Syros, the melting pot of peoples, cultures, and tastes

Pelasgians, Phoenicians, Saracens, Venetians, Franks, Turks, Chians, Asia Minor populations!

 

THE PAST

Syros, aka Syra, is in the heart of the Aegean, opposite Delos, Tinos, and Mykonos. It’s a crossroads of peoples and cultures from the East and the West. 

The island has been inhabited since prehistoric times as signs of human habitation corroborate at Chalandriani and Kastri, in the southern part of Syros. 

Syros is cited by Homer in the Odyssey, was settled by the Pelasgians and the Phoenicians, was raided by Saracen pirates and the Venetians, became the darling of the French and the Turks, and was given magnificent buildings by Chios and Asia Minor refugees. 

It prospered during Hellenistic times and rose to prominence under Roman rule only to decline during Byzantine times.

During the Greek Revolution of 1821, the island became a French protectorate, a reassuring fact that led many refugees from areas that had rebelled to flee to the safety of Syros. 

After 1826, with refugees from Psara, Chios, Crete, and Asia Minor settling there, Syros rose to prominence again. It became Greece’s first commercial port and the new Greek state’s industrial and cultural center with approximately 50 factories in various sectors such as leather tanning, steel, carpentry, screen printing, printing, shipbuilding, soap making, milling, glass making, spinning mills, rope making, paints, lokum confectionery, lead bullet manufacturing, and starch production.

The present

The administrative capital of Syros is Ermoupoli, the junction of the Cyclades, gifted with exquisite architectural monuments, neoclassical mansions, magnificent churches, and old industrial complexes mute witnesses to an illustrious past. 

 

Ermoupoli has it all!

* an excellent road network as well as an efficient ferry network thanks to the island’s large and safe port and its short distance from the Port of Piraeus. 

* the Dimitrios Vikelas National Airport, a General Hospital, the University of the Aegean Campus on Syros, a theater, a movie theater, a public library, a municipal musical society, an archaeological museum, a Center of Technical Culture – the Industrial Museum of Ermoupoli, a Museum of Cycladic Art Replicas, a Folklore Museum, Historical Archives, the Markos Vamvakaris Museum, and a Traditional Trades Museum. 

* nautical and sports clubs *volleyball, basketball, and soccer teams *a municipal swimming pool *tennis, chess, martial arts, and motorsport tournaments *a horse riding club *a dance club *local radio and TV stations, and *local newspapers and periodicals

* festivals: The Aegean Festival, the Anima Syros International Animation Festival, a Puppe Festival, a Theater Festival, a Guitar Festival, an Opera Festival, and a Classical Music Festival

* a Municipal Art Gallery as well as art exhibition venues which house significant art events 

An island vibrant from winter to summer! 

 

CONTRASTS – COEXISTENCE – CULTURE

Two hills for celebrating the Resurrection: The hill of Vrontados for Orthodox residents, and of San Tzortzis for Catholic ones. 

Two cities, the poor district of Ano Syros and, below, Ermoupoli with its grand neoclassical mansions, and the capital of Greece two years after the arrival of Bavarian King Otto 

Two social classes, the first middle class of Modern Greece and the first workers’ union 

It is here that the iconic rembetiko urban folksong composer and singer Markos Vamvakaris was born, it is here that the charismatic Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos went to school. 

It is here that the quadrilles of the gentility and the zeibekiko dances of the lower classes were danced in equal measure

It is here that the upper-middle class ladies held their soirées and après-midi gatherings and it is also here that the craftsmen’s guilds held their own gatherings. 

Ermoupoli is also a place of many “firsts”: 

It had Greece’s first Gymnasium high school, the first shipyard, the first commercial port, the first industries, the first workers’ strike, the first electric streetcar!

 

Two worlds, two dogmas, one island! 

 

GASTRONOMY – CUISINE

“Cooking translated from Italian. Syros 1828” was the first modern printed cookbook published in Greece. It was printed in Ermoupoli. 

That cookbook comprised 100 recipes as well as cooking methods from England, France, Spain, and Germany. 

The cookbook met with unqualified acceptance and was promptly adopted by Ermoupoli’s upper middle class, prestigious Chios sea captains, and affluent Smyrna merchants. In combination with the buying power those categories possessed and their ease in procuring goods available in foreign markets, the cookbook confirmed its culinary superiority. It became a symbol of prestige and elevated social status. 

Each one of the diverse groups of refugees that arrived at Syros and settled there brought along the foods of its own homeland. 

Refugees from Chios and Asia Minor brought to Syros luscious lokums, flat rounds of crunchy halvah, lemon blossoms, and pistachio nuts that found their way into “spoon” preserves, hams, “vodeno” custards flavored with Vinsanto wine and almond pastries with the fascinating name of baisers de dame (lady’s kisses). 

The Capuchin monks’ gift to Syros was juicy prickly pears (faraosyka or barbarosyka). 

Smyrna refugees brought exotic Middle Eastern spices and sweet sauces used in legume, vegetable, and fish dishes. 

The local Catholics of Syros (Fragkosyrianoi) made ample use of the products found on Syros: pork was braised with quinces, baked vegetables were stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and black currants, beef stews were flavored with candied, sun-dried tomatoes, cod was oven-baked with onions, seskoula greens, tomatoes, garlic, and black currants, and stovetop-cooked bean soups remained pristinely white, unadorned by tomatoes, and were thickened to perfection with carrots and celery. 

