Michele Roberts finds food for the soul

On a Greek island paradise, fresh fish and doughnuts are food for the soul

When you travel by air, they say, it takes a while for your soul to catch up with you. Having flown to Athens, I renewed my contact with my soul at the dockside cafe in the port of Kimi. Waiting for the ferry to Skyros, I ate squeaky-fresh fish: small grilled sardines, anchovies chopped up with onion and green pepper, a few rings of squid. At the Skyros Centre, where I was teaching a week's course in fiction writing, we were lucky enough to be cooked for by a local woman, Vasso.

Instructed to produce vegetarian food for the New Agers whetting their appetites with gruelling sessions of meditation, encounter, Reiki spiritual healing and Thai massage, Vasso made wonderful traditional stews: peas and carrots; butter beans; potato, tomato and onion; spinach with chickpeas. The spinach, called horta, was stronger-tasting than ours. We ate it cold, hot, layered inside pastries, in omelettes. Vasso made excellent taramasalata and hummus. Her robust salads mixed tomatoes with cubed feta and cucumber chunks. Asked to provide green salad, she brought in wild rocket. For breakfast she gave us porridge, muesli, yoghurt, fruit salad and custard-filled pastries. The spiritual athletes wolfed the lot.

Her finesse, expertise, generosity and fresh ingredients were not matched by the one tourist restaurant I tried in the village. On a rooftop with a stunning view of hills and sea I ate stale, flabby mussels, deep-fried aubergines tasting of nothing but their breadcrumb coating, chips doused in blue cheese, and shrimps floundering in dubious-tasting and over-rich slime. The cafe on the beach, however, cheered me up: delicious octopus; golden, honey-glistening doughnuts.

Doughnuts feature prominently in the social and religious rituals of Skyros, where descent is matrilineal and men, on marrying, move into their wives' homes. The women accompany their marriage proposals with doughnuts and cakes. More doughnuts are consumed when the bridegrooms process

in public, transferring their goods to their brides' establishments.

On Skyros the soul does not get lost in air travel, nor does it have to be rediscovered by New Age techniques. Food cherishes the soul. At death, oranges, pomegranates and apples are placed in the coffin. A piece of broken jar is put in the mouth of the deceased. For three to five years after the burial, women put food and sweets on the grave. Inside their houses, they speak about and to the dead. During this period, the soul hovers between heaven and earth. The second burial involves the women coming in black clothes to clean the bones with wine and olive oil. Then the reburying can take place and the soul is finally freed.

Where's paradise? Here on earth, on Skyros, in Vasso's kitchen.

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