Ethics before profit!
For years, the name “Django” has cast its enchanting spell over the port of Syros. The word on the street of Ermoupoli was, “There is a guy who tries out crazy stuff to make ice-cream”. Eventually more and more people were queuing outside the shop; that growing success led to the opening of a second gelateria in Koukaki, down-town Athens.
An article revealed the inspiration behind the name, connecting it to Django Reinhardt, the virtuoso guitarist known for playing with only two fingers. This sentimental touch compelled me to conduct an on-site investigation. Hours later, I found myself savoring the most exquisite, velvet gelato I had ever tasted. The pistachio flavor made me feel as though I was crunching a handful of freshly shelled grains. The melon sorbet transported me back to my first romantic summer trip. As I admired the showcase, a sign caught my eye: “No gelato bases or mixes – no processed ingredients – no emulsifiers or colors – less sugar.” I could hardly believe what I was seeing – or tasting. “Natural and flavorful, how is this possible?” I wondered.
During my second visit, I opted for the Persian cream: its oriental mellowness revived memories of grandpa from Constantinople and the pastries he used to lovingly make for us every Sunday; a few scoops later, the rich citrus notes of the Catalana cream took me from the streets of Koukaki to a torero field in Spain with Bizet’s violins playing Carmen in the background. “Once I return to solid ground” I told myself, “I must seek out the maestro behind these frozen delights and extend my heartfelt congratulations”.
The “crazy guy” from Syros is is none other than Konstantinos Karakatsanis, the mastermind behind Greece’s first 100% natural and most luscious gelato. What began as a summer job, at the age of 17, supporting the family gelateria, blossomed into a decade-long journey of relentless experimentation and countelss sleepless nights. His mission: to craft a gelato that exudes flavor without relying on processed ingredients.
But Django is not just about an exceptional product; its essence is embedded in a sustainability philosophy that intertwines every facet of the business. Ingredients are meticulously sourced from top-quality, eco-friendly local producers. Quantities are judiciously calculated to ensure no leftovers go to waste by day’s end. The collaborative effort of the team is not only acknowledged but also duly rewarded. Django is a testament to the belief that a superior product can coexist harmoniously with an unwavering commitment to ethical and environmental responsibility.
Back to Syros, this creative gelateria, where recipes are crafted to blend culinary cultures, rekindles the island’s cosmopolitan spirit. This spirit harks back to the 19th century when Syros burgeoned into an international trade hub following the influx of thousands of immigrants from diverse corners of the globe. This influx ushered in a new era for Syros, hosting fresh markets, unveiling novel ingredients, and introducing exotic flavors.
Today, as Syros captures the hearts of tourists and digital nomads alike, the local food industry draws inspiration from this resurging cosmopolitanism. Traditional recipes are undergoing a modern transformation, marking the inception of a new chapter in the Greek cookbook. Witness the remarkable evolution of Syros through the lens of this passionate gelato artisan and his extraordinary journey.
Citimarks: Konstantine, you started working in your father’s gelateria to help the family business for a few months. What made you want to work with gelato on a permanent basis?
Konstantinos Karakatsanis: I was motivated by the challenge of achieving something many deemed nearly impossible: crafting a delectable gelato without relying on processed ingredients that might pose risks to the consumer's health. Back in the old days, eggs were commonly used in ice cream production, but I was cautioned about their complexity in handling. Undeterred, I delved into working with egg-based recipes for months, concurrently studying food technology. Through intensive research and relentless experimentation, I systematically eliminated one processed ingredient after another, all the while ensuring that the taste and smooth texture remained intact. After years of dedicated trial and error, I finally succeeded in overcoming the challenge.
So, Django makes gelato which is 100% natural. What does this mean and how does it differ from the gelati we find in the market?
Our gelati are crafted without the use of bases, mixes, processed ingredients, emulsifiers, or colors. All components are directly sourced from our local farmers—whether it's the milk, eggs, nuts, fruits, and more. Similar to other natural foods, the taste and texture of Django's gelati evolve throughout the day. Devoid of preservatives, our gelati are meant to be consumed on the very day they are made. The use of seasonal fruits introduces a dynamic element, and as each batch of fruits varies daily, we adapt our recipes—including quantities and ingredients—according to their distinctive characteristics.
