For hours, Nikita Patiniotis, guide for Context Travel’s Athens Beyond Feta walking tour, opened the eyes of this chef to the breadth of Greek food that one only reads in books. Wandering the 3,000-year-old market districts of Athens at the base of the Acropolis, we started at historic Monastiraki Square, sandwiched between the ancient Greek and Roman agoras. Among sellers of medicinal herbs, fast food, assorted Eastern Mediterranean kitsch, exquisite cheeses, air-dried spiced meats and ouzo, it has become obvious why Greece was the terminus in ancient times for the legendary Silk Road.
Nikita led me down the white-washed stairs on the side of a building – one that had definitely seen better days – into the cool confines of a simple basement space lined floor to ceiling on one wall with huge oak wine barrels. Sitting at a simple wooden table, Demitri Koliolios, 4th generation owner of the 150 year-old Dyporto Wine Shop, with his full white mustache, looked as classic as the glass of retsina he was sipping. Despite the unassuming space, Nikita assured me Dyporto, and its retsina, was sought after in the city. Just the week before, Dr. Karolos Papoulias, President of the Greek Republic, walked down the same stairs with a couple aides, unannounced, for a leisurely dinner.
But when Demitri walked over to our table with a pitcher of retsina, freshly drawn from one of the barrels, he proudly displayed a recent photo of himself with Francis Ford Coppola. It seems the famed film director and winemaker had left his table at the lux Hotel Grande Bretagne dissatisfied with his meal. His host brought him to Dyporto where, by his expression in the photo, he had a grand evening.
It seems appropriate in this ancient city that one of the nation’s most cherished wines is nearly as old as its civilization. Retsina has been made for at least 2,000 years. It’s a full flavored white wine with notes of honey and summer flowers infused with pine resin. Originally, in the days long before preservative sulfites, many techniques were used to prolong the life of wine before it turned into vinegar. Coating barrels with a thin layer of pine resin helped to prevent oxidation imparting the distinctive resin notes associated with retsina. In modern production, a small amount of Aleppo pine resin is added to the must during fermentation. Dyporto’s retsina, first made by Demitri’s great-grandfather, is considered among the best in Athens.
By 3:00 p.m., prime lunch hour in Greece, the small space was packed with suits as savvy business people shed the demands of a modern urban economy for the simple pleasures of a basement wine shop. We were served small plates of Greek salad, steamed potatoes and mixed fresh vegetables drizzled with olive oil, chick peas with lemon and herbs, salty smoked kippers and orzo pasta with tomatoes and beef all accompanied by fresh crusty bread and pitchers of retsina. Relaxing in this unpretentious atmosphere filled with convivial conversation, it was easy to understand why the President of Greece and a Hollywood mogul would seek out Dyporto.
Nikita said that Demitri’s wife, Lorenza, once told him, “Retsina is not a wine; it’s a way of life.” Greek food could just as easily be identified as a way of life. Context Travel, through its food and art walking tours, will introduce the visitor to a life that’s beyond the microwave and the modern world’s overly scheduled itinerary. If you give in to the experience, you just may change your own way of life.