Opals to baklava

His secret is to caramelise the syrup before pouring it over the immensely buttery, spicy baklava, then at the very end flavour it with fresh local lemon juice and orange juice. It was the tray-loads of sticky, golden baklava that brought their creator to a recent book launch in Byron Bay, where I first met Ilias the Greek.

Later – a cafe this time – and Ilias has just presented me with a sample of his cooking, a selection of confectionary resembling a casket of jewels, dusted in icing sugar, powdered with pistachios, bathed in honey, studded with seeds and nuts. And a story even sweeter, about a boy raised in a tiny Greek village called Kastoria, whose first experiences of food were informed by the family farm where everything was made by hand from the bounty grown there: wheat, chickens, honey.

When he was six the family, including grandparents, moved to Australia – the Chernobyl disaster had just struck – the former settling in Adelaide and the latter in Coober Pedy. Ilias’s grandparents had heard that great wealth could be obtained via opal mining and became avid opal miners; at the age of 21 Ilias himself ‘got lured’ and went to join them. ’I thought opals, you can make millions, so off I went,’ he tells me, leaving behind a job as a mechanic and a taste for drag-racing.

Coober Pedy, he says, is a ‘very dry masculine town. I moved in with my grandparents to give it a go. My first experience was 50-degree days working underground looking for the elusive stone.’ The saving grace were the enormous feasts he would come home to, served up by his grandmother who had spent all day in their preparation. ‘We’re in a desert but she had green lawn, capsicums, kale and spinach… she had an astronomical water bill.’

The food she cooked and the processes she employed were to remain with Ilias; he stayed in Coober Pedy for nearly ten years during which time he began to teach himself to cook, gradually contributing his Greek dishes, to great acclaim, to a local restaurant where he was also working. A mining accident that left him in a coma changed his life significantly. When he emerged from it he began to assess his circumstances, values and direction.

His sister suggested Byron Bay and yoga as part of his recovery process and so it was that, several years ago, Ilias arrived here. Initially he had considered becoming a yoga teacher but, largely thanks to the girl he soon met, decided to start recreating the food of his heritage, especially the sweetmeats. For a time he worked with David Tetu at L’Ultime, learning French techniques and recipes, but found that he wasn’t sufficiently expressing himself.

So, in the region-honoured way, he worked the markets, gradually establishing a reputation and a base of regular customers whose feedback would further inspire ideas for the ongoing refinement of his shortbreads, his pastelli, his baklava, his biscotti. Most of it is gluten free; all of it contains the essence of his heritage, the influences of both mother and grandmother.

At present he is supplying more than thirty cafes between Kingscliff and Lismore, apart from the markets, and does it all on his own. For someone turning out around 70 kilograms of baklava a week, this is nothing short of impressive. ’I’m busy,’ he tells me, ‘and I’m smiling through it’.

Food education in the form of cooking classes is part of his future vision as well as extending his range. And I sense, when Ilias and I part ways with a warm Mediterranean hug, that here is a young and talented man on the cusp of great things. Ilias the Greek’s website is currently under construction; meanwhile, find him at the Byron, Bangalow, Lennox and Kingscliff markets – or his sweet treats at your local cafe.

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