Europe’s ancient ‘sushi’ tradition

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“You fillet the fish, roll it up and stuff it with plums and greens. You can then salt or smoke it in a wood burning stove or in the oven,” said Stamatakis. He explained that locals have long been curing and rolling the fish in this “sushi style”, with some Skopelites stuffing the fish with rice – though plums and vegetables were preferred on special occasions like engagements. “Mother-in-laws-to-be would knock on the grooms’-to-be door with this version of the dish in hand before the wedding,” he said.

While most people associate sushi with raw fish, the earliest form of sushi, called narezushi, consisted of fish preserved with salt and raw rice. Narezushi is is thousands of years old and traces its roots to the rice fields of China. Just as the people inhabiting these regions found a way to preserve and ferment local fish with salt to survive periods of heavy monsoons and intense heat, so did Skopelites salt-cure the moray eel to enrich their local cuisine.

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Curing and rolling the fish in a “sushi-style” preparation, as Stamatakis describes it, is unique to the island and cannot be found anywhere else in the Mediterranean. Stamatakis learned the dish from his grandfather, a sailor, farmer and cook, who, in turn, learned it from the monks of Mount Athos. Just like the ascetics, Stamatakis’s grandfather salt-cured the fish before rolling and stuffing it.

Mount Athos (or Holy Mountain) is a collective name for a mountain and peninsula in north-eastern Greece, about 110km northeast of Skopelos. It is the spiritual centre of Orthodox Christianity and a self-governed territory since Byzantine times, made up of 20 monasteries, 12 smaller monastic settlements, about 700 houses, cells or hermitages, and approximately 2,000 monks. Up until the first half of the 20th Century, Mount Athos owned a lot of Skopelos land, Stamatakis said, and many locals in pursuit of farmland started to trade with the ascetics. One of them was Stamatakis’s grandfather. He bought land in Glossa, an amphitheatrically built village on top of a steep hill, 25km northwest of Skopelos’ capital, also called Skopelos or Hora.

“He, and basically everyone that came into contact with the monks, got impressed by their Byzantine culinary traditions, especially the way they cured moray eel [by salting or smoking it]. This is an old recipe. There is even mentioning of Ancient Greeks keeping moray eels in aquariums in Deipnosophistae (an early 3rd-Century AD, multi-volume Greek tome considered to be the oldest surviving cookbook),” said Stamatakis. “Skopelites loved the dish and brought it back to their wives on the island.”

A far cry from the dry and barren Cyclades, Skopelos is Greece’s greenest island. Pure, unspoiled flora makes up 67% of the isle, old mule trails crisscross it, and olive orchards give way to charming villages that emerge out of endless pine forests. Reminders of the Byzantine Empire and the connection with Mount Athos can be seen everywhere as the island is dotted with 360 chapels and churches. Skopelos is also a seafood haven, with its inhabitants taking pride in cooking lobster baked with orzo pasta or stuffed sea urchins and barnacles with rice.

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