Central.