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Nikos talks about the unique farm he created at the ‘Symposio’ of Limassol!

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Nikos Vasiliou is not an easy man to get on the phone. Not because he’s too proud to speak to people, but because he is either busy with his work at ‘Symposio’, one of the most popular taverns in the Limassol countryside, or he is on a slope somewhere, or deep in the forest, or in his field. And for all his knowledge on nature, mushrooms, farms and cooking, he is also familiar with Google, TripAdvisor and TV shows. A restless man with a curious spirit, he left his village of Pelendri very young, but returned to it, full of love and with many plans for the future.

Today, he is known as one of the most skilled mushroom hunters in Cyprus, but also as the owner of a tavern that, every year, attracts people from all around the world to the Limassol countryside. ‘Symposio’ is a space that Nikos has established as something more than just a typical tavern, turning it into a model agrotourism destination, where its guests can sample a taste of local traditions.

As the oldest child of 7 in his family, he had a difficult childhood and by age 20, he sought a job far away from Pelendri. “I found work in Bahrain at the time,” he recalls. “I worked as an assistant to the supervisor of the water supply services, which was run by a British company, but I only lasted 2 years due to the unbearable heat, which would climb to 56 degrees in the shade.

Decades ago, when he started off as a helping hand at his in-laws’ family tavern, neither he, nor anyone else could have imagined that one day he would have his own tavern. Let alone a tavern which would attract the attention of top chefs from around the world, which would have enthusiastic followers from all over Cyprus and from countries abroad, and which would turn the small village of Pelendri into a popular culinary destination.

The seaside tavern in Pissouri, where Nikos first began his career in the culinary sector.

“My father-in-law, Neofytos, had asked me to help out in his tavern in Pissouri, called ‘Limanaki’. I mostly helped with serving, and would also wash dishes, but I had a keen eye and would learn things from what was happening in the kitchen,” he explains, reminiscing about his first steps.

“After all, I was the oldest of 7 siblings and I was something of a replacement for my mother, whenever necessary. I therefore knew how to cook quite well,” he adds. 

‘Symposio', which first opened in Pissouri village, was the first indication that Nikos Vasiliou wished to create something of his own, with his personal touch. After 15 years in Pissouri, he knew that going back to his roots was the way to make essential steps towards the future and towards creating something completely new. Thus, by combining his childhood experiences in the natural environment of Pelendri village, and the experience he gained in restaurants, he found himself running a special business which, besides genuine, Cypriot cuisine, also offers the experience of a farm with animals and growing crops. This makes a visit to this tavern more than just an opportunity to dine out.

How a typical tavern evolved into an entire farm

Now 58 years old, Nikos seems to have returned to the ‘bliss of the womb’, as he spends the larger part of his day in the village where he first discovered and fell in love with nature. Today, he is no longer the young, poor boy fending for himself, but rather a man who has managed to not only to create an original business, but also to showcase some of the assets of the village and Limassol through it. With his son, Giorgos, recently by his side, he hasn’t stopped dreaming about how much more he could achieve through this little tavern.

“When I was young, the specialties I used to cook for my parents and siblings, were ‘kleftiko’ meat and the tomato sauce stews,” Nikos recalls.

“We had vegetables from our own garden (eggplants, zucchinis, peppers, onions) and I would put them all together in a pot to make the stew,” he says as he explains that the creation of a farm was the natural projection of his way of life and the flavors he wanted the tavern’s kitchen to serve. “Now, the stew is the favorite dish for many of our guests, especially the ones who follow a vegan diet,” he adds.

Giorgos, Nicos’ son, has been offering a helping hand for some time now with everything that his father is planning for the future. Following a degree in Business Administration, he followed up with studies in the culinary arts in order to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Is this what you have always envisioned for ‘Symposio’?
Yes, my thinking was that opening a tavern in the middle of nowhere meant that I needed to provide another reason for someone to get in their car and drive all the way here. All of this, the fields, the animals, the mushrooms, they were part of my way of life, and I wanted to recreate an experience similar to my own for the tavern’s guests.

