Since the beginning of lockdown in March, I’d been longing to get back into a professional kitchen. After six months of confinement, my family and I needed a break from the old routine, so it was with much excitement that last summer we set off to Greece – to the Peligoni Club on Zakynthos, where I had been invited to be part of their guest celebrity-chef summer series.
The Peligoni Club is a smart, family-run beach club in the north of the island, open each summer from May to September, and set right beside the clear, azure sea. Scattered up on the hills surrounding the Peligoni are the club’s serviced cottages – including our stunning Kostas Cottage: luxuriously decorated and with everything we could need, including a large pool, a shared outdoor barbecue, and sunbeds giving us the perfect view of the sea and olive groves.
It was a chance to relax before what I knew would be a busy few days preparing for two major foodie events, as well as getting to know the Peligoni’s chefs, and heading out to visit chefs and producers in the area.
I was a little worried about how my family would fare while I was busy working, but they reassured me that I needn’t be: there were plenty of activities for them to enjoy – including sailing, paddleboarding, canoeing and water skiing – and by nature, they love to meet and engage with other people.
In the Peligoni kitchen I was introduced to the other chefs, and given my own space, where I began the task of prepping an Indian-inspired three-course menu using local ingredients for 150 people. This was to be the star of my guest chef Dinner Party Takeover: part of a series of guest chef events at the Peligoni. My plan was to serve a modern Indian menu, using plenty of local ingredients. I was curious about what the other chefs were making for the Peligoni’s various guest dining options, and intrigued as to which cuisines they were serving at other times.
While we all had a different approach, I was relieved to see that every single chef was using quality produce from the local area, creating dishes that were exciting but that they hoped would appeal to the Peligoni’s British guests. I witnessed the use of a huge number of ingredients and cooking techniques that day, from slow cooking pork belly with fragrant harissa to the sizzling sound of swordfish chargrilling over charcoal, and, of course, the speedy “chop, chop, chop” of the chefs’ knives as they whizzed up brightly coloured tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions to create the famous Greek salads.
Working alongside the Peligoni chefs shows just how similar the industry can be in different parts of the world. The kitchen team work so incredibly hard, and they were all so keen to learn about Indian food, too: eagerly taking in everything I explained and showed them about my home country’s spices and cooking techniques.
The club’s courtyard was transformed into a space fit for a true feast: beautifully decorated solid oak tables adorned with flowers and plenty of space for platters to be placed in the middle to share. Working from 9am to 10pm with the help of the Peligoni’s own chefs, we created a buzzing atmosphere at the dinner party that evening, my modern Indian menu proving popular among the club’s guests. It was a long and exhausting day, but one that ended with a huge smile on my face. It felt amazing to be back in a professional kitchen – even if I did have to ask my husband to pick me up and drive me back to our cottage!
Before the end of our break I would cook again for the Peligoni’s guests at the club’s in-house street-food festival: another intense but fulfilling day, running food stalls and meeting so many lovely guests, with the Peligoni chefs helping me make aloo tikka with chickpeas, served with yoghurt, tamarind chutney, mint and coriander, with an onion and pomegranate salsa; as well as butter chicken with zeera rice.
Between events I was free to explore. Zakynthos might not spring to mind as a culinary destination, but in fact it has a wealth of foodie highlights. We went to a tasting at the family-run Elies Olive Press, with its twisted, gnarled trees dating back over 1,000 years; and at Goumas Estate Winery in Trilagkada. Owner Giannis gave us a tour of his winery, where the vines are short and able to grow with little moisture, making them ideal for the Greek climate, and the vineyard is surrounded by olive groves and fruit orchards.
At Mikro Nisi, the Stoufis family’s restaurant hidden among the trees, with magnificent views of the hills and the sparkling sea, I ate deep-fried whole prawns, local sea bream, and Greek salad – which, to me, always tastes so much better than traditional British salads. The waiter told me that a good Greek salad should be seasoned just with salt, pepper, lemon juice, good quality olive oil and some herbs to make it nostimo (delicious).
Somehow my family and I found time to stretch out in the Greek sunshine by the pool, and took day trips to Zakynthos’s pebbly beaches and a boat tour of the Blue Caves, named for the striking colour of the water reflected on to them, giving the place a truly magical feel. It felt almost as if we were in a movie: the water was an incredible pale blue, the caves were shimmering, and we could see the nearby Shipwreck Beach shining in the sun.
But perhaps the culinary highlight of my Greek Island journey was a visit to The Old Windmill, a family-run restaurant in Askos, where I met with owners Panos and Tongo, and their beautiful six-month-old baby girl, Eda. Panos had known the old mill all his life. Owned by his family, it ceased to work after an earthquake, and his father subsequently ran it as a small, quality tavern. While the tavern had a good reputation, he was very set in his ways and was unwilling to change anything, or introduce anything new.
Then three years ago, Panos and Tonga transformed the old mill, and opened this stunning restaurant on top of the hill, overlooking the sea. Panos’ mother, Rula, still helps in the kitchen in the mornings, his cousin helps front of house, and his father makes the house wine. Truly a family business, through and through.
The menu is designed to showcase the island’s incredible produce, as well as the family’s own olive oil, honey and spices, which they dry and blend themselves. They’re passionate about local and high-quality produce. Panos took me to pick some prickly pears – and I was immediately besotted with their sweet and delicious flavour, which works perfectly in the family’s homemade ice cream.
I spent the morning in the kitchen with Tonga, being given a real hands-on introduction to Greek food. It was a whirlwind of activity: poaching and then cooking fresh octopus in a tomato and onion-based sauce; marinating and cooking chicken and lamb skewers; preparing a fragrant stew; roasting chickens stuffed with salty feta and rosemary. She showed me how she prepares her simple yet delicious meatballs in tomato sauce and talked me through the local fish that she serves – but my favourite was the simple yet delectable courgette salad, dressed with pesto, lemon and feta.
It was the chance for me to explore the wealth of local ingredients to which the island has access, and also to bond over the importance of seasoning in both Indian and Greek cuisine. I’m always keen to understand how the use of spices varies wherever I go, and I was intrigued to learn that sweeter spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are used most often in Greek cooking.
Tonga was keen to learn about Indian food in return. After realising that local goat meat on Zakynthos is of such great quality, I cooked them a goat curry with zeera rice. I wrote down the recipe in her book – a recipe that reminds me of my own home, and how my father would cook. Before we sat down to dine together, she promised to put it on The Old Windmill’s menu, which to me was an incredible honour.