If eating a piece of heaven means getting closer to God, no one is nearer the pearly gates than the monks of Mount Athos.
The peninsula in southern Greece is home to a group of Orthodox Christian monks whose humble lifestyle means no meat and complete celibacy. In return, they live almost free from cancers or Alzheimer's, and enjoy all the home grown vegetables, wine, and tranquility as they can handle. The fast-and-feast regime the monks follow is believed to be the birthplace of the 5:2 diet, and has tempted high profile visitors including Vladimir Putin and Prince Charles.
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The monastery itself is unique, encompassing buildings constructed by Greeks, Russians, Romanians, and Bulgarians going all the way back to 960 AD. Some are Disney-esque palaces with blue towers, such as the Russian-built St Panteleimon, while others like the Iviron are closer to stunning French chateaux.
At the heart of the Mount Athos monks' teachings is hospitality towards travellers. Visitors stay in the monasteries without charge and are often given free food and wine.
Unsurprisingly, many tourists take full advantage of this booze policy. Alongside teary-eyed religious pilgrims struck by their closeness to Christ, you'll find a lot of overly refreshed Europeans. It makes Athos a crazy place to visit—everyone is overdosed on spirit of one kind or another.
At the Mylopotamos hermitage, I'm greeted by Epiphanios, a monk and chef who has cooked all over the world and recently released his own cookbook, The Cuisine of the Holy Mount of Athos. A twinkly eyed bohemian, Epiphanios is the Mick Jagger of monks, and happily explains he cooks and prepares his dishes. As we talk in his kitchen, stray kittens—the only female animal in the area, brought in to catch pesky mice—flit about his feet.
Epiphanios knows by heart the best time to eat anything.
"All varieties of octopus are delicious from September to June," he says. "But later on their tentacles become empty inside and hollow. As far as shellfish are concerned, I beg you, only eat them fresh!"
I manage not to let on that I mainly shop in Tesco Extra.
There is no calorie counting on Mount Athos, but also no added fats or non-natural ingredients. You won't find any ketchups or hot sauce here. All meals are based on centuries-old Greek food with a high proportion of vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and olive oil.
The monks wake at sunrise each day and pray for three to four hours, before attending to their daily tasks, which include offering food to guests. They spend three days a week fasting, then three days eating normally, and one off-the-leash feast day during which they eat as much as they want. Wine is available to drink in moderation whenever required, but it has to be from the local area. It obviously helps that monks have their own vineyard.
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At dinner, Epiphanios serves me fresh white fish with little green courgettes, picked and caught in the area. The monk, sweat running from his brow, cooks the fish with nothing more than four large onions, garlic, and the juice of six lemons. He adds the lemon juice 30 seconds before taking the fish off the heat, preventing it from going bitter and allowing the sauce to thicken. We eat it warm, not hot.
"The fish's head is the key," Epiphanios explains. "Their heads should smell of the sea, or even better, of fresh seaweed and their eyes should be bright and clear—not dull and sunk, with red gills that looks fresh and healthy. Most fish caught in the spring are not tasty because at that time they are ready to lay their eggs. Therefore the best time to eat fresh fish is the summer, winter, and autumn."
Dinner devoured, I'm given a tour of the Mylopotamos vineyards with Brother Joaquin. He explains how his wines take on a natural salt flavour from the sea, with the vines planted in rows running away from the shore so that the salty air can blow past each grape equally.
Heaven really is a place on Earth.