The crowded warren of the Athens Flea market, on the east side of historic Monastiraki Square, is a riot of color, people and kitsch, but in part two of Context Travel’s Beyond Feta tour, guide Nikita Patiniotis leads me in the opposite direction through the Psiri residential neighborhood towards bustling commercial Athinas Street. Today this avenue is full of trendy shops, yet in olden days it was both a red light district and, in the early 19th century, home to Lord Byron when the legendary poet was aiding the Greek war of independence against the Ottomans.
Manolis, a native of Naxos Island, shyly greets us at Npoionta Naeoy Mpakaliko. Besides produce and general small groceries, its small yet select cheeses are the star commodities. Most Greek cheeses are a blend of cows, goat and/or sheep milk. Kefalotyri is particularly piquant and salty, buttery with a white compact mass and a hard outer layer. Generally a sheep milk cheese, it can be mixed up with goat’s. Added to pastas, it’s also the star as fried cheese flamed with ouzo. Graviera is rich, salty and piquant, with butter and nut flavors. Frequently used in cheese pies, or cooked as stuffing in meats. Myzithra has a pleasant sour taste and with the addition of fresh milk it’s a white spreadable cheese. Yet allowed to drain in a cylindrical strainer and dried for two months, it becomes Ksino Myzith, a compact buttery cheese with grassy notes that’s frequently grated.
Koulouri tou Psiri is a bakery that never sleeps, literally open 24 hours a day. They specialize in the classic round thin ring bread known as koulouri. Nikita says the traditional recipe includes tahini. At Kolios pastry shop we sample diples. These thin crispy pastries are rolled, deep-fried, drenched in honey syrup and sprinkled with walnuts. Nikita explained that Alexander the Great introduced sugar to Greece from India, but it remained a luxury item until the 17th century when new world sources lowered the price, hence the traditional Greek love of honey as a sweetener. Kolios also bakes huge loaves of bread that are sliced and sold by the kilo.
Andreas Lefteris is a modest young man with a big smile and an imaginative sense of design. His shop, About Lesvos, features traditional food products from Lesvos Island including spoon sweets, olive oils, honeys, and ouzo, most from small producers. The attractive interior is his design including imaginative lighting fixtures made from recycled materials. He and his partner opened their thriving shop several years ago just as the financial crisis hit, proving that quality still is the hallmark of a successful business.
Greeks are the world’s largest consumers of olive oil, and an oil-tasting bar dispenses a wide variety to sample with flavor notes ranging from nutty to fresh spring grass. Foods with nutty notes also include a delicious oak honey and a slightly bitter variety with a hint of almond. The more mundane products at About Lesvos include varieties of typaris bread made from wheat and sour milk that’s allowed to dry and harden. It’s traditionally broken into pieces and added to soups and occasionally Greek salad.
Among About Lesvos wines and ouzos – the ubiquitous double distilled anise flavored grape liquor – Aphrodite is a rare, smooth and expensive black label brand of ouzo popular in the United States, according to Andreas. Some distillers will add star anise or other herbs for flavors. Tsipouro is the oldest of these distillations made from grape mash. Mastic, the gummy sap from the mastic tree, related to the pistachio tree, is the ingredient in Mastiha liquor, sweet, thick and smooth.
At Avli café, in an ancient building in an equally ancient alleyway, we stopped for Greek coffee, served, of course with a spoon sweet, and sampled one of the more unique uses of mastic, a submarine. This ice cold drink of sweetened water contains a white ball of mastic gum mixed with sugar and almond. The drink gets its name because the ball of sweet mastic sinks to the bottom. You take little bites of the mastic while drinking, and, like gum, you’ll be chewing for hours.
Kostas Bahlas opened Miiaxapika-Botana spice market some decades ago, and, with his son, George, offers a wide variety of both fresh and dried herbs for cooking and traditional medicines. We passed a shop selling penirli, an open faced pizza-like filled bread that’s a popular fast food. Although Greek cuisine includes many ingredients, the hallmark of a good dish, says Nikita, is that all the components ought to be distinguishable.
Pastourma is of Ottoman Turk origin and Miran is Athens’ undisputed master of this unique salted veal creation. For nearly 400 years, Greece and Armenia were under the rule of the vast Ottoman Empire continuing the interplay of cultures and cuisines among the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean that has gone on for millenniums. Miran and Krikor Kourounlian, whose grandfather fled Armenia after the tragic post-First World War genocide, are the third generation to operate the shop. Today their pastourma is shipped throughout Europe. To prepare pastourma, holes are punched into a raw fillet of veal, packed in sea salt and weighted down to cure. It’s then thickly coated with a unique mixture of red spices, giving the veal its distinctive color and air-dried. Sliced paper thin, the taste upfront is decidedly meaty with the salt and spices coming second. Of course, it’s a perfect compliment to ouzo, but then Greeks believe most foods fit that description.
Kapatza cheese shop was bustling with customers, but that didn’t deter Eugenia-Niki (Nicole) Karatza, from proudly showing off her dozens of fresh cheeses and sharing samples, including many varieties of feta. Of particular interest to me was myzhopa, a soft ricotta-like cheese made from the second straining of the feta cheese water. It’s creamy and tangy. In the summer time it’s eaten fresh, but a little salt is added in wintertime to preserve it longer.
The centerpiece of this 3,000-year-old Athenian market district was the vast enclosed Varvakios Agora, the Central Market. Under its soaring roof, all the food ingredients necessary to satisfy a library of Greek cookbooks are available. Whole sheep heads, sea urchins, butchered whole lambs wrapped in plastic, blue crabs, a myriad of nuts and dried fruits, salt cod, coffees and candies, spices, baby cucumber spoon sweets and what seemed like all the fish and seafood of the Mediterranean are eagerly sought after by customers wearing the dress of many Eastern Mediterranean nations. It’s the supermarket for Athenian restaurant owners and households.
It has been a kaleidoscope of sounds, images, smells and tastes for the past several hours. Nikita suggested we stop for lunch as we approached a building that looked like a ruin. In the basement of that building I learned why Context Travel’s tours are genius equal to a civilization that has survived for millenniums. Join me in part three as I discover Dyporto Wine Shop.