Lefkada is a popular tourist island that is still partly economically supported by its agricultural production and offers unique products of the land, some of them widely known. Furthermore, it has small but high quality and beloved food enterprises, with goods that all visitors carry back home when they leave, with the wish to come back to the island and taste them again.
Wine of Lefkada
The history of wine in Lefkada begins in the antiquity. Pictures of vines and grapes are found engraved on ancient coins while the Roman Pliny the Elder wrote that the doctor Apollodorus (3rd century BC) recommended the Lefkadian wine as the best in the world. Later, Athenaeus (late 2nd to early 3rd century AD) reported the Lefkadian habit of putting gypsum into wine (a habit that they Greeks may have had acquired from the Romans) to achieve a finer colour for red wine.
In the following centuries the cultivation of grapevines and cereals continues on the island without any specific references, up until the times of the Venetian Rule when the island’s economy was firmly based upon the olive groves and the vineyards, with wine exports to Venice. The currant was imported and cultivated on the island in the 18th century, mainly at the southern part, on the plain of Vasiliki and Agios Petros.
Viniculture was occupying large parts of the island, even on the steep mountainsides, and the production was very big until 1897 when peronospora totally destroyed the crops. During the following years wine production fluctuated depending on the intensity and the cure of the diseases. In the beginning of the 20th century viniculture occupied roughly 36,000,000 square metres on the island, surpassing olive cultivation. When the French vineyards were destroyed by grape phylloxera, the viniculture on the island of Lefkada was intensified, because of the great demand from France and the rise of the prices.
In 1915 the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives TAOL (Defence Fund of the Winemakers of Lefkada) was founded with the inspiration of Petros Filippas Panagos from the village of Drymonas (that was then called Kato Exanthia). The Union bought in 1952 the wineries of Vasiliki (that had been founded in 1927), of Exanthia and of Sfakiotes (that had been founded in 1929) and built a large winery at the entrance of the island, at the location of Kastro. This building was until recently functioning as a wine store.
In 1935 there was an uprising of the winemakers, which started at the villages of Sfakiotes, because of the extremely low price of the grapes that could not even cover the production cost. As a result the farmers’ livelihood was in jeopardy. The rally that was organised in the island’s capital resulted in the death of three people. Later on, during the WWII many vineyards were abandoned or used for other cultivations.
In recent years, although the island’s economy has been mainly based on tourism, there is a tendency to revive land cultivation. Especially in the field of viniculture the island has managed to produce significant wine labels that are unique in Greece.
This is due to local varieties such as white Vardea that is cultivated ob the southern part of Lefkada, mainly after the WWII, and the red Vertzami, the classic grape variety of Lefkada, for amazing red and rosé wines, which was imported to the island during the time of the Venetian Rule and is manly cultivated on the central and eastern part of the island. Vertzami belongs to a group of Italian varieties (marzermino, barzemino, balsamina) but, although there are morphological and ampelographic similarities, it as a different species. It is cultivated almost exclusively on Lefkada, It has impressively intense colours and flavours and it is rich in tannins and iron. These features offer great possibilities of maturation.
Other varieties that are being grown on the island are giomatari, patrino, mavrodaphne, malagousia etc.
The most important wineries on Lefkada are:
- The winery of local biological wine of Lefkada “Syflogo” at the village of Platystoma. It is can be visited after arrangement.
- The winery “Lefkaditiki Gi – Land of Lefkas” just before the junction to Syvota. It is open for the public and the visitors can be guided through every section of wine production. It has a small museum dedicated to olives and a garden with aromatic herbs.
- The winery “Plagies Lefkadas” at the village of Agios Ilias.
- The winery “Vertzamo” at the village of Lygia.
- The winery “Karsaniko” at the upper neighbourhood of the village of Karya. It is open to the public and has many exhibits about wine making and tsipouro production as well as a small hall that represents the central room of a Lefkadian house. This small museum can be visited after arrangement at 6946338749 and 6944536838.
There are several wine festivals organised every year on the island, in many of its villages
*In Pigadisani, a village of central Lefkada.
*At the location of Fryas of Sfakiotes
*In Apolpena, a village just outside the town of Lefkada.
Olive Oil of Lefkada
The olive tree is considered the most characteristic Greek tree that dominates in every aspect of human life since the age of legends. Olive trees are dominating the island of Lefkada, too.
There are findings on the island (olive mills, olive jars and even olive seeds) that suggest that olive cultivation was widespread since the antiquity.
During the years of the Ottoman Rule there were roughly 11,000 olive trees, but olive cultivation was not the main cultivation of the island. In the era of the Venetian Rule (1684 – 1797) olive cultivation was intensified and became, along with the vineyards, the main pillar of the island’s economy. It was then when the large olive grove of the town’s plain was created, which is known as the Venetian or “divine” olive grove and which was praised by the national poet Angelos Sikelianos. The Venetians managed to plant over 44,000 new trees within 100 years and, furthermore, provided the olive growers with strong motives.
