Hi Frugalistas! I’ve already written about our infamous visit to the Athens Central Market, but there was far more to our Culinary Backstreets food walk in central Athens. Starting with breakfast, we ate, walked, talked, photographed and ate even more around central Athens with our guide, the lovely Despina. Join me on a feast of food as we walk the Culinary Backstreets of Athens…..
Breakfast in a traditional Greek dairy bar
Our first stop is a traditional Greek dairy bar. In the same family for 4 generations, it is now the last dairy bar in Central Athens. I’m delighted that we are the only tourists amid a crowd of locals enjoying a leisurely coffee or breakfast. As well as somewhere to eat, dairy bars also stock cakes, pastries, and yoghurts all to takeaway. Despina chooses a range of foods for us to try: traditional Greek yoghurt served with honey and walnuts, a traditional pastry, galactoboureko, made with custard and phyllo pastry (bit like a Greek vanilla slice) and a mysterious jelly….
Proper Greek yoghurt served in Greece is a completely different thing to the Greek yoghurt we buy in our local supermarkets, and this one certainly doesn’t disappoint. The galactoboureko is fabulous – the custard is light, vanillary and very creamy. Galactoboureko is a good option for those who find the syrupy Greek desserts too sweet. And the jelly? Well, we taste it, and it certainly is different. It’s a jelly, it’s light and has a pleasant, distinctive flavour. But what is it? Despina then reveals all – a wine dessert, made with the wine must. Delicious, and like nothing any of us have eaten before.
We make a great job of our breakfast, but we aren’t done yet. Oh, no, it’s time for more. This time we head to a quaint little café with laminex tables and just one thing on the menu – loukoumades, a traditional Greek donut. There are different styles of loukoumades, but what we are trying is a traditional Cretan style: round, rather than donut shaped and served with a sugar syrup rather than honey. Handcut, then fried, they are dipped in sugar syrup before a dusting of cinnamon and sesame seeds. I tried loukoumades a number of times in Athens, but these ones? Definitely the best. Crispy shell, and light as air inside. They melt in the mouth and aren’t too sweet.
A savoury morning tea
After all these sweets, we all need a walk. And something more savoury. So we hit a traditional cheese shop. Think Greek cheese, and we all think one thing, right? Fetta. But as I’m rapidly discovering in Athens on this walk, the fetta we know at home (even the Greek fetta) is nothing like the fetta at this shop. We learn that “real” Greek fetta comes in traditional beechwood barrels, not in plastic wraps. We learn that to be a true authentic Greek fetta, the cheese needs to be made from 70% sheep milk and 30% goat milk. But most surprisingly? There are actually, two types of fetta: one normal, and a soft, creamy variety.
Our host cuts some of both for us to try. I try the normal one first and get confused – it’s soooo creamy I must have made a mistake. Then I try the creamy one – heaven. Both have the recognisable flavour of fetta cheese, but are softer, creamier, less salty and more subtle flavoured. Yet again, it looks like the Greek food I am familiar with, but in reality it is so different…….
Finally, it’s time for a break from eating and we hit the meat and fish market. And yes, we all manage to embarrass ourselves. Vanessa by feeling sick in the meat market. And the rest of us by managing to hide where Despina can’t find us.
All back together and everyone settled down, we tuck into our reward: a Greek aperitif called tsipouro, and a meze plate. We are in a tiny hole in the wall café with white tiled walls and a handful of seats. Definitely the sort of place you would walk past without a second glance on your own. Our meze plate has been chosen by the café owner to best match our tsipouro. If we’d been drinking the more familiar Greek aperitif, ouzo, we would have been offered a different meze plate. Fried haloumi cheese (called saganaki), sausage, tomato and meatballs all go well with the tsipouro.
A quick stop for a Greek coffee (that even Despina admits is the same as Turkish coffee) is so good, it ruins every other Greek coffee on this trip. Being travel bloggers, we couldn’t resist taking photos of the cooking process. It was fascinating to watch the little individual pots being prepared, then left to “cook” in a pool of hot sand.
