A Culinary Jewel by the Agean
As some say, we owe a lot to the Greek civilisation ... almost whole of our intellectual life and fundamentals of art, culture and philosophy. Greats such as Socrates or Plato couldn’t have their ideas without the social and external conditions they were a part of and so Athens was a very important place in Human history....but apart from these beautiful ideas that were gifted to the world, they also gave us simple, wholesome and a healthy concept of cuisine and so this summer , I wanted to experience this idea called Athens. This blog piece, of course, is only about a small part of the culinary offerings at Athens and beyond.
We booked a Private Gourmet walk with Athens Walks Tour Company http://www.athens-walks.com/. This time , I was accompanied by my husband and two children . We met our guide, Katherina , at Monastriaki Square , a beautiful square in the Old town of Athens. There is a small Byzantine church in the shadow of the cathedral that you should take a look at called Agios Eleftherios. Nearly every stone of this little church was taken from an ancient building or older church including the stone from Galilee where Jesus changed water into wine.
As we walked away from Monastiraki, we reached Meliartos – a space that brings together tradition and modern. It has a creamery shop, a pie shop and a Coffee house. As you enter, you would see the pie shop and the creamery with counters full of pies with feta or different cheeses, tarts, baklava and puddings. There is a cafe as you go further and upstairs. We followed our guide to a very spacious and well-lit part of the cafe and ordered the delicious Spanakopita or feta and spinach and cheese savoury pies .
These can be had at breakfast , lunch or as a snack...well for dinner too! They were so delicious we had to stop ourselves from filling our stomachs at the first stop! Its a very traditional dish made with simple ingredients usually of filo dough but can also be made of flour and water to make the crusts crunchier.
In rural Greece, the missing spinach is replaced by onions, leeks and sorrel. Other white and fresh and salted cheese can be used instead of feta. Served straight from the oven or at room temperature, this was the perfect start to what was going to be gastronomically a memorable morning. As soon as we came back from our holidays, we sourced out a Greek cafe, Little Greece, that freshly served these and enjoys them here too.
As we exited the cafe , we came upon a cart selling Koulouria , or slightly sweetend sesame rings that my children became addicted to. These are cheap, on the go , street food found in every corner of Athens.It’s equivalent to your Greek styled bagel or pretzel.
With the backdrop of the beautiful Acropolis, we continued our walk past an old and very traditional Greek Orthodox church to Krinos, one of the best places to savour Loukoumades other than probably your grandmother's kitchen. What was once Athens first Pharmacy, the neoclassical building dating back to 1855, houses one of Athens finest Loukoumades confectioners. The interiors are the bare minimum like a cafeteria highlighting only on what is on the table. The visual feast is pure -the loukoumades. With locally made ingredients from the same small scale suppliers that are continuing since the last 90 years, this surely ticks the right boxes on all fronts, still winning the hearts of Athenians and beyond.
Greek Doughnuts or Loukmades are fried on site and soaked in a delicious sugar syrup or honey. They can be garnished with sesame seeds and dried fruit. At Krinos, we just had them plain. According to some legends, they were the prize for the winners of the Olympic games in 776 BC. The first written news of a sweet similar to Loukoumades comes with the Greek-Sicilian Poet Archestratus lived in VI Century BC, and describe deep fried doughnuts soaked into the honey syrup called at that time Enkrides.
After what I called a sweet feast, we stopped by a local Meat, vegetable, fruit and nuts and spices market, the Dimotiki Agora or the Varvakios Agora (Public Market) selling fresh produce to shop for what was going to be a treat for all of us ...we could choose our ingredients to make a gorgeous greek salad .
The market was clean and huge. Housing suppliers from all over Greece, I met some Asian origin suppliers whose families had settled years ago. The market is a must visit even if you are staying at a hotel while in Athens, just to sense a vibe of the city. Very unlike other chaotic public markets I have been to around the world, there seemed to be a calm that was engulfing this market.
We passed butchers, fish mongers with various meats displayed like pigs head, rabbits, heaps of organs on some tables and various marine life from the Aegean and beyond.
