Lesbos is Greece’s third-largest island, sitting in the Aegean Sea just 16 miles off the Turkish coast. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful place, with long stretches of sandy beaches next to crystal-clear waters, thickly forested mountains with therapeutic hot springs, salt marshes that are home to flamingos and wild birds, and more than 11m olive trees, cultivated for the island’s most important product: olive oil.
But Lesbos also carries a heavy load, for its story has taken on a more troubling aspect in recent years. That proximity to Turkey has made it the first stop for many refugees fleeing conflict in countries to the east, who arrive by boat after a perilous journey over land and sea. In the past six years, 500,000 refugees have passed through this island – a staggering number given that its local population is 40,000.
I came to Lesbos to research my new cookbook exploring what borders and identity mean in the 21st century, and how the changing food culture of the eastern Mediterranean reflects the wider story of migration. It was a journey that was as joyous as it was heartbreaking.
As well as feasting on local specialities, such as rice-stuffed vine leaves and juicy chicken souvlaki, I also cooked and ate with refugees, many of whom were living in overcrowded and unsafe camps, and who gathered in the numerous volunteer-run initiatives to eat together and share some moments of solace. Conversations about food offered a happy escape and distraction, and over the dining table we spoke of the flavours of Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, and the wonders of allspice, sumac and Aleppo pepper, swapping recipes for favourite dishes and reminiscing about meals shared with friends and family in happier circumstances.
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