Greece’s gastronomy is the culmination of climate, terrain, invasion, occupation and migration, trade, economics and culture. The country has an abundance of livestock and seafood and plentiful fresh, local and seasonal foods, and, consequently, a diverse range of foods and dishes. Whether visitors hike Crete’s coast and mountains, embark on a cultural city break to Athens or go hardcore partying with the Kavos holidays crew, they’ll discover that each region is often characterised by its own foods and flavours.
Home-grown, home-reared and homemade
Rural taverna owners frequently produce their own bread, olive oil, wine, cheese, meat and vegetables. Greece’s long, hot summers make it possible for a variety of fruits and vegetables to flourish on flat, fertile terrain. Villages burst with crops on every last inch of earth including potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, okra, courgettes, lettuces, cucumbers, beans, onions, garlic, dill and parsley. Citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons thrive in the Greek climate, too.
Wild and free
Fragrant herbs such as thyme, oregano, marjoram and parsley can spring up with no human intervention. Capers cling to rocks and are often found in Crete, their piquant leaves can be tossed into salads and their juicy buds dried in the sun. The Cycladic Islanders preserve capers by pureeing them with olive oil.
Wild greens (horta) such as dandelions, nettle, chicory and artichokes grow well on rocky hillsides and form the basis of some popular Greek dishes. They can be simply boiled and served with olive oil and lemon juice or turned into Spanakopita – spinach pie. Fruit and nut trees love the warmer regions, particularly when close to natural springs – prickly pears, figs, apricots, walnuts, chestnuts and pomegranate.
Greece has theeleventh longest coastline in the world and, as a result, it bursts with fish and seafood. The selection varies according to the region but includes sea urchins, clams, lobster and mussels, calamari, cuttlefish, sardines, shrimp, swordfish, sole, sea bream, cod, red mullet and octopi.
Fishermen skilled enough to find octopi hiding in rock caves like to tenderise their catch on shore as the salt water helps preserve the flavour. Octopus can be braised in its own juice or sun-dried and grilled. Fresh octopus salad is a popular summer meze dish and no Greek meze is ever complete without taramasalata. Kakavia is a famous fish soup, made in thirty different ways as each region has its own original recipe.
A carnivorous country
Lamb features strongly in Greek feasts. It is often simply roasted or grilled – Crete lays claim to some unique grilling techniques. Ground lamb, including entrails, appear in spring during Pascha (Easter) and mutton and goat are often braised with tomato and cumin. Wild game such as hare, quail and rabbit thrive in regions with abundant food, water and shelter. Rabbit Stifado is a delicious stew prepared with caramelised onions, tomatoes and spices.
Chicken is used to create the ultimate in Greek comfort food, the hearty chicken soup avgolemono – a traditional chicken soup with a creamy egg-lemon twist. Pork is found throughout Greece as it is easy to raise. In the cooler, northern regions where olive trees tend not to grow, it is used for cooking. Souvlaki is used to describe the little skewers of pork meat that are marinated in red wine and grilled – perfect when served with tzatziki.
As pasture is limited, beef is less prevalent in Greece, but when it can be sourced, meatballs and beef stew with orzo pasta are long-standing favourites. Spicy beef pies and braised veal are favoured by the Ionian islanders.
Greek sheep and goats consume a range of wild greens and herbs, giving artisan milk, cheese and yoghurt their distinct textures and flavours. Shepherds may make cheese for themselves or local taverns or sell milk to local factories. Spring is the best time of year for fresh cheese.
It is believed that the concept of emulsifying ingredients to create sauces such as avgolemeno, béchamel, brown sauce and mayonnaise originated in Greece, with some recipes dating back to ancient times. Moussaka is probably the most widely known of Greek dishes, consisting of an oven-baked casserole of layered aubergine and spiced meat finished with a creamy béchamel sauce.
Bread is the mainstay of many Greek meals. Pita bread is an enduring favourite – depending on the dough, small pitas may be fried or baked and stuffed with an array of fillings. Sfakia in Crete is home to a dough-like, pancake style pita which is filled with Mizithra and topped with thick Cretan honey.
Olive oil flavours vary from hearty Kalamata to fresh, nutty Koroneki, to the mild Hondrolia. Producers employ a combination of ancient and modern techniques to develop the best oil. Contrary to popular belief, olives do not grow everywhere in the country – the north being too cool. Bioleais a pioneering organic producer based in Western Crete.
Located at the centre of numerous strategic trade routes, Greece benefitted from the introduction of spices such as peppercorns and cinnamon much earlier than many other countries. The Venetians left their mark on the cuisine of the Ionian Islands, while Byzantine and Ottoman influences are still evident, particularly in the east.
Greek wine production is usually a family affair, with local grapes harvested to produce often delicious indigenous wines, high in alcohol. Boutique wineries exist in Macedonia, Santorini, Kefalonia and Crete and organic production is on the rise.
Tsipouro is liquor distilled from grape must – the country’s best is produced in Thessalyepirus and Macedonia. Fiery Ouzo is another product of the grape, originating on the island of Lesvos. Retsina is a cool accompaniment to summer meals, particularly if combined with soda water.
All in all, visitors to Greece, and especially Athens, are bound to enjoy the country’s varied cuisine, whichever destination they choose.