My Big Fat Greek Feast
Skordalia, Baklava and the return of the Point Yacht Club pie
Nick Papadopoulos’s name is synonymous with eating Greek in Durban even though these days his fare is more global in scale and flavour. Monthly, on a Sunday, he and his team revive the legendary lunchtime Greek eating extravaganza. At the Point Yacht Club, a venue with a view, and upstairs from the Anchorage bistro. Where it took a committee to revive the celebrated PYC pie.
Sitting in the shade of an umbrella mesmerised by the reflections – Impressionistic colour splashes displayed as rippled images thrown by yachts tied to their mooring docks – I find myself transported.
Interesting what the mind does. Where it can take us. Because without bidding, without a plan, I find myself in Greece. W-a-y back. Sleeping out on the beach next to my friend, Rob. Not exactly sleeping at this point because Rob, in the sleeping bag next to mine, has snored me awake.
Fantasies surface about what I would like to do to him to shut him up. Thing is, a husband or boyfriend you can take liberties with in a familiarity-breeds-contempt sort of way. But a friend?
Then I watch myself all-of-a-sudden sit bolt upright, turn on him, give him a swift sharp punch to the gut – and quick-as-a-blink reverse back down. Lie still. And whew. The snoring stops. Adrenaline heart is eclipsed by smug and creeping innocence. A “he’ll never know what hit him” self-satisfaction.
Except in the morning, with the arrival of the coffee at our chosen beachfront café, comes the puzzled and peeved question: “Why did you punch me in the middle of the night? Something woke me just in time to register a blow.”
On that same visit to Greece, before meeting up with Rob and our week-long Peloponnese road trip in a rent-a-wreck with a passenger door that didn’t open, my destination for a couple of weeks was the island of Skopelos.
Retsina and ouzo evenings. Breakfasts of sheep’s milk yoghurt with walnuts and honey. Taramasalata, which my Greek friend, Nicky, from boarding school in Durban, then the Cote d’Ivoire, then Athens, now Cape Town, would later teach me how to make. From stale white bread soaked in water then squeezed. Blended with good olive oil, lemon juice, the prerequisite fish roe.
Stale white bread and olive oil, too, along with copious amounts of crushed garlic and purée potatoes for Nicky’s make-it-at-home version of my nightly Skopelos skordalia fix.
The same Nicky who, on that same trip, when I stayed with her in an Athens apartment, made me my first goat stifado – the flesh of the young animal melt-in-the-mouth tender and gamey-tasty and something I’ve never known her to cook in South Africa. Although in Cape Town she did find, coat with seasoned flour and fry till golden brown tiny fish similar to those we ate in Athens.
All this comes back when I am sitting outside the Anchorage café/bistro at the Point Yacht Club (PYC) in Durban, waiting for Nick Papadopoulos to finish his cellphone conversation. (He’s not being rude. I’ve arrived early.)
Papadopoulos. His name gives a blatant clue to my reverie. This plus the fact that he and members of his family (including aunts and cousins) are legendary in Durban for their Greek fare. Erstwhile restaurants Eat Greek, the Greek Taverna, the Tree of Idleness.
This last-mentioned, the long-gone but fondly remembered-by-many eatery of the late Spiro Vlismas (Papadopoulos’s mom’s first cousin) who before coming to Durban had a restaurant in Zimbabwe called the Acropolis. People would take chairs, sit outside, and queue for as long as it took, such was its reputation combined with Vlismas’s refusal to accept bookings
Astonishing, too, are stories of how the extended family’s Greek-South African legacy began. One tale involving a direct Papadopoulos ancestor who walked with an ox wagon for four years from Egypt to Mozambique en route to what is now Mutare in Zimbabwe. The move to Durban happened around the time Papadopoulos was finishing high school.
But back to the Anchorage, PYC and the here and now. These days Papadopoulos’s business is only 20 percent Greek food. He and his business partner (of 30 years in 2121), executive chef Eric Edwards, met early in their careers when both were working at the then-thriving Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. Papadopoulos started there at 18 as a mail-and-office clerk. Ended up as front-office manager. Edwards was in the kitchen.
