Meeting a person or visiting a destination that has a profound effect upon you is not a common occurrence. I was recently fortunate enough to experience both a place and individual that qualify.
Mount Athos is considered a life changing experience for many, pilgrims from all over Greece and even further afield make the spiritual journey to the ‘Holy Mountain.’ Whilst I found it very interesting it was the small Mylopotamos monastery which is a small cell inhabited by just two monks which struck the strongest chord with me.
“a stunningly intense rainbow”
The ‘cell’ is set on the edge of an idyllic bay, the view from an outside gazebo is one of the most stunning I have ever witnessed. Apart from the sweeping bay with golden sand and clear, blue ocean, there are terraced vineyards and the impressive Mount Athos as a backdrop. Even on a warm spring afternoon there was still snow in the craggy couloirs and thin cloud streaming across the summit. It was rare that the peak was not cloaked in some cloud and it appears that it has its own micro-climate.
This is a place where I could genuinely settle down, the monastery itself is tastefully decorated and is certainly not an austere residence, it has a homely feel. The weather was not always perfect but even when there was a thunderstorm with heavy rain I remained outside and enjoyed even these conditions. My reward for this perseverance; the afternoon air appeared especially clear and fresh afterwards and even better, a stunningly intense rainbow which plunged into the azure waters of the bay.
The character of the house and even the surroundings seems to mirror that of its chief inhabitant, Father Epiphanios. He is a bestselling author, his book “The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos” has already made him a celebrity and it is easy to imagine this charismatic but humble monk could enthrall any audience.
He may not fit with many people’s perception of a monk and the austere life which they are expected to live, full of sacrifice. He enjoys a few ‘vices’ and the good things in life including the wine produced in his own vineyards, the simple, organic food from his kitchen and the occasional cigar. He could possibly be described as hedonistic but this seems inaccurate, he is not any less spiritual or devout. Spending just a few minutes in his company, listening to some wise words leaves no room for doubting his faith.
Hospitality plays a large part in his belief system and we were made to feel extremely welcome throughout this visit. Several small groups of pilgrims passed through over the weekend and they were all made to feel equally at home.
“This included a seven hour religious service”
Despite requiring the services of an interpreter his keen sense of humour was also evident which was usually shared with an infectious and mischievous laugh. I felt totally at ease in his company, he has an authorative manner but was never overbearing. If however he felt something would add to the experience he was prepared to insist that everybody participated. This included a seven hour religious service at one of the larger monasteries but nobody was inclined to disagree.
As might be expected he did seem totally at home in his kitchen, chopping natural ingredients, using olive oil and large pans to slowly cook them over a huge, open wood burning stove.
His book promotes the cuisine of the monastic way of life, using simple ingredients sourced from the ground or sea. It is a healthy form of cooking, everything is organic, there aren’t any processed additives and little fat.
The slow cooking method really enhances the flavours and they can be especially intense such as tomato flavoured meals. It also produces very tender dishes; even a cuttlefish which was slowly simmered was so tender it was possible to cut it with a fork.
The aromas drifting through the kitchen were often mouthwatering. I often found myself unable to resist giving whatever was on the stove a quick stir needing to coax the scent of the meal into the air. It also offered an opportunity to do a little taste test when nobody was looking.
Having experienced the cuisine of many top quality restaurants I can honestly say the food prepared over the weekend compared favourably with any of them. Accompanied by one of the excellent wines produced in the winery and this really did seem like a little piece of heaven on earth.
The winery produces wine on a small scale with just two whites and reds plus a commendable dessert red wine which gained great favour within the discerning palates of our group. In other words we liked it!
This would make a great destination for cookery courses; the location is perfect for relaxing and getting away from the rat race. There is mobile network availability but there isn’t any internet access and the only downside is that women would be unable to attend. This is a shame as Mount Athos is a male only enclave maybe it will also appeal to men that wish to escape the female of the species for a few days.
Father Epiphanios is a larger than life individual, a monk that has unexpectedly become a celebrity chef but he undoubtedly enjoys life and I am sure will take whatever comes in his stride. It did seem clear he was looking to expand the ‘business’ side of the monastery, possibly introducing the cookery classes and increasing his wine production.
Whatever the future for the Mylopotamos monastery I am sure it will be successful, ably guided by this shrewd monk and I hope to take up one of my most prized souvenirs soon; an invite to return.