Santorini: A volcanic explosion of indigenous agricultural varieties
The story of Santorini (or in classical Greek Thera /ˈθɪərə/) is one of the greatest depictions of the eternal struggle of man and nature. Intertwined with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the history of the island is imprinted on the desolated lava dome islands of Palea and Nea Kameni which dominate its archipelago. Along with Therasia and Aspronisi, these islands form the ring of the caldera that unfolds in front of Santorini’s high walls and whitewashed villages. Despite the adversities and the challenges associated with the volcanic elements of nature, the people of the island have learned to live symbiotically with them throughout the centuries.
The great Minoan eruption of the Late Bronze Age (around 1600 BC) changed the shape of Santorini island dramatically and played a significant role in the course of Eastern Mediterranean history. The thick layer of white pumice and ash that wiped out all indigenous life endowed the island with the boon of Aspa soil which would become the cradle of life for future generations. Due to its sandy nature and mineral-rich composition, the island has become essentially immune to root-eating pest. In addition, the island’s distinctly Mediterranean climate that is characterized by strong winds, warm temperatures and minimal annual rainfall have led to the development of unique cultivation techniques that take advantage of sea fog. Owing to its distinctive ecology, climate and volcanic soil, Santorini is home to renowned produce making it a unique representative of Cycladic cuisine.
Considered as the top destination for enotourism in Greece, grape vines account for 80% of Santorini’s agricultural production. The island’s wine industry is mainly based on the indigenous white grape varieties of Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri. The arid volcanic-ash-rich nature of Santorini’s soil has made the island immune to the plylloxera pest, thus making root grafting useless. As a result, the wine that is produced today there originates from the same vines that have grown there for hundreds of years. Nonetheless, what makes Santorini’s wine particularly unique is the vinification process. Vines are planted far apart in the shape of low-spiralling baskets, with the grapes hanging in the center in order to protect them from the winds. The viticultural pride of Santorini is related to the winemaking tradition of Vinsanto. Vinsanto is predominately made from late harvested Assyrtiko (at least 51%), Athiri and Aidani grapes that age for a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels. The island’s wines are standardized and protected by the Vinsanto and Santorini protected designation of origin (PDO) standard scheme.
Brought by an abbot of the Capuchin monastery in Ano Syros in 1818, agricultural scientists continue to argue whether the tomato seed got accustomed to Santorini’s weather and soil conditions or if it constitutes an altogether unique variety. Having retained its purity as it has never been crossed with a different variety, Santorini’s unique cherry tomato is renowned for its small size, strange shape, dark red color, hard skin and really rich and juicy body with unique aromas and earthy flavors since they grow up on the volcanic soils of the island. Ideally consumed during the summer months of June, July and August, these tomatoes are cooked into sauce and canned, or sun-dried into paste for the winter. Santorini’s cherry tomatoes were awarded PDO status in 2013, becoming Greece’s 101st product.
- Fava Santorinis
Classified as Lathyrus clymenum, this legume species has been cultivated in Santorini and neighboring islands for more than 3,500 years. The unique volcanic ecosystem together with the island’s humid climate have created an ideal microclimate for this crop. It has a very high nutritional value which is reflected in its very high content of protein (25%) and dietary fibre (26%). Fava is usually puréed and is sprinkled with chopped onions, capers, olive oil and lemon juice. Highly susceptible to slight weather variations, Fava Santorinis has a very limited production that has been protected under PDO status since 2011.
- White aubergines
Distinctive by their weird looks, Santorini’s white aubergines are known for their abnormally large size and sweet taste; so sweet that there is no need to go through any de-bittering process. In addition, they have no seeds and they do not absorb much oil when fried, which makes them easier to cook. White aubergines can be found in every restaurant in Santorini, either fried or in the form of a paste dish, called melitzanosalata.
Capers are one of the most important agricultural products in the island group of the Cyclades. Growing uninvited in the most unexpected spots, they constitute a vital ingredient of traditional Aegean cuisine, often used to garnish salads or contribute their unique aroma to stews or tomato sauces. Being the perfect accompaniment to fava, Santorini’s capers are prepared in a different way by being sun-dried until they harden and eventually acquire a yellow color.
Katsouni is a local cucumber variety that is characterized by its small thick size and light color. Santorini’s volcanic soil has endowed it with a sweet and refreshing taste which, when it is harvested later than it should, tastes like a melon. As an indigenous variety, it is one of the most vital ingredients of local salads.