True Life Experiences of Eating Sardeles Pastes in Lesvos, Greece
(from my book In Search of Sardeles Pastes)
..We turn around and start up the hill ready to begin the night of ouzo and entertainment. We walk past the tourist restaurants that advertise their fare in big English letters,
to the settlement of cafeneons around the famous church. We find the least crowded and take a seat on the street.
I order some fried sardines and some ouzo and we begin the night's festivities. It is as traditional a place as
you could imagine. No menu. Just Ouzo, beer, restsina and whatever the proprietor happens to be making to eat that
While we are going through our first bottle of ouzo I see a retarded
fellow drop a pile of fish on the next table. I follow him down the hill to see what the deal is. He goes into
a store where a man is selling sardines out of a pail. They were caught this morning in the bay of Kaloni and then
left in salt for several hours. I buy a handful for two hundred drachs and bring them back to Andrea to her un-delight.
These are the famous sardeles pastes.
I eat the first one, skin bones and all and realize I either have
a lot to learn about sardeles pastes, or that I better find some hungry cats. I don't panic though. I walk over
to the next table to see what the pros are doing with theirs since they obviously know a little more then I do.
A man leaps up from another table and comes to our rescue, not only showing me how to clean them, by removing the
skin and the heads, but cleaning my entire bag full. I thank him and try the first one. Delicious. Better than
sushi and perfect with ouzo. Before I know it they are all gone and I'm drunk on ouzo and raw fish. I stumble back
to the store where I had gotten them but the retarded guy and his boss have disappeared into the night. When I
return to Andrea we are given a plate of stewed crab by the old men at the next table. I return the favor, buying
them a bottle of ouzo. By the time we leave we were all good friends.
My second experience with Sardeles Pastes:
(from my book In Search of Sardeles Pastes)
...The second time through Skala Kaloni the Medusa Taverna looks like it
has possibilities. Pam says that if we don't eat now we could spend the rest of the afternoon looking for a decent
restaurant. She volunteers to go in and check out the menu and comes back all smiles.
"It looks really good and they even have sardines!"
We can't get out of the car fast enough.
In the refrigerated glass case we see two trays overflowing with
fresh sardines' plus a variety of other fish. We are so excited we can hardly wait to order. Then as I am gazing
into the kitchen I see on the table a container of what looks like sardeles pastes. I ask the young owner.
"Of course we have sardeles pastes", he assures me.
I order a plate full and a bottle of ouzo. We also order two plates
of fried sardines, a stuffed zucchini flower and beets with garlic sauce. They bring the ouzo first, a small bottle
of Mini, with a bowl of ice, some bread and four glasses of cold water. I pour the ouzo but control myself waiting
for the sardeles pastes. I am rewarded for my patience when they arrive at our table already peeled. I am surprised
that they are not in oil or seasoned but I assume that perhaps this is the custom in Kaloni. No embellishments.
Just plain raw sardines.
This is the moment I have been waiting for and I sip my first ouzo
in preparation. I take a small sardine by the tail, but stop short. I have forgotten. Do I eat the whole fish or
do I pull it between half closed teeth, leaving the meat in my mouth and pulling out the tiny fish skeleton. I
can feel the pressure mounting as everyone awaits my move. Even the foreign couple at the next table have taken
an interest. I can feel my heart beating and the blood rushing in my ears.
"This is it", I tell myself and eat the whole fish, bones
It's sad how earthly pleasures can never live up to the desires
that drive you towards them. I suppose that is the motivation for a life of the spirit, the belief that God or
self knowledge is the only thing that will ultimately satisfy. All other goals and desires will end in disappointment.
This is how I feel as I eat the first sardine and look woefully at the whole plateful before me. If they don't
taste any better then this it will indeed be a long journey. The setting is perfect: the large bay, surrounded
by green mountains, with the small fishing boats which had brought in these very fish this morning, bobbing gently
in the small harbor before us. What had gone wrong?
I eat another, but still no beating of angels wings or trumpets
from heaven. Andrea smiles with enjoyment but I can tell it's not a smile from the depths of her soul, but one
with a touch of sadness. A smile that says she is happy because I am happy but she's not that happy because these
are not that great. I smile back weakly, not wishing to shatter her fragile happiness.
Several cats have begun prowling the periphery of our table, like
demons come to taunt us for our fruitless love of the flesh. I sacrifice one of the precious fish and give it to
Amarandi to feed to one of the cats, but it turns up it's nose and looks at us with undisguised amusement. By now
the other food has arrived and is truly delicious. I use it as a reward every time I have eaten a sardine, and
it seems to work. In a few minutes my plate is littered with tiny sardine tails.
Finally there is one left. I take a small sip of ouzo, leaving one
mouthful left in the glass. Picking up the final sardeles pastes I put it to my lips, and slowly eat it down to
the tail. Then I wash it down with the last of my ouzo. It's delicious! That last morsel was everything I had hoped
it would be, like the unexplainable sweetness in that last bite of an ice-cream sundae. Either the aura of sardeles
pastes was completely psychological or I had been eating them incorrectly. I try to review the previous bites to
see what I had done wrong. It must have something to do with the little ouzo ceremony I did for that last sardine,
I am convinced. Once again I am caught in it's spell and I go into the restaurant to bargain with the woman in
the kitchen. I must have more. How much will she sell me? She tells me to come back in an hour.
I spend the time on the end of the dock looking out across the bay
of Kaloni. "How many sardines are out there?" I wonder. the sea is surprisingly rough for such a closed
area. I turn towards the inner harbor and look at the fishing boats, all ten to fifteen feet long and brightly
colored, their nets piled on the decks. How exciting it must be when they come into port each morning full of sardines.
I imagine their sailors calling out their prices to the people on the shore.
Then my eyes fall upon a very strange boat. In design it is like
all the others, traditional Greek caique, except instead of the simple colorful painted hull, this boat is painted
like an African disco. On one side of the bow is a strange mask where it's name should be. On the small cabin is
written 'Peace', and the designs are wild and zigzagged. It is the only non-conforming boat in the entire Kaloni
sardine fleet and I wonder about it's captain. Is he a black African who has made his home here and been accepted
by the locals? Unlikely. More likely he is a free spirited young man, probably considered crazy by the other fishermen,
with a taste for reggae or African pop. But it's as strange a sight here as John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce
must have been to London in the sixties. It takes all types to be sardine fishermen I suppose.
When I return to the restaurant the woman gives me a container of
pastes. She charges me a thousand drachma.
"Do you know why our sardeles are so good?" she asks me.
"Because they are full of phosphorous. The Doctors of the island prescribe them for children who have trouble
seeing at night."
This sounds reasonable. More so then the olive oil washing into the
bay story. I thank her and put my precious cargo in the car.
When we get back to Xidera I can hardly wait to bring the sardeles
pastes to the two cafeneons where we have been spending all of our time. I bring the container into Thanasis and
put half of them on a plate, then give the rest to Avglaia. They both begin peeling them and soon every table has
a plate in on it. Thanasis has taken each fish by the tail and torn it down the middle, then covered them in oil.
Avglaia has covered hers in oil too but has not torn them and of the two methods of serving them we find hers to
be the most delicious. We discover two very important things about sardeles pastes. The first is that they are
much better seasoned with oil, salt and pepper and whatever else appeals to your taste. The other is that they
are much better if you don't eat the bones. As we leave, the old men in both cafeneons toast me. "Bravo Matheos.
Congratulations. You are truly a hero. These are very good sardeles pastes."