Food in Greece is an overwhelming subject. Having lived in Greece the better part of eight years we are talking about a great many meals that have been my sustenance. So I will write both about the cuisine and some of my experiences with it.
Food in Greece
When writing about Greece it is traditional to start with the ancient days of Homer and his heroes, quickly jump through the vast periods of Roman and Turkish occupation, then concentrate on the current offerings in the tourist centres. Since our island of Paros has evidence of a Neolithic settlement (6000 – 2000 B.C.) and a Mycenaean outpost (1,500 B.C. which is before Homer) I will start even earlier. Neolithic is defined as the Stone age evolving into domesticating plants and animals. In our local case this means raising bees for honey, one of the pillars of Greek cooking. Next comes olive oil production which the Mycenaean’s of Crete are credited with bringing from the Middle East to the Mediterranean world. The third major ingredient is tomatoes, so ubiquitous in the cuisine of many cultures, they are a newcomer having arrived from the New World with Columbus in the 15th century.
You will find few Greek recipes that do not contain two of these three: olive oil, tomatoes or honey. Throw in some onions and garlic and you are talking serious nutritional benefits. Study after study from modern science are proving the Greek peasants knew how to eat healthily as well as flavorfully. Mediterranean diet anyone? They gathered local produce then combined them in delicious yet simple ways to create dishes that are tied to the natural rhythms of season and culture. Today the principal spices are oregano, thyme, and basil, all of which grow wild on the dry hillsides. We can’t figure out why more sage is not used because it is even more prolific, or is sage seen more because it is not used?
So much of Greek cooking is easy to prepare, centered on what would be available in a local market rather than the full service supermarket. Perhaps it is less true in the cities but in most towns and villages the locally grown freshness is very evident in the flavor of the fruits and vegetables. In the USA and Ireland we ate a lot of broccoli, on Paros years ago it was already yellowing in the shops so we weaned it from our diet. Lately one of the benefits of population growth is hothouse (tunnel) grown vegetables on the island so everything looks much better and still tastes fresh. On the other hand in our previous homes artichokes were a rare, expensive delicacy; here our neighbors readily share their abundant crop. One lady even taught us how to prepare artichoke and egg frittata style. We never got the herb combination right but it doesn’t matter when the eggs come from the same chickens that wake you up in the morning and the artichokes grow big and green outside your window.
Another notable characteristic of Greek food is its association with various religious holidays. Probably the most photographed is the sweet yeast bread nesting the red Easter egg. A tradition that is fast loosing popularity is breaking the Lenten fast after midnight on Easter with Mayiritsa, a soup involving sheep intestines, heart, liver and the like. After my first bowl I thought to myself, I won’t be trying this again until I forget how it tasted. On Clean Monday, the first day of Lent, the only bread available in all the bakeries and grocery stores is unleavened.
Most people associate Greek cuisine with fish and seafood. Unfortunately it is becoming a smaller part of the diet as the seas are being over-fished and the prices go up. When I have met incoming fishing boats at the pier I have been surprised at the pitiful size of some of the catches. Other days, however, there is abundance and the same fish is half the price. Octopus and calamari are still staples. Locally they are harvested all winter and frozen for the summer tourists. Of course, some have to be caught in the summer to be hung out in front of the taverna for atmosphere. Also at the annual festivals the townspeople provide free wine and little fishes--best enjoyed after dark when you can’t see the anatomical details of eating a whole fish—usually washed down with the local moonshine, called suma here and raki or tsipouro elsewhere in Greece.
In year’s past when asked by hosts if there was any food I didn’t eat, my standard answer was okra. It was the only thing that I found abhorrent. Then at an out-of-the-way little taverna I accidentally ate some that had been served to us; it was delicious. Now I have some whenever it is on offer. My favorite recipe is found on our friend Eddy’s web site: Paros aliki. This site is made with frames so you have to navigate to the recipe after clicking on the British flag for English: Briam made with okra
What I have written about Greek wine is even truer of Greek food: the taste is in the place. Take the simple dish of yogurt, fruit and honey—very refreshing for breakfast or lunch on a warm day. The visitor tries it at a village or harbour front café in Greece—“ooh, this is so good and I can make it at home because our local delicatessen carries Greek style yogurt.” Wrong! The hapless visitor returns home to find the yogurt is not really the same, nor do the honey and the fruits have the same strength of flavour. A common remembrance from our past guests rhapsodising about their stay is the fresh-squeezed orange juice; plentiful, cheap and oh so refreshing.
So in conclusion there is no hope for it. You must come to Greece to fully appreciate the quality of the food and wine. See you soon!
From Paros Paradise, with love.