In the slaughterhouses, the pigs’ blood was boiled with chopped onion and kourenti (black currants) and was fried with pork fat, mint, and spices to make haematiés (blood sausages). 

 

Two worlds, two communities, two cuisines, one island! 

 

SYROS TRADITIONAL PRODUCTS

 

San Michali cheese, Syros’ own piquant “parmesan”

Highly aromatic, San Tzortzi is an artisanal cheese exclusively crafted on Syros from skimmed cow’s milk. 

 

Kopanisti 

One of the most famous cheeses of Cycladic islands in Greece is “kopanisti” a soft cheese with an intense spiciness and peppery taste. 

Preparation varies from Cycladic island to Cycladic island but it is basically crafted from cow’s, sheep’s, or goat’s milk, or a mixture of these in varying proportions. Next, natural rennet is added to the milk and once the first curd has formed, kopanisti is salted, pressed into cloth sacks called “tsantiles”, and left to drain. It is then transferred in large ceramic jars or small barrels and left to mature for a number of months. During the period kopanisti is left to mature more cheese is added to the original mass so that the mixture can become further fermented. 

 

Louza 

Louza is one of the best mezé appetizers and it’s the Cycladic islands answer to prosciutto. It is dry cured ham made from tenderloin, one of the choicest pork cuts. The pork meat is first cured in salt for 24 hours. Then, it is washed and marinated in red wine together with allspice, cinnamon, peppercorns, and cloves. Next, it is squeezed in natural intestine and pressed to acquire its flat shape. It is then ready to be hung and air-dried for approximately 40 days until it has matured and is ready for consumption. 

 

Sausages

“Marathies” are Syros sausages whose basic ingredients are pork meat and fennel (marathos) or finochio (marathos root) both of which lend the sausages their characteristic aroma. There are also sausages that are flavored with garlic and are quite spicy.

 

Loukoumia (Lokums)

They’re Syros’ iconic trademark. The art of making loukoumia came to Syros in 1822 with the refugees from Chios who had learned from the Ottoman pastry chefs how to make those sweet bits of heaven based on a sugar-and-starch gel flavored with rosewater, lemon, or other aromatic ingredients. The word “loukoumi” comes from “lokum”, the Turkish word for the same sweet treat. The first official stamp of Syros loukoumi makers appeared in 1837. Since then, loukoumia have been prepared in the same traditional manner. The first loukoumia were made by confectioners from Chios such as Messrs. Stametelatos, Passaris, and Denaxas (who actually used brown sugar). Lore has it that the ingredient that makes Syros loukoumia irresistible is the island’s brackish water.

 

Halvadopita 

The second most popular traditional product of Syros is halvadopita. 

The first halvadopita was made in 1840. 

Halvadopita is made in large vats where honey, sugar, glucose, egg whites, vanilla, and almonds are mixed together until they become a white nougat of a thick consistency. Large lumps are then removed from the vat by hand and sandwiched between two wafers (called “ostia”) to form a kind of nougat “pie”. The wafers are made with sugar, glucose, vanilla essence, honey, egg whites and whole roasted almonds. 

 

Pastelaries

Pastelaries are dry figs stuffed with ground walnuts, sesame, cinnamon, and packed with bay leaves. First the figs are gathered from under the tree they have fallen off from.  They are rinsed well, split open, and placed on baking tins where they are left to dry in the sun. They are then stuffed with walnuts and sesame seeds and baked for 20 minutes in the oven at 100oC.  They keep well during the winter and are as delicious as they are wholesome! 

 

Amygdalota

Amygdalota are almond pastries that are highly addictive. Their shape and flavor varies from island to island. They are made with almonds which have been blanched and ground or with almond paste, meringue, and, quite often, semolina. Confectioners shape them like little pears, hillocks, small spheres, half-moons and other imaginative shapes and dust them with icing sugar. 

 

Marathos (Fennel)

Marathos (fennel) is endemic to Syros and highly aromatic. The plant is a perennial that grows tall and slender with feathery leaves and tiny yellow flowers. Fennel, just like other herbs in Greece, was well known in ancient times for its healing properties. It was also considered a symbol of happiness.  It’s a powerful antidote to poisoning caused by snake and scorpion bites as well as by poisonous mushrooms. 

Syros cuisine uses both the fennel’s leaves and its fragrant seeds.  Fennel goes into the island’s fennel pies, pork sausages, cuttlefish recipes, and in the brining solution used in the preparation of “broken” green olives. 

Fennel is also used as an aromatic herb to flavor meat and fish dishes. It has a refreshing antiseptic action due to its essential oil which combats odors of the oral cavity. It is also believed that its presence in recipes and infusions increases sexual desire.  More recent research recommends fennel seeds as a way to dissolving the body’s fat deposits. 

 

Rock Samphire (Crithmum) 

Rock samphire is a succulent wild green that loves perching on coastal rocks and cliffs. It can be used in any salad and it’s the perfect match for vine-ripened tomatoes, boiled potatoes but it can also be enjoyed plain as an appetizer. It is often pickled and keeps well throughout the year.  

 

Capers

The caper plant likes inaccessible locations such as steep coastal rocks and cliffs. It has small thorns and stems that branch out and spread on the ground. The caper buds are harvested before they bloom and are pickled in salted water and vinegar before they can be consumed. 

Capers are used as a salad seasoning, in platters of pickles and sauces. 

 

Their taste is slightly piquant and spicy. The bark of the caper plant’s root is used in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism pains as well as in alleviating toothache.