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One of the best ways to explore a city’s culture is through its food, and one of the best places to experience the food culture as the locals do is at the city market. On my recent visit to Greece, during the TBEX (Travel Bloggers’ Exchange) conference, I ventured out on Big Olive’s Athens Food and Heritage Walk. Our gastronomic tour took us through the bustling Athens Central Market on Athena Street, known as the Varvakeios Agora, where we enjoyed a deliciously inventive panoply of Greek dishes.
During antiquity the market of Athens had been located in the foothills of the Acropolis, know as the Agora, it was the centre of all the business, trade and political activity in Athens. A visit to the site and to the Agora museum, which has many ancient cooking and serving utensils, gives a sense of the everyday life during classical times.
During the Roman Period the Agora was encroached upon and obstructed by a series of Roman buildings and commercial activity was transferred to the Market of Caesar and Augustus (Roman Agora), which was built around 100 metres east of the original Agora. The area around the Roman Agora and the Library of Hadrian remained the city’s commercial district until the late 19th century when a covered market was constructed in the neoclassical style.
The Central Market was officially opened in 1886 and is still active today. It was started in response to a general wish to clear ‘untidy and messy stalls’ from the streets surrounding the ruins of Hadrian’s Library. Among those shacks stood Elgin’s Clock Tower, a gift from Lord Elgin to the city of Athens, in exchange for the Parthenon marbles, now on display at the British Museum.
In 1875, Panagis Kyriakos, the then mayor of Athens, decided it was time to build a thoroughly modern covered market, to replace the old bazaar and to satisfy the needs of the expanding city. Almost ten years later the neoclassical building was finished. Nevertheless the traders resisted moving into it since it was further away from the busy shopping areas, until a fire mysteriously broke out in August 1884 and burned down the original market, leaving them no choice. In 1886, a glass roof completed the construction, making way for a new commercial magnet on Athinas (Athena) Street.
With the fishes in the Athens Central Market
The Central Market is sat between two streets (Harmodiou and Arisogeitonos) named after the two lovers who in 514 BC freed Athens from the tyrants, and became the preeminent symbol of democracy to ancient Athenians. The building is divided into two sections; half for meat and half for seafood. In the seafood section, stand after stand of fish is laid out, with all the vendors keeping up a constant calling and exhorting potential customers 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 is 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.
Surrounding the main market building are a variety of food shops selling other local products: cheese, cold cuts, spices, oils, dried fruit, nuts, sweets, coffee, tea, and even songirds! Small restaurants and tavernas, dot the market; these cook up dishes from the bounty of local produce available and stay open until almost dawn, being popular stops with weary clubbers trying to ease their hangovers with a hearty dish of patsas (tripe soup).
Ham and charcuterie at an Anatolian Deli
Around the corner from the Central Market is Evripidou (Euripides) Street, where the smell of cumin, cinnamon, and other spices is often mixed with the sweet intoxicating aroma of incense, all sold at spice shops here. Evripidou is also known for its delicatessen. Miran and Arapian are the best delis in town specialising in pastırma (spicy cured beef). Side-by-side and perennial rivals, these historical businesses where establish in 1922 by Armenian refugees who fled from their homelands in Anatolia to Greece after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922.
If you call Miran in advance you can reserve a tasting table at the back of the shop, if you want something more substantial have lunch or dinner at Karamanlidika tou Fanni. With bare stone walls and simple wooden tables the place looks like a classy village taverna serving simple plates of cheeses and sliced charcuterie to appreciative diners. Strings of red sausages, bunches of garlic and chillies and whole hams are strung above the counter like Christmas decorations.
Many of the hams have 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 are 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
Not far from the Central Market, stands the Museum of Greek Gastronomy, 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.
A tasting of olives and olive oil, the symbol of Athens
During the gastronomic walking tour we paid a visit 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, granting the Athenians, not only the olives themselves as sustenance, but also a source of oil for their lamps and for cooking their food as well as the wood from the olive tree to build their boasts and houses. Hence Athena was declared patron deity of Athens and the city was named after her.
I thought perhaps that the Big Olive city walks had started from selling olives, but Yannis Zaras, Big Olive’s Managing Director 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.
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Nicolas Nicolaides contributed to this story.
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