Nikos Theodosakis and Nikos Kazantakis share a common heritage. Both come from the Greek Island of Crete and they’re both passionate about things Hellenic. Kazantakis wrapped his love into his enduring character Zorba the Greek; Theodosakis serves it seven days a week at Theo’s on Main Street in Penticton.
Theo’s is one of those places where you go to escape winter. It’s cheerful, lit with a lot of natural light, and painted Mediterranean white and blue—like an island taverna ought to be. For travellers who’ve been to Greece, Theo’s takes you back to the land of Ulysses and Helen.
Outside, a sign gives the address of Theo’s website: www.eatsquid.com. For diners nervous about trying “foreign” fare, there are two reasons not to be put off. First, squid (a.k.a. calamari) are delicious; second, Greek food is really just home cooking with a slightly herbaceous twist.
Nikos learned the art of Greek cuisine from his mother, Mary, and dad, Theo. They learned it from their parents, who learned it from theirs, and so on. That’s one of the wonderful things about Cretan peasant food—it has a lineage going back millennia and you’re dining on history.
Theo and Mary opened the restaurant in 1976. It was a big gamble for them and a radical idea for the Okanagan. At the time, Valley restaurants were strictly meat and potato steakhouses while the wine industry was still in an unimagined future.
Slowly the restaurant took off. Nikos still remembers, when they first opened, his dad snoozing on a bench and waiting for customers. Now the restaurant is packed and on holidays and weekends it’s a good idea to make reservations.
Cretan-style cuisine is based on locally available meats, seafood and poultry as well as what could be foraged from the mountainsides. Mary is the family foraging expert. Her mother taught her and she is passing the knowledge on to Nikos’ family.
“In the spring” she says,” I head up to Naramata to pick purslane. It’s typical of the ingredients found in Crete and is one of the healthiest plants in the world. But in Canada, it’s considered a weed!”
Plants like purslane contain some of the highest anti-oxidants to be found anywhere and they taste good. Theo’s offers purslane in salads along with amaranth greens and black mustard and they’re a good way non-Greek foodies can stretch their palates into ethnic foods.
As Nikos begins to show me how to make dako, he says, “First it’s important that you understand my grandfather was a shepherd and this is what he took with him to eat for lunch.
“In the villages in Crete, not everyone could afford an oven, so they made community ovens. This was great except there was a lot of demand for them so when it was your turn to bake bread, you made a double batch. Then the extra was stored up in the rafters of the house and brought down when it was needed. By that time it was a rock hard rusk, so the locals softened it with water, flavoured it with wine, then slathering on garlic and grated tomatoes before pouring oil, feta cheese and wild herbs on top.”
As Nikos explains, he busies himself preparing the rusks for his dako and when they’re ready, it’s easy to see that this would make a terrific appetizer before diving into calamari, lamb or moussaka.
“The original bruschetta,” he says. And I can see it’s true.
As published in:
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Read more of the original stories celebrated in our 30th-anniversary issue.
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