2000s Archive

Greek Soul

Originally Published August 2001
An American living in Athens takes us on a food lover’s tour of her adopted city and rediscovers its Greek soul.

Something has happened in Greece’s chaotic cement jungle of a capital. Until about ten years ago, regional foods rarely made their way to Athens. But the city has suddenly transformed itself from a provincial city into a sophisticated European metropolis where all the country’s regions—and all their foods—happily converge.

I think of this as I enter Manolis Androulakis’s shop, Mesogaia, on the edge of the Plaka, a quaint, labyrinthine neighborhood carved into the foothills of the Acropolis. Androulakis is coddling a few heads of basket-shaped, cave-aged graviéra cheese that have just arrived from his native Crete. The subtle scent of sheep’s-milk cheese mingles with the sweet, incenselike aromas of dried Greek sage and herbal mountain tea. “Everything starts from the earth,” says Androulakis, who gave up his career as a geophysicist to indulge his passion for food. He tilts a basket of tawny barley rusks, another Cretan specialty, toward me to sample.

“I grew up in a family that would spend the better part of Sunday afternoon driving to a certain cheesemaker’s, so I was taught early to seek out the best ingredients,” he tells me. Surrounding him are a food lover’s Greek treasures, discovered on his travels all over the country: hand-cut flat strands of pasta from the island of Tínos; thin rounds of pregrilled phyllo, made by immigrants from the Caucasus; jars of ruby-red cherries, amber strips of bitter-orange rind in syrup, and other spoon sweets glistening like stained glass; golden thyme honey from Kythera and lavender honey from the Mani; and wild greens in brine, such as Santorini caper leaves and the delicate buds of Mount Pelion pistachios.

A few years ago, it would have been impossible to find such a cornucopia here. Now, however, urban Greeks have rediscovered the flavors of the countryside they left behind a generation ago.

Not far from Androulakis’s place, Nikos Barlas and his mother, Ainie Pandia, arrange towering jars of pine honey and royal jelly (the nectar of queen bees) from their home island of Ikaria. As she stands in their two- by four-foot shop, called Gnision Esti (It Is Original), Pandia can expound in one breath on everything from the depth of flavor in a sun-dried tomato paste from Milos (which she insists you taste) to the healthfulness of the Lenten trahana, a pebble-shaped pasta from Lesbos speckled with vegetables, to her years as a TV reporter. Her son is shy by comparison—but he is a passionate beekeeper, and once he gets started on the subject he, too, can chat endlessly.

The shopkeepers of Athens are not alone. Chefs have gotten in on the act, too. Until recently, dining out in the city was almost totally limited to the traditional tavernas. Today, new upscale restaurants serving modern food that takes its cue from the provinces have enlivened a once cliché-ridden cuisine.

A short walk from Gnision Esti, Takis and Stella Perdika preside over Ouzadiko, a small ouzerie in Kolonaki, Athens’s ritzy residential area. Takis has amassed a collection of more than 250 varieties of ouzo and tsipouro (Greece’s answer to grappa), and Stella has assembled some of the finest traditional mezedes in town, little dishes mostly from her native Thessaloníki.

On the other side of Athens’s center, in a recently gentrified area known as Kerameikou, very close to the ancient Athenian cemetery (one of the city’s major archaeological sites), chef Yiannis Baxevannis has created a cuisine that is both blindly Greek and clearly contemporary—drawing on wild mountain greens such as nettles, mâche, chicories, and lemon balm, as well as other regional and seasonal products. The restaurant, called Kitrino Podilato (Yellow Bicycle), occupies a sprawling former industrial space that has been transformed into one of the chicest, most modern restaurants in town.

Greeks are traditionalists at heart, though, and they haven’t completely forfeited their old favorites. Athens is still dotted with specialty foods shops that have been run by the same families for decades, and the tavernas, serving familiar dishes in a no-nonsense atmosphere, are as vibrant as ever.

Avoid the tourist traps in the Plaka and head for Tou Xynou, a taverna that has been in the Xynos family for a century. In winter, the murals in the dining rooms transport you to the Athens of another era, and in summer, amid the jasmine vines and lush trees, you feel as though you’re in a Greek island village. The moussaka is a standard-bearer, the cabbage dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) are plump and succulent, and the deep-fried potato halves are not to be missed.

Fish tavernas abound in Piraeus, Athens’s nearby twin city and port. Most of them, though picturesque and right on the water, serve up a predictable menu of typical mezedes and grilled fish. It’s worth sacrificing the view for something better. The place I like best is Thalassinos, in the residential area of Tzitzifies, about a ten-minute taxi ride from the city center. In a decidedly low-key venue, diners sit outdoors in summer or indoors amid a collection of maritime paraphernalia and modern Greek paintings. Yiorgos Loukas and his wife, Dina, offer a catch that comes exclusively from Greek waters, and their range of mezedes is both unusual and delicious. I love their various versions of saganáki— here, usually shrimp or mussels cooked with wine and herbs or with cheese in an individual skillet. The fritters of greens and seafood are also excellent, and the grilled fish and boiled vegetable salad is a simply perfect Greek classic. In a break with tradition, Thalassinos is famous among Athenians for its decidely modern warm chocolate soufflé.

For early risers with a sense of adventure, a good option is a traditional breakfast among the sorts who spend their days hawking fish, meat, and just about everything else. Head to the extremely busy Kendriki Agora, or Central Market, a fascinating if rough-hewn area. The stalls are still quiet in the dawn hours, but you can sate your appetite in one of two ways: with a workingman’s breakfast—maybe some hearty chickpea soup, or fried fresh picarel or sardines and boiled greens—or with the breakfast of champion night owls, who are ending their day as the sun comes up and hoping to mitigate the effects of their overindulgence with a piping hot bowl of patsas, or tripe soup.

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