Eating like a local in Athens
By Frank Whitman
Marsha and I just got back from a journey through the remarkably healthy Mediterranean. On our delicious trip from Athens to Venice, we ate well (probably too much) beginning with a walking food tour of the Greek capital.
Greece is a place where the good stuff grows. Olives and their oil, ancient grains, fresh vegetables, plentiful herbs, pristine seafood, quality wine and that famous yogurt are all at hand.
Marsha and I discovered “Taste Athens,” a walking food tour of the city which included local markets, food shops, bakeries and restaurants, all designed by the chef, writer and TV host Diane Kochilas. Through her cookbook, My Greek Table, and the PBS series of the same name, we had been captivated by the cuisine. The tour takes a small group on a four-hour walk that highlights the great flavors of the city.
We met Lida, our local guide, in the center of Athens at Syntagma Square for a mid-morning start. She led us through shady streets and cobbled alleys thick with pedestrians, motor bikes and countless eating options – pointing out the Acropolis whenever it came into view.
Local, plentiful and healthy – the cuisine of Greece comes from limitless coastline, rugged mountains and remarkable islands nurtured by abundant sunshine and the famous Mediterranean climate.
Pies are a staple of Greek life. Folded packets of papery Phyllo dough wrapped around savory fillings come in either single serving hand pies or wedges cut from large rounds. At Harry’s Kitchen, a doorway wide shop, where the husband and wife team make famous pies, we savored cheese, richly spiced mincemeat and spinach. At Fillo Traditional Pies the spinach and cheese (spanakopita), roasted pepper and the unique earthy forest flavor of thistle were equally tempting.
Our walk took us through the “commercial triangle,” on the way to the public food markets. The historic but gentrifying district is still home to hardware stores and garment district suppliers, but restaurants, food shops and cafes are filling in.
Ancient history is everywhere. The luxury Electra Metropolis Hotel was constructed around a 16th century church. Glass plates in the sidewalk expose ancient foundations uncovered during street work. The Parthenon can be glimpsed down the length of narrow streets.
Across the street a cheese shop sells cheeses from around the country, all made from a blend of sheep and goat milk. Our group tasted firm cheeses of various ages as well as the famous briny feta. The new feta was creamy with a good dose of salt. Barrel-aged feta (rare in the US), held for a year, was more crumbly with less salt and a more complex flavor.
If you ever see any fresh cream cheese called tsalafouti, grab it! The smooth and tangy cheese from the central part of Greece was a revelation to all of us. Sheep’s milk yogurt drizzled with thyme honey was also a winner.
The streets are lined with tables and chairs of all types. Lida explained that Athenians love to eat and drink outside – they certainly have the weather for it. Every establishment offers outside tables, from two to twenty.
The coffee culture is strong too. Dozens of independent coffee shops offer their own spin. At the In Love Again cafe, Lida ordered us all Cappuccino Freddo, a cold concoction with two shots and a layer of foamed milk over ice. Delicious with a straw, it could be mistaken for a coffee milkshake if mixed in a blender.
Greece is famous for olives and honey and we tasted both.
At ROE Olives Green and black from the same tree were notably different. Wrinkly sun-dried examples were less salty. One bit of advice from the proprietor, “Never buy pitted olives.” Their flavor and texture just don’t measure up.
“We have over 40 small producers supplying our honey,” our guide at the Kolios honey store explained. The source of the pollen – trees as well as flowers – determines the flavor. A sampling of thyme, fir tree, oak tree and heather all proved her point. We all wanted to take some home.
Of course there were sweets on the tour. Baklava from a third generation baker (best in the city they say) at Mitropolitiko was remarkable. The delicious wedding style we tasted made with only almonds and honey (no sugar) was one of many regional variations.
Our four hour walk ended with a relaxing glass of sparkling wine at the Heteroclito Wine Bar. The natural wine, a blend of two traditional Greek grapes, was lightly fizzy, low in alcohol and very refreshing. Conversation turned to our favorite flavors and experiences of the day. All agreed that we should come back for a week to fully embrace the exciting Athens food scene.
If your mouth is watering but you can’t get to Greece just now try these these local restaurants and food sources for an authentic taste of the country. Yamas!