In the beginning of the 20th century the olive groves used to cover more than 34,000,000 square metres on the island and olive oil was the second biggest production of the island beneath wine. Later, in the 50s and the 60s, the cultivation was reported to occupy 60,000,000 square metres (more than 71% of all cultivated land) and there were 1,123,000 olive trees that constituted the locomotive of the agricultural economic development of the island.
The most usual olive tree of the island is Asprolia or Lefkolia (White Olive) which is a local traditional variety and is mentioned in bibliography as Asprolia of Lefkada. The olives are relatively large and easy to harvest. In the beginning the olives are white and then they turn black. The trees are big with thick and tall trunks and also big branches. They can be found at low and somehow higher elevations as well as on the island of Meganisi.
Another typical variety is Mavrolia (Black Olive) which is found at higher elevations, because it is more durable against cold, and on the western side of the island. These trees are smaller and provide high quality olive oil. The only disadvantage may be the difficulty in harvesting, since it is harder to shake the olives off the trees.
Furthermore, there is an interesting Olive Museum called “Fabbrica” in the village of Syvros that opened recently and can guide you through the magical world of the olive and the olive oil. There is also a small museum dedicated to olive and olive oil production that you can visit within the premises of the Lefkaditiki Gi – Land of Lefkas winery.
Lentils of Egklouvi
The world famous lentils of Egklouvi are a necessary souvenir of the island that should be in your luggage as you leave to return home.
The lentils are grown on the plateau of Agios Donatos, west of Egklouvi, the most mountainous village of the island. There are findings such as pieces of prehistoric tools, mostly made of flint, which were used until the last century to thresh the lentils that indicate that this pulse has been cultivated on the plateau for centuries. It seems that the plateau had been a wetland during the prehistoric age that was dried out and filled with multiple depositions.
The cultivation of lentils in the fields of the plateau is a very strenuous process that is being carried out by the farmers who mostly follow the old ways of production, from the sowing, to the harvesting and the threshing. Furthermore, no pesticides are being used, something that renders this pulse a clearly biological product. The sowing takes place from January to March and when the new sprouts appear the weeding begins with the use of hands only. The harvesting begins in the end of June.
Lentils have a great nutritional value because they are a source of carbohydrates, plant proteins and fibres, vitamins, metals and trace elements, calcium and iron. Its fruit is small and uneven, in various shades that range from light yellow to dark brown and black. It requires a very short cooking time.
These lentils hold a very rare genetic material and samples of it are being kept at the UN and in Syria, at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas under the code number ILL 293. The plateau of Egklouvi is included in the list of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
Feast of Lentils in Egklouvi
On the 6th of August, on the celebration day of the Transfiguration of Jesus and on the eve of the celebration of Agios Donatos, the Feast of Lentils takes place on the homonymous plateau. In the old times there was a small church near the contemporary temple of Agios Donatos that was dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus. Nowadays this chapel is ruined. After the mass on the temple’s celebration day, the women from Eglouvi used to offer traditionally cooked lentils (*) to the worshipers. In an effort to revive this old habit, the cultural club of Eglouvi organises each year the Feast of Lentils that is attended by many visitors from all over the island. After the mass, the litany of the icon of Agios Donatos and the artoklasia, lentils, sardines, bread and wine are offered to the guests and there is a traditional feast that goes on until the morning.
(*) The traditional Lefkadian recipe for cooking lentils includes olive oil, garlic and oregano.
Lathyria (beans) of Karya
Lathyria is a legume that is cultivated at the prairie of Karya that is located at the centre of the island, without the use of pesticides and fertilisers. This fact makes lathyria a perfectly biological product.
Lathyria are easy to cook and are characterised by beneficial qualities for the digestive system.
Each year a part of the production is kept to be used as seeds for the next year. The seeding is done in May and the beans are ready to be harvested after about 70 days, roughly by mid July. Lathyria are washed and processed by a special machine that cracks them into small pieces. Then they are sieved until their skin is completely removed.
Other agricultural products
The island produces many more agricultural products in smaller quantities. We can mention citrus fruit and especially oranges and lemons. South of the city of Lefkada there is a location called Perivolia (Orchards) that used to be the place where the rich landlords of the older times had their gardens. The area was directly linked to the custom of the day of the Epiphany, when people used to drop oranges into the aqueduct of the town at the location of Megali Vrysi (Great Fountain) to bless the harvesting.
There are also cereals that were, throughout the island’s history, a very important part of the economy. This fact is proven by the existence of many watermills and windmills on the island.
Furthermore, smaller but yet important quantities of various legumes are produced on the island, such as beans, chickpeas, sweet peas etc.
