Food

Ejo #146 – Drunk In….. Milos and Sifnos

After coming back from Santorini, David and I were hooked on Greece.  We had some more leave coming up, so I immediately started researching some more Greek islands that we could explore.  I’d read great things about Milos, and did a deep dive on Airbnb, looking for an amazing villa to be our home base.  Perhaps because Greece had just come out of an extended lockdown, I really struggled to find any properties on Milos that ticked all my boxes.  Don’t get me wrong, there were some really nice places.  But mama wanted a pool, and mama was gonna have a pool.  It’s me, I’m mama.  Airbnb tried to be helpful by offering up pool villas on neighbouring islands, but I wasn’t interested as I was super keen to stay on Milos.  But no, Airbnb belligerently insisted that I just take a look at this one place called Asteria on Sifnos, the island next door.  Fine, I said, stop hassling me already, I’ll take a look.  And the rest is history because the villa was absolutely perfect, ticking all my boxes, and then some.  And that’s how it was decided that we would do a double feature and get drunk in….. Milos and Sifnos!

So, you know how I just said I couldn’t find the perfect place to stay in Milos?  I’mma backpedal on that, because I did find somewhere that was absolutely breathtaking.  OK, so it didn’t have a pool, but when you see it, you’ll understand how truly special it was.  It was a tiny house, called a syrma, dug into the rockface right on a secluded beach.  Traditionally, syrmas were built to protect fishing boats from the wild Milos winter winds, and were later adapted to provide housing and shelter for the fishermen themselves; or turned into small summer houses for locals. 

Our syrma is located at the other side of this super private beach.
A close up of our studio, dug into the rockface.
Inside the beautifully renovated syrma, looking out at the sunset and the exclusive beach.

The syrma that we stayed in had been beautifully renovated by the most welcoming hosts we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting on Airbnb.  Giannis and Anna, treated us like family right from the beginning.  Giannis met us at the beach and carried my ridiculously heavy suitcase 130m across the sand from the carpark to our little house.  They regularly kept us topped up with fresh water bottles and provided us with eggs and olive oil from their farm.  Even though we were there for just four days, I totally fell in love with Anna, who reminded me of my beautiful aunt Toula.  Her visits totally made my day, watching her wave and call out to us as she jogged across the sand with various local delicacies that she’d made for us.  One day it was a delicious halva cake, another it was watermelon pie.  I was avoiding carbohydrates but still tried all her offerings because it felt like they were made with love.  And I would do it again. I choose to eat the way I do because it makes me feel better, and because I know it’s healthy.  But food still has a special way of connecting people, and of transcending nutrition.  Food is a means of communication, of showing emotion and of bridging gaps.  If someone offers me something that they made for me, I will eat it.  Firstly as a show of respect, but secondly because I choose to partake in the ritual which is being performed.  I want to be involved, and I choose to be open to new experiences.  I want to experience it all.  It’s one of the reasons I love to travel so much. 

My new BFF Anna. One of the warmest, most loving humans I’ve ever had the pleasure of being hosted by.
The delicious semolina halva that Anna made for us. ♥

Giannis and Anna’s syrma was absolutely gorgeous.  It was small, but perfectly formed, and more than spacious enough for the two of us.  And the best thing about it by far was that it was literally right on the beach.  We slept with the doors open every night, falling asleep to the sibilant sound of the waves lapping on the shore.  I feel so lucky that we had the opportunity to stay in such a beautiful place.  We swam in the crystal clear waters of the private cove several times a day.  We were in heaven. 

Right outside our door.

Our first (and last) dinner in Milos was at a seafood restaurant called Astakas, located right on the beach.  I remember the first dinner far more clearly than I remember the last, but more on that later.  I might have already mentioned that when you go to a taverna in Greece, you can get some pretty good house wine, which is normally ordered by the kilo (or half kilo).  I really love this concept because it totally smashes the illusion of wine snobbery.  Wine ordered by weight.  What’s not to love about drinking wine from a barrel.  It’s what I grew up with, and (after dipping my toes into some wine snobbery myself) it’s a philosophy I’ve come to fully embrace.  And when you’re in the right place, a place like Astakas, you can actually get some incredible local wine by the kilo, and that includes Assyrtiko, our favourite Greek grape.  After our Santorini trip David and I learned the trick of ordering a bottle of sparkling water, two glasses of ouzo and half a kilo of white wine as soon as we sat down at any restaurant.  Boom!  Take note and make sure you do the same next time you happen to find yourself on a Greek island.  The few times we were told (down a waiter’s nose) that wine wasn’t served by the kilo and that we had to order a bottle of wine instead, we knew we were in the wrong place.  Greek food isn’t fancy, it’s not supposed to be fancy.  It’s simple.  It’s delicious.  It’s food for the people.  And the people want wine by the kilo. 

Astakas restaurant by the sea.

After a blissful night’s sleep, we awoke to the sound of the waves at our front door.  Serenely beholding the beach that we had all to ourselves, we waded into the sea for a swim.  And it was glorious.  The syrma was truly one of the best places we’ve ever stayed.  It was simple, but still so special.  Honestly, money can’t buy that kind of exclusivity.  We spent the morning on our deck, overlooking the water, soaking it all in and taking it easy.  For lunch we headed to Medusa taverna, a short, ten minute drive away, where we were treated to a fantastic meal overlooking some of the clearest and bluest waters I’ve ever seen in my life.  Once again the taverna was a simple, family run affair but they served what I think is the best food on the island.  We indulged in fava, a Santorini classic dish of mashed yellow split peas, drizzled with a phenomenal olive oil and served with onion slices, fried local goat’s cheese smothered in the lightest honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds, freshly caught mackerel cooked on a charcoal grill and drenched in lemon juice and spectacular grilled eel and octopus.  We ate to bursting, kicking back and enjoying the vibe of sitting at a beach taverna with nowhere to be and nothing to do.  And then, when we asked for the bill, they brought us a generous serving of loukoumades, a Greek dessert which is basically deep fried dough soaked in honey syrup.  Can you believe I managed to refrain from eating these tasty treats the first two times we came to this fabulous restaurant, allowing David to demolish them all himself.  I am happy to admit that I did try them on our third visit, and OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!  They were scrumptious. 

