“For mine own part, it was Greek to me.” — Shakespeare
Erroneously, I never gave Greek wines their proper due. I always thought of them as scarily named budget wines not worthy of my time or consideration. There are so many much easier to verbalize wine alternatives not to have to go through that level of shame of ordering it in a restaurant, so why do it? Then I met this absolutely seductive wine from Domaine Sigalas and now want to scream opa, move to Greece, and discover what I have stupidly been avoiding all my life.
Domaine Sigalas is located on the Island of Santorini long known for incredible towering cliffs, beautiful villages, and at least one rather catastrophic volcanic eruption. Paris Sigalas started making wines inside his birth home before expanding into a more modern facility in the same village.
He is on a single-handed mission to make the native Assyrtiko grape as famous and beautiful as the island they grow on. The grapes come from 50-year-old vines found in three different vineyards in the northern part of the island. The poor soil, which predictably is composed of black lava, volcanic ash, and pumice, produces low yields of astounding fruit.
The microclimate is what really makes this area so special. It rarely rains and the winters are mild. The spring can be very rough on the naked vines. Strong winds pummel the young sprouts with volcanic sand leading grape growers to adopt a unique method of pruning called “kouloura”, or wreath pruning. The canes are trained into basket shaped wreaths which form a natural protective barrier from blowing sands as well as the blistering summer sun. The vines are kept cool during the hot months by breezes gently blowing across the Mediterranean during the day and a special nocturnal humidity which falls like a gentle rain known as “pousi” by locals.
The actual vinification process is fairly traditional with fermentation occurring in stainless steel tanks under controlled temperatures. The straw colored wine with hints of green hue has a beautiful citrusy nose, great lingering depth, and a wonderful minerality. This is the perfect summertime seafood wine guaranteed to match anything you can throw at it.
Player’s Club, Baby
Entranced by the wine, I was deep into Greek mode by this point and craved some grilled octopus. It didn’t help that my five-year-old son Beau had been seized by the moment as well. Like a miniature version of Telly Savalas, he wandered through our kitchen with a lollipop dangling out of his mouth muttering “Players Club, baby”.
Incanting Spells and other ways to Tenderize Octopus
Cooking octopus can lead to the same irrational fears as not wanting to order Greek wines in a restaurant. There are so many myths about the best “secret” way to tenderize the notoriously tough octopus. They range from Italian nonnas covertly dropping wine corks into the poaching liquid, Vietnamese fishermen using defunct clothes dryers to tumble them into tender submission, to dumping enough vinegar in the cooking liquid to make you pucker for a week straight.
I settled on the perfect method not found by incanting spells from the Greek Magical Papyri or even watching a tattooed Food Network chef scream ‘bam’ as he swung an octopus over his head. But rather by listening to my sous chef Alejandro recount a travel show he once saw.
One night he was unable to sleep and started watching a travel show about Italy. The program was waxing on about some coastal region and showed b reel footage of an old man cooking fresh octopus in a sealed vessel with nothing more than aromatic herbs and a simple mirepoix of vegetables.
The secret seemed to be sealing the cooking vessel with bread dough and allowing the sea beast to steam in its own juices. Octopus are mostly comprised of water and always release a considerable amount on their path to becoming fork worthy.
Baptize the Sea Beast
Alejandro strolled into the kitchen the following day like someone who had been to the mountain and received a sacred tablet from God himself. He asked if he could try a new method of cooking octopus with so much conviction and purpose that I would of let him do it, even if it wasn’t on the menu.
He took a five-pound octopus and dropped it into a stainless steel pot with finely diced carrots, onions and celery seasoned with fresh thyme, bay leaf and a generous sprinkle of herbs de Provence. He baptized the beast with white wine, evoking a prayer and sealed it to its fate wrapped not in bread dough, which we didn’t have on hand, but industrial strength plastic wrap and a crown of aluminum foil.
Jiffy Pop Octopus
I have to admit, it looked a bit like those Jiffy Pop popcorn containers and the whole MacGyver-ness of the set up made the entire kitchen crew a bit nervous. Alejandro set the pot on a back burner and it immediately began to sputter and steam. Little pops and explosion could be heard under the foil cover causing us all to secretly worry that we would soon be drenched in searing hot octopus juice.
45 minutes into it, the top puffed up like a batch of jiffy pop popcorn threatening to explode at any moment. Cooks detoured far from the line, fearful both of Alex’s possessed gaze and the threat of exploding octopuses. One hour after the ceremony began, it ended. We let it sit another thirty minutes before drawing straws to see who would don the protective gear and venture near the pot.
Alex carefully unwrapped the foil and peered within. A prideful tear welled in the corner of his eye as he tenderly removed the octopus and placed it on his cutting board. One slice into the delicate flesh and we both knew we had a winner. Alejandro’s was the most tender, vibrant purple-colored octopus with a beautiful natural salinity I had ever tasted.
The two-step process
Cooking octopus is always a two-step process. The first is what I described above. For those who I have successfully scared away, you can find many more methods online in greater detail, including at least one that involves a witch doctor. Better fish markets usually stock pre-cooked octopus that offers a great alternative.
The final step is grilling. Marinate your cooked octopus in extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and whatever herbs you have on hand. Build a white-hot charcoal fire and drop the octopus on it. I love to get a really good char to the meat. Chop the octopus into large sections and toss into this amazing vinaigrette and enjoy.
As Telly Savalas once said, “Who loves ya, baby?”
Greek Grilling Vinaigrette
An All-Purpose Vinaigrette for drenching whatever comes off your grill. This goes great on grilled chicken, lamb, sardines or anything needing a burst of sunshine and flavor. This is loosely based on the Kokkari Dressing found in my absolutely favorite Greek cookbook by Erik Cosselmon and Janet Fletcher simply entitled ‘Kokkari, Contemporary Greek Flavors.’
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 shallot chopped finely
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon fresh oregano
- 1 teaspoon parsley
- 1 pinch Herbs de Provence
- sea salt to taste
- black pepper to taste
- Hard to imagine I actually wrote this as a recipe. Simply mix everything together and let macerate for an hour or so. Sometimes I get lazy and pulse in my blender.