20 March 2012

Finally Finding Fish

Menus are useless in Greece. They are, at best, a rough sketch of what might be available on any given night. Usually, a waiter or waitress will pull up a chair at your table, sit down with you and describe the many and various virtues of the few dishes they've actually prepared. When they've finished you tell them what you'd like, they claim you've made a masterful selection, huge plates of food arrive.
Every night, after the presentation, we've had a question. "That all sounds good," we'll say. "But do you happen to have any fish?" The answer has been, more often than not, a sad "no." Maybe there will be some calamari or stewed octopus, shrimp or frozen salmon filets. If we get lucky, they have fresh sardines or tiny red mullet (not to complain!).
Greece is facing a frightening and frustrating decline in their native fish stock. Against all reason, to find the kind of whole, grilled fish that satisfies a craving, we had to head inland to the highlands.
The Peloponnesian peninsula is a rough, many-mountained mass of land. The coast is patchily lined with resorts, the area is a popular getaway for Athenians, the ports are either busy or picturesque. Inland, there's snow on the taller peaks and broad valleys open up in between. This is olive country, the land of Kalamata and oil. Ancient fields are still planted with wheat and there are some scattered orchards in the foothills. In Greek terms, this is a green land of plenty - and not the place one would first look for fish.
But even higher than these fields, where the mountains take over and the land becomes wooded, another agricultural industry thrives.
The source of the river Aroanios is hidden somewhere near the lofty little village of Planitero (Πλανητέρο in Greek). Springs bubble up in the cool earth. Streams burble and converge beneath the trees. The water is cool enough, even in summer, for trout farming - and so the little valleys around town have become crowded with small stock pools and the restaurants that go along with them. In the warm springtime sunshine, surrounded by the first greening of branch and grass, we found just the lunch we were looking for.
It's funny how expectation can shape experience. Before we got to Greece, when we were feeling snowed in and heavy-stomached (see delicious but difficult examples one and two and this not delicious example), we talked a lot about what we would eat when we finally got to the Mediterranean. So far, it hasn't quite been what we thought.
Greece was, for a very long time, an obvious destination for seafood. But in the past few decades the coastal fishing industry has seen a precipitous drop in what's available. Overfishing and water pollution have taken a real toll, and with recently enacted regulations on what and how much can be harvested, the small fishermen of the past have begun to disappear. More and more, the fish that's sold in waterside tavernas and Athenian restaurants is foreign caught or farmed - a large proportion is from Mauritania, Morocco and Senegal, who have lucrative deals with European fleets and exporters. Today, even on the islands, one is much more likely to be offered pork or beef than wild sea bass or bream.
In the chilly springwater of the Chelmos mountains, though, there are more fish than ever. There are six or seven little country taverns, all tucked in among the trees and following a zig-zag along one of the larger streams. The water is diverted into the cement ponds, then out again into the next farm. The cool, continuously flowing water and cooler air mean that these trout don't need the heavy doses of antibiotics that other farmed fish require.
We ate on a little porch with a few other people. Here, the menu began with fish, then went on to other specialties - moussaka and souvlaki were forlorn on the last page. Nobody ordered anything other than trout and greens. This was more like it!
As we ate we listened to the sound of the rushing water and the occasional calls of the swans that one farmer kept. We began with a greek salad and khorta, or steamed wild greens, drinking open white wine from a carafe. The fish came only with a halved lemon and a small pitcher of lemony oil. The skin was crisp and salty, the meat was pillowy and delicate. It tasted of woodsmoke and alpine water. This wasn't what one expects from Greek fish - it was even better.
After our lunch we took a walk through the woods, following one slip of water or another, crossing the streams on little bridges. We came to an opening where a group of three young women were tending their flock of sheep. This was an idyl of the kind that can only be had in the vernal mountains, when the air seems perfectly crisp, the water is excited and the earth smells like life. It didn't matter that we had to have frozen octopus for dinner* back by the sunbaked sea. We had finally found our fish.
*Again, I'm not complaining - we love octopus.

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