The legacy of Greek antiquity extends to the country’s cuisine. One eats there as the Ancients would have done—Greek yoghurt and honey for breakfast, simply-cooked fish and cold wine for lunch and supper—as one reclines languidly on the klinai couch, grapes dangling from the mouth, like Dionysius and Adephagia.
Greek food can sometimes be disparaged as crude and one-dimensional: the runt of the Mediterranean litter, overshadowed by the glorious culinary traditions of France and Italy. But, for me, its beauty lies in its simplicity. And while it is often familiar it is simultaneously unexpected: fat olives in spectacular Greek salads, but also acerbic caper leaves. Feta crumbled atop everything, but baked too with aubergines and peppers. Ouzo banged down upon tables for complimentary shots, but only after several glasses of cold, redolent Retsina, a white wine aromatised with bark from ancient pines.
Fish and seafood are Greek cuisine’s heart and soul. Eat bream grilled over coal and dressed with virgin olive oil, lemon and oregano. With a side of chips—hot from the fryer—some dressed cucumber, and an olive or three. All will get on swimmingly. The tavernas of Athens Central Markets are where to go. The personalities you’ll find there are as colourful as the fish. Neat rows from the deep interspersed only with cold bottles of the local brew, Mythos, for the mongers. If you cannot yet escape to warmer climes, you could do much worse than Nissi in Alderman’s Hill, north London, where the fish comes daily from Billingsgate. Or try a vibrant recipe from Diane Kochilas, the Greek American chef, including this one employing Santorini capers, blood orange and Ouzo.
There are plenty of stylish eateries in Athens to consume one’s fish: swish, fusion food at Nolan, with “Mackerel for Babies” on the menu. An admirable endeavour. But I want Fritto misto, dining street-side at Atlantikos. I’ll order along with it some sensationally fresh anchovies on bruschetta (try Akis Petretzikis’s version at home), and heaps of delicious puy-like lentils—washed down with carafe wine (€4 a half-litre, for heaven’s sake). The most Mediterranean of scenes; a vignette to hold onto, when home time comes and the cold London nights draw in.
The Greeks know how to do street food. This is the land of souvlaki: grilled skewers of chicken, lamb or beef, with ruby-red tomatoes, scrunchy onions, fresh parsley and spice— all stuffed in bread, pillowy soft on one side, gravelly and taut as a Persian rug on the other. Knock-your-sandals-off good. Head to O Kostas, a hole-in-the-wall churning out some of Athens’s finest since 1950. Or if the queue defeats you, get your fix back home at Hungry Donkey in Spitafields (for quality, free-range meat) or kerb-side at The Grilling Greek in London Bridge (with a side of triple cooked chips with oregano and feta).
Spanakopita is the most well-known. But substitute spinach for cavalo nero and add in some kefalotiri alongside the feta, and you will have a reinvented version as Felicity Cloake explains. And if exhausted in the land of filo, journey to Koukos in Rhodes for their famous pasty creations using crisp shortcrust. To be eaten greedily, in the bougainvillea-scented courtyard.
Honey is the national sweetener. Amongst the warren of Byzantine alleys in Rhodes’s Old City you will find the Old Town Corner Bakery. The Arabic influence on display in Revani, an orange semolina cake steeped in honey, evoking baklava or kanafeh. Eaten street-side with an orange tree hanging overhead. The exotic influences are on display too at dinner, in Mavrikos, under a canopy of vines. The Pink Floyd guitarist lives nearby and swears by the signature black butter beans in carob syrup, reminiscent of mole. The sort of food that makes you want to burst into joyous song— as will have the other patrons already. For some of the same family-run tavern-style exuberance, try Lemonia in Primrose Hill.
Finish with figs
You may set sail to the Dodecanese. Further joys will await. In Symi, lunch at Taverna Tolis, in a sleepy corner of the island near Pedi, its picture-perfect tables spilling out onto the pebbly beach. You will start with saganaki—fried cheese—requiring nothing more than a startling fresh lemon squeezed on top. And then perhaps octopus— grilled by kindly, elderly ladies in an open-air kitchen. I wander over to compliment the chef, with heavy heart at a holiday’s end, but she is long gone— to doze in a favourite chair at water’s edge. All that is left are figs, lying on the counter, drying in the late afternoon sun.