An award-winning spirit maker who has spent his life in the kitchen now spends his time in the hills of Limassol cooking up drinks unusual and regular, finds THEO PANAYIDES

There’s something missing from this profile: a first-hand encounter with Ariana valley itself, that fertile tract of land between Monagri and Doros, off the road from Limassol to Troodos, where Fotis Tandrias and his great-uncle Aris make their Ariana Valley products. We meet at Maeirko, the gourmet-traditional restaurant in Ayios Antonios market that’s also the only place in Nicosia where you can find their distilled spirits, including the unique Sfinaki Carob (they’re easier to locate in Limassol and Paphos) – but I really should’ve driven up to the valley itself, especially since it looks so pretty. ‘Office View!!!’ jokes a post on the brand’s Facebook page, next to a photo of a ravishing green landscape with lavender bushes in the foreground and dusky hills in the background, the in-between studded with pine and cypress.

The other missing aspect is uncle Aris, the inspiration behind Ariana Valley – though he turns up every few minutes, invariably with some gushy praise attached, in his nephew’s conversation. The older man (Aris is 71; Fotis himself is 35) has a thriving Limassol business called Aris Uniforms, manufacturing uniforms for work – everything from chefs to the medical profession – but he’d always owned the land near Monagri, growing organic fruit and herbs for friends and family, and stepped in when Fotis needed him most. “If it weren’t for him, I honestly don’t know what I’d have done,” affirms the nephew gratefully. “I mean, if it weren’t for this man – I definitely would’ve stopped working in kitchens, and I wouldn’t have known what to do next… For me, he is Ariana Valley.”

Fotis himself is half-Greek, born and raised in Athens albeit with summer holidays at his mother’s childhood home in Monagri. (He lives there now, down the road from the farm, having refurbished the house.) He’s round-faced, bespectacled and quite unassuming, with a notable reluctance to divulge very much about his personal life: “What you do, you do for yourself – not to put it out in the world,” he explains mildly. He’s talking about his tattoos, but he could be talking generally – though there’s one tattoo which he does agree to talk about, a horizontal sequence with a cross at one end and a date at the other, joined by the zig-zag of a hospital heart monitor in the middle. That’s a reminder of the car accident a decade ago – violently rammed by another car that ran a red light at top speed – which almost killed him and left him with debilitating injuries, making it increasingly difficult to continue in the restaurant kitchens where he’d worked since his teens.

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Fotis and Aris

This, as already mentioned, was when uncle Aris (a first cousin of Fotis’ grandfather) came to the rescue, making him an offer to collaborate in turning the fertile valley into a distillery. The family has form in this department. Aris’ brother Demos owns Filfar, the venerable orange liqueur whose premises are also based in Monagri – and also in Monagri is uncle Nikos who runs Menargos winery, whose commandaria won a gold award in 2019. (There’s also uncle Yiannis in nearby Spitali, who supplies the carobs – the only raw materials not grown directly in the valley – for the company’s carob spirit.) Ariana Valley have also won awards, quite recently in fact: back in April, all three of their flagship spirits – Sfinaki Brandy, Sfinaki Carob and Sfinaki Rum – won silver medals in their respective categories at the London Spirits Competition, a huge annual shindig which this year featured 2,000 producers from 80 countries.

Admittedly, a little fact-checking may be in order. Though the competition awards gold, silver and bronze medals, it’s not like the Olympics with one winner (or even three winners) per category; the medals are bands – 90-100 points gets you gold, 76-89 silver and 65-75 bronze – and most submissions end up in one of the three bands. Ariana’s three silvers essentially place them about halfway up the spectrum of excellence. Still, it’s no small thing to go up against the world’s top producers and emerge with your head held high, especially for a company that’s only been in business for about four years (and only operating commercially for the past two) – and of course Ariana Valley is notable in any case, for making the only rum in Cyprus and the only distilled carob spirit… well, probably anywhere.

“Cyprus carobs have the best quality because of the sugars, that’s why they used to call it ‘black gold’,” explains Fotis, switching to salesman mode. The humble carob is increasingly in vogue, touted as a superfood and intensively studied by the University of Cyprus who’ve been planting the largest carob forest on the island. (Cyprus has the second-highest per capita consumption of carobs in the world, after Portugal, according to Global Trade magazine.) The uncle in Spitali dispatches his plumpest specimens to the valley, after which they’re dried for a while, “broken up in a specific way”, then placed in stainless-steel vats for a fermentation process that can last about three months; “It’s quite a time-consuming process. I can’t say it’s easy – and of course, to get here, we tried all sorts of tests”.

profile sfinaki brandyThe production of the world’s first triple-distilled carob spirit is also being closely watched by a professor in New York, who’s “sent us various controllers, so we can see what’s going on during fermentation”. Fotis is now in the second year of a Master’s in distillery (doing it long-distance, on a scholarship), after which he’ll go to the US, sit exams and prepare a presentation on Sfinaki Carob, for a PhD. All of this raises another question – the question of his future, and whether he’s content helping out at Aris Uniforms during the week and working as a farmer and distiller up in the valley. It’s not a life that would satisfy every 35-year-old, living in a village of about 200 people – yet Fotis Tandrias comes across as entirely happy, with the rather dazed gratitude of a man who was offered happiness on a plate, unexpectedly, at a time when despair seemed inevitable.

