Maeve O'Meara's Mediterranean Islands Safari

After spending some of the European summer indulging in the beauty of Mediterranean islands such as Sicily and a handful in Greece, it was only fitting to join the wonderful Gourmet Safari’s “Mediterranean Islands’ tour of Sydney.  Our guide for the day was the lovely Nino, knowledgeable in the many culinary gifts of the Mediterranean, particularly those of Italian origin. Like the French Food Safari, which we experienced recently with the delightful Maeve O'Meara, this tour was not concentrated on one suburb of Sydney, but took in a variety of locations to reflect the different cultures that make up the Mediterranean Islands. So it was back to Central Station early on Saturday morning to set out an explore a range of epicurean delights stretching from Cyprus to Sicily.

While the Mediterranean and its islands have a diverse cultural makeup the one constant is, unsurprisingly, the diet of its inhabitants. Famed for its variety of health benefits, the Mediterranean diet is all about eating less meat, more fish, more olive oil and large quantities of fruit and vegetables – especially leafy greens and tomatoes. The diet also encourages eating plenty of legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, plus a daily glass of wine. Then of course, there is also a recommended daily coffee.

So in keeping with Mediterranean tradition, our first stop for the day was at the wonderful Di Lorenzo Coffee in Marrickville. Aldo Cozzi and Mina Di Lorenzo, owners of Di Lorenzo coffee greeted us with freshly blended and roasted, wonderfully aromatic coffee. Aldo told us that here in Australia, we drink our coffee much stronger than in Italy. His carefully crafted coffee reflects Australian taste and has a naturally sweet, nutty flavour with a bitter-free aftertaste. Aldo gave us plenty of tips for brewing his coffee at home, recommending the simple Italian style stove top coffee pot for a brew as similar to a professional style machine as you can get. This was happy news for me, having managed to collect a new Bialleti  pot on nearly every visit to Italy. Following the aromatic coffee came some decadent Italian style hot chocolate, so thick you could stand a spoon up in it - what a breakfast! A truly indulgent treat, perfect for cooler nights, or possibly anytime of the day or night for the chocoholic in your life.

The Italian theme continued, with our next stop at the Sydney institution Paesanella. There were more indulgent treats instore for us with generous tastings of buffalo mozzarella, burrata and ricotta, to name but a few. Paesanella also offers a range of hard sheep and goat’s milk cheeses, such as pecorino – and plenty of traditional Greek cheeses such as kefalograveria and kefalotiri.  An extra highlight at Paesanella, in addition to their beautiful cheeses, was the opportunity to taste a range of traditional Napoli style pizzas. The pizza chef has recently arrived directly from Naples and his delicious creations took us straight back to the incredible pizzas we had tried in the buzzing streets of Naples. When I say tastings, please keep in mind these were Mediterranean in size – like 3 or 4 slices of pizza per person - plus a calzone. A day to throw caution to the wind and leave any notions of lighter style eating at home! There was also plenty of time to browse the food emporium and stock up on the excellent De Cecco pasta, a range of fine and semolina flours for homemade pasta, Sicilian tomato passata, Paesnaella’s own brand of new harvest olive oil and plenty more.

After an Italian morning, it was time to set course for some Greek Cypriot flavours across town in Earlwood.  Next stop was my most favourite Greek food store in Sydney, Earlwood wines. Here owners Harry and Maria Ipermachou greeted us with a chilled glass of Greek rose wine and had set out a banquet of traditional Greek products for us to taste, including plenty of different cheeses, olives and dips like the classic taramosalata. While we tasted the different offerings, Harry talked us through a range of different products from Liqueurs to legumes, right down to how he makes his classic pickled octopus, available in the store. I took the opportunity to stock up on plenty of my pantry staples such as cinnamon and clove tea, thyme scented honey from Greece, Maria's delicious homemade artichoke dip, Kyknos tomato paste, petimezi (grape molasses), some bright green salted pistachios from Greece and cracked green olives from the divine Nafplio.

After a lovely visit with Harry and Maria, we then headed next door to Trianon cakes, where second generation bakers Chris and Arthur Efthymoiu greeted us with warm smiles and the scent of baking - all vanilla and cinnamon. Here we tried some classic Cypriot olive bread and also a cheese bread. Along with plenty of sweet treats such as kourabiedes, Greek almond shortbread. Mr K couldn't resist in getting some "Turkish delight" to take home, Trianon's signature pastry of loukoumi or Turkish delight, wrapped in a light pastry which is then fried and dusted with coconut. They are super sweet, chewy in the center and slightly addictive - best enjoyed with an aromatic, thick Greek coffee (I love the Laiko Cyprus Coffee brand which is, handily, available next door from Earlwood wines).

From Trianon Cakes we headed back into Marrickville to the beautifully styled Barzaari. Owners Andrew Jordanou and Darryl Martin specialize in cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean from Cyprus and Greece to Lebanon and Turkey. The wonderful sweets of the Mediterranean continued here with a tasting of orange spoon sweet and a fresh out of the oven spiraled baklava. These were accompanied by a Greek style coffee, made in the traditional way - a briki over hot sand and coals. This produced a smooth and aromatic cup with a thick kaimaki (the cream that sits on top of the coffee) and the whole process was completely mesmerizing.

While drinking this coffee, I was reminded of a recent study made by the University of Athens, which suggests that "a boiled Greek type of coffee, which is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants and contains only a moderate amount of caffeine, seems to gather benefits compared to other coffee beverages." The study looked at people on the Greek island of Ikaria, who live to age 90 and older. Coffee was one of the keys of their Mediterranean diet and this was linked to the Islanders longevity and good health. Remembering this, I felt much better about my third (or was it fourth?) coffee for the day.

Then guess what? It was time for LUNCH! From Greece, we headed back to Italy and the region of Sicily, for a long lunch at SUD Restaurant in Concord. Owner Paolo Gratto greeted us with warmth and plenty of Southern Mediterranean hospitality. Lunch started a glass of Sicilian wine, I opted for the spicy Nero D'Avola, enjoyed along with some classic Sicilian chickpea fritters, sandwiched 'street food style' in crusty Italian bread. Then it was time for delicious arancini, with a crunchy outside and oozy ragu and cheese filled center. Keeping step with the Mediterranean diet, the next course included some pan fried bitter wild greens, laced with plenty of garlic, crunchy bread, Italian sausage and chilli. This was followed by calamari fritti and then came the classic Sicilian dish of caponata, salty and sweet eggplants cooked with tomato, celery, olives, capers and more. Atop of the caponata sat a delicious piece of grilled swordfish. To finish, there were pistachio dusted cannoli and traditional Sicilian 'Cuzzoli' - long strips of bread dough, or doughnuts if you like, dusted with icing sugar and served with cinnamon and honey, as well as generous second dish of nutella.

This dear friends concluded the tour. It was time for us to say our goodbyes to our fellow tourists and the lovely Nino, before we trundled home for a well-earned Mediterranean style siesta after all of that deliciousness. If you have a friend or loved one with a sense of adventure or a passion for the Mediterranean, who enjoys good food, then I am sure this wonderful tour of Sydney would be a very welcome Christmas present. 
To join the next Mediterranean Islands Safari of Sydney, visit Gourmet Safaris or phone (02) 8969 6555.
Mr K and I were guests of  Maeve O'Meara on the Mediterranean Islands Safari.

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Maira Gall