On our way to our next destination we tour the fruit and vegetable market, and Despina buys a selection of olives for us to eat later (that I’m thinking I’ll pass on. I don’t like olives).
Our next food stop is a surprise as it is what looks remarkably like a delicatessen. Meats, cheeses, olives, sausages fill the display cabinets. A few tables and a small kitchen complete the scene. It actually looks like a very cool café like I see a lot of in Sydney. But we aren’t here for anything cool or hip. We are having metsagona (a smoked cheese) and pastourne, an air dried meat. There are three types of pastourne, and Despina sets us a quiz – we are trying beef, camel (!) and lamb. The beef and camel are mild and similar to a pastrami or prosciutto. Despite being a typical Australian who eats (and loves) a lot of lamb, the lamb is too fatty and strong for me….. But it’s a very interesting place to visit. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know there was such a thing as pastourne!
Where’s the souvlaki?
I know you are asking, “where’s the souvlaki?” That staple of Greek takeaway food. It’s two o’clock by this stage, and I’m starting to think we are going to miss out. But Despina doesn’t disappoint – it’s finally time for souvlaki. We arrive on a square full of uber-cool looking cafes filled with young Greeks. But that’s not where we are going. Instead, it’s another unassuming place that you would easily walk past. Especially when you see the crowd queuing out the door. Kostas runs his shop on his own terms. He opens when he wants, sells what he wants and closes when he wants. A sort of Greek Seinfeld Soup Nazi if you like. The souvlaki comes with chips inside it (very common in Athens) and has a tasty tomato sauce rather than the more traditional yoghurt & garlic (tzatziki) sauce. Even though I feel as though I’ve been eating all morning, I tuck in with relish……..
Finally it’s time for lunch (and those olives)
Athens is filled with little arcades. Most of them specialise in certain types of goods or services. And it’s time for us to have lunch in another unassuming arcade. Greece is also famous for its seafood and Despina has chosen a fish restaurant that particularly specialises in small fish (eaten whole).
We start with fried zucchini fritters that are so light and spectacular I would have been happy with just them. We also try a split pea dip (very tasty). The little fish are lightly fried and we eat them with some wilted wild greens doused with freshly squeezed lemon juice. I’d seen the wild greens before but had never had the courage to order them. They are a bit bitter, but match the fish perfectly.
Now, those olives. I don’t like olives. I wish I did like olives and I genuinely do try to like them. And finally, in Athens, Despina has shown me an olive I like. In fact, there are two different olives that I like. One of them is a green olive filled with orange and dill (another thing I normally don’t like). The orange gives a sweetness and tang to the taste of the olive. The second one is even better -a tiny little brown shrivelled olive that I only try to be polite. It’s smooth and nutty and almost sweet. I love it. But it doesn’t have a name in Greek, so I don’t know what to ask for next time. In Greece only Kalamata olives have a particular name. Everything else is just an olive. So if anyone knows the name of these little treasures, please, please, please let me know!
No meal is complete without dessert. After eating all those Greek sweets earlier I’m delighted that Despina takes us to a gelato shop for dessert. While it’s not traditionally Greek we happily munch on a trio of flavours. A tart mixed citrus gelato is the perfect end to a great day. I know I’m not the only one of us who makes a stop at that gelato shop for a bit more research during the rest of our stay in Athens…….
Greek food, but not as I know it……
I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, the second largest Greek city in the world, thanks to post-war migration. I thought I knew Greek food, having eaten a lot of it during my life. And I did. It looked familiar, but in reality it was completely different. It was Greek food, but not as I knew it. And I loved it!
Author’s note: As with my Culinary Backstreets walk in Istanbul, I received a media rate for my Athens walk. I thoroughly recommend it as a way to experience real Greek food that will change your perception of what Greek food is. If you are planning a visit to Athens, why don’t you check out hotel availability here? (This is an affiliate link so I do earn a small commission if you make a booking)