Are you nuts about nuts? Then make sure to visit the Greek island of Aegina where every year the islanders celebrate their most precious product: the “Fystiki Aeginis” or Aegina pistachio.
So if you’re a foodie or a nut lover, then Aegina should be on your “to visit” list.
Most of us Greeks keep Aegina secret. It’s so close to Athens that we barely consider it an island that would interest travelers. And yet, there is so much to discover on this isle that’s an hour’s ride on the ferry (about half an hour by hydrofoil) from Athens; is an ideal weekend getaway; and one of the “suburbs” as many people prefer to live there and commute to the Greek capital.
If you’re thinking of heading over to Athens or Greece, plan to visit in September – by far in my opinion the best month for travel anywhere in Greece – and make it a point to visit the Saronic island of Aegina and sample some of the world’s finest pistachios and highly sought-after specialty food items.
In its 13th year, the “Aegina Fistiki Fest” is a great chance to visit one of the nearest island destinations to Athens and enjoy dozens of events featuring what else? The renowned pistachio. This year the popular event kicks off on September 15 and runs through to September 18.
Running at the start of fall, the festival is dedicated to a product that has since the early 1900s epitomizes Aegina. The locally-produced pistachio is a protected product recognized as PDO (product with protected designation of origin) in 1994. The islanders on Aegina started cultivating pistachios in the early 1900s. Today, many parts of Greece also produce pistachios but none as close to the superior quality and taste of the Aegina variety.
All About the Aegina Pistachio
Legend has it that there was no such tree on the island until a nobleman from Aegina returning from Syria in the late 1800s planted one in his yard. The tree warmed up to Aegina’s dry welcoming climate (I would too!), long summer and volcanic soil – Aegina is located on top of an extinct volcano – and called it home.
The pistachio tree is slow. It begins to produce crops in its eighth year and goes on to do so for a hundred years or more. Harvesting takes place between August and September, with the bulk of the product being produced on the northwestern side of the Aegina.
The pistachio, known by its scientific name “Pistacia vera”, belongs to the cashew family. The genus Pistacia includes 11 varieties. The small tree originated in Central Asia and the Middle East, making its way to the Mediterranean in Roman times. The main producers today are Iran, the US, China, Turkey, Syria and Greece.
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Greece is among the top producers of pistachios in Europe accounting for 5 percent of all exports with an average 8,500 tons of the nut annually and sixth in the world. Iran is the largest producer in the world.
The Aegina variety of pistachio is considered to be of the highest quality thanks to its refined taste and distinct woody aroma that has stolen the heart of chefs and foodies worldwide.
Besides their great taste, pistachios (the unsalted variety) boast a great many health benefits. Experts says nutrients in the pistachio have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. They are also a rich source of fiber, and compared to other nuts, they have the fewest calories, with a handful amounting to 170 calories.
For all these reasons, the Aegina pistachio is a favorite snack among young and old in Greece, and besides the salted and unsalted varieties, you will find it in everything from the spoon sweet, the “pasteli” (sesame honey and pistachio nut bar), and popular ice cream to cold cuts and salads.
Pistachios also take center stage in a wide variety of “syropiasta” sweets (or those dipped in syrup) such as the popular baklava with pistachios.
What to Expect at the Aegina Fistiki Fest
Expect a traditional island celebration – “panegyri” – in all its glory with plenty of island song and dance, food and drink. The festival also features pistachio-related happenings such as culinary events, tastings, and cooking seminars, arts and crafts workshops as well as theater and music performances.
The Aegina Fistiki Fest is the brainchild of a group of nut-loving volunteers and is organized in collaboration with local producers.
At the heart of celebrations is the trade fair along the port with dozens of stalls featuring the reputed pistachio and its byproducts – ice cream, soaps, bars, pastels, spoon sweets and other locally produced products including honey and cheese.
♫ I end today’s post with a traditional island song (nisiotiko) from the island of Aegina about the “dark-calling sea” (“Mavrokalousa Thalassa”) performed by Marilena Tsartsitalidou and Kyriakos Gouventas on the violin.