- Feta, Filo & Fish: a Guide to Greek Food
This year I visited Greece for the first time to take part in a week-long yoga retreat. Anyone who has watched me try to touch my toes will understand why my family found this idea quite amusing but while I may not be very bendy, I am very greedy. As a self-confessed glutton, I normally spend a considerable amount of time before a trip gleefully researching local cuisine, but on this occasion, all I had managed were some repeat viewings of ‘Mamma Mia!’ and watching the occasional spanakopita being made on ‘The Great British Bake Off’. Thankfully, according to my guide book, Greek food is renowned the world over for its freshness and flavour, a healthy Mediterranean diet dating back to the ancients. I reasoned that if it was good enough for the original Olympians then it would be no problem for a part-time vegetarian with a fondness for seafood.
The retreat was based on the Argo-Saronic island of Poros, just off the mainland in the Peloponnese peninsula. As an island I expected the seafood to be incredible, which it was, but as everything is line-caught it is also relatively expensive compared with other choices on the menu. The Rota was the best place for seafood, a little more expensive than others but the €18 I spent on sea bass cooked in balsamic vinegar and rosemary was worth it. Red mullet, known as barbounia, are local to the Saronic islands, and other options included squid, either the large varieties grilled whole and served ‘ladholemono’ (dressed with lemon and olive oil), or smaller and fried as calamari. Octopus seemed to be ubiquitous, appearing on most menus and often hung out like laundry to dry in the sun, it tastes lovely either marinated or barbequed. I also had the biggest whitebait, or maridha, I’ve ever seen — they were easily the length of my hand. Fun fact: there are cats everywhere on Poros, as pervasive as Cornish sea gulls or Leicester Square’s pigeons and likewise grudgingly tolerated. The cats love the seafood too.
There is a focus on either slow-cooked or barbequed meat and the charcoal grill is very popular, with souvlaki — ‘meat on a skewer’ of chicken, lamb or occasionally kid goat — available either in a restaurant or with pita bread, tomato, onions and tzatziki as fast food. There is also a tender lamb joint known as kleftiko as well as spiced meatballs called kefthedes, the classic moussaka or its cousin pastitsio, another baked pasta dish of ground beef and béchamel sauce.
The enthusiasm for fresh, local produce ensures that non-meat eaters would fare equally well. I particularly liked the spanakopita (spinach pie) and would recommend yemista, which is a baked dish of stuffed tomatoes or peppers filled with rice and herbs. Starter or meze dishes include courgette balls made of grated or pureed courgette combined with dill and mint and lightly fried, okra cooked in olive oil and butter beans in garlic, onion and tomatoes. Cheese pies, or tyropita, are pastry parcels which resemble samosas or pasties, along with dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with varying combinations of rice, thyme, dill, fennel and oregano. My favourite dishes were the feta baked in honey, with or without sesame seeds, and a squeaky cheese called graviera which is similar to halloumi, and is fried to become saganaki. Then of course there is the classic Greek salad of green peppers, red onion, tomato, cucumber, olives, lashings of olive oil, oregano and a solid block of feta balanced on top. My recommendation for lunch would be this salad with chips, sesame bread and tzatziki (yoghurt with olive oil, cucumber and garlic) — the more garlic the better! Other dips include melitzanosalata, made from aubergine or fava, a type of creamy split pea puree.
In terms of puddings, the classic Greek pastries consist mainly of flaky filo, olive oil, honey and nuts and are sticky little parcels of joy. The classic is baklava which layers the nuts, pastry and honey like a miniature lasagne, or there is kantaifi which encloses the nuts in thin strands of pastry, held together by honey or syrup and strongly reminiscent of shredded wheat. Local to Poros Island are little mounds of rose-flavoured marzipan thickly covered in icing sugar which resemble two-inch snow-capped mountains. Top tip: sneeze or cough away from them or the sugar goes everywhere.
The tastiest food on the island is to be found at Petros Taverna, a 25-minute walk from the main town or 5 minutes by bike or taxi. The moussaka and the orzo pasta with shrimps were my favourites and the owner, the lovely Sofia, is the fount of all local knowledge. Other foodie recommendations nearby include the neighbouring island of Egina which is famous for its pistachio orchards and the gelateria on the harbour front which, while not technically Greek, is the best ice cream I have ever eaten. I am still not sure what it is called, but look out for the enormous plastic ice cream cone at the entrance. I took every opportunity to visit, sometimes twice a day, and after extensive research I concluded that the pistachio flavour was the winner, with the blood orange sorbet a close second.
Budget-wise I averaged about €20-25 per day on food and as I have mentioned there are plenty of vegetarian options. If you are gluten-free then unfortunately the moussaka and spanakopita are off the menu but there are no major hurdles as there would be in somewhere like Italy. My vegan friends might struggle a little more as cheese, yoghurt and honey are very prevalent. However, a lot of Greek food is actually quite vegan-friendly as the Greek Orthodox Church is a religion which involves ‘fasting’ at certain times of the year, during which the consumption of animal products is not permitted. If unsure whether a dish is suitable, simply ask if it is ‘nistisimo’, or fasting food.
The classic way to round off a Greek meal is with ouzo. Made from the remnants of grapes pressed for wine, it has a similar aniseed taste to Sambuca and, with an alcohol content of around 40%, is not for the faint-hearted. It is served neat, or with a little water and the high sugar content delays the release of alcohol into the system, catching many a first-time drinker unaware. It is also, as we discovered by accident, truly fabulous when doused on watermelon. Opa!
Featured image © Pedro