Django’s signature motto is “ethics above profit”. What does it take to have an ethical business?
Working with teams that share the same mindset is crucial for maintaining our high standards. Simultaneously, we value and reward their dedication. The local farmers we collaborate with are more than partners; they are like family. Our selection criteria go beyond just providing top-quality ingredients; we choose them for their commitment to sustainable and nature-friendly farming practices.
Embracing a zero-waste policy, we set strict daily production limits to ensure that all our gelato is sold by day's end. Moreover, we make conscious efforts to repurpose as many inedible parts of the ingredients as possible. For instance, melon seeds are collected, drained, and placed under gelato boxes. These boxes are then taken home by customers to be reused as plant pots for growing melons—a small yet meaningful step towards sustainability.
"The most moving aspect is when customers share that a particular flavor reminds them of something they enjoyed in their childhood. To have the ability revive those precious childhood memories through our work is a rewarding and heartwarming experience."
Where do you draw inspiration from to test new flavors?
I find great joy in delving into the history of each ingredient, with a particular focus on pre-industrial cultures and communities without access to modern food technology. A fascinating example comes from Sicily, where the "bacio," a homemade blend of hazelnut and cocoa, was created and given to children who couldn't afford to buy chocolate. In my research, I aim to uncover the original flavors of such ingredients. Starting from historical references, I conduct tests to transform these tastes into something that modern consumers can savor, always using natural methods.
The most moving aspect is when customers from around the world share that a particular flavor reminds them of something they enjoyed in their childhood. To have the ability to evoke and revive those precious childhood memories through our work is a rewarding and heartwarming experience.
Is there an ingredient particularly tricky to handle?
Working with pistachios presents a unique set of challenges. Each batch is inherently distinct, and even within the same batch, pistachio grains vary in size, humidity, and oil content. The intricacies intensify during the baking process—where a larger grain necessitates more time than a smaller one, and a "more oily" grain demands a different treatment than a "drier" one. Consequently, determining the precise cooking times and temperatures for pistachios becomes a nuanced and unpredictable mission. We navigate this challenge by calculating and adapting our approach based on the specific characteristics of the pistachios at hand each time.
"A skilled gelato maker spares no effort in extracting the utmost potential from each ingredient before incorporating it into the final product."
What is the most important element of a good gelato? Is it the quality of the ingredients, the small quantities, the original flavors?
The success of a gelato maker hinges on their passion for their craft. Curiosity, dedication, and persistence are the three essential keys to mastery. A skilled gelato maker spares no effort in extracting the utmost potential from each ingredient before incorporating it into the final product. The commitment to perfection and the relentless pursuit of excellence are at the core of creating a truly exceptional gelato.
What is the most precious lesson that you keep from this first decade of hard experimentation?
"Never give up" has been my mantra throughout the journey of perfecting our gelato. The initial attempts at creating fully natural gelatos, after years of experimentation, were not always successful—they lacked the desired taste and texture, with variations ranging from excessive sweetness to a pronounced egg flavor. Despite the risks posed to the future of my business and the persistent voices urging me to opt for an easier path, I persevered in my experiments.
Refusing to succumb to challenges, I continued to refine and innovate, eventually achieving the tasteful and creative flavors that Django's customers savor today. What was once a niche product has evolved into a mainstream trend, embraced by people from all walks of life who come to indulge in our gelati. The transformation from struggle to success is our reward, and every step of the journey has been undeniably worth it.
"The transformation from struggle to success is our reward, and every step of the journey has been undeniably worth it."
What do you remember from your childhood in Syros?
When I was five years old, my family and I relocated to Vari, a seaside village. Despite our house being situated on a remote hill, I enjoyed convenient access to cultural activities, a music school, and sports facilities. Syros, with its unique blend of offerings, provides a quality of life that is challenging to match in many other parts of the Greek countryside, and this holds true throughout the year.
Is there a food or taste that Syros brings to your mind?
The sea urchin holds a special place in my childhood memories. During family camping trips, we would often catch urchins for dinner, creating cherished moments. Two other local delicacies that I fondly remember are the "Pihti," a regional variation of the well-known meat aspic found in many countries, and the "Louza." "Louza" is a Cycladic delicacy—a type of cold meat cured with salt and subsequently marinated in red wine and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and pepper grains. These unique flavors and culinary traditions are a part of the rich tapestry of my upbringing.