Honey of Lefkada
The honey produced on the island derives mostly from thyme and is mainly produces at the south-western villages of Lefkada, namely Dragano and Athani. Thyme honey is characterised by a special smell and taste.
There are also smaller quantities of honey produced by other plants, such as almond trees, citrus trees etc.
You can get to know the magical world of honey at the apiary “Meli 51” of Vasilis Soldatos in Paleokatouna, The exhibits include copies of ancient Greek stone beehives, traditional honey baskets made of reeds, modern wooden beehives, lots of apiarist tools and a garden with honey making plants. The tour also includes the observation of the way that the bees work through a glass beehive, the production of honey and a walk through the beehives with apiarist suits. Finally, the visitors can be informed about the products, by-products and beneficial qualities of honey and taste honey flavours at the shop of Meli 51.
Visiting and touring the apiary are free and must be pre-arranged with the person-in-charge Vasilis Soldatos by phone at +306995 151511. (Meli 51). Unfortunately the mouseum is temporary closed.
Each August there is a Honey festival organised in Dragano by the Association of Environmental Protection and Cultural Preservation of South-western Lefkada “Sappho” with the collaboration of local producers. The visitors get free delicacies such as pieces of honeycomb, oil pie with honey, pasteli etc. Furthermore, there is a demonstration of honey harvesting and you can taste and buy honey from local producers. The festival ends up with a traditional feast.
Botargo of Lefkada
Botargo is a natural, traditional sea delicacy from the natural fish farms of the island’s lagoon.
It is produced from the ovaries of the female members of the species Mugil cephalus that are caught alive inside the seed cages of the lagoon. After the ovaries of the fish are removed, they are placed in dry salt for a while, depending on the size of the ovaries. Then they are placed into wooden boards and covered with freshly melted natural wax. After that they are ready for sale. In this way they can be preserved for many months. Botargo is considered to be the finest local delicacy and can be accompanied by ouzo or tsipouro. It is also though to be a very powerful aphrodisiac.
The female fish without the ovaries are sold in low prices. The local usually cook them in the oven with aromatic herbs and fresh tomatoes or boil them.
You can buy the botargo at the fish shops of Lefkada.
Pasteli and Mantolato of Lefkada
These are our favourite flavours that remind us of our childhood years. Mantolato is made with almonds, honey, sugar and meringue. It was the favourite candy of the Venetian aristocrats and came to the Seven Islands and, of course, Lefkada during the time of the Venetian Rule. Its name comes from the Italian word mandorla which means “almond”.
Pasteli is a candy made from sesame and honey, rich in vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and iron. It can be traced back in the time of Homer’s Iliad. It was mentioned by Herodotus during the 5th century BC and also 100 years after that, in the 5th century AD by the lexicographer Isihios.
These two products were originally manufactured and sold by the barbers of Lefkada, initially to their own costumers and alter to others. Nowadays there are small manufacturing units where you can buy mantolato and pasteli.
Salami and sausages of Lefkada
The salami of Lefkada is produced on the island since the times of the Venetian Rule. It is said that special artisans came to the island in order to teach the locals for a fee how to make salami.
The process of the production of the real salami with top quality ingredients and the climate of the island result in a special product that is exclusively manufactured in Lefkada.
It is made with fresh pork meat that is firstly de-boned and de-fated by hand and then turned into mince. The pig fat (lard) is cut into small cubes by a special cutting machine. All the ingredients together, i.e. mince, lard cubes, salt, black pepper seeds, garlic and nitrates are kneaded until they are properly mixed.
The mixture is encapsulated in animal bowels and is tied into pieces by hand. This is part of the traditional way of production. Then the salamis are tied into pairs and hung in the ageing room. Because the salami is a product of natural ageing, it needs 8 to 16 days to mature, depending on its size and the weather conditions.
It is preserved in temperatures below 15ºC or in the refrigerator when it is airtight and for a period of three to four months in room temperature or in the refrigerator for the same time period when it is in its original wrapper.
The sausages are produced with a similar proces
Soumada or Somada
It is a cold beverage made from bitter almonds with special scents and flavours.
It is a traditional liqueur that has its origins in the times of the Venetian Rule, with a yellow colour, made with orange and cinnamon.
Some of the most popular products of Lefkada, which you can buy in every bakery of the island, are the “ladokouloura” (olive oil cookies) and the traditional “ladopita” “olive oil pie”.
Furthermore, there are many small food industries with special products, both sweet and salty, which you can taste and buy.
Festival of Lefkadian Gastronomy
The Festival of Lefkadian Gastronomy was organised for the first time in the summer of 2014, in the town of Lefkada, with the participation of many producers of the island and with lots of people attending the event. Both locals and guests were very eager to learn about and taste the traditional local products and foods of the island.
Apart from the presentation of local products, at the exhibition’s venue there are many culinary happenings that literally whet the guests’ appetite, while other events also take place.