“It’s easier to realise dreams in small places,” says Ronia Anastasiadou.
We’ve spent the morning touring Sifnos, dipping into sleepy streets and blue-domed churches, and are parting ways by her Fiesta in Apollonia, the island’s main town. Ronia’s mother was Sifnian, she tells me, while she herself was born in Athens but moved to her great-grandparents’ house on this small island in the Western Cyclades 23 years ago.
“When I came from Athens, I had pills for headaches and an inhaler,” she tells me. “But after six months I stopped all medicine. It was a hard year, but after that year it was finished… No more chemistry.” She waves around, seeming to catch the island air, the landscape, the community, in her gesture. “You’re surrounded by water. It’s not up to you whether you leave the island. If there’s a boat, you can leave. If not, you can’t. For me, that was a reason to come.”
And then there’s the food. In Artemonas, Ronia takes me to sample sweet amigdalota, a soft almond cookie rolled in sugar, at Theodorou, a family-run sweet shop still using copper pots and wood fires to make its treats. Here, Vasilodimos Theodorou gives me tasters of velvety loukoumi (Turkish delight) and halvadopita (nougat wafers dotted with almonds and laced with island honey — you’d be tempted to stay on the island for this alone). “Historically we’ve been culturally close to Istanbul, where lots of pastry shops had Sifnian owners and staff,” he tells me.
Is that where his recipes come from?
“No, no, no!” Vasilodimos says, “I stay with my grandfather’s recipes.”
Mention food on Sifnos, and you’ll soon hear about Nikolaos Tselementes, who wrote a seminal Greek cookbook in 1926 and went on to become the country’s first celebrity chef. The book remains a staple on Greek shelves, but the Sifnian culinary tradition is richer than one man. Think of the fishermen, for centuries taking their catch along donkey paths to its villages. Or the terraces lined with beehives, olive and almond trees. Or the clay pots for slow-cooking stews. You still see old men foraging in cracks and walls for tough, wild capers.
At Tsikali tavern, on Vathi Beach, I go for a swim before tucking into a lunch of falafel cut with marjoram, flat-leaf parsley and onion; a snap-fresh salad with tomatoes and creamy manoura cheese, and a goat stew made with meat from the tavern’s own farm. At Simos, in the modest port town of Kamares, waiters in jeans and hoodies ferry trays across the street while local kids whizz by on bikes. I ask whether the calamari needs a side. “You can have rice, potato, anything you want,” the waiter says, slightly dismayed by the question. “For me, I have just calamari on the plate.”
I defer, and am soon cutting into a whole squid in a wafer-thin batter with a charcoaly bang to it. No rings. No frills. Just a wedge of lemon. When I walk inside to pay, I find myself in a room where yellowing family photos sit alongside portraits of saints and a blaring old TV. The waiter reaches around to the back of the till, hitting a clasp to open a drawer held together with sellotape.
Sifnos is a small island with a population of around 2,500, and one I cover easily in a day’s drive with Ronia and Giannis, another affable local guide. We venture from the hilltop ruins of Agios Andreas, an ancient Mycenaean town, to Kastro, a Venetian citadel built in the early 13th century. Island life is revealed in layers, from the flowing purple robes of an Othodox priest walking through Artemonas to George Bairamis, a potter whom I watch moulding wet, orange mulch into the terracotta pots that will hold the delicious Sifnian stews of the future. When he’s not working, George likes to go spearfishing, he tells me. And yes, he cooks his catch.
It’s not all rustic and unassuming, of course. The Sifnian secret has travelled, like the sweet whiff of bakeries in its lanes. In summer, visitors range from Athenian weekenders to wandering stars. Tom Hanks is a fan of the cooking at Omega 3, on Platis Gialos, I’m told. The beach is also home to the Lost Bay Beach Bar, whose barista Konstantinos Tsekouras has twice been named Greece’s best. In September, a three-day ‘Nikolaos Tselementes’ Cycladic Gastronomy Festival sees islanders from across the archipelago share their takes on traditional food. The sophistication is simmering away, but still feels understated, authentic. Sifnos is famous for not being famous, as a recent New York Times story put it. Ronia was happy with that.
“Food is a good way to know people,” she muses as we tour. “It’s hard not to eat well on the island, because everybody feels they have to work up to that reputation. Visitors expect to eat nice.”
See our complete Cyclades guide here — we’ll be publishing tales from across the islands throughout the month.
Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)