From world-renowned olive oil to freshly grilled sardines, Greece offers visitors an enviable gastronomic journey. Amelia Duggan plots a course through it

The Greeks wrote the book on fresh, seasonal cooking — quite literally, as it turns out. Inspired by the spectacular gastronomy of the Hellenic region, Greek poet and self-declared glutton, Archestratus, penned the first known cookbook in 320 BC. Fastforward a couple of millennia, and Greece is still offering up a mouthwatering meze of sensational, simple, national dishes, incorporating the herbs of its mountains, the olives and vegetables of its sun-drenched valleys, the fish and octopus of the Aegean and Ionian Seas, and succulent meat and flavorsome cheeses from its cloven flocks. During my wanderings in mainland Greece and across some of its 1,800 islands, I’ve died and gone to Elysium over dozens of dishes. From the light, lemon-drizzled seafood of coastal towns and heavier meat and cheese dishes of inland villages, to the Arabicinfluenced and spice-infused concoctions of the south, as well as the gourmet experiences (and hearty, traditional fast-food dining) of Athens — it’s the gastronomy of Greece that keeps me coming back to these shores time and time again.

While Greek cuisine varies subtly with the country’s topography, the ceremony and flair surrounding dining is consistent. Food is to be enjoyed and savored with friends and family, and a traditional meal in a Greek eatery may span several courses, see many bottles of wine emptied, and develop into spirited carousing. It’s usual to begin with a selection of mezedes, or small snacks, typically accompanied by wines or the anise-flavored liqueur ouzo (which packs quite a punch). Famous mezedes include taramosalata, a rich fishy, salmon-colored puree (usually made from cod roe) and souvlaki pork skewers, which should be dunked in tzatziki, a mix of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and mint. If the variety and choice on offer becomes a little overwhelming, order dolmades; these vine leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables such as zucchini and eggplant have stood the test of time, dating back to when philosophers munched on them in the forums. Next up: the main course. Greece is famous for its fresh seafood — trout, sea bass, sardines, squid, shrimp, you name it — grilled and flavored simply with garlic and lemon — which might be served alongside a simple feta cheese, cucumber and oregano salad. A quintessential dish beloved in the cattle-rearing highlands — and ubiquitous countrywide — is moussaka, with its layers of fried eggplant and potato slices with spicy minced meat. As the dish’s name suggests, Greek cuisine has absorbed influences from the East. In ancient times the Persians introduced yogurt and desserts made from nuts, honey and sesame seeds and, later, the Ottoman Empire brought thick, strong black coffee — the type that leaves sediment at the bottom of your cup. It’s these elements — refined over the centuries into culinary treasures — that finish off a traditional Greek feast, along with some soft figs, ruby-red pomegranates or plump dates.

It’s impossible to eat badly in Greece; tiny tavernas in the most unlikely of places can surprise you with their seasonal menus. But gourmands in search of a more refined experience will love the fusion restaurants popping up in Athens’ hip district around Agias Eirinis Square, such as Melilotos, and the classic, elegant fare on offer at Dionysos, which overlooks the Acropolis. The capital is a great showcase for the dishes and produce of the country, and one way to sample them (and acquire a taste for gyros, an Athenian specialty made with rotisserie meat, tomato, onion, tzatziki and fries, all wrapped up in pita) is on a food tour. Sensational seafood awaits visitors to the chic Cyclades island of Mykonos, where sundried octopus, bowls of mussels in creamy sauces, and piles of pink, pearly shrimp are served up next to the lapping waves of the sea in the pretty area of Little Venice. Or, for a splash of luxury, settle in for a sublime tasting menu in the candlelit garden restaurant of Hotel Leto. Salty dishes pair well with a dry, sherry-like nykteri wine, made across the bay on the idyllic honeymoon hotspot of Santorini — a volcanic isle laden with vineyards and known for its white-and-blue houses. The most characteristic and ancient element of Greek cuisine is, of course, olive oil; around 18kg of the stuff is consumed per person each year here, and the country is the world’s largest exporter of it. While Crete’s Ziro olive oil is internationally lauded for its luxurious texture and sophisticated, bitter aftertaste, some of the finest olives and olive oil comes from Kalamata — an area in the bucolic Messinia region of the fertile Peloponnese peninsula.

I spent an exuberant week dining, Dionysuslike, on the area’s famous hand-picked, almond-shaped, plump purple olives and signature dishes, such as kagianas — an eggy, cheesy melee of mature tomatoes, salted ‘Sigglino’ pork and, of course, fresh virgin olive oil. Joining in a local cookery course at the beautiful coastal resort area of Costa Navarino turned out to be the highlight of the trip, and while I kneaded and diced hylopites (traditional Greek pasta, served with drizzled oil and shavings of mytzithra cheese) into being and deep-fried lalaggides bread (later doused with delicious pekmezi grape syrup), the breeze drifting into the kitchen from the bay of Navarino took the heat out of the day.

After removing my apron and consuming all that I’d helped to create over a leisurely lunch, a pair of speakers were set up in the patio courtyard and the cooking teachers — two impossibly jolly women in bandanas and large aprons — encouraged us to try Greek dancing, by following their kicking steps and spins under the shade of one of the region’s famous olive trees. Like the best of Greek cooking, the dance was simple, traditional and incredibly enjoyable.

1. MASTIC: This aromatic, ivory-colored resin is grown on the island of Chios and can be chewed as a gum, added to liquor or coffee, or used in cooking to add a pine- or cedar-like flavor.
2. HONEY: Greece’s biodiversity creates a unique honey — dark, thick and fragrant. It’s used in the classic filo-pastry-and-nuts dessert baklava, or drizzled over Greek yogurt.
3. FAVA: Yellow split pea puree flavored with onion, and served with olive oil.
4. CHEESE: Creamy feta crops up in salads, tiropita (cheese pies) and feta me meli (a feta, filo pastry
and honey entree). Hard, golden-white Graviera is perfect cubed or deep-fried as saganaki (cheese balls), and look out for Cretan dakos salad, which is topped with soft, white, crumbled mizithra.
5. GLYKA TOU KOUTALIOU: Offered for free in restaurants, this dessert typically consists of Greek yogurt with a fruit preserve.

Published in Destination Vacation 26 issue 3 2016

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