Beautiful Medusa restaurant, our favourite taverna on Milos.
Tender and delicious grilled octopus.
Freshly caught, grilled sardines.
Local grilled goat’s cheese, and split pea fava (bottom left)
Delectable grilled mackerel.
Complimentary loukoumades. Eight of them, 😉
Very happy customers.

After lunch at Medusa, we walked down a dirt track to what I think is perhaps one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen in my life, Tourkothalassa beach (which translates to Turkish beach).  There was hardly anyone there, so we stripped off (as we are wont to do) and waded into the spectacularly clear water.  I remember treading water and looking around me and thinking that I was in the most beautiful place on earth.  And I became emotional. About being in Greece, and loving it as hard as I did. About finally connecting with my heritage in a way that I’d never been able to do while my parents were still alive. About losing both of my parents. I ached for them to see me there, to know how much I loved their birthplace. I ached for them to be there with me, floating in paradise.

The view from Medusa’s carpark – you can see Tourkothalassa beach on the far left.
The number of deserted, essentially private beaches in Greece is what converted me from being someone who was never really into beach life (ugh, I hated sand) into a real beach bunny. When the beaches are like this, how on earth could you possibly resist?

One of the most famous of Milos’ beaches is Sarakiniko, a whitewashed rocky beach resembling a desolate lunar landscape that was formed by strong winds and waves sculpting Milos’ unique white volcanic rock.  We swam in the deep, frigidly cold channel but didn’t stick around for too long.  Being such a stunning spot, the beach was overrun with couples and groups taking videos and photos of themselves, and each other, to post on social media.  It lent the place a kind of circusy vibe which was at odds with how beautiful it was.  Don’t get me wrong, we took plenty of photos of ourselves.  To be honest, I probably would have stuck around if there had been a tavern at the beach, but since there wasn’t and since I was getting hungry (and thirsty) we decided to take off and head back to our fave taverna, Medusa for some more delicious food and wine. 

Spectacular Sarakiniko

Since we were in Milos for only four days we didn’t really get to explore the whole island, especially as we spent so much time at our syrma, chilling on our own beach.  I’d definitely love to go back to the island sometime and get to know it better.  I’m almost ashamed to admit that we only went to one bar on Milos, and that bar was Yankos.  Oh my god, Yankos was nearly the end of me.  It’s not a fancy cocktail bar at all, more like an all day dining joint that has a very dangerously strong cocktail happy hour.  At €6 a pop, we sat down for drinks one afternoon, and when I got up several margaritas later I could barely walk.  I don’t remember much of what happened after that but I do know that we walked up the road to one of the best seafood tavernas in town for dinner, Mikros Apoplous.  I’m not super proud of what happened next, but in the interests of transparency I’ll recount it as best I can.  We sat down and ordered a few small dishes and a whole grilled fish.  I was pretty drunk, but I’ve been drunk before and I know how to comport myself when I’m in that state.  Usually.  This time, however, I was not able to comport myself, and the world just kept on spinning, very dangerously.  I guess I decided that the best course of action for me to take was to leave, because I just got up and took off down the road, shouting something about having to go home.  I have no idea where I was going, I just knew that I had to go, selfishly leaving David to deal with the aftermath.  He graciously explained to the concerned waiter that I wasn’t feeling well and that of course we would pay for the meal but we had to go.  They told him that the fish was nearly ready to serve and would we like to take it home with us.  And so we ended up back in our syrma, me feeling much better, standing over the kitchen bench and absolutely devouring the magnificent grilled fish with our hands. Not a bad end to the night, all things considered.

The next day I woke up, appropriately feeling like arse.  There’s always a price to pay.  I know that, I’m not an amateur.  I sucked it up as we packed up, checked out and headed into town to pick up our ferry tickets to Sifnos, the next destination on our adventure.  When we arrived at the ticket office we were told that the only ferry of the day to Sifnos had been cancelled.  WHAT???  Ferry schedules are notoriously unreliable in the Greek islands, and we’d known that when we booked.  But Sifnos doesn’t have an airport, so ferry was the only way of getting there.  Feeling pretty dejected we sat under a tree in the town square trying to figure out the best course of action.  We needed to find another place to stay for the night in Milos as the syrma wasn’t available.  And we’d have to ask the car rental company to extend our rental by another day.  I also had to contact Philippos, the host of the gorgeous villa in Sifnos, to let him know that we wouldn’t be there until the next day.  It was all a little stressful.  I am not the most spontaneous traveller in the world.  I schedule a lot of time for spontaneity, but the framework of my holidays need to be in place well in advance.  I’m talking about tickets, and I’m talking about accommodation.  Of course I can handle a minor glitch like a cancelled ferry, but it does stress me out. 

David had the wonderful idea of going to Medusa taverna for lunch, making it our third visit!  And it was perfect.  We ordered our favourite dishes and plenty of wine and, feeling more relaxed, I set about trying to find a solution to our problem.  It was actually Philippos who offered to get in touch with a friend of his who owned a speedboat to come and pick us up from Milos and take us to Sifnos later that day.  The cost of this private charter was an extortionate €300.  David and I debated it for about two minutes and quickly decided, fuck it, let’s do it.  I mean yeah, we could have saved some dough and caught the ferry the next day, but that option felt lame.  Catching a ridiculously expensive speedboat was way more badass and when faced with the option of doing something the lame way or the badass way, you can bet I’mma pick the badass way. 

Happy badasses. Bye-bye Milos, hello Sifnos!

So, we arrived in Sifnos, rented a four wheel drive and made our way to our very secluded villa, in the middle of nowhere.  Oh my god guys, this place was just astounding.  We were staying in a five star property in one of the most barren, wild, isolated places I’ve ever been to.  I’m not sure if it was because of covid, or because it was the end of the tourist season.  Or maybe it was just Sifnos.  But I think that for the entire ten days we were there we spoke to only a dozen people.  It was serene, it was peaceful, it was quiet (oh, so quiet).  It was magnificent.  And I wish we were still there now.  David loved it so much that he seriously contemplated buying the adjacent villa that was for sale next door.  Sadly we didn’t have a spare €700,000 lying around.  Oh well, it’s nice to have dreams. 