People may have left the countryside, but over the past few years, they have begun to realize more and more how harmful living in the city can be, and how the food in most restaurants use poor quality ingredients and harmful oils. Life in the mountains is different.

When you collect your own food from the forest or the fields, walking in nature, breathing oxygen that whets your appetite, everything tastes better.

A piece of bread and a small piece of halloumi cheese can make you feel like you are dining in an expensive, gourmet restaurant. And so, everyone seeks opportunities to get closer to nature and eat a good, healthy meal, and after experiencing this, everyone wants to return again and again.

“We often host cooking classes, which begin with collecting the raw ingredients from the fields and end up the kitchen. We eat a traditional breakfast and go to the fields together with our guests”.

What impression are the tavern’s guests left with, after such an experience?
It’s something everyone enjoys very much. Some people may have never experienced nature this close, while others may have never before cooked in their lives. Some children from younger generations, in particular, may have never even sliced bread before. We often host families with small children from Nicosia and it surprises me how some children don’t even recognize the animals we have at the farm (chickens, guinea hens, rabbits, horse, etc.). For example, they may see strawberries growing on their plant and they are excited to show their parents.

It is as if they are seeing something alien, as many have grown up in apartments and they may think that strawberries, for instance, come straight in the plastic boxes, as sold in supermarkets..

You have a long history with mushrooms, too.
The mushrooms that grow everywhere in the forest were once our livelihood, and the food on our table. Back then, we would cook them in a stew or grill them, but today we even fry them dipped in batter. Most locals have each found an area where mushrooms grow and they gather them often. I used to do this from a very young age and I am still at my happiest when left alone in the forest all day, from 7 am until dark.

“Every time I go to the forest for mushrooms, I leave with large loads of them”.

Does everyone find that many mushrooms to gather?
Well, if they go before I get there, they will! (laughs). I know every spot very well, because I used to go hunting back in the day. I decided to stop hunting a few years ago, because I do not enjoy killing animals anymore. I guess you could say I have become more animal-friendly. But I still forage for mushrooms every autumn. And so, because I love doing this so much, I know all the right locations and I get good results.

Mushrooms are a specialty at Nikos’ tavern, because he collects many different types and he knows exactly how to cook them in order to complement their natural flavor.

Do you also find the type of mushrooms that are sold at high prices?
I find morchella mushrooms, which are a kind of truffle that grows over the ground and can be sold for as much as €1000 per kilo. The most expensive truffle could cost up to €8000 and it is the white kind that grows under the ground and can only be spotted by pigs, which track their scent up to 30 cm under the soil.

The ones I find are used in the tavern. Even our homemade ravioli is served with a sprinkle of truffle and this makes them especially tasty.

Wouldn’t be better to sell them and get a larger profit?
I don’t believe that this is of any value to me. My main concern is to make the tavern’s dishes more special and delicious, so that our guests are satisfied. The truffle doesn’t cost me anything, because I find it myself, I don’t need to buy it. I may not make a financial profit, but the satisfaction of our guests is a type of profit in itself.

Giorgos: In the countryside, developing a personal relationship with the people who visit a business, and to allow them to see the personal attention and care you put in your work, is very important. This is something a person can taste in the food we serve.

Giorgos has adopted the values his father represents in his job, recognizing their importance in creating the right image for their business and its progress, but he also makes suggestions for new ideas, making his own mark in the effort to create a space that stands out for its hospitality and the experiences it offers.

Are these practices only necessary in the countryside, or the city, too?
Indeed, it would be good to have them in the city. But it is truly essential for the countryside, if you want your business to stand out, to attract the attention of people who have to go out of their way to come to you. In the city, even if a business is impersonal, it can still have customers.

Were mushrooms the reason for your return to Pelendri?
I came back in Pelendri to be closer to nature, which is something I always loved. Besides this, I found a location that is beautiful and calm. The only thing close to the tavern is a graveyard. No one is ever going to complain about the music being a little too loud from there.