Which local ingredient do you consider of top quality?
The wild figs of Syros hold a distinct charm. Similar to most crops in the Cycladic islands, these local figs are dry farmed. The absence of irrigation allows them to absorb humidity from neighboring thyme fields and sea salt. This unique blend of aromas imparts a flavor to the local figs that is truly unparalleled. The same environmental factors contribute to the exceptional aroma and slightly salty taste of the local melons. Dryland farming, with its focus on small crops, yields petite but incredibly delicious fruits and vegetables—a testament to the extraordinary flavors borne from the island's natural conditions.
"People from Greece and abroad choose Syros as a destination for rest, remote work, or even to establish new businesses. This emerging trend opens up opportunities for locals to potentially cultivate a sustainable lifestyle in Syros, capitalizing on ideas that harness the island's cosmopolitan spirit"
The island in its modern years established a cosmopolitan spirit resulting from the settlement of thousands of immigrants in the 19th century. Has this spirit survived?
For many decades, the cosmopolitan nature of Syros was characterized by internal dynamics, evolving from cultural differences between the bourgeoisie and the working class, the followers of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the lively port and the secluded Ano Syro hills, as well as the interaction between the capital city and the countryside. In recent times, there seems to be a shift, and after a period of introversion, the island appears to be reconnecting with its open-minded and cosmopolitan character that had defined its reputation.
Increasingly, peole from Greece and abroad are choosing Syros as a destination for rest, remote work, or even to establish new businesses. This emerging trend opens up opportunities for locals to potentially cultivate a sustainable lifestyle in Syros, capitalizing on ideas that harness the island's cosmopolitan spirit while fostering greater respect for its urban and natural heritage.
If you had to be away from Syros, what would you miss the most?
I would undoubtedly miss the joyful gatherings with friends and neighbors—the moments when we all convene around a wood oven, where a delightful, warm meal is slowly taking shape. As some of us play Rebetiko music with our guitars, we savor the atmosphere, sipping on glasses of local wine. These communal experiences, filled with music, laughter, and shared meals, hold a special place in the heart and contribute to the rich tapestry of life on the island.
If Syros were a book, which one would it be?
"Elric of Melniboné", a fantasy novel that explores a city so esteemed that its inhabitants are completely oblivious to its ongoing decline. The narrative delves into the theme of societal degradation, painting a vivid picture of a once-glorious city that has lost its former grandeur, all while its residents remain blissfully unaware of the deterioration unfolding around them.
If Syros were a song?
It would be a song named “Markos Polytechnitis”, meaning “Markos the handyman”. It is an autobiographical song by Markos Vamvakaris, the iconic figure of Rebetiko music. Hailing from a humble background in Ano Syros, Markos shares his life story through this song, detailing the various odd jobs he took on as a young boy to make ends meet—such as dockworker, shoe-polisher, paperboy, and more. The lyrics provide a window into the working-class life of Syros in the early 1900s, capturing the essence of Markos Vamvakaris's experiences and the cultural backdrop of the time.
If it were a food?
It would be aspic of pork and veggies.
It would be a fig gelato, since the figs here are delicious and top-quality.
If you could turn back time, which point of Syros' history would you like to visit?
Returning to the Early Cycladic era, between 2500 – 2000 BC, would indeed be a fascinating journey. This period marked the documentation of the first settlements from Anatolia in places like Chalandriani and other areas in northern Syros. Immersing yourself in this time would provide a unique opportunity to observe firsthand how people lived, how they constructed huts, and the intricate process of sculpting figurines. It's a chance to witness the daily life, creativity, and ingenuity of the inhabitants of Syros during this ancient epoch, offering valuable insights into the early human history of the island.
If you could meet an historical figure from the past, which one would it be and what would you discuss about?
Meeting Markos Vamvakaris, the legendary composer and musician of Rebetiko music, would undoubtedly be a remarkable experience. He is an artist whose work has left an indelible mark on generations of songwriters and musicians. Exploring the source of inspiration for his avant-garde music, delving into his creative process, and gaining insights into the cultural and personal influences that shaped his iconic compositions would provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a musical pioneer.