Stuart Forster visits Mount Athos, an autonomous region in Greece, and experiences cooking with Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos.
Epifanios of Mylopotamos is one of around 2,500 Orthodox monks living in the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, the peninsula jutting 50km into the Aegean Sea from Halkidiki in northern Greece.
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Most people know the area simply as Mount Athos, after the mountain whose rocky summit, at 2,030m above sea level, dominates the surrounding landscape. On its upper reaches you can still see cells where hermits long ago began praying in isolation.
The monasteries of Mount Athos
“Mount Athos has a long history and a big tradition. Many monks have lived here over the years and some are celebrated as saints, which is very important to us,” explains the 59-year-old Epifanios, who was aged 18 when he joined one of the 20 monasteries still active today. Those monasteries are surrounded by thick stone walls reminiscent of castles, a legacy of the threats faced during the Middle Ages when tales of their wealth attracted raiders, from Europe and beyond, intent on pillaging.
Epifanios lives within Mylopotamos, a clifftop skete, an outlying community affiliated to the Great Lavra Monastery, overlooking the sea. Mylopotamos was in a state of severe disrepair when he transferred here, back in 1990.
One of his first tasks was to undertake essential renovations and to restore the stone tower, which was then badly damaged. In 2008 the monk reintroduced viniculture to the region after Phylloxera, a pest affecting the roots of grapevines, destroyed local wine making in during World War Two. 4.5 hectares of well-tended, organic vines now flourish on the lower slopes of Mount Athos.
Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos
Though first and foremost a monk Epifanios has developed a passion for cooking and is today recognised as successful chef. He has popularised regional recipes in his book, The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos and tours Europe to give cookery demonstrations, including at Jamie Oliver’s Recipease in Notting Hill, London.
Many monks live beyond 90 years of age, meaning the food served on Mount Athos is regarded as among the healthiest in the world.
“Monastic cuisine is directly related to Mediterranean cuisine,” he explains passionately. The meals he serves are based on fresh fish and organic vegetables; Epifanios likes to use natural ingredients and avoids meat. When cooking at Mylopotamos he’ll use herbs fresh from Mount Athos to add flavour to dishes.
Easter traditions at Mount Athos
“The 50 days before Easter is the strictest and most important fast of the year,” explains Epifanios. The monks live on a frugal diet prior to Easter Sunday, avoiding cheese, eggs and raki.
After an all-night vigil in the Iveron Monastery, throughout Saturday night, they celebrate with a feast of fish soup, fish served in a white sauce and red eggs. The meal is served on long marble tables in a vast hall. Depictions of saints are painted onto the arched walls and ceiling of the refectory. While the feast is taken nobody speaks, other than monks reading blessings.
On Easter Sunday resident monks and visitors to Mount Athos greet each other with cheerful shouts of “Christos anesti” meaning “Christ has risen.” All of the people exchanging this greeting are men, as women are not permitted into the environs of Mouth Athos, whose land-based border with Greece remains closed. All visitors are required to apply for a permit and collect it in person before taking a ferry from Ouranoupoli.
Cooking with Monk Epifanios
Monk Epifanios cherishes having guests stay with him to gain an understanding of Mount Athos’s heritage and enjoys showing them how to cook over the open, wood-fuelled fire of Mylopotamos’s kitchen.
What would he be if he wasn’t a monk and chef? “Thin!” he answers, then bursts into self-deprecating, infectious laughter.
Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos has authored a cookbook, ‘The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos’ (£):
Find out more about the attractions of the region on the Mount Athos Area website.
For more about the country as a whole see the Visit Greece website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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