Can’t Take it With You

The tip of a croissant, baked by Paris’ top pâtissier, the smell of lamb steaming from a tagine: some things aren’t possible to take home. Most recently on the Greek island of Patmos, this was the Sfakiani pita made with honey and fresh cheese. The way the honey had tasted with the warm cheese and bread was a combination of sweet and pungent, and the flavor of the honey was distinct. I found a Grecian food store stocked with thyme, flower and pine honey; I settled on the thyme. At home I’d try to replicate the experience so I could share it with my family, who wasn’t with me on the trip. To cook a recipe collected from one’s travels is another form of remembering, less with the mind than with the senses, drawing an experience from the past and making it come alive again, folding distance into presence.

I’ve tried and failed many times before. Bewitched by French butter magic, one morning in my kitchen I made a batch of croissant dough too oversized for my Kitchenaid mixer and watched in horror as it leapt up the paddle and crawled into the motor (it had to be boxed and sent away for repair). I had been going for that golden crispiness, the way the exterior crust flakes against the taste of the soft inside layers. It’s easier to buy a box of Trader Joe’s frozen pain au chocolat and leave them out overnight to morph into the extraordinary. I can’t replicate that morning breakfast in Marrakesh, either. My husband hates lamb and I have no idea how to solve the mystery of the flatbread that accompanied it.

I’m having better luck with the dishes that come from the small taverna that my friend and I found along the waterfront in the port town of Skala. We traveled to the island of Patmos for a writing workshop with Mary Karr and George Saunders. Our hotel was a 10-minute drive from town and didn’t serve lunch or dinner, so we got to know the local taxi drivers who took us to Skala for meals.

The color of our taverna’s balcony distinguished it from the many others, all painted white and blue. Ours was a subtle green, the color of moss or lichen or a river stone. When we returned again for our third visit, every table was full. By then, the owner knew us. His name was Jiannis, Greek for John, which is funny, because something about him reminded me of John Malkevich, a similarity in the face, but also in demeanor, an understated amusement with the world, as if everything happening was a show. His humor kept him on the brink of annoyance, a narrow pleasure zone to escape to amidst the chaos of his popular restaurant.

And maybe now he was smirking at us, because we keep returning. We’d come again for the Sfakiani pita, one of those dishes to splurge on, a vacation privilege. Jiannis tells us to hold on for a few minutes until one of the tables opens up. His restaurant, Tzivaeri Taverna, is on the second floor and open only at night. The entire place is only around 15 tables. There’s no room to stand out of the way of the restaurant’s three busy workers–a teenaged boy who carries menus and waters, the lone waitress, and Jiannis–so my friend and I wait inside, where there’s a darkened bar and only one table filled with people I imagine to be either relatives or locals.

I look in the bar to find the name of the after-dinner drink Jiannis brings us every night on the house, a golden-hued little shot of honey and cinnamon. It looks and tastes more like an elixir than a cleaning product and we are enchanted by the flavors, but when we ask the name of what it is, neither of us understands. Later, in the same Grecian food store, we deduce it to be Rakomelo, a digestive spirit high in antioxidants. In Greece it’s often used as a home remedy for sore throats. So much for gastronomic sophistication; it’s no cognac or port, more like spiked Vitamin Water.

Jiannis gives us a good table, one with a view along the railing. The night before, a gust of wind had picked up our change, a 10 euro note that went up and over the balcony and disappeared into the street below. We watched it fly off and vanish among the crowd of tourists below, and though logistics made recovery impossible, I still looked for it down on the street, around tourists’ ankles. My friend, though, just shrugged and let it go. Maybe because we were here on this mythical, sacred island, I imagined some invisible portal that had opened and then quickly closed, a place to toss our gratitude. St. John wrote the Book of Revelations here in a cave up in the hills. A Greek Orthodox monastery, dedicated to him, was founded in 1088, and, like many Christian buildings, it was built over a sacred pagan site, a temple to Athena.

The English translation on the menu doesn’t offer a description of the Sfakiani pita but we had asked: it is pita bread stuffed with cheese and drizzled with honey (it’s named for Sfakia, a prefecture on the island of Crete). We had ordered it without hesitation, along with their vegetarian special and what was to become our favorite salad, described on the menu as red cabbage, bell peppers, carrots and cashews tossed in a sweet and sour sauce, but what we discovered to be, in a failed translation, balsamic vinaigrette. The salad is crisp and cold and fresh, a perfect chaser for our pita.

Every other Greek restaurant we’ve been to has slow service but at Tzivaeri, they bring our food out right away. Our Sfakiani pita comes out first on a small plate that’s just the size of the pita. The bread has been toasted on the griddle in the slightest bit of oil, in the same way I like to make quesadillas, with golden crispy parts. We cut the hot and toasty bread into wedges and pick them up, our fingers sticky with honey. I’m not sure what kind of cheese is inside, but it’s too mild to be feta and blends well with the honey.  The honey’s flavor extends beyond my generic idea of it. It’s as if the island air is swept up and preserved into its amber, making me recall the breezes of my run at sunrise, seasoned by the island’s herbs wet with dew. I’ve just finished reading Circe, a story about a witch from the Odyssey, and after her father, Helios, the sun, banishes her to an island, she scours all the plant life and learns to make all of her potions and spells from them.

The Sfakiani pita disappears quickly but we savor every bite. In my attempt to recreate the magic of this dish, I found this recipe. I used goat cheese, softened with milk into a spreadable cream. I didn’t use raki, the alcholic drink that forms the base of rakomelo, because I don’t have any. I think next time, I’ll try another flatbread recipe.

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