Taverna Makellos

Excerpted from Goats in the Ghost Towns of Chios.

Pistacia lentiscus, cousin of the pistachio tree, grows everywhere in the Mediterranean, but only on the island of Chios does it weep. Only here will incisions cut into the shrub’s ragged bark make it drip a precious amber resin called mastic: chewing gum of the Byzantines, breath-freshener of the Turkish harem, and lauded medicine and culinary delicacy since ancient times. The flavor of mastic is unmistakable; it’s sweetly floral, not unlike myrrh, with a little of the piney twang one would expect from an evergreen. Added to cakes or loukoumia (Turkish delight), not to mention alcohol, it makes an excellent digestive, and some Chians even insist that it will enkindle one’s sexy bits. (Curious how many weird edibles are credited with aphrodisiac powers.)

As befits the home of mastic, Chios freshens its own breath: The heady perfume of citrus is in its air, orange and lemon notes capering on the salt breezes that stir every tree in Chios Town, the most fragrant port of any Greek island. That’s fortunate, since the town is homely, full of concrete buildings plopped carelessly along the shore road. Neither the harbor’s picturesque windmills nor the occasional mansion, with its garden of palm trees and pomegranates, can disguise the general shoddiness of Chios. A devastating earthquake flattened most of the island’s best architecture in 1881, and its grandeur was never restored. Yet Chios was grand, and it remains one of the richest Greek islands despite the fact that the market for mastic long ago dried up. Its shipping industry has kept the island prosperous, even during the current economic crisis—each morning men in fussy suits buzz their Vespas back and forth from the port while doing business by cell phone.

When I visit the island, I flee its greedy commercial quarter as soon as possible, especially if I’m hungry. This time I’ve come to meet Michalis Makellos, whose restaurant in the village of Pityos is reknowned for one dish: braised goat served atop a unique handmade pasta called herisia makaronia.

Michalis also runs a cafe by the port, and that’s where our first meeting takes place. Since all the Chians I know are tall and burly, I’m surprised to find he’s about my height, which is to say short. Compact and muscular, he has thinning, slicked-back black hair and a welcoming smile. He’d been a bit curt on the phone, but now I see it was only because of shyness. He tells me he’s happy to let me investigate his makaronia, and we make arrangements for my restaurant visit over tiny cups of Greek coffee.

Driving from Chios Town toward Pityos, in the northern half of the island, involves zigzagging up the side of a precipice for about ten terrifying minutes. After I reach the cliff edge, the asphalt briefly dips and curves before straightening toward Marathovounos—a spooky lunar plateau dotted with slate-colored boulders and thistly shrub. While the rest of Chios is relatively green, here along the island’s spine there’s a mournful Cycladic barrenness.

Still as the summit is, its silence is frequently broken by a festive jingling of bells and a clamor of hooves: This is a place only goats could love. The first herd I encounter is so large it takes a full five minutes to cross the road. A few of the goats are impertinent enough to plop down right in front of my car, all four feet tucked beneath them. One bleat of my horn gets them moving again.

Unlike sheep, which need at least a modicum of tender pasture, goats require almost nothing. Once the prime milking season ends in the late spring (goats can be milked for up to two hundred days a year) they can be left to their own devices, even in this forbidding landscape. Generally unwatched and unfed, they contentedly scavenge things few other beasts would touch, wandering from bluff to bluff until midsummer, at which time the herds are gathered up again and their weakest members are sold as meat for places like Taverna Makellos.

This seasonal routine, like all cycles of husbandry and harvest, follows the dictates of nature—not to mention the human palate—and was codified long before Hesiod put it into the dactylic hexameter of his Works and Days:

When the thistle blooms and the chirping cicada

sits on trees and pours down shrill song

from frenzied quivering wings in the toilsome summer,

then goats are fatter than ever and wine is at its best;

women’s lust knows no bounds and men are all dried up,

because the dog star parches their heads and knees

and the heat sears their skin. Then, ah then,

I wish you a shady ledge and your choice wine,

bread baked in the dusk and mid-August’s goat milk

and meat from a free-roving heifer that has never calved—

and from firstling kids.

Once upon a time, Chios was known as Pityoussa, or “the place having  pines.” The village of Pityos still clings to that ancient title, though all its pine trees are gone. Hidden by the ring of hills around it, the village seems to come out of nowhere as you approach. Only the turret of a Byzantine tower blows its cover, rising above the greenery, taller than its two defunct windmills, which are themselves taller than the humped Orthodox steeples of Agios Giorgios and Agios Dimitrios. Presenting a sharp contrast to Marathovounos, here is a pastoral world of chestnut, plane, and olive trees, of fruit orchards and grapevines.

I expect to find Taverna Makellos in the town’s plateia, or main square, but instead there’s only a little cafe and the charmingly named Oinopantopoleion, the “wine and everything shop,” which looks like it’s been closed for at least a decade. So I wander at random down one of the alleys radiating from the square, where I find a silver-haired woman sorting through a heap of wild greens in her tiny courtyard. “Wait here a second,” she says before ducking into her stone house. I hear a refrigerator open and close, followed by a rattling of silverware, and then she is back with a fork and a massive jar of orange spoon sweets. Spearing a wedge of candied orange with her fork, she hands it over. I struggle to chew and swallow the enormous treat, syrup running from the corners of my mouth, and no sooner have I done so than she plunges the fork back into the jar and hands me another.

