A week ago, we were bobbing along in the turquoise waters of Paxos, wondering just how we got so lucky. The sky was a brilliant, Greek blue and the sun was strong, but not punishing. Paxos’s olives, pines and cypress trees shone in the distance above the sweetest little port town we’d ever seen. Even the fish seemed to have a little extra joie de vivre as they darted underneath our wiggling toes. It was about as close to paradise as we can imagine.
California friends keep their sailboat in the Mediterranean, returning each summer to explore a different corner of this part of the world. When they called last week to see if we might like to join them on Lefkada for a sail around the Ionian islands and the passage across the Adriatic back to Puglia’s Brindisi, we didn’t hesitate. We put a few far less interesting plans on hold, booked the ferry to Igoumenitsa and pulled out our Camino backpacks to stow what little we’d need on the sailboat for a week. Our cooler, on the other hand, was brimming over with fresh mozzarella, three varieties of pecorino sardo, friselle, taralli, Cavalieri pasta, tuna-stuffed hot cherry peppers and plenty of Pugliese wine. We may be turning into Italian travelers—the kind who rarely leave home without some homegrown staples to ward off the horrors of foreign food.
The less said about our overnight, lounge-seated ferry experience, the better. Think very noisy Italians, a healthy component of extended Roma families traveling together, two big screen televisions tuned to Greek and Italian versions of the Home Shopping Network and about 1,500 overhead fluorescent spotlights and you begin to grasp the ethos of the on-board culture. We arrived in Igoumenitsa the next morning already two hours late before we finished docking, stumbling off the ferry blinking like moles in the bright Grecian sun.
Our mad dash to the bus terminal to catch the only daily bus to our rendezvous point at the Preveza marina a few hours away began by hailing a taxi. Our driver was not optimistic about our chances, but he sped gamely through the dusty streets, screeching to a stop at the station. Indeed, our bus had left five minutes earlier; we were the only would-be passengers left in the waiting room. Our taxi driver helpfully said he would drive us to Preveza for a sum equal to our week’s vacation budget. We declined regretfully, so he offered up Plan B. By driving very fast, he told us he could very likely catch the bus in the next town about 20 minutes down the road. Faster than what, we wondered, since the trip from the port to the bus station was eye-wateringly fast, the town passing by us in a blur of blindingly white buildings and incomprehensible Greek signage. Still, our options were limited (nonexistent), so we jumped back in the cab and braced ourselves.
We flew out of town and up into the hills, careening around corners and passing every vehicle in our path. I mentally composed the hometown news headlines—”Careless Parents Plunge to Death in Greek Taxi Tragedy”—and gripped the door handle to speed our inevitable evacuation under the sea. When it couldn’t get any worse, our driver started to chat on his cell phone. Yes, his cell phone. At a breakneck pace on a tiny, twisting road with the Ionian sea shimmering below us. But then he ended his call, telling us that he had just gotten off the phone with the driver of our bus, who had pulled over a few kilometers ahead to wait for us. We looked at one another and smiled before jumping out to grab our packs, pay our driver and kiss him goodbye. It is true that all of the more obvious charms of the southern Mediterranean brought us to Puglia in the first place, but the inherent kindness of strangers and their willingness to find solutions amidst apparent chaos is what keeps us here.
The rest of our trip was less eventful, which wasn’t a bad thing. We loved spending time with our friends while reveling in the tranquility of these tiny islands. Life aboard a sailboat takes on a dreamy quality where days melt together punctuated by the moments when we pulled up the anchor to head for another bay to discover. Greece feels oddly familiar and quite foreign at the same time. Our cab driver told us that Italians and Greeks are “una faccia, una razza,” wanting us to know that Greeks bear no ill will to Italians despite the ugly legacy of the early World War II years. And it’s true: the landscape; the languor and even the lovely food recall a shared history. But Greece is so much more intriguing than that. We’re left with an intense desire to explore its mysteries in more depth . . . another possibility for future travel.
Our return to Brindisi across the Adriatic Sea brought an unanticipated twist. Our friend and ship’s captain, a highly experienced sailor, planned our passage date based on wind and weather forecasts, but a surprise awaited us a few hours outside the Brindisi marina in the form of an abrupt shift in wind direction and a series of squalls that brought lashing rain, high winds and a mare molto mosso (very choppy sea). Sheltered in the cockpit, we beat into the wind, remembering the gentle breezes and bright sun just a few hours earlier. After twelve long hours, we limped into the marina in the calm that immediately follows these sudden storms, full of gratitude for great friends and an abundance of truly memorable adventures.
On the boat, meals that are easy to assemble but no less satisfying because of it are very much in demand. And if you can incorporate leftovers, so much the better. Since this principle works well both on and off the boat, give this summer salad a try when you’re short of time and you have some extra grilled chicken, steak or even fish. This particular version was inspired by our location: we were sailing away from Greece towards Italy, so we included iconic ingredients from each country to commemorate the moment.
Insalata Estiva—Summer Salad
1 lb. grilled chicken thighs, chicken breast, steak or fish (leftover is best)
1/2 lb. ripe cherry tomatoes
2/3 to 1 cup black olives (Greek, Gaeta or Picholine are all good)
2-3 Tbsp. capers
3 Tbsp. coarsely-grated pecorino sardo or similar, aged sheep’s milk cheese with a sharp flavor)
4 friselle (See note; if friselle are unavailable, use four pieces of day-old country bread, grilled or toasted)
3-4 cups arugula
1/3 cup vinaigrette (recipe follows)
Slice the leftover chicken, fish or meat on the diagonal into 1/3 to 1/2 inch-thick slices. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half, if small, or into quarters, if large. Place the chicken, meat or fish slices, cherry tomatoes, capers and olives in a bowl. Toss this mixture with about 2/3 of the vinaigrette and set aside at room temperature for half an hour or in the refrigerator well in advance. If you have stored the mixture in the refrigerator, be sure to remove it about half an hour before you serve the salad.
Rinse and dry the arugula well, making sure that there is no residual moisture on its leaves. Remove tough stems and tear large leaves in half. Set aside in a bowl.
Dip each friselle into a bowl of cold water for a few seconds, shake dry and place them in one layer in a serving platter with sides that are at least 2 inches tall. If you don’t have friselle, grill or toast the day old bread, tear it into irregular chunks about 1 1/2 to 2 inches square, and place the chunks in the bottom of the serving platter.
About half an hour before serving, add the grated cheese to the meat and tomato mixture. Mix well.
Pour the remaining vinaigrette over the arugula leaves, toss well, and distribute the arugula leaves over the top of the friselle or grilled bread chunks in the serving platter. Pour the meat, tomato and cheese mixture over the friselle (or bread) and arugula leaves, distributing the mixture evenly. Be sure to include every drop of vinaigrette.
Let the salad sit for about 20 minutes before you serve it to allow the friselle or bread to soften a little, then serve. If using friselle, serve one friselle per person topped with the meat, tomato and arugula mixture.
4 Tbsp. red or white wine vinegar
1 small shallot, finely chopped (If you don’t have a shallot, just skip it; don’t be tempted to add onion or garlic in its place!)
1/2 to 3/4 tsp. Kosher or sea salt
3/4 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
Mix the vinegar, salt and shallot thoroughly in a small bowl or jar. Let this mixture marinate for at least half an hour while you attend to other things. Add the olive oil slowly, whisking or beating with fork. If you’re using a jar, you can add the olive oil all at once, replace the jar’s lid and shake vigorously. That’s it. This vinaigrette can be embellished in many ways, but it is an excellent all-purpose vinaigrette that you can have on hand at all times for all kinds of salads or steamed vegetables.