Desolate, but beautiful. You can see our villa (and the one next door) at the top of the olive tree on the right hand side.
The stunning Asteria (which means stars, in Greek).
The view from the pool, which we spent hours and hours swimming in, often accompanied by an ice-cold bottle of mastiha.

Because of all the reasons I already mentioned, we didn’t go out to eat that much.  Most restaurants had either not opened at all, because of covid, or had already closed for winter.  So we ate at home a lot.  We picked up some portable, single-use BBQs at the general store and we’d grill some local pork, eating it with some homemade tzatziki and locally grown tomatoes.  I was in my culinary element.  And we drank our body weight in mastiha, a specialty Greek liqueur seasoned with mastic resin, giving it a unique flavour.  Mastiha, glorious mastiha.  So much mastiha.  Mastiha for breakfast, mastiha for lunch and mastiha for dinner.  That’s how we do! 

The ubiquitous mastiha shot glasses by the side of the pool.

We made the trek to our local beach a few times during our stay.  Unlike Milos, where we could step onto the beach directly from our accommodation, the beach in Sifnos was a 20 minute steep walk from our villa.  Totally worth the sweat.  Normally there are two tavernas that operate on the beach, but they were both closed for the season so most of the time we had the entire place to ourselves, which allowed us to indulge in some skinny dipping (coz you know how much I love to take my kit off!!).  There’s truly nothing like feeling that somewhere as special as Vroulidia Beach is exclusively yours.  And it’s completely free.  A billionaire might spend a shitload of money trying to achieve the same level of privacy and exclusiveness and never find anywhere near as exceptional or unique.  We were living large. 

Swanning around in my canary yellow kaftan. Told you we were living large.
A hard earned thirst deserves a refreshing Greek beer.

There was a small fishing village about a ten minute drive from the villa that had two seafood tavernas still operating late into the season, and we tried them both during our stay.  Both sourced their seafood from the daily catch brought in by the local fishermen.  On our first night in Sifnos we tried H Ammoudia, and had a fantastic meal, complemented by super friendly service.  We ate at Cheronissos Fish Tavern a few days later, trying the home made fish soup (just like my Mum used to make!!!).  It was divine.  So comforting and delicious.  It made me so happy to be sitting on the shore’s edge, eating food from my childhood.  Sadly, at each restaurant we were the only customers on the night, and I felt so sorry for the owners who must have really suffered during the covid lockdowns.  I know that a lot of places never re-opened.  It felt good to know that we were doing our part to help the economy by eating and drinking and being merry in Greece.  We were always welcomed with open arms and treated to the warm and generous Greek hospitality that I grew up with and which David has come to love and embrace. 

💙🤍💙

Every morning at around 8am, David and I would be woken up by the sound of bells ringing near our bedroom window.  It was the local goatherd, a wizened old man in his eighties, leaning on his crook and guiding his beautiful goats up the mountain for them to graze.  It was a beautiful way to wake up and start the day.  A couple of times we caught him on his way back in the afternoon, and we would have stilted conversations about the old days and how much things have changed in his lifetime.  It was wonderful to be able to interact with him, despite not having possession of all the words that I wished I could use.  That was the beginning of my desire to better learn my mother-tongue.  What cemented that desire was our wonderful housekeeper Sofia, who was tasked with coming to the villa three times a week to clean up after us and to keep the place tidy.  I don’t know why, but Sofia appeared to fall in love with me instantly.  Perhaps it was because I was Greek-Australian.  Perhaps it was because I could speak a few words of Greek to her.  Perhaps it was because I am pretty loveable.  I don’t know.  But she really took to me and I really took to her, and we got into the habit of sitting down for a coffee and a chat for half an hour before she did her chores.  I say a chat because, even though we were communicating, I found it really difficult.  I KNEW the words I wanted to say, but oftentimes I just couldn’t find them.  Sofia didn’t know any English, but between the two of us we still managed to understand each other, with her offering suggestions when I would get stuck halfway through a sentence.  I resolved then to re-learn Greek so that I would never again feel so helpless when trying to speak my first language.  I’m grateful to Sofia for being so friendly and loving, so generous with her time (and with her freshly laid eggs, honey and home made yoghurt).  I feel so lucky that my heritage offers me the opportunity to experience things in a way that other tourists in Greece never can.  I’m seriously #fuckingblessed, and I know it. 

Hello goats!!!

We ate some tasty food in Sifnos, but if you were to ask any local what dish the island is famous for, they wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s the revithada.  It’s a really simple chickpea dish that requires the investment of quality ingredients, time and love.  Traditionally it was made by the women of the island who would fill clay pots with chickpeas, olive oil, onions, garlic and lemon, allowing it to slow cook overnight in a wood oven so that the dish would be ready to eat on Sunday after church.  I know you’ve had chickpeas.  Everyone has, right?  But you have NO FUCKING IDEA how good revithada is.  Stop arguing.  You don’t.  Not until you go to Margarita restaurant in Artemonas and try their revithada.  The end.  No more discussion.  Oh, and don’t forget to have a cheeky ouzaki before you order the main course.  It helps to whet the appetite. 

Always ouzo.
And then wine.
And once you’re suitably hydrated: the revithada.
David and I usually order the same roster of dishes at tavernas, but we thought we’d try something different at Margarita,
ordering this beetroot dish which just blew me away with it’s fresh, zesty flavours. It pays to live on the edge kids.