In the city, the jealousy and competition between businesses can lead to regular visits from the police due to complaints.

This used to happen in Pissouri sometimes, but the main reason we left from there was to benefit from the advantages of a location in nature, like Pelendri. Someone may visit for the food, but also for their children to see the animals in the farm, or to go to the fields and collect fresh ingredients for their salad and meal.

"Pelendri is a village with true treasures..."

Does the village embrace these efforts to attract visitors to it?
This is not an easy thing to do, not just for Pelendri, but for other villages, too. These small communities often hold some outdated opinions and this doesn’t help. But we do get a lot of support from the expats of Pelendri, and from young people who may live in the city but who visit the village and the tavern and bring people over here to get acquainted with our space.

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Pelendri is a village with plenty of green, forest and farms, traditions, history and hospitable people, making it a worthy stopover or even a destination for those who wish to explore the Limassol countryside.

As such, I believe that we are the ambassadors for Pelendri, because we help expats keep in touch with their homeland, but there are also thousands of foreigners who find out about the tavern and come all this way to visit it. I feel especially satisfied when, each time there is an important guest in the village, such as the President of the Republic, who has been invited by a local Association, the hosts will bring them to the tavern for dinner.

This means that the locals do recognize that we are doing something good and they know that their guests will be fully satisfied at ‘Symposio’.

Have you seen things changing in Pelendri after all these years living here?
Yes, we do see progress. Pelendri is a village full of real treasures, such as the church of the Holy Cross, which has been declared a monument of international cultural heritage, protected by UNESCO. It is the only such church in the Limassol district. Personally, I have always considered it very important to have a multilingual person here who would be able to tour the people who visit these monuments.

“It is not worth visiting Pelendri just to have a meal in ‘Symposio’ tavern, if you don’t get the opportunity to discover the character and the traditions of this area”.

Fortunately, this was an opinion shared by the President of the Community Council and its members, so a young person now has a new occupation and the village can properly present its treasures to its visitors. This shows that there are positive prospects in our village. Another positive step for Pelendri was the establishment of Tsiakkas Winery. Besides its range of excellent wines, it is also a space worth visiting.

These kinds of initiatives are important to allow progress. I believe that both Tsiakkas with their winery and we with our tavern are the ambassadors of Pelendri village.

What other change would you like to see?
I am happy when people visit Pelendri for more than just a meal at ‘Symposio’. They take a stroll around the village, they sit at the coffee shop for a beverage or a traditional dessert, such as ‘mahalebi’, and they may even shop for something. The village has an amazing fruit production, which is sent to the markets in Limassol. I believe it would also be good, however, for some of the local women to make traditional sweets, for example, as they do in other villages, for visitors to buy.

Giorgos: When people visit our tavern, we want to be able to recommend various other activities and options for them to experience, whether the Tsiakkas winery, or the Tsolakis rose workshop in Agros village, or even the waterfalls in Platres.

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“It is important for the village to offer accommodation options, for those who want wish to explore this area. This is why we decided a few years ago to create 3 agrotourist agrotourism apartments in renovated, traditional buildings, which did not exist previouslythat did not previously exist,””, Giorgos says.

But we will also recommend other accommodation options as well to guests of our tavern (such as the hotel in Potamitissa), and at the same time, other businesses will recommend ‘Symposio’ to people for a meal. There is a sense of collaboration in these things.

We always want to have partners who offer services as good as the ones we do in the tavern, so that visitors are equally satisfied with everything.

Nikos: We want the nature trail to be fixed after it sustained damages from the fire. It is a beautiful trail in the forest, which people used in the past to go to Fylagra village from Pelendri.

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We also need to see the old, picturesque alleys of the village restored. I remember our streets when I was young, covered with stones, similar to the square in Omodos village. They were then covered with concrete or asphalt. There are now some ongoing efforts to restore them to their original form.

