Tinos, the island of the Virgin and the most important pilgrimage destination for the Greek Orthodox, also has 62 exquisite stone-built villages, innumerable terraces on its steep slopes – like wrinkles on the earth according to one poet – 750 churches and chapels and 600 dovecotes. It is also known for its open heart, mystic, humble and captivating character.
This mountainous island has as its highest peak (729 m) Kapnia to the east, the imposing granite rock of Exombourgo surrounded by rolling hills at its centre, flatter Kato Meri (Lower Places) to the north, with the valley of Komi and its famous artichokes at its core, and to the northwest Exo Meri (Outer Places) with its craggy slopes descending from Kardiani, Pyrgos and Marlas.
As you travel around the island, following the coastline and the usually wave-battered beaches, crossing the slopes ‘embroidered’ with drystone walls and terracing, every now and then – usually around the gullies and ravines – small oases of green planetrees and cypresses stand out from the barren rock. This is where the island’s delightful villages nestle, along with miniscule chapels and beautiful white dovecotes. It’s not by chance that the great philosopher Kornilios Kastoriadis called Tinos ‘the hand-crafted island’.
The most noteworthy villages are Koumaros, Tripotamos, Exombourgo – a natural fortress used in times of pirate raids – Volax, with its surreal landscape strewn with giant round boulders and, finally, Pyrgos, the village of the marble workers and famous artists (Giannoulis Halepas, Dimtrios Filippotis, Nikiforos Lytras) with its cemetery filled with examples of their art. The Museum of Marble Crafts brings to life the history and technology of marble from ancient times to our own day.
The heart and soul of the main town and port of Tinos is the church dedicated to the Virgin, which began construction in 1823 on top of an earlier church of Zoodochos Pigis and dominates the top of the steep Megaloharis Avenue. It holds the miracle-working icon – barely visible under all the precious ex votos – to which countless thousands of pilgrims offer thanks and prayers each year.
The moment you disembark in the port of Tinos, your first impressions of the island as a wild, overwhelmingly barren rock are turned upsidedown. You only have to take a few steps from the boat and you’re in the midst of the town’s farmers’ market, surrounded by an abundance of local products that the farmers bring in every day. Depending on the the season of course, you come face to face with the famous Tinos artichokes, its fresh fruit, garden-fresh vegetables, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, thyme-scented honey, mushrooms and wild greens, herbs (dittany, thyme, oregano, sage, camomile and more for seasoning food or making tisanes), prickly pears, and the many types of local figs and table grapes that will delight you all summer.
Somewhat later, when you begin to explore the interior, you’ll notice that the steep slopes are etched with terracing from top to bottom in an effort to eke as much cultivable soil as possible from the inhospitable terrain. Some are still cultivated, others, alas, abandoned. Here herds of cows graze, which for eons have been farmed for their meat but mainly for their milk, producing cheeses for which the island is famous.
Besides these cattle, the Tinians raise sheep and goats, poultry, rabbits and, naturally, pigeons which nest in the famous dovecotes found scattered all over the island.
Finally, apart from farming and animal husbandry, the residents of Tinos are also fishermen; most of the fishing boats dock in the capital’s protected harbour. Fish of all kinds, calamari and seafood are prepared in a variety of ways, while they may be accompanied by the original, spicy sweet and sour sauce called ‘savori’.
The Komi valley and the area around Exombourgo have an annual production of about 600,000 tight-leaved, exquisite artichokes, and naturally the Tinians have dozens of ways of cooking them, even baking them into a pie.
Cured pork (the contrafillet), marinated in wine and a mix of spices, fennel seed, cinnamon, cloves and savoury, wrapped in beef intestine and dried in the north wind. Served very thinly sliced like the Tinos sausage.
The island’s traditions in the production of meat and dairy goes back to the Venetian occupation (1207-1715). In fact, a French book published in 1809 mentions a piquant cheese found there similar to roquefort, which must be kopanisti. The most important cheeses, produced mainly from local cow’s milk, are graviera, kopanisti, malathouni, strongylo and kariki.
Capers are collected from the wild, rocky parts of Tinos. They are dried in the sun until they harden and then soaked in a solution of vinegar and salt until they acquire their characteristic bitter and distinctive taste. Many local producers sell them in packets of different sizes.
The Tinians have numerous inventive ways of cooking artichokes, including in an omelette with local potatoes and lard, pastitsio, stuffed with mincemeat, sfougato (another kind of omelette with leeks), au gratin, with peas or broad beans, batter-fried, with kid in a yogurt-based sauce, with lamb in an egg-lemon sauce, with codfish, with octopus and in a pie, which consists of a layer of thinly slice bread, successive layers of thinly sliced artichokes and local grated cheese, tossed with green onions, thyme, salt and pepper, and topped with a layer of bechamel sauce.
Platters for ouzo
Most of the cafés on Tinos offer a variety of meze that go especially well with ouzo or raki: pickled artichokes, strongylo (round fresh cheese), louza (cured pork fillet, marinated in red wine and local fennel seed), olives, capers, baby cucumbers, fried cheese pies, and sun-dried tomatoes, either in oil or batter-fried. Of course, it goes without saying that you’ll also find an abundance of fresh fish and seafood as well as pigeons raised in the famous dovecotes.
Though created from the humblest of ingredients (flour, olive oil, cheese), Tinos sweets are astonishing for their originality. Most memorable are the tsimbita, made with fresh cheese (petroma) enfolded in pleated pastry (with the aid of a toothpick!), xerotigana (fried pastry coils made with flour, raki, water and served dripping with honey and sprinkled with chopped almonds), karydota, walnut confections from crushed walnuts, flour, sugar, rosewater and mastiha, and, finally, psarakia (fish-shaped fasting pastries filled with finely chopped walnuts, grated rusks, orange peel and spices).
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.