Lifting the fresh bread rolls out of the oven, I couldn’t resist tearing one open to release the delicious steam and devouring it while it was still hot — just to test the batch, of course.
And it made sense to eat when I could. One busy day at the taverna, I consumed nothing except bread and booze: a glass of wine or a shot of raki with customers gave me energy to keep going. On the go from 8am to 8pm, nothing tasted as good afterwards as an ice-cold Fix beer, straight from the bottle — and I needed the calories.
As soon as the customers all left, I’d go and jump in the sea, then help myself to a meal from the taverna kitchen: juicy tomatoes and the goat’s cheese made at the top of the valley, slathered in local olive oil; fried potatoes with thick, garlicky tzatziki; perhaps a crêpe loaded with our apple and cinnamon compote and cream.
I’d first arrived at Agios Minas beach in the north of the Greek island of Karpathos in April 2016, intending to have a few days of walking, to explore the traditional mountain village of Olympos and its surroundings. Karpathos was a big island and only a few hours by ferry from Rhodes, but the north was a wild, largely unpopulated area with few modern conveniences.
It turned out that the owner of the room where I booked to stay in Olympos also had a fish taverna by this beach about half an hour’s drive away. The track twisted down from the mountain ridge into valleys filled with olive trees and pines. I reached the white church dedicated to Agios Minas (Saint Minas), after whom many men on the island were named, and looked down at a perfect curve of beach. Dark grey cliffs covered in deep green mastic bushes enclosed the bay, with goats scaling the sheer scree, and the sea was the clearest blue I’d ever seen.
It was a magical place, completely natural and unspoiled. So when Minas invited me to come back and help out for the summer with the tiny hotel and the taverna, I couldn’t resist: to live somewhere remote, by the sea, a truly different kind of life for a few months.
“Must be comfortable in beachwear,” he’d said, explaining what he wrote in ads for waitresses — and I was.
I set up my tent in the field next to the taverna, making it comfortable with a mattress and pillows. There was something wonderful about falling asleep with the stars and moon and waking with the sun, starting the day out in the open with a sense of adventure. Except for the goats, we had the whole valley to ourselves. To get a phone signal, we had to walk up to the clifftop church.
We had electricity and water in the taverna, which was also our kitchen, with a stove and two big fridges and a freezer, all second-hand and worn. The shower was a makeshift thing behind a cement block wall around the back, with a wooden door and open to the elements.
When the sun rose over the church on the cliffs, my dog, Lisa, was waiting for me, and we ran through the field of olive trees down to the beach, jumping in the sea. Coming back, I remembered that the figs were ripe on the tree where I usually hung the laundry, and grabbed a few, warm from the sun, for breakfast. I made bread dough, measuring cups of Cretan flour from the large sacks.
The summer began slowly, but by July, when people would say dreamily, “You must have such a peaceful life here,” I could only smile. It had been that way at the start, and might be again, but in the height of the season, when Minas and I were running a taverna and a small hotel in two different locations with no other help, it was absurd.
I started waking up in a panic in the night, convinced there was a large fish in the tent with me. Not alive, but on a platter, and customers outside waiting for it. Dreaming that I’d forgotten an order. Yet it still felt like a dream so much of the time: waking to a pink dawn over the olive grove, swimming in moonlight, hearing only the waves or the wind; a kitchen full of creamy yoghurt and honey and tomatoes, olive oil and rosemary and fresh fish.
Minas was Greek-American, from Baltimore. The hotel in the village had been his grandfather’s house. He’d built the taverna by the sea from an old farm building and was gradually improving it. He was trained as a refrigeration engineer but loved to cook. I love fresh, natural food and don’t like it messed with too much. Minas, meanwhile, would see a perfectly good chicken breast or calamari and think up a complicated way of stuffing it. And that is what you need to do when you cook for a restaurant. Visitors came from all over Europe, and they loved his food.
