There are many secrets surrounding the monks of Mount Athos – one of them seems to be longevity thanks to a macrobiotic diet and a life without stress.
Monk Epihanios strokes his beard and takes a sip of Greek coffee, strong and black as molasses. We’re sitting on the terrace of his Mylopotamos monastery – a small two-man ‘cell’ on the Mount Athos peninsula in Halkidiki.
But if this is a cell, the surroundings might want you to serve a long stretch. Epiphanios and his co-habitee, Monk Joachim, have a boutique winery, and long rows of vines stretch ahead of us planted in rows to take advantage of sea breezes channeled by a small bay. In the distance is 2,000m Athos, its peak kissed by light clouds.
“How can we not live a long life?” he says eventually. “We eat well and don’t have the same stresses as normal people.”
Mount Athos is one of the most revered sites in the Orthodox religion. A semi-autonomous state, it’s been shut off to the world for more than 1,000 years and is home to some 2,000 monks living in 20 monasteries and 200 hermitages like Mylopotamos. The odd mobile phone and car aside, a visit here is like taking a trip back in time.
The church – and the monks – like to keep Athos pure. No women are allowed and access, by boat only despite there being a land border, is granted only to 100 pilgrims a day; just 10 of them non-Orthodox.
A 10-year study of their life and eating habits astonished researchers looking into why many of the monks live beyond 100 years old. It revealed they had some of the lowest incidences of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer in Europe.
Some of the success of that diet is down to Epiphanios – the Marco Pierre White of monks. Like all the monks, he was assigned a job when he first arrived here to take the cloth in 1973 and ended up working in the kitchens before moving up the ranks of monastic cuisine.
“My father had a farm and I was always interested in food,” he says. “So I gladly worked in the kitchens as a help, picking up the secrets along the way.”
Those secrets include a diet where no meat is allowed. The monks live on fish, seasonal vegetables, home-grown olive oil and the odd glass of home-produced wine; meals are simple yet tasty. They eat twice a day – at around 11am and 7pm and both meals are sit-down affairs. On some days they fast, eating on others – if you’re looking for the origins of the purest Mediterranean and the 5:2 diets, they are both here on these holy lands.
One of the things they do have on Mount Athos is time… lots of it. That can be used for meditation, study or prayer. Epiphanios used some of his to learn, finding ancient recipes from monastic texts, preparing meals from antiquity and testing them on his brothers at the Megali Lavra monastery, the oldest on Athos and which is responsible for overseeing Mylopotamos.
Around five years ago, those recipes were compiled into a book, The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos. To promote the monastic culture, Epiphanios gives the odd cooking demonstration for free to guests at Eagles Palace, a luxury hotel in Ouranouolis (the “city of heaven”), the last town before the Athos border and where visiting permits are issued.
Those lessons offer a unique insight into how the monks live for people without the time, inclination or bodily appendages to visit Athos, but nothing comes close to staying in the monasteries themselves.
Access is granted by a church office in Ouranopolis. Permits can take weeks to come through and, once issued, are for very specific days. ‘Pilgrims’ (for you’re never a ‘tourist’ when visiting) then ring around the monasteries to ask for spare beds. As long as one is available, it has to be offered – the monks have a long tradition of hospitality, and there’s no charge for a stay.
It can be a complicated process and there are no agencies that help cut through the red tape for non-Greek speakers – although the concierge staff at Eagles Palace will take over and smooth the process for their guests.
We spend our day on Athos, hiking its undulating lands. Rolling hills covered with cypress, olives and grape vines, using the mountain as an anchor point to visit other monasteries such as the impressive Iviron, a huge castle-like structure by the shore where the Virgin Mary is said to have landed and blessed Mount Athos.
Its churches are full of incredible 15th-century icons surrounded by carved gold leaf, the air is redolent with livani – the evocative Greek church incense – and we hear familiar accents from British and Australian monks who have chosen to live here.
In the evening back at Mylopotamos, Ephiphanios opens up his small kitchen and his extensive winery to us. He cooks over an open fire, a huge pan bubbling away with massive grouper fillets, baby courgettes and fresh celery.
It’s on the fire for about an hour as we chat and sip the wine. You’d think the dish would have boiled into a mush – but the fish stays together, tender as you like and infused with the flavours of the broth. With a plate of olives, some salty feta cheese and homemade bread, it’s delicious.
“Someone once asked me what I’d be if I were not a chef, I said thin,” he tells us rubbing his not inconsiderable belly and chuckling away. Super model skinny, he may never be… but I wouldn’t bet against him outliving all of us.
Grouper with baby courgettes
1.5 kg of fillet grouper (skin on) or other white fish
4 large onions
5 cloves of garlic
350g of olive oil
one bunch of parsley
700g baby courgettes
Prepare an onion paste by boiling the onions for an hour, pureeing and then cooling.
Wash the grouper fillets, salt and leave in a colander to drain.
Place the fish skin up in a wide, deep frying pan and just cover with the onion puree and cold water.
Bring to the boil, skimming off any foam.
Add the courgettes topped and tailed, the oil, garlic and pepper corns. Reduce the heat and cook for around 45 minutes.
Do not stir but gently shake the pan to avoid the fish sticking.
Once the broth starts to thicken and the courgettes are tender, remove the pan from the heat, add the juice of the lemons and leave to infuse for five minutes before serving.