Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Descending from the clouds, we caught site of some Greek islands and then - Athens, spreading out in all directions as we gazed out our airplane window. After finding our hotel and gawking at the view of the Acropolis (lit up in rather garish green lights) from our little balcony, we found a small ouzeri where they brought a huge platter of mezédhes to our table from which we chose our dinner: fried sardines, eggplant, calamari, a salad (Greek, of course) of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, red onion, feta cheese, olives, capers and olive oil, and tzatziki, all washed down with some ouzo on the rocks. This method of service was quite a relief, since neither of us had made much sense of the menu posted out front, which made no concessions to non-Greek-speakers – culinarily a good sign, but logistically problematic!

Greek cuisine is heavily dependent on a few ingredients: olives and olive oil, local fish, lamb, eggplant, lemons, yogurt and feta, and vegetables like tomatoes, spinach, okra and bitter leafy greens. These basic ingredients are combined in any number of ways: lamb and eggplant could be served together as moussaka, or grilled and fried to make separate mezés. (The fried eggplant we’ve had has been a revelation.) Cucumbers appear in salad and are also chopped to give texture to tzatziki, a garlicky yogurt dip. Meats are sometimes grilled, as in souvlaki, but are also stewed with vegetables to produce mayirefta dishes– literally, “cooked.” Some of our favorite dinners so far have been in this category, like the delicious lamb shank braised with okra at the Platanos taverna in the Pláka district of Athens.

Ouzo is the characteristically Greek tipple. It’s made by boiling the fermented grape-mash residue left after wine-pressing and flavored with star anise or fennel. If you’re familiar with other licorice-y Mediterranean drinks, like pastis in the south of France, raki in Turkey or arak in Lebanon, you’ll recognize the concept immediately. Like all these, it’s served in small glasses accompanied by a bowl of ice and a pitcher of water, so that you can dilute it to your preferred strength; it’s clear in the glass, but turns cloudy when you add water. Laura thinks it turns her tongue numb. The word “ouzo” probably derives from the Italian osu Massalia, used to label early raki shipments from Ottoman distilleries in Smyrma, Constantiople and Lésvos to Marseille. Similar drinks go by tsipouro (in the north mainland) or tsikoudhiá (on Crete), or there’s the unflavored soúma available on islands in the eastern Aegean.

Like any first-timers, we spent our first full day in Athens touring the Acropolis complex with the hordes of just-off-the-cruise-ship tour groups and field-tripping students. Tam had been laboring (though not too hard) under the mistaken idea that our British Airways flight from Heathrow would mark a departure from hearing fluent English for the coming months. Not so! While we have no illusions that we are on anything but the center of the proverbial beaten path, it’s still amazing how many Midwesterners one can meet in Athens even in the off-season. We mingled with them outside the Parthenon, where classical Athenians paid homage to their gods, and in the ruins of the agora (market) where philosophers and citizens gathered to buy figs and lay the foundations of Western society.

We finished our afternoon with a quick snack at a café just east of the ancient sites within view of the Acropolis, where we enjoyed cheese saganaki (deep fried and topped with honey and sesame seeds), “Greek cheese pies” (cheese-filled filo), and another Greek salad (what to prevent the scurvy – so far so good).

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