Chios (Χιοσ), is Greece’s fifth largest island. Situated in the north Aegan, Turkey is just eight nautical miles away. It’s the birthplace of Homer. It’s probably the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Its history goes back to the Neolithic period and Chios’ claim to fame is its mastic trees.
Most of the Greek islands (e.g., Syros, Milos, Skiathos, Hydra) are a summer destination for most of Greece and half of Europe. They are insanely fun, busy and crowded until September when they essentially close up until the following May. Some islands, like Chios, have a thriving agricultural base, and are busy, productive islands with year-round inhabitants. That was the draw last week when Demetri and Papou spent three days here.
Chios was conquered by the Genovese. The village of Kampos has many 13th century mansions that each had huge walled orchards for citrus fruits. Lots of these farmers came to the US in the 19th and 20th centuries and started citrus orchards in Florida, then returned to Greece after building their fortunes.
The island has an interesting history regarding the Genovese control. Chios was a republic of Genoa (invaded and settled by them) and there is a lot of evidence that the island is most likely the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, as many various documents from/about him say “republic of Genoa” and not city of Genoa, which is in Italy. The Columbus (Kolombos) family name in Chios goes back 700 years and there’s a house marked as his birthplace. There’s a lot of controversy around his origin and there are a lot of books written about where indeed Columbus was from with significant evidence that he was not the son of an Italian wool farmer. Most interesting is that Columbus kept 2 logs – one fake and one real. The ‘real’ one, which has been used to verify his discovery of San Salvador and to clear up discrepancies about it, was written in Greek. The ‘fake’ one was written in Italian. Matt Barrett, a prolific Greece travel writer, reviews a book on his website that he believes answers the question about Columbus once and for all. It’s a fun read.
Chios mastic is produced on the south side of the island by 24 villages. It’s been harvested for almost 3000 years. Hippocrates used it to treat colds, bad breath and to prevent digestive issues. It’s still used in gum, cosmetics, pastries and liquers — the drink has a wonderful woody, pine smell. We enjoyed it in Milos many evenings this summer. In 2014, we enjoyed it as a spoon sweet after lunch in Kalamata.
Mastic sap drips from the trees and forms little teardrops. The drops are hard, but they soften as you chew. Mastic was a great source of wealth for hundreds of years. Everyone wanted it – Venetians, Genovese, Turks. During Ottoman rule, the penalty for stealing it was execution. Oh, and Columbus was known to patch his boats with mastic. Ahem.
There’s a cool Byzantine village called Anavatos, which translates to ‘you can’t walk up here’. Now that the place is in ruins, it was easier to explore than a few hundred years ago. In 1822, nearly 75% of the island’s population was killed in a battle against the Turks during the War of Independence; much of the battle took place near this village.
One of the best parts of island travel is the local food and learning what influences their cooking. One afternoon, it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. Papou and Demetri stopped in a little town and found an ouzereia — a little cafe with mezetes, ouzo and coffee. There were 7 men sitting there with ouzo and coffee, not speaking to each other. They were all watching some sort of reality fashion show on television. The owner had just made a cheese pie. Cheese pies in any form are delightful. Fresh cheese pies are phenomenal.
They found an excellent restaurant in Chios town and ate there both nights. They had fazolia, cannelini beans in tomato sauce with local mandarin oranges and it was fantastic. The soutzoukakia, traditional meatballs in tomato sauce, had some turkish influences with cumin. Also excellent. Stifado, historically made with rabbit, is braised beef cooked for hours. This restaurant made it with chestnuts (which have just come into season) and it was the best thing they’ve eaten in weeks.