Food gives you an insight into a place, and you can’t experience a place fully unless you eat as the locals do. Which is why I found myself exploring Greek cuisine on a culinary walk around the heart of Athens.
Understanding Greek Cuisine
However cosmopolitan a city may be, with the English language all pervasive and international brands on the high street, food is one thing that remains stubbornly local. You don’t have to wander far off the beaten track to experience the type of food that people have been enjoying for centuries. Yet people often find it difficult to engage with the local cuisine; they may be fearful about trying new things, or worry that they won’t know what to order in a restaurant. This tour was the ideal way of learning more.
Our guide was George, a lawyer turned tour leader, and he took us on a tour around shops and cafés, tasting as we went. We tried cheese and meats, olives and honey. It was the best of Greek cuisine, including a shop that specialised in Cretan foods, and one or two more unusual flavours, such as water buffalo salami (surprisingly tasty and not at all fatty). George was keen to give us tips about restaurants to try, and places to visit, as well as explaining the significance of what we were eating.
It wasn’t just about trying the cuisine, but also about exploring the city’s relationship with food. We walked through the market, brimming with fresh colourful fruit and vegetables, and into the fish market where the air rang with the sound of stallholders shouting their wares. Then down Evripidou Street, the “street of herbs and spices”; I could smell the scent of herbs as soon as we turned the corner. The street was full of small speciality shops, such as the one selling nothing but different kinds of flour. We stopped at Elixir Herbs and Spices, a cornucopia of spices and herbal remedies.
Family Owned Businesses
Most of the places we visited were long established, family-owned businesses, firmly rooted in traditional Greek cuisine. Like Ktistakis on Sokratous Street, a café that was established in 1912 and has only ever sold one product – loukouma, a crispy Cretan dessert of fried dough, cinnamon and syrup. Or the Polykalas liquor store, established by the current owner’s great grandfather, who owned a distillery and sold his own liquors in the shop. Even today some of the liquors are home produced.
By the end of the tour I was starting to wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast before I came out. We’d sampled cheese (lots of it), bread, jams… and much more. We’d drunk raki and fruit liquors. And now we were at the last stop – the Stani Milk Shop where we were presented with plates of yoghurt, creamy pastry and rice pudding. It was all delicious but I was struggling to eat much more.
I’d learnt a lot about Greek cuisine. But I’d also learnt that it’s a good idea to skip the hotel breakfast before going on an Athens food tour!