Outside, there are fruit, nuts, olives and spice sellers all waiting with fresh produce displayed beautifully. Plant and herb stores are in abundance selling
As we purchased our ingredients for the salad, we reached our cooking destination, Pantopolion, which is around 5 minutes walk from the market. It was a well-stocked store with produce, olive oils and wines from all over Greece. The very best!
The Store was stocked with wines from all over Greece. I particularly was interested in the Santorini , where I would be heading next and made a mental note of tasting the Assyrtiko grape.
We were seated at a table by the window and then the cooking began. Katherina laid out all the produce she had purchased from the market, tomatoes and olives. She cut the tomatoes and placed them into a bowl. Since this day we have fallen in love with this cheese. She told us that feta should be soft and crumbly. It has to be made from fresh 100% goats milk. The reason why some feta is hard is because it is made from cows milk .
After the feta, the salad was seasoned with salt and some herbs. Then the olives were put in.
Lastly, we were to choose the olive oil that would dress the salad. She gave us a choice of an oil from Sparta or Charisma, an oil from Crete ...The Olive oil from Sparta won hands down for us! it was almost unanimous for us. It was less sharp and we found the Phileos from Sparta more rounded and well balanced. We actually drank some olive oil to vote amongst the two! A first for me!
The Battle of the Oils!
The salad was ready and we gorged on it. Delicious and bursts of simple and fresh flavours ..a greek salad like never before ...We got hooked on to this and to this day make this salad very often at home since we carried the amazing olive oils back home.
Our next tasting was a very simple one, but of true flavours. Greek yoghurt with a drizzle of Cretan Honey. It rightly said that the purest of flavours are in the simplest of dishes.
Soon, we found ourselves in a Cafe Mokka , just outside the Central Market ,serving traditional brewed coffee with sweet spoons. The coffee was intense and dark. It was powdered and placed in copper pots over sand and heated from below. After its boiled its poured into cups and you have to let is settle before sipping it. you have to sip it loudly and very slowly. It has to be sweetened before so that it shouldn’t be stirred. I do love my cup of coffee but this was very intense and strong for me. The traditional small pot shown below is known as a Briki (pronounced as bree-kee) and produces the amount of foam needed to make a unique brew. Here the Briki was heated on a bed of sand providing it heat not only from below but all around .
The sweet spoons, a symbol of hospitality in Greece are sweet preserves, using almost any fruit though sour and bitter fruits are generally prized . They are the world oldest sweetners, it is known that the first sweet spoons , first appeared in the Byzantyine kitchens , spreading to Greek Shores by the Arabs in the 14th Centuary.W e tried the greek delight, cherry and the orange peel. Surprisingly , these are considered the Mediterranean’s healthiest desserts having no fat, a confection even Greek dieticians recommend. Imagine having it over greek yoghurt , or a cheesecake! (no, this is not recommended by the dietcian!)
They were absolutely delicious and can be bought at the Little Greece store in Barsha Mall , Dubai .
Our last stop, nearby ,was at a Meat and cheese store , a kind of charcuterie cum cheese store dressed with large sausages, meat cuts, cheeses, and herbs..had never seen a more stocked up store than this ...where we were treated to a lovely platter of lean meats like Salami and Turkey ham, regional cheeses like smoked local cheese, Manouri and Psiri and dolmades- vine leaves with rice and some crackers . These are typically enjoyed with ouzo, Greek anise-flavored aperitif. This is very strong so be aware before you try it !
Ouzo is not for the faint-hearted. It is a distilled beverage made from the remnants or must of the grapes pressed for wine and can be flavoured with mint, anise or coriander.It has a very high alcoholic content and a high sugar level too. Its origin can be traced to the Island of Lesvos. It is to be drunk chilled and doesn’t get caught mixing this in any of your drink in Greece. It should be had neat and chilled. Many ouzeries, as they call it, have opened up across Greece serving their favourite beverage.
Walking back to where we started at the Monastiraki square we were left wondering and in anticipation of the glorious food that was waiting for us as we would wander across Greece.