These actions need to be planned properly, but will is also an important parameter to their implementation. Even when we came here and found the building in which the tavern is now housed, we had to put in a lot of work to make look the way it does today. But we had faith, a vision, and determination to put it into practice It is now completely transformed and is always improving.

Nikos is particularly happy with and proud of the dishes of his tavern, all of which have his personal touch, and he is truly contented when he sees that people respond to his care for the homemade ravioli with truffle, the well-done ‘kleftiko’ meat and the fresh salads.

Is it easy to collaborate with others for the good of a place?
No it is not easy. Sometimes it happens, but there are often obstacles, usually generated by competition and/or jealousy. These elements are part of our temperament as Cypriots. We have lived through times when someone would buy a Mercedes, and the neighbors would then take out a loan to buy one too, because they were jealous.

Aren’t you concerned about competition or jealousy?
I came to live an environment where there is only nature around me. Therefore, I do not feel this effect in my work here.

I am free to try and improve what I do, without having to compare it to anyone else’s work.

Will you be doing this work forever?
I would like to have time for me and my wife at some point, to travel and see different places. For instance, I have been watching many cooking shows lately, such as Master Chef, and I watched an episode about an area in Limni Plastira in Greece, that has many mushrooms. I plan to visit this place next March, to look for the rare morchella mushrooms.

"I like to discover new things all the time..."

Do you like travelling?
Yes, I have travelled quite a lot. I have been to New York with Giorgos, when he began his studies there, and to the UK with my daughter, where she was studying, I have been to Thailand and visited friends in Germany a couple of times, as well as to the Greek islands. I am terrified of flying, but this has never stopped me.

I take a bottle of zivania with me on the plane, I drink a little, I relax and I forget my fears, until we land.

What else are you afraid of?
Health issues certainly cause fear. I recently encountered a problem with my eye and had to undergo surgery, which lasted approximately 1.5 hours, and I kept thinking how people must feel when they have to have surgery for much more severe issues, such as heart problems.

Besides the well-worn recipes that Nikos knows and has been working on for years, he also doesn’t hesitate to try new things at the suggestion of his partners, in order to enrich the tavern’s menu.

 

And so, now that I am still standing strong, I want to do things like walk the nature trail in Crete, and climb its mountains to look for for wild herbs. Because these are the kinds of activities I enjoy the most.

Which features of you character do you consider to be your assets?
I am a very energetic, curious man and I like to discover new things all the time and to keep learning. This is why I learned so quickly from my in-laws everything they knew about this job.

Besides that, I love nature, and I love being surrounded by it. I love to go out into the fields and pick whatever may seem useful and edible, from capers, to the green, fresh ends of terebinth branches. We have many terebinth trees in Pelendri and we pick the fresh ends in spring, to boil and add them to salads, or pickle them in vinegar. They are very healthy. Even the broth of the boiled greens is good for you when drank like a tea or used by women as a facial cleanser.

Even though he is particularly active and a nature and exercise enthusiast, Nikos used to be a smoker, which he considers a great flaw, so he is very proud of the fact that he quit smoking 5 years ago.

Where did you learn all of this?
I knew all this since childhood. I used to see the women in the village boiling terebinth to wash their faces with it. If a girl had a breakout, she would use this broth and would clear right up.

What about you, Nikos, do you have flaws?
I am rather uneasy as a person, I have a sharp demeanor and I can get easily irritated. Even at work, when I come across a fussy customer, I may lose my patience.

“Giorgos is more calm than I am (he got this from his mother) and this is likely helps him better handle certain situations at work,” Nikos admits.

Is it easy to leave this job every once in a while?
No it isn’t. But I did leave the tavern recently for a few days, because of the issue I had with my eye and I discovered that everything worked perfectly, so it was as if a burden was lifted off me.

Giorgos: Of course, the burden came to land on me. (laughs).

