A few years ago I was struck with an intense nostalgia for Greece. Yes, the same country that is constantly in the news right now, rife with popular discontent and debt it doesn’t seem able to climb out of, was once talked about mainly in terms of vacation islands and ancient history.
For Italian youths, Greece is a cheap holiday destination, the first foray into international travel. Sleeping bag on my back, more than once did I take an overnight ferry to Piraeus, Athens’ port, or a cheap flight from London, and then decamped to one of the islands, where I would party until the wee hours, sleep until 2 in the afternoon and then sleep some more on the beach until sundown. Mikonos, Skiathos and all the popular party islands were de rigueur until I abandoned Greece for more exotic destination. But, suddenly, I felt the urge to go back as a fully fledged adult. And back I went, picking a quaint island, Skopelos, where not much happens, where there is not a single disco and the houses are not painted blue and white. Despite being quite close to Skiathos, in the Sporades archipelago, it is hard to reach, especially slightly off-season – I went in September – where, to my dismay, I found out upon reaching Athens that ferries don’t run every day and, when they run, sometimes they break, starting a chain of events that involved two interminable bus rides, an overnight stop in Volos and a close call with the Greek police who threatened to arrest me for trying to exchange a crisp $100 bill the bank had deemed false. Images of my three-week holiday spent in a Greek jail flashed before me and, keeping my wits about me, I batted my eyelids, resorted to tears and to the innocent tourist caught unaware act. It worked and, three days after leaving Los Angeles, I was finally on a ferry to Skopelos.
By now used to communicating without a stitch of Greek – English is not exactly the language of choice anywhere outside Athens – as soon as I stepped on the island I managed to find the Albanian who was supposed to give me the keys to the house I rented, right in the middle of the village, up a steep road where no cars were allowed. Days of making Greek coffee in the outside kitchen on the rooftop, overlooking the bay, and of taking buses to different beaches ensued. And my octopus binge began.
In most of Greece, fishing has gone the way of the dodo and finding fresh fish is a chimera. No exception in Skopelos, except for squid, that must be abundant. A few miserly fishermen would come into the harbour at 7 am with their catch that was quickly gone in a few minutes.
I happened upon grilled squid with prunes on my first afternoon on the island. The marriage seemed a bit odd but I had read somewhere that Skopelos was famous for its plums, best turned into prunes, so I was willing to give it a try. The 10-year-old server, barely taller than the table, brought an oval dish containing perfectly grilled squid, drizzled in olive oil and nestled among tender and sweet prunes. Somehow, the combination turned out to be heavenly and it drew me back day in and day out, even for take out, given to me by a surprised chef not used to customers wanting to consume his food away from the premises.
Elsewhere on the island, I consumed grilled squid, without prunes, but always tender. One restaurant owner told me he pounded it on the rocks but I felt he was saying that for my benefit – I can’t imagine anybody leaving fish to decay under a fierce sun, even in the absence of a health department.
Sometimes I crave that squid with prunes but I haven’t tried to replicate it because I know my memory serves me better than the prunes I could buy here. But, on a splendid Sunday afternoon in September, I was determined to grill some squid, in order to have a Skopelos night. I marinated my squid in olive oil, parsley, garlic and Dijon mustard and let it sit all day in the fridge. The problem with grilling something so delicate is that it can turn rubbery in an instant, leaving you with chewing gum texture. I figured the marinade would help tenderize it. Then, grilling it on high heat for only a couple of minutes does the trick. Accompanied by a bean salad, it might not have been squid with prunes but, for a Los Angeles Sunday afternoon, it brought back memories that kept me smiling through the night.