Seasons by the Sea: Food of the Gods

A perfect day to sample the lamb roasting on a spit over hardwood charcoal, seasoned with lemon, garlic, oregano, and salt
Passion, olive oil, and perhaps even pastitsio may be the fountain of youth as served up at this year’s Greek Festival at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons over the weekend. Laura Donnelly

The Hamptons Greek Festival was held last weekend in Southampton at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons. It was scorchingly hot when I went on Sunday, so hot that Tony the Pony was kept in his cool, shady trailer. Nobody wants to mount a furry animal on a day like that. It was, however, a perfect day to sample the lamb roasting on a spit over hardwood charcoal, seasoned with lemon, garlic, oregano, and salt, the rich pastitsio (macaroni with beef and béchamel sauce), spanakopita (spinach, dill, and feta cheese in crisp phyllo dough), salads, hummus, and divine honey, cinnamon, and walnut pastries galore.

There were plenty of vendors selling T-shirts and jewelry embellished with variations of the “evil eye,” a talisman meant to protect against a malevolent glare believed to bring misfortune or injury. There was beautiful hand-painted pottery, chamomile and rosemary soaps, and mastic chewing gum. Under the tent each table had a blue and white tin can with mint and oregano plants.

The first person I met was a photographer, Anastassios Mentis, who was selling his mother’s extra virgin olive oil from the Laconian village of Neapolis, Greece. It was absolutely delicious, buttery and pale green. Anastassios was offering samples over bits of semolina bread sprinkled with sea salt from the same village. He showed me a picture of his 81-year-old mother atop a tractor, and I remarked on how young she looks. “That’s because she has passion and eats olive oil!” Mentis Estate’s olive oil has been written about in Wine Spectator and Crain’s, which referred to it as “a green diamond.”

Next was Konstantine Rountos, an active member of the church who teaches the youth dance program. He was serving a variety of Meligyris honeys from Crete, which had a faint hint of the wild herbs and white thyme grown there. The white thyme is somewhat rare and only grows at high altitudes.

Under the food tent I tried spanakopita, green beans, and salad. All of the food was prepared by church members in the church kitchen. The spanakopita was exceptionally good, tasting fully of all its ingredients: spinach, dill, and salty feta cheese. What was most impressive was the fact that the phyllo dough had remained crisp on such a sweltering, humid day.

I met Alexandra Sofis, who works in the specialty food business and procures most of the Greek products available at the church shop. She showed me the refrigerator filled to the brim with Epiros-brand feta and said traditional Greek feta should always be made with a combination of sheep and goat milk. Feta is also made in France, Denmark, Bulgaria, and the United States and is sometimes made with cow milk or only sheep milk. The tanginess, saltiness, and texture can vary from country to country. When America’s Test Kitchen sampled Greek, French, and American varieties, both plain and cooked with shrimp and tomatoes, the Greek fetas won hands down due to their “funky, grassy, barnyard” flavor.

Next was a tour through the art gallery, where Alexandra showed me a painting by a Syrian Muslim artist named Jamal who is the artist-in-residence for the Emir of Qatar. The church believes that religions can be brought together through art and always has works on display from artists of different cultures and beliefs. 

Probably the biggest treat of all was meeting Maria Loi, a chef and cookbook author. Within five minutes she gave me a copy of her book, “The Greek Diet,” signed “with love,” insisted I be her guest at her restaurant in New York City, Loi Estiatoria, and then gave me a leather and canvas bag adorned with an evil eye so I could haul all of my loot. It is at this point that I must say I have never, ever met so many generous, gracious, warm, and passionate people, from Anastassios to Konstantine to Michael (manning the lamb grill, son of Father Alex Karloutsos, nephew of Father Constantine Lazarakis) to Alexandra and Maria. 

As I was purchasing some halloumi cheese and taramasalata, Alexandra gave me a carton of Kourellas organic yogurt that she had discovered at the Fancy Food Show. “Eat Like a Greek!” it says on the label, and I did just that, swirling some of the Meligyris honey into the Kourellas yogurt. Healthy, flavorful, and light, this was the best yogurt I have ever tasted.

And now I am going to share with you the best-kept secret ever. On Sundays, after church services, around noon, the shop is open and selling all of the aforementioned delicacies and more. There is a freezer full of homemade spanakopita, pastitsio, and moussaka, refrigerators full of cheeses and yogurt and tarama. 

Halloumi cheese is a perfect appetizer for summertime. It is a firm, kind of squeaky, salty sheep and goat cheese from Cyprus that you can slice and throw on the grill or into a frying pan. It softens slightly but does not melt. Top it with ground pepper and lots of lemon juice. Tarama (carp roe) or taramasalata is a marvelous salty and rich spread, excellent with crudités and on crackers or toasted pita bread.

Many thanks to all of those at the Greek Orthodox Church for educating me and sharing these fine examples of Greek food, music, art, and most of all, warm hospitality. Opa!

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