I want to make a special mention of a very idiosyncratic bar on Sifnos.  A place that I would say is my favourite bar in the entire world.  I’m talking about Bar Kavos Sunrise.  One evening we headed to Kastro, where the Church of the Seven Martyrs is located, hoping to find a restaurant open for dinner.  We were disappointed.  Everything was closed and the town was deserted.  But I’d read about a bar in the area and thought it would be worth a shot to see if it might be open.  We walked up many stairs, dodging multiple cats trying to trip us up, and eventually we came upon a tiny terrace overlooking the sea with a spectacular view of the lightning and thunderstorm brewing offshore.  We shooed some cats off a table and sat down figuring that since the lights were out, we must be out of luck.  But astonishingly, after a few minutes a 200 year old man wearing tiny jean cutoffs and exuding a helluva cool vibe sauntered out and asked us if we wanted drinks.  Did we ever!!!  He told us we could order mojitos or mojitos.  So we ordered mojitos.  He went back inside, turned on some lights, and five minutes later we were presented with the strongest mojitos we’ve ever had.  Plus an extra 60ml each of rum in large shot glasses.  I’m not a huge mojito fan, but these were the strongest, tastiest mojitos I’ve ever been served.  I instantly fell in love with this bar, but going to the toilet was what clinched the deal for me.  There were seven or eight cats roaming around in the loo.  There was no lock on the door and there was no toilet paper.  I had to stretch my legs over two or three kitty litter boxes full of shit, and the toilet itself was nestled between four or five cat boxes (some of them occupied).  It was horrendous.  But SO GODDAMN CHARMING!!!  I am so here for places that do their own thing, and do it well.  Our Cubaphile owner/bartender doesn’t give a shit about anything except serving good, strong cocktails.  He doesn’t give a flying fuck what anyone thinks, and in the process he’s created exactly the kind of place that stands out in a world full of cookie cutter blandness.  When we paid the bill we tried to give him a tip, but he vehemently rejected the extra money, murmuring “Capitalista” under his breath.  He did, however, accept our offer of buying a round of rum for him and his friend, who’d turned up with some food for the old man.  The four or us did shots together, clapped each other on the back and vowed to meet again.  I intend to keep that promise.  I just need the old dude to stay alive. 

Best bar in the world.
The bar goes through a lotta rum!! Pictured here is the good Samaritan who brought the owner some food for dinner. What a great guy.

Most of the people we saw in Sifnos were at the harbour, at the restaurants and bars we frequented there. We went to Meropi right on the water, a couple of times, and had some good food, good wine and good vibes.  We also went next door to O Simos for a frappé fix and a chance to catch up on our epic, trans-continental backgammon competition, the winner of which is known as Master Of The Universe (I’m winning). 

Lunch at Meropi.
Patates tiganites (aka hand-cut, fried potatoes), bamyes (aka okra stew), kolokithokeftedes (aka zucchini fritters) and some fried anchovies at the back. All delicious.
This shit is serious.

We also dropped in at Old Captain bar a few times, where the hospitality and the liquor were both free flowing.  One of the owners, Yiannis, took a liking to us, free pouring us drinks and insisting that we try his White Russians, which we initially declined, not being great fans of the drink, but then eventually agreed to.  Which is fantastic, because I have never had a White Russian so tasty.  It pays to be open to everything. Good times were had at this bar, but because we usually had to drive home we could never really let loose.  That is, until the last day when we dropped the car rental off around the corner, plonked ourselves, and our suitcases, under a beach umbrella and told Yiannis to keep the White Russians coming until our ferry showed up.  It’s no stretch to say that we were completely fucked up on that ferry ride back to Milos. 

Chilling at Old Captain Bar.
Best. White. Russians. Ever.
Our last day, waiting for the ferry. Two hours later we were three sheets to the wind.

Which brings me back to Astakas restaurant, and the final dinner of our island holiday.  I remember none of it.  All I remember is the tiny little kitten that attached itself to me.  I don’t normally fuck around with stray cats but this little guy was so cute, and so small I couldn’t resist.  He literally fit into the palm of my hand, and I spent most of dinner cooing and playing with him while he sat in my lap.  David was not impressed.  And I was not impressed with the nasty case of ringworm that the little fucker gave me.  Lesson learned.  Another lesson learned?  Don’t take your shoes off and wade into the water outside your accommodation when you’re off your face.  Coz bitch, you’re gonna fall in and get wet.  Good times, drunk in!    

Yes, I am crazy. I did lug a 3kg Sifnos rock back to Dubai in my luggage, starting a trend that would result in a beautiful collection of boulders from Sifnos, Skiathos, Zakynthos and Naxos.

Ejo #145 – Drunk In….. Greece (Santorini Edition)

Can you believe that even after we had to quarantine for three weeks after returning from Japan in March 2020, I still didn’t really comprehend how serious covid would turn out to be? I just thought woohoo, another three weeks off!! I didn’t realise that the whole world would come to a grinding halt. Or that so much would change. Did you? When it became crystal clear that it might be a while before things would get back to normal (a very long time, in fact), I was surprisingly stoic about what that meant for my travel plans. I usually have at least a couple of holidays in the planning pipeline, which is how I keep sane – I always have something to look forward to. For instance, my sisters and I had planned a big fat Greek family reunion for June 2020. We planned to visit relatives that we hadn’t seen for years (and which my youngest sister Pieta has never met, except as a toddler). It was to be an opportunity to grieve our Mum’s death with our aunt and other extended family, and to scatter her ashes into the sea. And it was an excuse for my sisters and I to holiday together in Europe, which is something we’ve never done before.

Guess how that went. Yep, cancelled. We were, of course, all very upset about it but obviously we were let off lightly in the greater scheme of things. My heart breaks to think of everyone who has missed their loved ones’ funerals, or had to cancel wedding plans or missed the birth of their own children. People have really suffered. We’re lucky. We just rescheduled. For later this year. Tentatively. Coz that’s what you’ve gotta do these days, am I right? You simply cannot make firm plans for anything anymore. But at least we’re back to being able to make plans now, even tentative ones. In April of 2020 when there appeared to be no end in sight to the grounding of international flights I was faced with an interminably empty travel calendar spreading out before me, with no end in sight. No plans to travel. Everything cancelled. Stuck, in Dubai. I mean you all know that I’m not in Dubai because I like being there. I’m there because I like travelling. Since our first holiday to Turkey in May 2009, David and I have never spent more than four straight months in Dubai (hey, don’t hate me coz you ain’t me). So would it shock you to learn that I actually handled the mental abyss of no travel prospects surprisingly well. It’s not as if I had a choice. It’s not as if ranting and raving and crying and losing my mind would change anything. I was bravely chilled out and quietly zen in the face of my own personal worst case scenario.

