Written by Steve Carlson
These are some notes and photos from a recent trip to Greece. I hope you find them at least interesting and at best helpful in creating some new menu items or in planning your own trip. These are my observations based on a few weeks in Greece and are meant to be that, just observations.
I have to start with water, in particular a glass of chilled water. This is the basis of Greek hospitality, when you visit a Greek home you are first given a glass of chilled water and a place to sit. The same is true when you sit down at a restaurant or even check into a hotel. In the villages around Mt. Pelion the gardens of most homes have a spigot of constantly running mountain water emptying into a marble basin, the same in the village square.
After water, the most important ingredient is olive oil. There are olive trees everywhere, in one location there is a grove with over seven million olive trees. Olive oil was the only fat we saw used in cooking; for dough, frying, salads and to finish most any dish. The saying seems to be “when in doubt sprinkle olive oil on it”. In three weeks, I only saw about a dozen cows; we were served butter twice and this was goat butter. I’m sure they sell shortening and lard in stores, but I never saw it used in cooking.
A typical meal could start with tapenade of Kalamata olives, eggplant spread and bread grilled over a wood grill and sprinkled with olive oil as shown here from a meal at Krista’s in Portaria. After raving about the eggplant spread, the chef demonstrates how to make it. But the key we find is grilling the whole small eggplant and a red banana pepper over a wood fire which gives the spread a wonderful hint of smoke. Other than the eggplant and pepper there is only olive oil with minced garlic, vinegar, salt and pepper.
Feta with olive oil and herbs both served cold or grilled is also a popular appetizer. We also had a fresh cheese breaded and fried in olive oil, but I wouldn’t order that again.
Another appetizer I only saw when we made them at Milia Mountain Retreat was Dakos, “rusks” dried halves of rolls, topped with grated tomato, cheese and olives.
The bread is taken seriously, not just filler to put on the table until the appetizers come. Usually it’s sliced with a thick crust and dense like a country loaf, but often it’s made on premise and there is a variety of white, whole wheat, rye and sometimes dense bread sticks with sesame or other seeds. There is also a Greek bagel, the Koulouria, a circle of dough covered with sesame seeds that is often in the basket. This was a clever presentation with the bread in a paper bag with a side of goat butter in a measuring cup at Vezene in Athens.
The traditional Greek salad is usually served without any greens, or sometimes a little arugula on the top. The rest is of course tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, green, yellow & red peppers, onions, kalamata olives, occasionally capers and croutons, best when made from Koulouria. Sometimes salads contain hard boiled eggs, shaved parmesan, boiled potatoes, pepperoncini, radishes, baby endive and in the most extreme example the essential flavors captured as gelato.
Another common salad is arugula, usually translated as rocket salad, served dry or mixed with feta or other cheeses, vegetables and herbs.
Wild greens are very common and a broad category. You can often order these steamed or they may be the filling for pita, mixed with cheese and baked in a phyllo crust. But you can also find salads made with wild greens and herbs like this one in the photo on the right from Monopatia, in Ano Pedina. The photo shows the “wild” greens being grown on either side of beans at the Monopatia farm.
Pita usually refers to a dish with a phyllo bottom, top crust and filling, usually of spinach or wild greens mixed with cheese of some kind. The phyllo dough is made with flour, water, olive oil, salt and sometimes egg and vinegar. The dough is mixed, kneaded and divided into three or five balls depending on how many layers of crust you want. Each ball is rolled out with long dowel, wrapping the dough around the dowel and rolling it to get to the proper thickness and size to fit the pan. One technique I thought was interesting is the dough is ‘draped’ into the pan, creating wrinkles and folds in each layer of dough. The layers of course are laminated with olive oil. Try this with 10 thumbs…
Zucchini is very popular, as well as peas and green beans served stewed with tomatoes. Most vegetables are stewed for a long period, but surprisingly remain very flavorful. These were from a harbor side restaurant in Paparana where scenes from Mama Mia were filmed.
Mushrooms may be found in many locations in Greece, but we actually got a chance to forage for them at Monapatia in Ano Padina. Fortunately we only ate the ones that Chef Vasilli found. Most of the mushrooms the rest of us found Vassilli drescribed as “Angel of Death”. There were porcini, chanterelles and a mushroom similar to hen-in-the-woods. We enjoyed these grilled and brushed with olive oil and as a soup with shaved truffles.
