I hadn’t expected to eat well in Athens. I had long ago memories of lukewarm food and greasy kebabs with limp pitta bread, and I had experienced the limited repertoires of Greek tavernas at home. But as I sat in a small café on my first night in the city, sipping good wine and enjoying plates of excellent salad and cheese, I started to think that things might have changed.
A Long Culinary Heritage
Olives, wine and honey have been staples of the Greek economy since classical times, and they are still important today. Wherever you go in Greece you will find olives, not just the common black and green varieties but large, succulent Kalamata olives and many other varieties. And of course there is the olive oil, such an important part of the Mediterranean diet, that accompanies every meal. The honey comes in different forms, too, from clear to crystalline and even, if you look hard enough, a bitter variety.
Then there is the cheese. Most visitors are familiar with sheep’s milk feta, although they may not realise that there are several different types of feta, or that it comes in two forms – the familiar crumbly type, and a softer “spreadable” variety. But there is a whole range of other Greek cheeses, from goats’ milk cheeses to smoked cheese and matured hard cheese. There is even one type – Ladotiri from Lesbos – that is preserved in olive oil.
A Varied Cuisine
You may be familiar with dishes such as moussaka, or small mezze such as dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) that can be eaten as a starter or to accompany a drink. But there is much more to modern Greek cuisine than this. True, you will find plenty of lamb and pork but there is also a wealth of dried meats including several varieties of salami and Greek ham. And remember that Athens is a coastal city – look out for the fresh fish and seafood.
Cakes And Pastries
Then there are the cakes and pastries, which may be sweet or savoury. Savoury snacks include cheese pie (filo pastry stuffed with feta cheese) and meat pie, as well as numerous types of bread.
The cakes – often, although not always, based upon pastry, honey and nuts – are sweet and delicious, but be warned, you can’t eat too much of them!
Wines Old And New
Greece has been producing wine for more than 6,000 years, and some of the modern wines can be very good indeed. If your taste is for something stronger, look out for ouzo and raki, traditional anise flavoured liqueurs.
But one thing was puzzling me. “Where is the Retsina?” I asked one of our tour guides. “I always drink it in Greek restaurants at home.” The guide laughed. “They think it’s a rough drink,” he said. “Not good enough for restaurants.” It was time to rethink my preconceptions about Greek cuisine!