Six months after covid made its global debut, in a wonderful twist, the universe suddenly rewarded me by offering up the generous hospitality of my grandmotherland. You see, Greece is almost solely dependent on tourist dollars for its survival. Six months of global lockdowns caused a lot of economic grief for Greece. So it made sense that they were one of the first destinations to reopen their borders to tourists in August of 2020. As soon as Emirates started flying to Greece again, David and I jumped on a plane and embarked on a pandemic pilgrimage to the country of my ancestry. I was so happy to be travelling again but I did feel super guilty about being able to travel while my sisters were trapped in an endless lockdown loop back in Melbourne. And I felt guilty because I was specifically going to Greece without them, when we had all planned on going together. And then I also felt guilty because I wasn’t going to visit my relatives in Korinthos, choosing instead to go to Santorini. What I’m saying is that there was some guilt. But guilt is a wasted emotion, so I explained the situation to my rellies and made sure that my sisters were cool with it, and off we went.

The flight out of Dubai was virtually empty, and the attendants were all decked out in PPE gear that made them look like they were serving food at a diner in Chernobyl. Being on an aeroplane again after so long felt a little weird, but it felt so right at the same time. I was so happy. We flew straight into Santorini, picked up a car rental at the airport and drove to the tiny town of Finikia. Two tanned and muscle-bound young men met us in the carpark and, quite impressively, hoisted our extremely heavy suitcases onto their shoulders, briskly marching us through a whitewashed labyrinth of twisting, cobbled paths until we eventually reached our beautiful villa, home for the next ten days. Moments later, Marilena, the eccentric manager of the hotel group exploded on the scene in wafting chiffon, jangling bracelets and squeals of “Dahhhling”. She was a little bit crazy, very extra and an absolute delight. The location of Finikia was perfect for us because the madness of Oia, where all the action takes place, was a very calm 20 minute walk away. We could walk to town whenever we felt like it, but our villa was in a super quiet and very secluded part of the island.

Santorini has always been on my list of places to visit because all my Greek aunts and uncles and cousins have, at one point or another, swooned over what a beautiful island it is, insisting that I must see it with my own eyes. However it was never super high on that list because of the famous summer tourist swell. For instance, in 2019 Santorini’s population of 10,000 grew to over three million people. Eww, gross. David and I saw the pandemic as an opportunity to visit a gorgeous Greek island when most other travellers were still stuck at home baking bread and learning how to use Zoom. And it was perfect!

Despite the island being relatively quiet due to covid, Oia still got extremely crowded, particularly in the evenings when shoulder-to-shoulder crowds would throng the streets trying to secure the best vantage point for the extraordinary sunset display over the caldera. Sadly, we were often the only ones wearing masks, and to be honest, the cavalier attitude of the other tourists towards the pandemic made us feel quite uncomfortable being amongst the crowds so we didn’t spend a lot of time in Oia. Finikia had a much more relaxed vibe and we enjoyed many dinners at the local taverna Santorini Mou, which translates as My Santorini. The homemade food was delicious and the hospitality warm and welcoming. It was frequented by many tourists, but unlike some restaurants in Oia the quality and authenticity of the food didn’t feel dumbed down for international tastes. One of the highlights of the restaurant was the live music they played every night, accompanied occasionally by some dancing. It was such a treat to listen to the music of my childhood, and the entire family running the taverna were super sweet to us when they found out that I was Greek-Australian. The singer would often sing out my name in the middle of a song, winking at me with a smile, which was a little embarrassing but also really lovely. Every time we ate there they would greet us by name, as if we were old friends. It was hospitality like this that made me fall in love with Santorini.

The deserted, stark road from our villa to the restaurant.
They were delighted when they found out I was Greek-Australian.
The delicious food. Hand-cut chips, octopus, tzatziki and taramosalata (which is fish-roe dip). YUM!!!

When Marilena checked us into our villa on the first day, she went through all the different experiences and packages on offer to us as guests of the hotel. We decided to do two of them. A sunset luxury catamaran cruise and an island winery tour. The catamaran tour was awesome. We were greeted at the port at around 3.30pm and escorted onto our vessel with only three other couples, which was great because some of the other cruises departing that day were really overcrowded. The crew were super friendly and very keen to make the trip as fun as possible for us, handing out snacks and glasses of champagne straight out of the port. We sailed around for a while, checking out parts of the island that are only accessible by boat, and we also stopped at a few different spots so that we could swim, snorkel and explore. It was a lot of fun and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Santorini.

Chilling in the deep blue sea of the southern Aegean Sea.
I made sure to chill only in the shade of the catamaran as I was severely sunburnt.
This is what we came for. A beautiful sunset and free-flowing champagne)

The winery tour was also really fun. A lady picked us up near our villa and drove us around to three different wineries where we did tours of the vineyards and saw how the wine was bottled. It was fascinating. Greek wine has always had a really bad rap thanks to retsina, the resinated white or rosé wine that has been made in Greece for at least 2000 years. It’s an acquired taste, to say the least. In contrast, wine from Santorini is actually world class. The rocky, bone-dry volcanic soil of the island is uniquely conducive to producing incredibly structured, mineral forward wines, and in particular whites. When you think about how hot (scorching) and how windy (gale force) Santorini gets it’s not surprising to learn that in order to produce fruit that can be made into wine, the vines must be trained into characteristic kouloura shapes, like wreaths laid out on the ground. This offers them some protection from the elements and produces marvelous varietals such as our absolute favourite Assyrtiko. If you ever have the chance to try an Assyrtiko, I would definitely go for it, and please let me know what you think. I was blown away that Greece, the place where wine is sold by the kilo at tavernas, could produce such superlative wine.

A typical Santorini vineyard
Some Santorini kouloura vines are centuries old.
At the Argyros winery tasting we tried a rosé, a basic Assyrtiko and also a very special Assyrtiko made from at least 200 year old vines (amazing!!!) and the wonderful Vinsanto.

