Sometimes as a chef, or a cook, or a dishwasher, or if you just plain work in a restaurant, people ask you what is the best meal that you ever had in your life. Since I have been all of the above, I’m going to tell you mine...
A few years ago, I took some friends, a psychologist, two geologists, a few reporters, and a surgeon, to Greece for Easter. We went to celebrate the holiday and to go hiking. We enjoyed the Easter celebration, which in the town where I went to high school, you can drink a beer on the plaza, hold a candle, make the sign of the cross and pray...all at the same time. I think this concept is very Greek, but that’s another story.
I arranged a hike for the Monday after Easter, about 20 km to a monastery. I made arrangements from here in the U.S. for us to spend the night in the monastery...they call the rooms koitones (basically, a free place to stay). The particular monastery, Elona, was built into a cave on a cliff in the 1400’s. It has an icon that, legend has it, was painted by Luke, from the Bible. Another rumor has it that the Muslims, for the 400 years they were in Greece, never stepped foot in this monastery because of the difficult terrain and the mountains. The communists used it as a prison and a place for executions during the war.
All of my friends and I had to sell everything that we had with us, in order to get the latest in gear...the newest hiking boots, short hiking pants, special socks, backpacks with water on board, olives, bread and olive oil. We were all ready for our hike. I wanted to do the hike through the mountains, just like they had done it fifty ears ago when they walked to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary. The problem was, nobody has walked it the past fifty years, because the road to the monastery had cars going to it by then, and the pass was impassible. Most people in the village, they laughed at us, wondering why since we had a car, we could drive there? And why would we want to dirty our nice hiking uniforms?
Panayiotis, an old man, about 78 years old, and the best hunter in the village, decided he would be our guide for $80. He was wearing an old pair of church shoes with no laces, an old coat (just like the one he got married in about sixty years before), a blue shirt, and he took a stainless steel sickle to clear the path. In the middle of the afternoon, it started lightening and everybody was half dead. All except our guide, who was light footed and never asked for water, while we were cold, wet, thirsty, hungry, and our olives had spilled in our backpack so we had no food.
We finally made it, and we walked into the monastery through the huge front gate. We visited the icon, prayed a little bit, and I asked one of the nuns for our “reservation”. She told me I could stay there, since I was Greek, but my friends, all of whom looked like homeless people by now, were not welcome. As for food, “don’t even mention it”. I asked for the mother superior and the nun told me she could not see me. They were adamant that we had to leave. The next town was two and a half hours away, and it had gotten dark and began to get very cold.
I wrote one sentence on a piece of paper and slipped it under the door. In about five minutes, another nun came over and said we were welcome to stay. They put us in a special guest room for prominent visitors. You could see from the window views for thirty miles, and it looked like the view from an airplane. They cooked us eggs in extra virgin olive oil, and the yolks, they were a deep yellow. They gave us bread, which they made, tomatoes ripe from the vines in their garden, honey from their bees and honey cookies and wedding cookies made with rose water. The new welcome from the nuns, our hot water baths waiting to soothe our souls and bodies, the prayer session before we went to sleep, and the miracle of the one sentence note; I think it was one of the most memorable meals and experiences of my life. What did the note say? It’s for me to know and for you to find out. Just keep reading...
George Sarris is a renowned chef and restaurateur in Birmingham. He is the owner of the Fish Market on Southside and George’s Boxcar Cafe, as well as co-owner of Dodiyós in Homewood. He also runs the catering business Yellow Bicycle.