Lamb is the most common meat, occasionally a grilled rack, but more often stewed with vegetables and tomatoes. Here is a photo from kitchen at the Meteora Restaurant, where Grandma has been preparing five stews; four in the restaurant and one at home (because there is not enough oven space), for longer than I have been alive for sure. You can order off the menu but you can also line up in the kitchen and pick out your lunch. Meteora is home to the famous monasteries on the rocks as seen in the James Bond film, “For Your Eyes Only”.
You can also find goat on most menus. I did have some wonderful Pata Negra pork from Andalusia, Spain at Vezena restaurant in Athens or our last night.
Fish & Seafood
We ate a lot of seafood, but not as much as I thought we would. In the mountains in Ano Padina we had some wonderful trout presumably caught in the beautiful streams spanned by medieval bridges. Fish is usually grilled over a wood fire and served whole. Shrimp are also often grilled over a wood fire. All of the octopus we had was very tender. When I had tough octopus before, I assumed it was cooked too long. But in Greece they talk about how important it is to flog the octopus on the concrete for an hour immediately after it’s caught. I heard this again since coming back in a story on NPR, which also suggested hanging it in the sun all day for further tenderizing.
There is some aqua farming in the Peloponnese Sea where sea bream and sea bass are raised in round pens.
Dessert is usually fresh fruit so care is taken to make sure what is served is at peak ripeness. Much of the fruit we enjoyed was also organic.
But of course there is also Baklava. I learned the key is to cleave the Baklava horizontally, instead of trying to cut thru the layers vertically and sending it flying across the table.
After a meal you need to have a Greek coffee. I learned to order a Metrio, or medium, which usually only has one teaspoon of sugar to the two teaspoons of ground coffee. We learned how to make Greek coffee; add water to grounds and sugar and heat until the edges bubble, pour into a glass and enjoy.
After enjoying your coffee the tradition is to turn the cup over and let the grounds drip down the side of the cup so your fortunate can be read. Here is a member of our group reading my fortunate which she described as “shrouded is mist”.
Tsichouda or Raki is another beverage served after a meal. This is liquor is distilled from grape skins, similar to Grappa. It is normally served at the end of a meal, but in this case it was used as our hand sanitizer and glasses were available while cooking the meal.
Places We Visited
Monopatia Mountain Resort and Restaurant (www.monopatiaresort.gr) is located in Ano Pandina in northwest Greece in the area called Zagoria and was built around the childhood home of chef Vassili Paparounas, who had the Symposium restaurant in Athens. After he lost his lease, he decided to build this resort which combines very comfortable lodgings with fine dining. There are rooms and suites in buildings near the restaurant or if you don’t mind an uphill hike you can enjoy the privacy of the cottages arranged up the hill.
Vassili and his team manage the restaurant the hotel and do a great job. We enjoyed hiking, site seeing as well as foraging for mushrooms and a cooking class with Vassili and his team.
Milia Mountain Retreat, Crete (www.milia.gr) is a 17th century mountain settlement that was re-settled 20 years ago by a group dedicated to eco-tourism. They have restored the old buildings into rooms and a restaurant. They are totally self-sustaining; getting electricity from solar panels, water from the original spring, raising chickens, goats, vegetables and making their own olive oil, wine and honey. We enjoyed traditional foods of Crete cooking class lead by Milia’s partners NatourLab, http://www.natour-lab.gr/milia.php.
We visited 100% organic Astrikas Estate Biolea Olive Oil Press (www.biolea.gr) in Crete. They grind their olives with traditional stone wheels and pressed with hydraulic presses. They also produce two olive oils that are pressed with organic fruit, one with lemons and the other with wild oranges.
If you have wondered what the difference is between Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Pure Olive Oil, this is what Pure Olive Oil is made from. This is the pomace left over from the pressing. Biolea uses their pomace as mulch, but pomace from other producers is sold to be mixed with hexane and water and the extracted oil is bottled and sold as Pure Olive Oil.
We visited Manousakis Winery (www.nostoswines.com), started by Ted Manousaki’s, owner of the Bread & Chocolate bakery chain in the town he left at age 11. The winery in Crete is operated by his very capable daughter Alexandra. The wines are named Nostos and made with traditional Rhone varietals. There are six bottling’s: Pink; Grenache Rose; Roussane; Grenache; Alexandra, a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre & Grenache; and Nostros, their flagship, made with Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussane. They are also producing a line of olive oil and salt called Terroir.
