Ask any Greek about the food they’ve just fed you and before long you’re likely to hear, “It’s my grandmother who taught me how. My yiayiá.” And if any Greek tells you that such-and-such a restaurant smells exactly like said grandmother’s kitchen, then take it from me. You should go right away.
But push a bit farther and you’re likely to hear the name Tselementes. Nikolaos Tselementes, the author in 1910 of the first complete Greek cookbook ever and the inventor of what many now consider the classics of the Aegean kitchen. Moussaka, for one. So deep is his influence still that no Greek kitchen anywhere, it is said, is without a copy of his work, the word tselementes has come to mean “cookbook” itself, and if someone shouts “tselementes” your way, it’s a compliment they’re giving and they’re saying you are someone who cooks well.
Tselementes is a name I hear often whenever I’m on Sifnos and it doesn’t take long there to learn it’s where he was born and that Sifnians are proud of their native son. He is still remembered, I have learned, by the oldest of the island’s residents as the man who cooked for them when they were hungry children during the Second World War. So to say that he is revered on this island only begins to tell the tale.
Sifnians are proud, too, of their own cooking and well they should be, for their reputation for good food predates this man by hundreds of years, millennia even. It’s long been said that any merchant ship with a Sifnian cook has a lucky crew, indeed. So I was little surprised to learn that a major festival dedicated to food is held on Sifnos in September every year, the Nikolaos Tselementes Festival of Traditional Cycladic Cooking.
Bringing together professional chefs and amateur cooks from each of Greece’s Cyclades islands and beyond, it takes over the the town square in Artemonas, across the valley from Tselementes’s birthplace in the village of Exampela, with nightly demonstrations of cooking as well as traditional crafts and culture and presentations every morning in seaside villages of Sifnian recipes. Paros, Naxos, Amorgos, Folegandros, Ios, Milos, Serifos, Sikinos, Syros, Santorini and, yes, Sifnos: the words themselves conjure up images of fabled isles shimmering on the horizon. To anyone who’s visited any one of these places, they surely conjure up, too, smells remembered with fondness and longing. Those fresh herbs in the fields. Fish and meats on the grill. Savoury emanations from today’s lunch through an open window.
The Tselementes Festival on Sifnos will be held on 8th, 9th and 10th of September, this year’s the 10th annual. In the best of Sifnian tradition, all are welcome, even strangers from afar, and admission is free. You’re sure too, I am quite certain, to be fed by an insistent grandmother or two.
You can learn more about this year’s festival here.
Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new in spring 2019, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.