As always when I start to write about a region in Greece I get bogged down by its history, and Lesvos is no exception. But I am of the opinion that history plays a big part in what we eat and how we perceive a local cuisine.
I try and guide my readers towards the diversity if Greek food and hope that not only the food but also the local culture and history is of interest; it becomes like a travel log and part history and myth and legend journey. I always hope that when people visit Greece that not just Mykonos and Santorini will be on their radar but they will hopefully think outside the box and visit other islands such as Lesvos that have a very rich culture, past and present.
Lesvos is no exception in its role in Greek history. The oldest ruins date back to 3200-3100BC. In Thermi, five towns have been unearthed on top of each other representing a time between 3200 to 2400BC. The first three correspond to Troy I and the other two to Troy II archaeologically, the next thousand years could be classified as the dark ages but we can safely assume that life did not go under major changes till the Greeks from Mycenae made their appearance in Lesvos and in Asia Minor. Being the time of the legendary Trojan war around 1400BC, somehow the Mycenaean’s, for whatever reason, did not create settlements on Lesvos.
A little later, Aeolian Greeks from Thessaly founded colonies on the island and on the coast of Asia Minor. According to myth the first Aeolian king was Lesvos, son of Lapithas, king of Thessaly and grandson of Aeolus. He sailed to the island from Thessaly and married Mithymna, daughter of the local King Macares, and from that time on the island was called Lesvos and we are told that they Hellenised the island.
Its capital Mytilene has been around since the Aeolians were there, along with five other towns at the time. During the Greek classical era Lesbos underwent many political changes thanks to the wars with Persia.
Lesvos often changed sides till they settled with the Athenian side, entering an alliance with them in 477BC. But the local battles continued as Samos revolted against Athens and between 440BC the power struggle continued for many years to come till Alexander the Great began to conquer Asia and the Lesvians lost no time to align themselves with him. They remained under Macedonian rule until the Roman invasion in 167BC, and the island prospered well into the Christian era – archaeologists have unearthed 57 basilicas to date.
Lesvos was part of the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages and changed hands a number of times thanks to Slavic, Italian and Catalan invasions.
But thanks to its proximity to Turkey, Lesvos became an early Ottoman conquest, and was overtaken by the Ottoman Empire in 1462.
It returned to Greek leadership in 1912 and was flooded by Greek refugees from Asia Minor ten years later, giving it a uniquely mixed Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine.
Lesbos is one of the most beautiful islands in the Aegean, with interesting modern culture, its capital Mytilene with its old Neo Classical buildings surrounded, as in all Greek cities and towns, with a modern concrete town. The villages of Molivos and Petra are Greek heritage-listed and have been since the ’70s. The petrified forest of Lesbos on the western tip of the island is possibly the largest of the petrified forests of the world, covering an area of over 150km and declared a national monument in 1985. Large, upright trunks complete with root systems can be found, as well as trunks up to 22m in length and as of spring 2014 the area was proposed for UNESCO’s tentative List of World Heritage Sites.
Lesvos has given us Odysseus Elytis, Nobel Laureate for literature 1979 for his poetry, the author Stratis Myrivilis, Eftaliotis in the 20th century and from the past Sappho, Alceus and Theophrastus.
The University of the Aegean is based on Lesbos with faculties spread out amongst Chios, Limnos, Samos and Rhodes. It was established in 1984 and is considered one of the most progressive in Greece and has won several awards in some departments. It has a Food Science Department, with its campus being in Myrina, Limnos.
But let’s get to the ouzo, of which Lesvos produces some of the best: Plomari, Pitsilidi, Dimini, Mini and Kefi are all local. Like its neighbours Lemnos and Chios, the cultivation of anise and of mastic have become essential for ouzo production.
Lesvos has many women’s cooperatives making sweets, liqueur, hylopites (pasta), preserving vine leaves and making olives, as well as embroideries.
Lesvos has an abundance of olive groves and from what I know supplies the region, especially Limnos, which is part of the Lesvos Municipality. Olive oil and olives are available in abundance. The island is also rich in seafood and with the Asia Minor and Italian influence, the culinary culture is rich and diverse.
I dug up some very interesting recipes but I’ve given you what I feel is easy to make here in Australia and in our homes, so they might not be so adventurous, but drying fish in the open with our flies here was not on my radar.