Our tour information, Julia Pantakis, leads us like keen sheep via the maelstrom that’s tourism on the very coronary heart of foodie Athens – the Central Market and surrounding spice retailers and delis.
We path, mouths open, mobiles on the prepared, dodging vacationers and visitors, eager to catch each second.
It’s early summer season however the solar already feels fierce early within the morning. That doesn’t cease us beginning the tour with heat custardy bougatsa, pastries showered with mushy sugar, and served with scorching Greek espresso (ask for sketo in the event you don’t need any sugar).
We’ve been watching a younger pastry chef at Crème Royale roll, flatten, brush with butter then casually whirl round a pastry sheet till it’s huge and as high-quality as tissue paper to make filo pastry.
It’s stuffed with semolina custard, then baked till crispy. Bougatsa is commonly eaten for breakfast and, frankly, it makes toast appear fairly boring.
Historical past is in all places
Julia reveals us the good-looking 1840s constructing the place she grew up, simply throughout from the market in Psirri, amid spice retailers and delis.
Her grandfather was a butcher at the marketplace for 58 years. That is undoubtedly her territory.
Subsequent cease is Athens’ oldest spice store, Fotsi, began in 1930 and nonetheless in the identical household.
There’s a heady scent of herbs and spices, ropes of dried fruit and greens, bundles of cinnamon quills, packing containers of dried lemon, orange and lime slices (well-liked for cocktails apparently), dried rosebuds, plus myriad jars and baskets of spices and herbs.
For all this selection, one herb is king – oregano. It‘s the preferred and probably the most used herb. ‘‘However you possibly can’t use it recent’’, Julia advises. ‘‘It’s too bitter.’’
Tea of the gods
We pattern mountain tea, made with leaves sourced from sacred Mount Olympus, a natural brew utilized by the traditional Greeks and mentioned to be good for the reminiscence, and as a digestive and anti inflammatory.
We see ‘tear drops’ of mastic, the sticky resin that comes solely from the island of Chios, and is utilized in ice cream and cooking and typically for medicinal functions. At $360 a kilo it’s a expensive ingredient.
Shut by, at an Armenian deli opened within the Thirties, we pattern slivers of pastirma, air-dried and pressed beef with a spicy paprika, pepper cumin, salt crust. We additionally attempt dolmades, recent vine leaves filled with rice, lemon and dill however, everybody agrees, extra scrumptious than any we’ve ever eaten.
‘‘The key is that the vine leaves are actually recent.’’
Then it’s off for a grasp class in olives – huge and small, in oil, in brine, in herbs, in chilli.
We hear that inexperienced olives are picked early and the later olives are picked the darker they’re.
Black are virtually the final. These crinkly black olives you should buy are left on the tree till they begin to shrivel.
A younger couple from California are shocked on the thought of consuming simply olives. ‘We now have them on pizza’, and the stuffed olives ‘are proper for cocktails – that’s how we use them’.
‘‘One option to serve olives is with halva (created from sesame seed, sugar and water) – so you could have one thing candy and one thing savoury’’, says Julia. ‘‘However Greek individuals actually simply get pleasure from a bowl of olives and a glass of wine.’’
Seeing seafood and nose-to-tail custom
We all know Greece’s wine-dark sea is a plentiful supply of seafood, however the market nonetheless surprises.
It’s a mass of squid, octopus, cuttlefish, a great deal of sardines, anchovies, grouper, tuna, prawns, mackerel and a lot extra – glistening, slippery and boat-fresh.
The squeamish amongst us are completely satisfied to maneuver shortly via the meat part. Nostril-to-tail consuming is conventional in Greece, and abdomen, brains, kidneys, tongue and testicles are all on show.
Retsina and the flavour of Greece
Our subsequent pit cease is a small bar the place we savour bites or meze of grilled greens and meat, historically served with the Greek wine, retsina.
Retsina has been made for greater than 2000 years.
Pine resin was used to seal the traditional amphorae and later wine barrels had been fabricated from pine. That resin flavour permeated the wine and, as individuals appreciated it, it grew to become a part of the method.
Retsina does have a foul fame (because the supply of hangovers). However it additionally has an aroma of pine, which is an excellent perfume you decide up particularly within the Greek countryside, so it’s very evocative (the key is to not drink an excessive amount of – nothing new there).
Lastly, at Oyzepi, an old-school taverna the place we are able to glimpse the Parthenon from the window, we’re handled to a feast, notably gemista, tomatoes (‘the summer season queen’ says Julia’s son Douk) filled with rice, spices, recent herbs and a great deal of oil, then sluggish roasted.
We attempt regional cheeses, together with graviera, a sheep and cow’s milk cheese from Crete, usually served as a dessert with honey and cinnamon (attempt it – it’s unbelievable).
Then we end with a shot of raki, a fiery grape-based spirit – and a toast to summer season in Athens.
Margaret Barca was a visitor of Scrumptious Athens, which runs meals and cooking excursions in Athens.