Another wine that is a specialty of the island is the Protected Designation of Origin dessert wine called Vinsanto, and oh my god it’s so good. It’s produced by taking overripe white grapes (at least 51% Assyrtiko) and laying them out in the hot sun to dry for about a week. Absolutely no sugar at all is added during the maturation process resulting in a naturally sweet wine bursting with the flavour of raisins, figs, honey, coffee and nuts. The wine is matured in oak barrels producing a delectable drop which I just couldn’t get enough of. Of the three wineries we visited, Argyros was our favourite, and in addition to all their wonderful wines, they also sold a block of chocolate filled with a ridiculously delicious, oozing Vinsanto centre. To die for. We ate WAY too many of these but I have zero regrets and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Argyros also produced our favourite Assyrtiko and we bought several bottles from them during the winery tour. In fact, we liked it so much that we went back to the winery two more times on our own to restock.

Vinsanto chocolate accompanied by a very fine Vinsanto.

We certainly drank a lot of great wine on Santorini, and we also ate a lot of good food. My favourite thing about Greek food is its simplicity. I used to be a really big fan of fancy food. Smears, spherification, Michelin stars. Blah, blah, blah. In the end, the theatre of the food becomes more important than the taste of it. Which is how the fancy food movement lost me. Over the years I have gravitated back towards the basic and unfussy food of my childhood. The food my parents fed me. The meals that I grew up with. Simple, tasty, honest food. And so, some of my favourite meals on the island were the ones that we put together ourselves at our villa. Yes, we had a kitchen, but we didn’t do a lot of cooking. When you’re hungry, there’s not a lot that can beat a simple table of local cheese, olives meats, tomatoes, feta, homemade tzatziki (David makes a mean version), bread and olive oil. Accompanied, of course, by a locally made bottle of white wine or dry rosé. A perfect meal. And so, we ate a lot at home, chilling out by the pool or whiling away the afternoon, reading under the sunshade.

Peasant food is best.
Our pool.

It was on one of those afternoons that I got severely sunburnt. I honestly can’t remember how it happened, but I do remember we had eaten a lovely lunch, similar to that pictured above. I do know that a bottle of wine had definitely been consumed, maybe even two. After lunch we’d retired up to the pool area to swim and have a bit of a lie down. I must have fallen asleep in the sun because when I woke up I was burned on the entire upper half of my body (front and back, somehow). I woke up feeling a little sore, but it was only the next day that the extent of the damage became clear. I was in excruciating pain for the next ten days. I don’t want to say that it completely fucked up our holiday, but it’s certainly not much fun being in so much pain that showering or changing clothes or even sleeping is difficult.

This was taken the day of the burn. The redness intensified over the next couple of days and I definitely resembled a stupid lobster. Lesson learned.

We lay low for a day or two after the sunburn because I literally couldn’t do anything without it hurting like a motherfucker. I’m pretty sure I cried. But a couple of days later, we decided to walk to Oia to experience the famous sunset and have a nice seafood dinner by the water. Ouch! Walking into the sun for 20 minutes, even with a hat covering my face and a shawl over my shoulders was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had on vacation. Every step felt like I was being splattered with burning lava. Waaaaaaaaaaa!!!!! But, we made it and we took some beautiful photos of the caldera and the town, stopping off for a glass of wine at Fino Wine Bar to refresh ourselves after the hot walk. After our quick wine break, we decided to keep walking to the restaurant rather than stop and take more photos of the sunset because it felt like 100,000 people had suddenly all turned up at the same time and we just wanted to get away from them. So we took the rocky road made of about 300 steep stone steps down the side of the cliff face to Ammoudi Fish Tavern at the bottom. The taverna is accessible only by those rocky steps, or by boat. It was a little touristic, which is to be expected, but we had some nice food in a gorgeous setting before making the (way more difficult) trek back up the steps.

A well earned glass of chilled white wine.
The stunning caldera of Santorini. Also the brutally fierce sun. Ouch.
The restaurant is on the right, and you can see the ancient stone steps cut into the mountain face. The colour of the mountain is due to rich deposits of iron.
The gorgeous seaside setting. And yes, that really is the colour of the water.

One of the most delicious meals we had on the island was another simple, traditional Greek dish of souvlaki. There are loads of souvlaki joints on the island, but the one with the best reviews, the one that everyone raved about was Pitogyros. So we went along one evening after a day of pretty hard drinking to see what all the fuss was about. After all, everyone knows that souvlaki is one of the best foods to eat when you’re off your face. Apparently many other people were also off their faces because when we arrived there was a long line of people in front of us. I really don’t mind waiting when the reward is a taste of something amazing, and we were not disappointed. Our pork souvlakia came out absolutely perfect, accompanied by salad and chips (which I tried not to eat, but failed miserably). We washed it all down with half a kilo of very delicious white wine.

Perfect souvlakia.

There were a few more places we ate and drank but because of all the eating and drinking I don’t remember the details. Here are a couple more pics from our pandemic tour of Santorini.

Um… check out this ridiculous view. We stopped here for lunch as part of the winery tour. The food and the service were unremarkable but the view was outstanding.
An absolutely spectacular seafood lunch by the sea.

Ejo #134 – Cholesterol Countdown for WHAT??!!

Remember late last year when I had my annual medical exam for work after a month of eating carnivore, and the doctor was absolutely appalled at my cholesterol results?  They were the highest figures he had ever seen, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that he was absolutely terrified for me, urging me on the phone to please start taking statins immediately so that I wouldn’t drop dead on the spot.  I objected.  I am extremely reluctant to willingly go down the slippery slope of a lifetime course of medication unless there is absolutely no other option.  And I knew that in this case, I could lower my cholesterol with diet.  So I asked him for the chance to do that, and I was given two months to prove that I could.  

To be honest, I may be a little bit proud of how ridiculously high these numbers are, especially the ones in red.
For reference, here are the average recommended cholesterol levels.

So why was my doctor so distraught for me?  He’s a super lovely guy, who’s been practicing medicine for more than 40 years and is very good at his job.  He’s a very caring doctor.  But, he’s old school and he’s operating on old information.  Doctors are incredible.  They study for many years to learn about the extraordinarily complex ways in which the body works, and I have a great deal of respect for them.  But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that it’s not a GPs job to keep up with all the latest medical research.  In my experience, doctors are generally useful for one of two things: issuing sick leave certificates and prescribing medication.  Actual treatment for an ailment is what referrals to specialists are for.  In Dubai particularly, you can’t see a doctor without walking away with a prescription for at least one medication.  Even if it’s just Panadol, docs be peddlin’. 