Some grow up in a small mountain village, tire of its charms, and move to Limassol as soon as they can; others grow up in Athens, spend years slaving in hot kitchens from France to Pissouri, endure chronic pain – and end up, in their mid-30s, appreciating life in a small mountain village with a special poignancy. It sounds lonely, but it isn’t really (he’s unmarried but not exactly single, he says with a wink); it’s only 20 minutes to Limassol – and why go to Limassol anyway, when “Nature gives us so many treasures”? He’ll be up at six, in the fields by eight, taking care of business till lunchtime (he moves around by tractor, still unable to do too much walking), then a nice long break and a few more hours in the afternoon. He still cooks, too, catering private events – but “the best thing is cooking for friends and family,” he assures me. “There’s nothing better than going into the fields to get some purslane, or wild greens, or cutting tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini…”

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Aris in the valley

Fotis is sentimental when it comes to family (conscious perhaps of having been adopted by his Cypriot clan, as a relative outsider) – and solicitous about paying tribute to uncle Aris and all that he represents, the old ways of farming. “We’re losing the roots,” he exclaims in a rare didactic moment. “We can’t move forward when we forget the old people, the old techniques. Because, when you think what life was like in the old days – it was fulfilling but also more pure, more correct – and even professionally, the ingredients had more taste, for instance.”

The old ways survive at Ariana Valley. If you have vines (which indeed they do, including some 80-year-old Malaga grapes – also known as Muscat of Alexandria – planted by Aris’ father), make sure you plant some rose bushes among them; not just for fragrance, but also because rose bushes are extremely sensitive and will pick up any disease that would otherwise hit the vines. If you’re pruning, don’t prune during a full moon but just before – which sounds like an old wives’ tale, but in fact the full moon makes the sap rise and the rising sap acts as a balm for cut branches. Fotis and Aris compost extensively and never spray (though, when they make essential oil from oregano, the leftover water can be used as a kind of natural pesticide); disease hit their geraniums two years ago, and they could’ve sprayed “to save them, in theory” – but instead chose to uproot and re-plant, even if it set them back a couple of years.

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The valley

There are indeed geraniums, and rose bushes for hydrosol – a water spray made through the distillation of fresh flowers – and herbs for essential oils. There’s a sugar cane plantation for the rum, probably the only one in Cyprus (though of course our island was famous for its sugar, back in Lusignan times). Ariana Valley also make balsamic vinegar, carob vinegar, carob jam, extra virgin olive oil; they also make fruit brandies, so-called ‘eau de vie’ – apple, apricot, pear – in smallish quantities, just 100 bottles a year (the carob spirit is similarly exclusive, just 300 bottles). There are quince trees, hawthorns and even more vines, Mavro and Xynisteri. Fotis and Aris keep trying stuff, with the enthusiasm of a couple of amateurs who’ve stumbled on a wonderful hobby without really planning it; Nature gives us so many treasures. The Facebook page even records the existence of a carob brown ale – though only as a one-off, since they’re not set up to make beer professionally: “It worked,” he reports with a smile, “but we drank it all!”.

It sounds idyllic, though it’s probably not so simple. For one thing, his routine isn’t always relaxed; “There are days when we might be distilling – with the carobs, say – and it’ll be from 8am to 8pm, 12 hours… Because it’s triple distillation, too”. For another, working the land is a fragile business; a few days before our interview, a wildfire burned 3.5 square kilometres in Alassa, just down the road from Monagri – though Fotis doesn’t seem too bothered, assuring me that they’re very careful about getting rid of undergrowth, a clean patch of earth being the best way to stop a fire from spreading. Still, it can’t be easy keeping an eye on all the moving parts in this busy valley, constantly at the mercy of disease and the elements.

I ask about life beyond work, but there’s not much to say. His days are too full to require (or accommodate) hobbies. His only real vice was smoking – he smoked like a chimney for many years, admits Fotis ruefully – but he had an operation to remove his thyroid a year ago, had to wait for his throat to recover, and took advantage of the enforced hiatus to quit smoking altogether. “My life has always been the kitchen,” he shrugs, having left Greece to take various ‘stages’ (kitchen internships) in France as an 18-year-old, gone back briefly for national service, then moved to Cyprus in 2011. “Actually,” he adds, “when you think about it, these [drinks] are recipes too – so it’s like being in the kitchen.”

What would’ve happened without his car accident? A life as a chef, no doubt – but life in the fertile valley seems better, or at least purer. What would’ve happened without uncle Aris? Impossible to say – but unlikely to be anything good, given Fotis’ ongoing physical issues and lack of other qualifications. Then again, I suspect uncle Aris gets just as much out of the arrangement, finally able, in his 70s, to turn his weekend hobby into a proper business; it’s the rare case of two parties finding exactly what they need in each other. The uncle’s presence looms large as we sit at Maeirko, ditto the sensual presence of the land that produced Sfinaki Carob: the apple trees and stalks of sugar cane, the blended fragrance of pine and lavender, the woozy horizon of mountains. I should drive up sometime.

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