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Cuisine - 2018-01-01

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SPIRITED AWAY

CONTENTS

Xenia Taliotis delves into the world of Metaxa, Greece’s much-loved spirit YIANNIS SKOUTAS crouches on the ground, picks a cluster of small-berried grapes, holds it up to the sky to show me the distinctive yellow-green hue of the fruit, and hands it to me to taste. “This is muscat,” he says. “See how sweet it is? This is the pearl that has made our little island famous.” I’m standing in Skoutas’ small terraced vineyard on Mount Ambelos, Samos, looking at the gnarly vines clawing their way out of the scorched earth. The island, a 43km by 13km dot in the North Aegean, is known for many things – for being the birthplace of some of the biggest brains the world has ever seen, among them the mathematician Pythagoras and the philosopher Epicurus; for its breathtaking loveliness; and for its calm, clear waters. But these days it is its honeyed, muscat dessert wines that are its biggest selling point, giving it the edge over other islands of equal natural beauty. Viniculture has changed little here over the centuries – the plots are still all family owned and harvested by hand. The only difference Skoutas’ ancestors would notice if they could nip back would be that trucks have replaced donkeys as a means of transport. All else is as it was, and as it is likely to remain. I love wine, but the real purpose of my visit is Metaxa, the amber brandylike drink that has come to encapsulate the heart and soul of Greece. “It is our national spirit,” says Skoutas. “If you do not have a bottle of Metaxa at home, you cannot be Greek.” I have to own up that had I been asked to name the spirit that most defined Greece, I’d have gone for ouzo, but Skoutas is right – you’ll always find Metaxa in a Greek household. Even my non-drinking London-Greek family had some at the back of a cupboard, my parents bringing out the same exhausted bottle, year after year, whenever they had guests. Muscat is one of the key ingredients in Metaxa, which is why my trail begins on Samos. When Spyros Metaxa, the merchant who created the drink, decided to give the world a spirit that would warm the palate instead of stripping it, he experimented with muscat, having an inkling that it would lend refinement to the wine distillates he was blending. He was right. Finally, in 1888, trial and error gave him the result he had hoped for: a drink as smooth and seductive as metaxi, the Greek for silk. I have my first taste of the “original Greek spirit” at lunch, in a Suntonic, a tall cocktail made with Metaxa 5 Star and served over ice with tonic water and slices of orange. The stars on the label indicate how long the distillates have been aged for, the less intense flavours of the 5 and 7 making them a versatile base for mixologists. I snack on olives, a perfect match, but the cocktail also takes me beautifully through to the seafood that starts to arrive. My host has ordered the catch of the day, and I watch as our waiter walks to the small boat that’s just docked, expecting him to pick out some white fish for grilling. Instead I see him load his tray with octopus, squid, red mullet and shrimp, little imagining that 20 minutes later it would all start arriving at our table. I have rarely tasted such fresh fish, the calamari a master class in taste and texture – so soft and tender that it barely needs chewing; the more muscular squid perfectly chargrilled and dressed in peppery olive oil, oregano and lemon. I’m stuffed, but I can’t resist the waiter’s recommendation to try the Metaxa 7 Star with a little baklava – and what a combination it is, the ripe fruit and vanilla of the Metaxa an ideal partner for the nutty, syrupy pastry. Full to bursting, I board a tiny plane to Athens, where I meet Constantinos Raptis, Metaxa master since 1992, at the House of Metaxa distillery. Only the fifth person to hold the title, Raptis, a chemist and oenologist, is responsible for some of the most memorable styles in the spirit’s history, including Metaxa 12 Star, Private Reserve, Angels’ Treasure and the astonishing AEN, a limited edition released in 2008 to celebrate the maison’s 120th birthday. He’s also a master of discretion: apparently only two people know what goes into the bouquet of herbs that make Metaxa what it is, and he’s not about to make me the third. “It is not necessary for anyone to know this information,” he says, when I ask him at least to tell me how many botanicals are used. “The only ingredient we speak about is the one that has become common knowledge – May rose petals – and we only revealed that because their scent is unmistakable.” I follow Raptis through the cellars, past cobweb-covered casks that haven’t moved in decades, while he explains that Metaxa was first a cognac, until the French secured AOC status for the region in 1936, and then a brandy, until the category was redefined in 1987 to exclude all spirits that contained anything other than wine distillates. Since then, says Raptis, it has sat proudly in a class of its own. We’re heading towards the tasting room, but first we stop at four huge casks, named after Spyros Metaxa, his wife Despina and two of their sons, Elias and Alexandros. Filled with precious spirit from the earliest days of the distillery, they are the essence of Metaxa, with Spyros, the oldest, containing more than 200 blends that have been maturing for several decades. All 1888 bottles of the precious AEN were drawn from this. In the tasting room, I take my seat at a huge circular table where my drinks are waiting for me. I start with the floral 5 Star, and progress to the more fruity 7, the 12 – a Raptis creation that’s voluptuous and full of dark chocolate, honeyed figs and aromatic herbs – and finally the Angels’ Treasure. Another Raptis masterpiece, it’s a complex beauty with heady notes of tobacco, bitter chocolate and oak that lingers long on the palate and longer in the memory. Creating something new is a labour of love, says Raptis, “that blends artistry with alchemy, science with creativity. Each new style carries the past into the future – that is the legacy of every Metaxa master.” My journey is complete. It’s taken me a long time to discover Metaxa, but as its tagline rightly says, it’s the drink that waits for you to mature, and I’ve finally earned my stars.

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