I’m glad that I resisted taking the statins.  After our appointment, I took a much deeper dive into the world of cholesterol research, and the role that statins play.  What I found, particularly pertaining to women, was eye-opening.  Author Nina Teicholz says, “In 1992, a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute expert panel reviewed all the heart disease data on women and found that total mortality was actually higher for women with low cholesterol than it was for women with high cholesterol, regardless of age.”  Hmm!  And that was nearly 30 years ago.  Not coincidentally, it also turns out that there is absolutely no benefit to women of any age taking statins, and this report, published by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, supports that. 

Dr. Kendrick is a well known author of several books about nutrition, one of which is called The Great Cholesterol Con.  The dude knows cholesterol.  And this is what he says about it for people of my age, “As you get older, the higher your cholesterol is, the longer you will live.  This is a fact.  People with lower cholesterol are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and other neuro-degenerative diseases.” 

If that’s the case, then how is it that we just “know” that cholesterol is bad?  How do we “know” that LDL cholesterol is even worse (it’s even called “bad cholesterol”).  No really, how do we “know” this stuff?  Spoiler alert: we don’t.  We are conditioned to believe it.  We are indoctrinated.  How on earth can something that our own body produces, be bad for us?  Around 30% of all our cell membranes are composed of the stuff.  And approximately 25% of the dry weight of the brain is cholesterol.  It’s so vital to its functioning that the brain actually makes its own.  We need it, or we will die.  Lierre Keith, author of the amazing book, The Vegetarian Myth, points out, “One of the main functions of the liver is to make cholesterol because life isn’t possible without cholesterol.”  So why would anyone want to reduce it?  

Probably because we are still being told that we have to.  Doctors use an algorithm to predict a person’s risk of developing heart disease based on factors like age, sex, ethnicity, blood pressure, LDL and history of illness.  If you get a score of 10, doctors prescribe you statins.  But, check this out.  According to the algorithm, once you hit 60, that’s an automatic score of 10, and doctors will prescribe you statins anyway.  Even if you are in perfect health, even if you have perfect blood pressure and optimal LDL.  WTAF!  It’s a huge double dip for the pharmaceutical companies.  You get the statins if your cholesterol is high.  And if you’re “old”, you get the statins anyway.  Which is absurd considering that there’s a proven, inverse association between LDL cholesterol and mortality in people over the age of 60. 

That cholesterol is even considered a risk factor for heart disease is sheer dogma.  The Lipid (or Cholesterol) Hypothesis, developed by Ancel Keys over 65 years ago (more on this mofo later), posits that high cholesterol causes vascular damage and/or dysfunction which leads to a build up of plaque on your artery walls, restricting blood flow, triggering a clot and ultimately leading to a heart attack.  It has been taught in medical school for over half a century, and most doctors (including mine) act on that information for the rest of their careers because they simply don’t know any better.  They never seek out clarification, and they never look for evidence to support the hypothesis.  If they did, they would discover that there is none.  In fact, there has never been a clinical study that has proven that cholesterol causes heart disease. Ever.

So let’s look at an alternative theory of correlation between cholesterol in the body and atherosclerosis.  It’s called the Response to Injury Hypothesis and it views the high level of cholesterol found in an atherosclerotic artery as the body’s way of responding to an artery that’s already been damaged.  Let’s say the artery was damaged by a high level of glucose in the blood, caused by insulin resistance.  The LDL rushes to the site as a protective “response to injury”, but unfortunately it is damaged when it becomes oxidised due to the presence of that high blood sugar.  This is when LDL actually does turn into bad cholesterol.  Oxidation takes a protective molecule (LDL) and turns it into something that contributes to harm.  LDL doesn’t cause heart disease, unless it becomes oxidised.  And, as long as you’re not a smoker, your cholesterol will never oxidise on a high fat, low carb diet.  It’s impossible. 

If you want to know how the medical profession became so trapped in an abusive marriage to the unfounded notion that saturated fat and high cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease, follow me down this rabbit hole.  The villain of the story is Ancel Keys, an American scientist whose dubious beliefs about saturated fat determined the dietary guidelines of an entire country which, more than sixty years later, is full of overweight diabetics dying of heart disease.  In 1956, Keys undertook the world’s first multi-country epidemiological trial (known as the Seven Countries Study), in order to prove his Lipid (or Cholesterol) Hypothesis.  By the time the massive study was published in 1970, he had become a master at cherry-picking through the copious amounts of data and fudging them to suit his hypothesis, leaving out all the data that didn’t support his theory.  For instance, data was actually collected from more than a dozen countries, but it was only the seven that proved his beliefs that were included in the final published paper. 

The study was flawed from the very beginning because Keys’ theory was one that he wanted to prove, desperately.  And that’s not how science works (or at least, not how it should work).  The study was never peer reviewed, and it was never replicated.  It was a shoddy paper that, despite never actually demonstrating causality at all, was framed as though it had.  Years after it was published, Alessandro Menotti, the lead Italian researcher in the trial, reviewed the data and discovered that, lo and behold, sugar was more strongly correlated to heart disease fatalities than saturated fat or cholesterol. 

But, due to a number of influencing factors at the time, Keys’ study was accepted as gospel, and subsequently adopted by the US government.  This happened despite prominent scientists protesting the study’s legitimacy at a congressional hearing.  And despite several other studies proving the exact opposite to be true.  Ancel Keys was an asshole and a bully, and he had powerful friends in the US government.  He had become so influential in the political and scientific worlds that he was able to quash any dissenting voices, ruining the careers of many promising scientists along the way. 

And so, from Keys’ study, the egregious USDA food pyramid was created and shoved down consumer’s throats.  The food manufacturers got on board the low-fat bandwagon and started producing items that were low in fat but, in order for them to be palatable, had to be high in sugar.  Funnily enough, the agricultural industry also suddenly became very keen to promote, and protect, the grain-heavy food pyramid, which shockingly still looks like this.  And here we are today with supermarket shelves packed full of products that our bodies don’t even recognise as food.  And people keep on getting fatter and sicker, and more dead. 

