Journalist and author Marjory McGinn spent three years living in the southern Peloponnese; here are her favourite places to eat with wholesome recipes and unspoilt surroundings
Greece's rural southern Peloponnese is a region of mountains, sheltered coves, but most of all, lush olive orchards. It is world-famous for its virgin olive oil and its juicy black Kalamata olives. While it's not an international foodie hotspot yet, what is on offer here is inspired by the area's rural heritage, and tastes damn good! You'll find family-run tavernas featuring traditional Greek dishes, sometimes with a new twist, but all with fresh local produce, organic meat and poultry, and of course the olive oil and olives.
In the north of the Mani, a ten-minute drive from the long, unspoilt beach of Santova, the Lofos sits at the edge of the lovely hillside village of Megali Mantineia, in the shadow of the Taygetos mountains. While there are good family-run tavernas in the village itself, this one is slightly more upmarket with a broader range of dishes in high summer especially. It is a favourite of Kalamatan Greeks (the city is a 20 minute drive further north, at the head of the Messinian Gulf) for weekend family get-togethers. The owners are a local couple, Athanasios and Varvara Kosteas, who built this large restaurant amid ancestral olive trees. It has a huge terrace and one of the best views in this area out towards the gulf.
Like most taverna owners here who also have small farms, the Lofos uses its own organic meat and poultry, and vegetables are sourced from the weekly farmers’ market in Kalamata. The damage of a meal for two with house wine is around €25, an average price for this region and cheaper than many of the Greek islands.
Highlights: Beef stifado (beef cooked with tomatoes and shallots); kokoras (rooster) with oven-baked lemon potatoes; hearty casseroles in cooler months, like pork with a local fruit, not unlike a pear. It also has an extensive list of starters with fresh vegetables and seafood.
Harilaos means 'charming people' in Greek and that sums up the owner of this restaurant Maria Haralampea and her long-serving staff. Tucked away above the harbour of Kardamili, the taverna’s large terrace overlooking the water is one of its main attractions. A firm favourite among Greeks for its low-key atmosphere, it’s not usual to find large family groups here for much of the afternoon.
Highlights: Harilaos serves one of the best moussakas in the region, always freshly baked, full of herbs and cut in a giant doorstop size. Other highlights of the menu are grilled sardelles (sardines), grilled octopus, and pork and lamb casseroles in slightly cooler months. For vegetarians they also rustle up wonderful mixed salads with piles of seasonal vegetables.
This is one of the more popular areas of the Mani, ten minutes further south than Kardamili, with a deep sandy beach with fresh water springs bubbling up from the seabed. Although the narrow beach road has plenty of cheap and cheerful tavernas, Yesterday and Today, with its wide sea views, is slightly more upmarket. The tempting menu takes traditional dishes and presents them with an innovative twist.
The restaurant's name is a little unfortunate, since it gives the impression it might be a tourist haunt but those who venture in will be pleasantly surprised. Well-known local owner and food writer, Voula Kyriakea, has stamped the taverna with some Maniot credentials and its dishes use local, organic produce, like locally sourced meat and fish, olives and oil from her family orchards and traditional loaves from her wood-fired oven. Voula even gives bread-making demonstrations on certain days during the summer. Many of the dishes have been passed down to her by her own family, with plenty of historic/folkloric photos in the taverna to add to the authentic atmosphere.
Highlights: The menu is restricted but changes regularly and while there are enough classic Greek dishes to keep the average punter happy like moussaka and barbecued meats and salads, there are some interesting specials like ouzo chicken, and stuffed pork with cheese, or pork with orange. For dessert try her popular deep-fried floury sweet with fruit, called tiganopites.
Location is clearly one of the main attractions of this waterside restaurant at the remote, lower-end of the peninsula, called the Inner Mani, or Mesa Mani. Taki’s taverna, in the village of Limeni, is named after the owner, Takis Kalapothaki, and was started in 1986. It attracts an illustrious clientele from the region and from Athens, as rich Greeks fly down to the Mani for their August break, or sail in and moor the yachts in the bay. In summer, the terrace overlooking the spectacular turquoise blue Otylo Bay is usually packed and reservations are recommended.
Understandably, this is an expensive haunt with some fish priced at up to €60; ask to have your fish weighed before you place your order. Waiters won't rush you here: diners are welcome to hang about for a long leisurely lunch, watch small trawler boats landing their catch beside the taverna. To cool down post-lunch slip over the edge of the terrace into the impossibly blue waters with a stunning backdrop of soaring Taygetos peaks. There is also a restored 18th-century Maniot tower nearby, once the home of Maniot freedom fighter Konstantinos Mavromihalis.
Highlights: fish of any kind from simple grilled bream to fried calamari or lobster. A speciality here is Lobster Diavolo, served with spaghetti and a tangy green pepper sauce.
Kalamata is the capital city of this region and indeed the whole southern Peloponnese. No stay in the Mani would be complete without sampling some of the city’s best restaurants like the well-established Akroyiali Taverna, also known locally as the Koilakos. Perched above the city's long beach with a wonderful view down the gulf and the mountains, its another restaurant with a cracking location. Dining here on the weekend and public holidays is an institution among Kalamatan Greeks. On a sunny day, the terrace is packed. so booking is essential in summer.
Highlights: Calamari here is one of the great delights. Calamari isn’t generally caught in this area, and mostly you will find the calamari on menus is marked frozen (and depending where you eat, it will be of varying quality), but when it is brought in fresh from other regions, as it mostly is here, you have to be quick to snap up a helping. The grilled octopus, which is succulent and tender, is another recommendation.
One of the joys of this taverna is the location on the busy seafront road, full of smart cafes and sweet shops. For a mid-afternoon treat try Athanasiou, closer to the harbour end of the main street, where you can order ice-cream or traditional Greek sweets like baklava.
Marjory McGinn is the author of Things Can Only Get Feta: a story of two journalists and their crazy dog living through the Greek crisis (Bene Factum Publishing, £7.99).
Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle version, and through major bookstores. For more information about the southern Peloponnese and the Mani visit her website www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com