There were two dirt tracks down to the valley. One was a kilometre shorter than the other, but steeper and not ideal for an ordinary car. The other, past the church, was slightly less hair-raising and met the road closer to the village, so I always took it when I drove up to the village in the Lada to change over the hotel rooms. Both roads were winding and narrow, with switchbacks and sheer drops. Either could be a shock first time around, especially if you weren’t used to driving in mountainous terrain. The Swiss didn’t mind it too much, but the Dutch could be reduced to tears.
Almost every day, we’d see someone approach the taverna looking troubled. On a typical occasion, an Italian man entered and asked: “Which road is better?”
“What kind of car are you driving?” I asked. “Is it a jeep or a Fiat Panda?”
“No, no…” It was some other kind of small rental car.
“Which road did you come down?” I continued, though sadly I knew the likely answer.
“This,” he said, pointing to the church.
I had to break it to him that the one he’d been shaken by — and hoped to avoid on the way back — was the better of the two roads.
“We have a solution,” piped up Minas. “Your wife is scared, yes? Bring her and we will give you the solution for the road,” he added, calmly.
The man was sceptical but willing to try anything. He went to bring his still-flustered wife from the car. Minas gave me the nod. I went inside feeling slightly guilty and came back out with an unmarked bottle from the freezer and two shot glasses.
“No, no!” said the woman who’d appeared through the doorway. “He can’t, he is driving.”
“Relax, darling,” said Minas. “Just one finger, I promise. It will help.”
They still looked unconvinced. I filled the glasses as Minas added, “It’s my birthday.”
“Birthday…?” asked the couple, brightening. “Ah, happy birthday!” Suddenly smiling, they felt this was a lucky day to have come here. It was a happy place.
Sipping at the raki, they relaxed, laughing. They would leave with fond memories. Maybe the drive back wouldn’t be so bad after all. They had no idea this man had celebrated many birthdays here — celebrating his own every day. Raki was one of the most important tools of the trade.
Our first ‘Lunch and Live Music Saturday’ arrived in the middle of summer. As much as Minas loved to cook, he also loved to sing. The team was coming back together: Stamatis the fisherman had brought some beautiful fresh fish, Tim arrived in a white Panama hat, carrying his guitar and a thick song book, and Captain Nikos had brought people from Diafani on his boat. With others lured by the sign on the beach, some in bathing suits and towels, by lunchtime, the restaurant was busy.
I took orders and brought out carafe after carafe of cold white wine, baskets of fresh bread, and olive oil. If people were interested, I carried out the box of fish to show them, letting them choose which they wanted. In between songs, Minas barbecued fish and pork chops and whole calamari stuffed with tomato and cheese. This was what he loved: cooking and making music with friends.
I fried potatoes and cut salads and plated up tzatziki with a drizzle of olive oil. I enjoyed the atmosphere, bringing prompt service and my own goofy humour and smiles, taking away empty plates and making coffees and pouring raki. Toned and tanned, I was loving it. I barely had time to hear the music — snippets of A Hard Day’s Night, Brown-Eyed Girl and Minas’s signature tune, Simple Man. I heard cheers and applause and laughter. And then it was over, and everyone was leaving. It had been a success.
Our live music days were some of the busiest days of summer — not good days to wake up and discover the water tank was empty. But this was the other reality of life at the taverna. We woke up to no water in the taps, and once the hot water tank exploded. My hands became full of cuts and burns, and I couldn’t remember how.
Minas fell asleep on the bench as soon as people left. My tent was torn to shreds by the wind and sun. We cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. I lost so much weight, I shocked myself looking in the mirror. Nothing worked properly. There was music all the time. The help quit without warning, and the neighbours punched Minas. The kitchen ceiling fell down. But we got through it all. We laughed. We danced. I slept by the sea and watched the shooting stars.
As a table of four finished their meal, Minas asked me, “Did you tell them it’s my birthday?”
I went to get the raki bottle and four shot glasses.
“Thanks for being part of my crazy summer,” he said.