Flip this shit upside down, then we’ll talk.

It actually really boggles my brain that one man could have yielded so much power, and with such a profoundly fucked up result.  The idea that science should be pure and objective is a beautiful one.  When I studied Science at Monash University, we would conduct experiments with no bias, no agenda and with the truth as our ultimate goal.  Unfortunately, science in the real world is driven less by the urge to impress your professor, and more by inflated egos, frenzied publishing, heated competition and of course the influence of billions of dollars.  Of course there are many studies that are scientifically and objectively conducted.  But a large chunk of trials are funded by industry.  One such example is Coca Cola funding a study “proving” that Diet Coke is healthier than water.  Pharmaceutical companies funding studies “proving” that statins reduce the risk of heart disease, with little or no side effects, is another. 

There were several other studies from Keys’ time that clearly showed an inverse relationship between cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, but for some reason most of them were unpublished.  Buried, literally gathering dust in garages for decades, and only recently coming to light (did anyone say Minnesota Coronary Experiment?).  Now why would this be the case? 

I believe it’s because there’s too much money to be made from statins.  In the course of my research, I was shocked to learn that statins are the most prescribed medicine in the world, with over 200,000,000 people taking them every single day.  And the kicker is, once you start taking these meds you are stuck with them for the rest of your goddamn life.  So, statin prescriptions are increasing exponentially, cholesterol levels are plummeting.  And we’re all eating from the food pyramid, right?  But somehow heart disease is still the leading cause of death everywhere on the planet.  According to WHO, “The world’s biggest killer is ischaemic heart disease, responsible for 16% of the world’s total deaths.  Since 2000, the largest increase in deaths has been for this disease.”

So, if millions of people are taking statins, and heart disease is still the biggest killer on the planet, who is actually benefiting from all those little pills?  Is it the patient?  Sure doesn’t look like it.  Is it the doctor?  Well, they might be getting a little kickback.  Nope, the big winner here is Big Pharma.  And they have absolutely no incentive to disavow us (or doctors) of the idea that we all need statins to survive.  And, of course, they encourage us to keep eating from that crappy food pyramid. And they’ll just keep handing out pills like candy (which, incidentally come with their own smörgåsbord of significant, negative side effects).  Shockingly, in 2010 a cardiologist published a paper suggesting that statins be handed out with Original Recipe Chicken Buckets and Big Macs.  Let. That. Sink. In. It’s absolutely diabolical. 

Pharmaceutical companies are famous for obfuscating the data from their in-house clinical trials.  Transparency is not in any of their mission statements.  And so, most of us are simply uninformed, or worse, misinformed.  And most of us don’t ever question the authority of our doctors.  Which is why people are so happy to commit to a lifetime of taking statins when a doctor prescribes them.  They are under the impression that the pill will save them from heart disease, and extend their life.  Isn’t that what we all want?  To live a long and healthy life?  A study, however, has shown that for those with a history of heart disease, taking statins extended their lives (on average) by only five days!!  And for those with no history of heart disease, their life expectancy was increased by an average of three days.  THREE FUCKING DAYS!!!!!  That’s the reward you get at the end of a lifetime sentence of daily pill popping (never mind the cost, never mind the side effects).  No thanks, you can count me out. 

And look, it’s not as if the medical profession hasn’t got it wrong before.  As Lierre Keith elegantly argues in her book, lobotomies, leeching, hormone replacement therapy, thalidomide, electric shock therapy etc. were all once considered fine medical treatments.  We know better now, and I have a feeling that one day we’ll know better about statins too.

So, while I am vehemently opposed to reducing my cholesterol, unfortunately we had to do it to keep our jobs.  So, the cholesterol had to come down.  And it had to come down a shit-tonne. So, how did we do it?  Every day, before lunch we’d start with a tablespoon of chia seeds that had been soaked in a cup of water for an hour.  This is fibre, and it scrapes out your gut.  We did intermittent fasting, meaning we skipped breakfast.  Every day for five weeks lunch was oats, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, cinnamon, blueberries, almonds and walnuts, all known to reduce cholesterol.  We used almond milk instead of cow’s milk.  It’s absolutely horrendous for the environment, but hey, it’s fat free.  When we were peckish (which was often) we would snack on nuts and kiwi fruit.  And for dinner we mostly alternated between salmon, pan-fried in little bit of olive oil, which is an unsaturated fat, and soup with lentils, lemon and spinach.  Lentils, again, are rich in fibre, so we were shitting five times a day (and I’ve gotta admit, that part was pretty satisfying).  This sounds like a relatively “healthy” diet right?  But, knowing what I know, I literally felt like I was poisoning my body.  My joints started aching again, my stomach was constantly cramping and bloated, I was gassy as hell and I gained back the inches that I’d lost from around my waist, despite losing a couple of kilos. 

We needed to throw everything at this problem, so that we could pass our cholesterol tests and go back to eating food that’s actually healthy for us, and the environment: pasture-raised meat, eggs, yoghurt, cheese and butter.  So, we levelled up with supplements.  Every day we took milk thistle, plant sterols and stanols, and red yeast rice extract (and, because red yeast rice blocks the body’s own production of CoQ10, which is essential for heart and muscle health, we also had to take CoQ10 supplements).  Like I said, we were in this to win.  Neither one of us wanted to have to go back for another check-up in two months.  So we gave it 100%. 

And it worked.  Here are the results after five weeks of eating a diet which I am passionately, and diametrically, opposed to.  My total cholesterol reduced by an astonishing 60%.  And my “bad” cholesterol, LDL, went down by a pretty fucking crazy 73%. Was I healthier?  No.  But my doctor thought I was.  Was I less at risk of dying of heart disease than I’d been eight weeks before?  Absolutely not, but my doctor was delighted.  He signed our medicals, gave us both a figurative pat on the head and sent us on our way. We went out and had steak for lunch.

I’m no doctor, and this is no medical advice, but cop an eyeful of those number. David’s end results were even better.