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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Athens 2016: Aigina

An Athens holiday is not compete without a bit of Greek island hopping. The island of Aigina is the closest to the capital, making the island one of the most popular island-hopping destinations on a Greek holiday as well as a favorite weekend outing for Athenians all year round, some of whom own holiday homes here. I did a bit of island hopping in my early Greek days, but living so far away from the mainland - on an island for that matter - has somewhat curtailed such experiences. I decided to try an island experience during my recent trip to Athens to get away from the heat of the concrete.

Only an hour or so away by ferry from Athens' main port in Pireas, Aigina can also be reached more quickly by hovercraft, small but very fast catamaran-style boats, lessening the travel time considerably. The island is only about 20km wide and 30km long, with a permanent population of 14,000. It overlooks the Peloponnese and Salamina island where the Battle of Salamis took place.

 The marina in the town of Aigina town, the synonymous port on the island, overlooking the Peloponnese    

A view from the town beach of Aigina, overlooking the small island of Agistri with a permanent population of about 1000 people.

Historically, Aigina is known for many things: an important marine power with greater significance than Athens before it went into decline, the first known mint in the western world leading to the hypothesis that Aigina introduced coins to Europe, the ancient ruins of Aphea which consist of a well preserved Parthenon-like temple, and in modern times, the first saint of the Greek Orthodox church - St Nektarios, who founded a monastery on the island - to be photographed. But if you ask today's Greeks what they know about Aigina, they will all unanimously tell you about the thriving pistachio industry on the island: about 10,000 tonnes of pistachio are produced there every year.

Pistachio tree on Aigina, overlooking the island of Salamina in the background

Beach at Ayia Marina, a coastal village in eastern Aigina

The ruins of the Temple of Aphaia, built in the Doric style

The reasons concerning how such a high-end product came to be the main crop on such a small Greek island are a lesson in sustainability. The island was never really self-sufficient, and this is still an issue in modern times. Aegina relies on the mainland for most of her supplies, including her water needs. Towards the end of the 19th century, the pistachio pioneer Nikolaos Peroglou realised that the nut was a low-demand crop, which survived easily on bad soil, meaning that it would yield a high price with few costs. Peroglou gave away pistachio saplings as presents which people planted in their gardens, usually among their grapevines and olive trees, the more traditional crops of Greece.

Looking out towards Salamina island, from the northeast of Aigina

The misery of WWII saw Aigina suffering the greatest percentage of death by starvation in the whole country, surpassing Athens. After the war, the island's grapevines were attacked by the fatal phylloxera blight. Local farmers often replaced each dying vine with a pistachio sapling so that they could continue to trade in a product. This basically led to the rise in pistachio cultivation on the island. Aigina pistachio has enjoyed PDO status for the last two decades.

Pistachio products in sale in a stall near the port of Aigina

Visiting the island from Athens, the visitor will see the importance of the pistachio from the first instance as they stop onto the island's main port, also called Aegina. Pistachio producers set up stalls there, selling a multitude of products which all contain pistachio: salted and unsalted pistachios, with or without the shell, pistachio sweets and savouries, crackers and pastes, ice-cream and liqueurs. Pistachio trees are also seen in the gardens of the local people's homes.

Olive trees in Aigina produce olive oil mainly for personal home - the island imports nearly everything, with production concentrated in the pistachio industry

Aigina is mountainous but it is also very green, with pine forests, olive groves and pistachio orchards.

Approaching Aigina by ferry boat felt like I was visiting a miniature version of Crete. In the north, the island is very green and evenly inhabited. The port area constitutes the main town, which resembles the average small Greek coastal town - a seaport with a marina, faced by cafes and restaurants, and surrounded by narrow alleys full of small shops. The south is mainly mountainous, barren and not inhabited. The main problem Aigina faces is the lack of water sources on the island - all water is transported to the island from the mainland. Without enough water, you cannot sustain life, so most of Aigina's food needs will come from the mainland too. Being the closest island to Athens, the high number of annual visitors adds to the burden. It was only last month that the much discussed pipeline on the seabed for water supply from Athens to Aigina was finally agreed upon, which will be operating in three years' time. So the water supply problem may soon be resolved.

Walking from the Aphaia temple to the beach at Ayia Marina on the northeast, you pass through a road that is lined with tavernas, rooms for rent, and other tourist facilities. They are nearly all closed and from the appearance of the buildings, it is likely that they have not operated for a long time, a sure sign of how the various Greek crises of the last few years have affected Aigina's business sector. It has now become too expensive for the average Athenian to take a short carefree jaunt to the island on a regular basis. Most foreign tourists visit for the day, and they may be on the island for a very short period if they are doing the highly popular one-day cruise (where they also visit other islands near Aigina, notably Poros and Hydra). Aigina is small enough to drive through it in the space of one whole day - cars can be taken on the ferry boats to facilitate visitors to this end. During the summer, ferry boats arrive from and leave for Athens on a regular basis throughout the day, so you can get there very early and leave quite late just before evening sets in.. If it weren't for the uncomfortably hot early July weather we expoerienced this year, we might have stayed longer ourselves. We caught a late afternoon boat back to Athens, and arrived home before evening set in.

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Pistachio is harvested in summer when the shell splits open. The nut is then used in its raw state or roasted with lemon juice (and salt, optionally), to preserve it in a chemical-free way. In Greece, pistachio is commonly eaten as a nut, nearly always served in its shell, as a side dish to some fiery alcohol. having to open the shells and remove them from their casing is a way to lengthen the time it takes to eat the pistachio! In cooking, pistachio is used in pastry sweets, giving baklava-style desserts their characteristic green colour. It is often sprinkled as a crumbed topping on cakes and biscuits. Pistachios are also added to honey, chocolate and, notably in the Mediterranean, Turkish delight. Pistachios keep well for a long time in an airtight container. Apart from shelling and crushing, they do not require much more processing to make them ready for consumption.

Pistachio cream on melba toast, pistachio crackers and pistachio nuts

Pistachios keep well for a long time in an airtight container. Apart from shelling and crushing, they do not require much more processing to make them ready for consumption. Pistachio paste, a gluten-free vegan condiment, is easy to make at home with a food processor. It makes a tasty topping on bread and can be used as a creamy filling or topping in cakes and biscuits. Just whizz a cup (or two) of shelled pistachio nuts with a teaspoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of butter, and a teaspoon of honey. Keep whizzing until you get the desired consistency - the more you whizz, the creamier it becomes. For a more interesting texture, add some finely crushed pistachio to the cream, for a mixed consistency. Place the spread in a jar and keep it in the fridge; it will keep for more than a month - if it doesn't get eaten sooner!

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