The oranges are sweet and refreshingly cold, and I’m both hot and hungry. But I’ve been waiting years to eat at Taverna Makellos and don’t want to spoil my appetite now. Of course the old woman knows where the taverna is, and when I tell her I’m going to learn about its famous makaronia she laughs, rubbing her palms together in a gesture I don’t yet understand. Somehow I manage to evade another forkful of orange and her offer to bring out some coffee, thanking her with a flurry of kisses and handshakes and promising to return for coffee another time.

The taverna turns out to be on the edge of the village, adjacent to a dry riverbed and in the shade of a gargantuan plane tree, whose trunk has been buttressed with concrete and stone to keep it from crushing the restaurant. In an old photo hung near the kitchen, a group is gathered beneath this same tree, their attention focused on a well that still sits nearby. Two long-faced women in head scarves and woolen dresses balance amphoras on their shoulders, while two others heave a rope up from the bottom of the well. A skeptical gentleman in a black vest leans on his cane, looking sideways at the proceedings. The tree, I’m told, has been here since at least the fifteenth century. Thousands of customers have feasted in its shade since the restaurant opened around 1970, and it gives me pause to consider all this gluttony in light of the decades of famine and war earlier in the century, a period called to mind by the sight of these hooded, emaciated, witch-like women in sepia, laboriously drawing their water.

There’s nothing witch-like about Maria Mavrianou, the restaurant’s head chef. Her vigorous brown hair, brushed off to one side, is peppered with gray around her ears, in which she wears smart gold earrings. Maria never stops smiling. She moves through the kitchen with the stately confidence of a traditional French chef in his whites, but her uniform consists of a sequined brown blouse, a well-ironed black skirt, and fashionable wedge sandals.

Maria takes me on a tour of her kitchen, and I find myself standing speechless before the pasta cupboard: at least two hundred portions of freshly made pasta are drying in twenty trays, arranged in racks. “This morning’s work,” she says with a bashful shrug, neglecting to mention that she’s already broken down and braised several goats and made batter for three different kinds of croquettes.

One of things I like most about Greek cooks is their ease around food. This is especially true of the women of Maria’s generation: They cook the way their grandmothers taught them, with cheerful nonchalance and simplicity, as though preparing a meal for their family, not an anonymous clientele. I don’t seek out places like Taverna Makellos for refinement or luxury, but for the unfussy perfection of their local specialties—only on this island, in this village, beneath this plane tree, will one find the herisia makaronia of Maria Mavrianou. Follow the branchings of her family tree—from her nineteenth-century ancestors, who saw the violent end of Turkish occupation, up to those faded old women by the well, and on to the latest generation—and you’ll arrive at this exact spot, where Maria is now bearing a pitcher of tepid water, a bowl of coarse yellow flour, a soufflé cup of olive oil, and an ouzo glass filled with odd little skewers, ready to show a hungry American poet how she makes her famous noodles.

The first steps are familiar and simple enough. She dumps an unmeasured heap of flour into a large plastic bowl. “Is it semolina?” I ask. She merely tips her chin backwards, the Greek way of gesturing “Nope.”  It’s just coarse, unbleached durum flour. She mixes a glug of water in with her fingertips and then pounds the dough with her fist, kneading in extra dashes of flour until the texture is right. Finally, she rubs a small piece of dough back and forth between her palms to make a thick pasta snake, its head and tail squirming out from between her hands, and then she cuts it into uniform little pieces, each about the size of a chickpea.

What follows leaves me absolutely flummoxed. She places a tiny ball of dough between her thumb and index finger and with one quick motion smears it into a flattened oval with her thumb, as if making a long orechietta. She wraps the oval around a skewer and rubs her palms back and forth at lightning speed, rolling the dough down its length. The skewers look like segments of young bamboo, but she explains they are actually dried stalks of spartoxylos, a local reed that hardens into a tough, semi-flexible wand about the thickness of spaghetti.

When Maria demonstrates the technique, slowing down so I can follow, it seems easy enough. But my first attempts either tear apart on the skewer or flatten completely between my palms and wind up looking like trampled night crawlers. And removing the dough from the skewer proves nearly impossible. Maria does it with the merest flick of her fingertips: Off the pasta comes in one clean swipe, looking like six-inch bucatini, or thin pici with a hole running through the middle. She makes the macaroni with astonishing speed and arranges them on a towel in neat rows. Those of mine that aren’t entirely crushed or mangled are still of uneven length and thickness, which means they won’t cook evenly. Maria elbows me in the bicep and tells me not to worry:  “They’ll be fed to the dog.”  She likes her joke so much that she collapses into a fit of giggles, pressing a floury finger across her lips. I may know the recipe, but it’s going to take a lot of practice to master herisia makaronia—in the meantime, I’m happy to order a portion of it from the waiters, who’ve been watching me from the sidelines and have now decided to join in with Maria’s laughter.

 

 

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