One benefit of the economic situation in Greece was that we were able to get reservations at the top rated restaurants by calling the same day.
Funky Gourmet (www.funkygourmet.com) is the only restaurant in Athens I know of that is practicing molecular gastronomy, which has earned one star from Michelin. Unlike so many of these restaurants, the staff doesn’t take themselves too seriously and are friendly and as enthusiastic about the food as the chefs that create it. Everything about Funky Gourmet is a bit funky including the neighborhood. It’s located on the second floor above sort of a pedestrian square. The cab driver didn’t know where to drop us based on the address, but a staff member was waiting outside of the building and led us inside. On the night we were there, the folding windows were open and we had a view of the once stately buildings surrounding the square, highlighted by eerie up lighting. We enjoyed the chef’s abstract take on traditional Greek dishes while the hearing the sounds of kids playing soccer on the square below. Funky for sure, close to surreal.
We thoroughly enjoyed our meal and it hit all the “Millennial” sweet spots, whether intentional or not, experience layered on experience. We proved that “Boomers” can enjoy these just as much. A couple of highlights were the beet root pesto, you grab round pasta pieces stamped with the words “Funky Gourmet” with a tweezers and cook them in boiling water infused with a leek and rosemary and then dip in the mortar holding the pesto.
For “Sirloin on the Rock” you place strips of sirloin, grilled on one side, on a super-heated rock surrounded by rosemary sprigs, cooked to desired doneness and dip in drops of Hungarian paprika sauce. This was accompanied by a 2008 Nostos.
Other menu items included the Greek Salad Sorbet, a fabulous scallop with ginger foam. This would have fit into any restaurant’s menu, the scallop was cooked but was extremely tender on a truffled sauce the consistency of crème brulee and caramelized onions below that I thought was caviar at first.
And of course something served with liquid nitrogen, “Bread & Butter at -196 degrees” and something made with a smoke gun, “Smoked Ice Cream Sandwich”, basically a s’more for you north-woods camping folks.
One last note on one more restaurant, Vezene, in Athens (www.vezene.gr); no Michelin stars or molecular gastronomy but a great meal just the same. They are known for their seafood but on the night we were there they were out of fish. As it turns out, they get their shellfish and fish directly from the folks that catch it and their fisherman’s Jeep Cherokee was broken down. Interestingly, the fisherman catches the fish by diving and spearfishing not line and bait. I saw several photos of people fishing this way at other locations.
They weren’t out of shrimp, so we tried the raw shrimp appetizer with poppy seeds and strawberries along with a giant basket of truffle fries (chips fried in olive oil) with parmesan and truffle oil served in a ¼ round Paderno pasta basket. Just for the record we didn’t eat a quarter of these. The bread in the paper bag/basket from this restaurant is pictured earlier.
On the meat side of the menu, they had a number of cuts of Pata Negra pork from Andalusia. This is the same pig that eats acorns in the fall and is made into that wonderful Iberian ham. We saw a number of different versions of Iberian ham in Spain but I never saw these other cuts on a menu in Spain. Here is Pata Negra Pork skirt served with roasted potatoes and the only al dente vegetables I had in Greece.
All the questions we asked about the food brought one of the owners to our table, and we had a long conversation about how the customers most interested in their food and what they are doing with it are young people (Gen X & Y, not us old Boomers) from the U.S. The gentleman we talked to had spent four years in Chicago getting an HRI degree while working in a large restaurant in Greek Town. He also introduced us to Mastika, (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mastika) from the Island of Chios which I found much more enjoyable than Raki. It has an anise-like, slightly piney flavor.
I have to mention that this trip was guided by our fearless leaders Leftheris and Jane Pappageorgiou of Hellenic Adventures ( www.hellenicadventures.com). I can tell you it was one seamless and very comfortable adventure with every detail attended to, from transportation to lodging, by knowledgeable, professional guides with visits to the more popular sites timed to avoid the crowds. All of the cooking class, winery and olive vineyard guides are longtime friends of Leftheris, providing experiences you couldn’t get elsewhere. Named Conde Nast’s Top Travel Specialist for Greece for the tenth year in a row and lucky for us he lives in St. Paul, MN. But if even if you don’t live in St. Paul, Hellenic Adventures specializes in arranging personalized trips wherever you live!