Did you expect it to go well?
To be honest, I didn’t. It is not an easy job, especially when the staff and suppliers have dealt with one person for 10 years, and then they suddenly discover that things have changed. But, the way it all worked out was a pleasant surprise and alleviated my fears. Everything worked like clockwork.

Did you ask Giorgos to come work with you?
The children’s career was their decision - both Giorgos (who eventually joined the business) and Melina (who chose a different career) made their own choices. Giorgos knew that as an employee in any other job, he would have a salary about €1000 and he would have to wake up at 7 am, have a break for 2 hours, during which he wouldn’t know what to do, and then go back to work until 7 pm. Now, his schedule is flexible, even though there is a lot of work. We keep the tavern closed on Mondays, so we never end up with the Monday blues like other people.

Giorgos did not grow up in the village, nor was he familiar to the nature and the fields. Once he decided to work in the family business, though, he made sure to incorporate the spirit of this job.

Which is the greatest difficulty in this job?
Communicating with the customers, serving them in the best possible way to keep them satisfied even in peak hours – this is the main challenge. Unfortunately, some have really unreasonable demands. This is our way of thinking, but fortunately this is not always the case. Still, we see that kindness, self-control, understanding the person who works hard for you is not something we do often.

Of course, the greatest misfortune it to see people eating, when you still have to work and you have no time to eat. This is the toughest part.

Which customers do you like more?
A customer that comes and appreciates what you offer and respects you as a professional, a customer that arrives on time for the reservation and thanks you afterwards, if pleased with the food and the service, this is a customer that makes us feel good with our job.

Giorgos: Even if a customer has a complaint, which may happen, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, we appreciate the fact that comes in a good manner and a kind attitude to let us know, so that we can improve our services, instead of just being cranky.

Through organized tours, hundreds of people participate every year in the activities of the farm created in ‘Symposio’. This way, they get acquainted with an authentic part of the Limassol countryside life.

Do you remember some really great comment by a customer?
The best one I can remember was by an English man in TripAdvisor, who had cancer and mentioned that if he was to choose a perfect last meal, this would be ‘kleftiko’ at ‘Symposio’.

Which is the best moment in this job?
The best feeling comes when the work is done after a very busy day, like a Sunday, everybody is satisfied, the tables are empty and cleaned and we can sit with all the staff to relax and eat.

“It is hard to find an employee, outside the family, who will be trustworthy enough to handle the management of such a business”.

Is there something so great that you would need 3 lives to live it again and again?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far. You spend an entire life working like a slave, so there is no way you would wish to wish something like that. After all, what would I want to relive in 3 lives, serve the President? Who is the President, anyway? He is just another man.

Do you regret anything in this course?
Nothing at all. As long as the business is good, the people leaves the tavern happy, I know I did the right thing. I did have to take a large loan, to make the tavern and the farm happen, and it was a considerable investment (around €500.000), but I am relieved that Giorgos is ready to take over.

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A cheerful, unstoppable and multitasking man, Nikos puts his entire body and soul to anything he creates. This is what feeds him, literally and figuratively, because besides a job that brings food on his table, the tavern and the farm are a way to generate new ideas, to renew his thirst and passion for life. The success of ‘Symposio’, then, is not accidental. It is the footprint of an idea of a creative mind, which stood out upon its implementation, suggesting something new and authentic. This is why the interview with a man like Nikos was not an opportunity for him to show off or receive praise. The interview was part of the effort of All About Limassol (the Official City Guide) to showcase anything and anyone that can be a positive example of how can our place keep moving forward.

Both Nikos and his business are typical examples of those elements that offer a unique value to Limassol, both the city and the countryside. The people, their sense of hospitality, the natural beauty, the authenticity of the way of life in the countryside, the genuine flavors, the traditions, the history and the cultural heritage are important aspects of the identity of Limassol. And if there is any reason at all for anyone to talk about the success of Nikos, the reason is simply the fact that he managed to incorporate and showcase these elements in the most genuine and immediate way, through a tavern.


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