Food from Ash

Food has always been a source of happiness and comfort for me and it’s a main component of why I want to travel. Since arriving at the port of Athinos in Santorini I have had so much delicious food. I’ve eaten everything from street food gyros, to tomato basil seafood risotto, to traditional moussaka. After experiencing all the amazing food Santorini has to offer, I asked myself why the does the food here taste so much better than back home? Then I remembered I was standing on a volcano.

Most volcanoes have rich volcanic soil that produce excellent crops because the soil is rich in minerals like iron, potassium, and phosphorus. Chemical weathering also makes the soil more fertile (1). The lava, ash, and other materials from the eruption are weathered on the landscape and the minerals are embedded into the soil. However this is not the case in Santorini, it is much different.

There is no soil in Santorini. After the Minoan eruption in 1613 BC the whole island was covered in a thick, gray layer of ash and pumice. The caldera erupted in a Plinian style eruption catapulting tons of ash and pumice into the air which eventually fell down and covered the landscape. The Minoan Tuff or ash and pumice layer is tens of meters thick and the crops are actually grown in this top layer.

Figure 1. The ash and pumice layer, even thought it’s not volcanic soil is still fertile. It is also very unique and allows Santorini farmers to grow very special crops.

In Santorini the farmers use the “aspa” or Minoan Tuff to grow Assyrtiko wine grapes which can only grow in Santorini. The wine grapes of Santorini are very special, they do not need a lot of water and they grow very low to the ground. The farmers use the “koulara” technique weaving the vines in a continuous circle forming a basket to protect the grapes from the wind and sun (4).

Figure 2. The kouloura technique protects the grapes from the harsh summer sun and winds (3).

The average rainfall in Santorini is 40cm a year and the other water source for the grapes is the sea fog the locals call “anedosa” that comes in every night and leaves a layer of morning dew (4). There is no irrigation system on the island because there is no ground water. Tap water is desalinated ocean water. Pumice is essential to watering the crops because it would take too much effort to transport desalinated water across the island.

Pumice is a light and vesicular (porous) rock that forms from flash cooling gas-rich lavas. It forms the vesicles when the gasses trapped in the magma expand. The process is similar to a soda bottle. When you shake a bottle of soda you are releasig the carbon dioxide dissolved in the soda. If you quickly open the bottle the pressure will rapidly decrease causing the gas to expand. In a volcanic eruption the fragmentation (rapid decrease of pressure) causes the magma to break into many pieces and quickly cool in the air creating pumice.

Figure 3. A piece of pumice from the Fira Quarry. It is very vesicular and light in color.

Pumice is also very permeable which means water can easily pass through it. When it rains or when the fog comes in the pumice will absorb the water and then transfer it to the grape vines watering them. This is why there’s no irrigation system on Santorini. The dew from the fog that comes in nightly provides consistent watering and growth.

The pumice not only waters the grapes but it protects them and is the reason the Assyrtiko grape can grow in Santorini. Phylloxera and other bacteria can’t grow in the pumice which would destroy the grapes (2). Also the vesicular and glassy nature of the pumice provides harsh environments prohibiting mites, worms and other bugs from eating the crops. This allows farmers to use more organic methods “Though only a handful of the vineyards are certified organic, most of the growers cultivate their grapes using organic methods because of the natural resistance to disease and pests that the climate and volcanic environment have created”(4).

Figure 4. A glass of wine made from the Assyrtiko grapes. The wine on Santorini has a unique flavor.

I wasn’t a big fan of white wine before I came on this trip but after trying Santorini’s white wine I can say that I’m a fan. The wine here has a sweet, floral, and light taste. It also pairs nicely with the food here which makes sense because everything is grown in close proximity to each other. Also because of the pumice, farmers can use more organic methods so I don’t feel as bad drinking it.

Like the Assyrtiko grapes, the katsouni cucumber is special to Santorini because it also only grows on the island. It’s thicker and has a lighter, cooler taste than normal cucumbers. This cucumber is a main ingredient in Santorini salad which has gained popularity worldwide along with the traditional Greek salad. You can find recipes for it on Pinterest.

Figure 5. This is a katsouni cucumber which only grows on Santorini. It almost looks like a zucchini.

Another important crop unique to Santorini is their vine tomatoes. These tomatoes were once so popular that 13 tomato plants opened up on the island, but only one remains today. They have an incredible flavor unlike any tomato I’ve had before. The tomatoes have a earthy almost dirty flavor to them, so you know they came straight from the garden before arriving on your plate. But they are also sweet and juicy. It’s well known to not ask anyone for their tomato sauce recipe because it’s a family secret. These tomatoes also gave Santorini trade and communication with places like Odessa keeping them from isolation (2).

Figure 6. A traditional Greek salad is composed of cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta cheese. All of these ingredients can be grown and harvested on the island.

One of my favorite foods is a Greek salad so being able to have an authentic, traditional Greek salad in Greece is pretty cool. Also knowing that the ingredients at some restaurants are local and unique to Santorini puts a smile on my face because I really like the farm-to-table idea. I feel like I’m eating much cleaner foods than America and I don’t have to spend a ton of money trying to eat healthy.

The Assyrtiko grapes, katsouni cucumber and Santorini vine tomatoes can grow on this island because of the volcano that once destroyed it. The pumice from the Minoan Tuff provides protection for the crops by preventing certain bacteria and bugs from prospering and destroying the plants. The pumice also acts as a natural irrigation system by absorbing water from the rain or dew and transmiting it to the crops. There is a delicate balance on this island between the volcano and its inhabitants. It has the power to destroy the whole island but it also provides unique conditions that allow farmers to grow specific species of crops. I can’t wait to see what other amazing, delicious foods this island has to offer.

1. Roby, Christin. “Congo volcano brings farmers rich soil but eruption threat.” – News and Articles on Science and Technology. N.p., 25 June 2016. Web. 08 June 2017.
2.”Santorini Island – Fertile volcanic soil.” N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2017.
3.”The Santorini.” The Santorini “kouloura”. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2017.
4.”The Vineyard.” The Vineyard’s of Santorini – Wines from Santorini. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2017.

6 thoughts on “Food from Ash

  1. This made me hungry just reading about it! It was very interesting to learn how specialized some of the island foods are because of the pumice that they are grown in. One tip though would be to make sure you include a scale when taking photographs (e.g. the picture of pumice).

  2. Good job in incorporating our edits. An explanation of the Minoan eruption and the formation of pumice is just enough to educate the reader on how this unique ecological environment formed. Excellent work.

  3. Hi Ellanna,

    Making the post more personal by saying that food is one of your favorite things and that the post was going to be about food made for a great opening for the entry. However the beginning did seem a bit misleading. Try making it more clear that the entry is going to be about the ingredients that go into the food and how they are grown rather than just saying ‘food.’ Connecting the growth and rarity of the food was a great way to connect it back to geology though, which you did very well. You also identified the give/take relationship between the inhabitants of the island and the volcanoes in a very enlightening way as well which I found very interesting. Good job all in all.

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