Athens on the menu for 2015 November 19 2014
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During the TBEX (Travel Bloggers’ Exchange) conference, I ventured out on Big Olive’s Athens Food Tour in hopes of discovering and enjoying some new Greek dishes. Big Olive is a new business run by young Athenian entrepreneurs including the founder, Yannis Zaras and architecture expert, Nikos Magouliotis who fed us historical snippets during our walk.
Greek pastries and yoghurt at an old Athenian dairy bar
The gastronomic walking tour started back to front with the deserts first, although of course the Greeks tend to eat their yoghurt and honey in the morning for breakfast and their cakes in the afternoon when guests come visiting. At this family run dairy cafe tubs of creamy Greek yoghurt were piled in the chiller cabinet and jars of honey stacked on the shelves of cream painted cabinets transported from some Greek grandmother’s kitchen.
Plates of sweet treats were laid out for us to try, with crisp Loukoumades, miniature doughnuts drizzled with honey, a slice of Galaktoboureko custard tart enclosed in syrupy filo pasty and Moustalevria a sweet jelly made from grape pulp left over from the wine pressing and scattered with nuts. And of course there was creamy Greek yoghurt made from sheep’s milk bathed with honey and scattered with walnuts.
A tasting of olives and olive oil, the symbol of Athens
Our next stop took us to the Big Olive offices where we had a tasting of olives and olive oil. The LIA premium extra virgin olive oil from Messenia (a region in the southwestern part of the Peloponnese) was poured into a cup to sip on its own and savour the green grass flavours. We tasted the small, salty, black Kalamata olives from the Peloponnese and the plump, fleshy Amphissa olives from central Greece.
The olive is seen as a symbol of peace and prosperity in Greece since the legend goes that the Greek Goddess Athena planted an olive tree on the Acropolis, so founding the city of Athens which was named after her. I thought perhaps that the Big Olive city walks had started from selling olives, but Yannis explained that it was a play on names like Big Apple for New York, but Big Olive for Athens since the olive is not only the symbol of the city but also of regeneration and will spring up and grow again after a forest fire.
With the fishes in the Athens Central Market
Our gastronomic tour now took us through the amazing Central Market on Athinas Street known as the Varvakios Agora where stand after stand of fish was laid out, with all the vendors keeping up a constant calling and exhorting us to buy their fish.Silver scaled and yellow striped fish stared up at me with dead eyes and open mouths from their bed of ice strewn with lemons while plump pink crayfish were standing ready to make a seafood supper.
At the farthest end of the fish section we reached the meat section where half carcasses of dead animals hung from the meat hooks. I winced as the butchers wielded their cleavers expertly on the chopping blocks and hoped that no fingers would be chopped off in the process.
Nikos the story teller told us how the market had originally been located within the archaeological area until this new one was built in the 1880s to allow the excavations to take place. The traders resisted moving into it since it was further away from the busy shopping areas, until a fire mysteriously broke out and burned down the original market, leaving them no choice.
Flatbreads warm from the oven from Antioch
Next stop on our gastronomic journey around the regional influences on Greek cuisine was another new family venture featuring the Lahmajoun flatbreads of Antioch (modern-day Antakya, Turkey). What is a Lahmajoun? It’s a Turkish or Armenian street-food that is somewhere between cross a pizza, pitta and a pie. We could see the different flatbreads laid out behind the counter covered with minced meat or vegetables to which you could add humus or olive paste as an extra topping. The peynirli or open top pies were laid out along the window counter for us to try, warm from the oven with toppings of cheese and tomato or cooked vegetables, with a glass of perfumed amber Turkish tea flavoured with cardamon and cloves.
Ham and charcuterie at an Anatolian Deli
Reluctantly our group moved out of the Lahmajoun store, having devoured everything that had been laid out for us and headed through the side streets to another cafe/deli specialising in cheese and charcuterie. Strings of red sausages, bunches of garlic and chillies and whole hams were strung above the counter like Christmas decorations. With bare stone walls and simple wooden tables the place looked like a classy village taverna serving simple plates of cheeses and sliced charcuterie to appreciative diners.
Many of the hams had a thick red coating of spices like pepper and fenugreek which once thinly sliced, made a ribbon edge of the meat, giving a zap of flavour. Also on the menu were Meze (Middle Eastern tapas) like the stuffed vine leaves (dolma) and matured cheese with plenty of jars and bottle full of oils and condiments to take home.
Coffee and a Spoon Sweet at the Museum of Gastronomy
The Museum of Greek Gastronomy is a private house that had been opened up with a restaurant upstairs, some specialist produce on sale and downstairs an exhibition about the foods and cultivation of the monks of Northern Greece.The museum’s small courtyard, looking out towards the church next door, is an ideal place to enjoy a strong Turkish coffee perfumed with rosewater and a “Spoon Sweet”. Spoon sweets are sweet preserves, served in a spoon as a gesture of hospitality in households all over Greece; they are made with fruit and even vegetables. I have been offered something special to go with my strong coffee, a miniature aubergine preserved in syrup like a crystallised fruit.
Now mid-afternoon and our Big Olive gastronomic walking tour completed, it was time for a bit of tick-list sightseeing. Paris may have the Eiffel Tower, Rome the Colosseum, London the Elgin Marbles (don’t mention the Elgin, or should I say Parthenon Marbles to a Greek!) and of course when in Athens one must see the Acropolis.
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