Both transferred at some point to the Royal Hotel in Durban, which Papadopoulos left in 1991 to start Eat Greek Caterers at the Glenwood Old Boys club (where Edwards joined him). In 1995 they started Eat Greek, the erstwhile restaurant on Broadway, which gave greater Durban its Greek fix for 10 years.
The lunchtime Greek-Mediterranean Sunday buffet lunches started in 2005 as bi-monthly feasts of meze, mains and yummy traditional desserts (regularly replenished, help yourself – and as much as you want) when Papadopoulos and Edwards were running their culinary catering business from the Hellenic Centre in Durban North.
The “Greek heart of Durban” was at the time also the venue of a monthly food market that was worth making the drive to breakfast and shop at. The market was on a Saturday; the bi-monthly buffets on Sundays.
When the pair departed that location and moved to Greyville Racecourse (as onsite caterers and where executive sous chef Mpilo Ngcobo joined the culinary team – they do all the venue’s conferences and events, plus myriads of others, being preferred caterers all over Durban) they decided to end the buffet lunches.
But “there was outrage”, laughs Papadopoulos. So they relaunched the buffet, just once a month, at Greyville.
Then, when they took over the food, the management and the menu at the Anchorage at PYC two years ago – “we couldn’t resist the spectacular views” – they relocated the buffet to the upstairs dining room there. Where contrary to Melina Mercouri’s famed Never on Sunday song, they are always on Sunday.
Friday, meanwhile, is pie day at the Anchorage where Papadopoulos, Edwards and collaborating culinary team members created an interesting bistro menu – “it’s not a Greek restaurant” – with daily specials and a Sunday roast.
If I were writing a corporate story there’d be lots to say about their business model. Papadopoulos and Edwards run an in-house management and mentorship programme. Papadopoulos tells me success story after success story about people who’ve crossed their paths. Like that of a former employee who bought a geyser, converted it into a smoker and now has a thriving business selling pulled pork rolls and smoked brisket. (Keep an eye out in a future issue of TGIF for the full story.)
“South Africans are natural entrepreneurs who often just need a little steering,” he says. Something he applies to himself – ongoing – with the help of a cool international business coach (Roger Hamilton) to keep him on track. Key is a 30-year vision plan and a focus on the question “What problem are you solving?”
One of the first problems they were tasked to solve when they took on the Anchorage was the recreation of the celebrated (among world yachtees if Sailing Magazine is to be believed) PYC pie. Which makes for something of a pie-in-the-face story.
“When we arrived we were told about this pie,” says Papadopoulos. Everyone knew about the pie. Now from pie in the sky, there would be a return of the pie.
But the funny thing was, when they got down to it, while everybody knew about the pie, remembered the pie, had eaten the pie and unanimously wanted the pie back, everyone remembered the pie differently.
“Nobody could tell me: was it round or diamond-shaped? Did it have peas inside? Did it have sesame seeds on top? What exactly was the pastry like?
“It was hilarious. Like the British Parliament in (TV series) The Crown making a decision.”
Finally, after “forming almost a committee just for this pie”, they got: the PYC pie. A plump and juicy beef job with crispy pastry, peas, sesame seeds on top – served with curry gravy or plain gravy and hand-cut golden potato chips.
Fridays are pie days at the Anchorage. For other pies. But you can have the PYC pie any day – overseen for quality and integrity (to those memories) by Anchorage sous chef Dickson Khubone.
Sitting at the water’s edge waiting for Papadopoulos, the ambience, the expectation, the memories folded together like the honeyed nutty mini-baklava bites and the kataifi with its shredded pastry, walnuts and spices, both served on the buffet’s dessert table.
With my view across the sailboats to Ninth Avenue Waterside (restaurant) and the harbour-at-large – all sparkly like a Greek island postcard scene on that day under a cloudless summer sky – my Greek meanderings make sense. Maybe it’s time to invite Rob to jet in from London for reminiscences over a Greek buffet and ouzo.
But what if he stays over – and snores? DM
Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her via her website wandahennig.com.