Naxos, the largest (430 sq. km) and most fertile of the Cyclades, lies near the middle of the archipelago, north-east of Mykonos and east of Paros. The island was first settled around the third millennium BC, when the so-called Cycladic civilisation emerged, and was one of the most important centres of that time, as can be seen from the archaeological finds from its tombs and the exceptionally finely crafted, white marble Cycladic statuary.
During the second millennium BC, when the Mycenaean civilisation was flowering, Naxos played the role of a connecting bridge between the Greek mainland and the East, while its wealth and power in the 7th century BC can still be felt in the awe-inspiring monuments it dedicated to the shrines at Delphi and Delos, the Sphinx of the Naxions and the Lions, respectively.
Much later, when in 1537 Barbarossa and the Ottomans brought the Venetian domination of the Aegean to an end, Naxos was not occupied but merely forced to pay taxes to the Sultan.
Naxos was formally united with the newly formed modern Greek state in 1831. For many years, its emery mines, agriculture and livestock were productive enough to render the island self-sufficient. Nowadays, unlike the other Cyclades, tourism is not the only source of income and has never been a top priority with the locals. One could say, in fact, that it is a paradigm of a happy balance between tourism and agriculture.
The valleys with their citrus groves, vegetable patches, cattle pastures, the olive groves of Tragaia, the vineyards in the north of the island, and sheep and goats roaming the mountain areas of Filoti and Apeiranthos have been nourishing the islanders for years with their varied produce: meat, cheese, oil, olives, grapes, honey, citrus fruit, potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables. And naturally these form the basis of the Naxos cuisine.
The traditional dishes of Naxos fall into three basic categories, according to area: the coastal districts, where seafood and fish prevail; the valleys, noted for their garden vegetables, cattle and butter; and finally the hills and mountains where sheep and goats are more dominant and the cooking medium is olive oil. Some Naxos products are prized throughout Greece, such as its cheeses, the delicious Naxos potato, and a delicate liqueur called Kitro, distilled from citrus peel. Among its tastiest dishes are roast pork, pork fricassee with local greens, cockerel rustic style, rabbit in lemon sauce, kid with potatoes or pasta, boiled goat, and veal in tomato sauce.
Naxos graviera with its sweet, buttery taste is among the finest cheeses Greece has to offer and it’s one of the best loved table cheeses in this country. Although most of Greece’s gravieras are made with sheep and goats’ milk, the Cyclades (mainly Naxos, followed by Tinos and Paros) is the only region in the country where cows’ milk is used. It is a sweet cheese, with a full, rich taste, an intense aroma of butter and milk with subtle notes of walnut and almond. On Naxos the most important producers of PDO graviera at the Union of Farmers’ Cooperatives of Naxos, the Koufopoulos Cheese Plant of Naxos, and the Pittaras and Bambounis cheese plants.
Although cultivation of the potato appears to have begun on Naxos around the end of the 18th century, only from 1830 did it begin to spread in the flatlands, where it gradually became one of the island’s main products, contributing to its economic development and bringing prosperity to its farmers. From 2014, the Union of Farmers’ Cooperatives of Naxos for the first time managed to standardise and package the potatoes of its producer-members. In this way the genuine Naxos potato (a PGI product) arrives at the shops in bags of 3 kg each.
Among the rarest and most unusual forms of cured pork, even in the Cyclades, is Naxos zamboni – think jambon = ham – made from a whole pig’s leg of about 75-100 kg. It is similar to prosciutto but has a sharper taste and is definitely saltier, since it is dried under a coating of coarse salt. Given its resemblance to prosciutto, its origin can no doubt be traced to the Venetian occupation around the 15th century. It can be found at the Epilekto grocery store in Apeiranthos and in the marvellous sandwiches made by the Papadopoulos brothers at the Rendez-vous in Naxos town where it is paired with Naxos graviera.
Rosto is one of the most popular dishes on Naxos and it is made with a leg of pork, garlic, fresh tomato and tomato paste, and red wine, accompanied by macaroni. The prevailing taste is of garlic, since the meat is studded with it before being sauteed on all sides. The pan is then deglazed with red wine, the tomatoes and paste are added and the meat is left to simmer until tender. It is served with pasta, usually thick spaghetti or macaroni, and grated arseniko cheese.
On Naxos, as on Crete – and there is a strong relationship between the two islands – gardoumia are a special meze made from lamb innards. It is common in the mountain areas among pastoral communities, who tend to eat more meat than the people of the plains. And if there, roast meat is the ‘king’ of dishes, served at joyful and sad occasions, holidays and country festivals, weddings and christenings, the innards and livers are the ‘courtiers’ and equally in demand.
Greek Gastronomy Guide and Blue Star Ferries present another view of the Aegean islands through their cuisines and food traditions. “We Serve the Aegean” is showcasing each island through its history, geography, local products, characteristic foods and much much more. Everything needed to leave us with a rich taste of what each particular place has to offer.