October 17, 2012
I got to Monastiraki Square a bit early, so I had time to explore the ruins of Hadrian’s Library and also a small but elaborate Greek Orthodox Church before today’s walking seminar. I also had time to take a look at the ancient ruins in the metro station. THERE WERE ANCIENT RUINS IN THE METRO STATION.
I eventually met up with the guide (Nikitas) and an American couple (from Arizona), and spent four hours walking around Monastiriki, Psyrri, and Varvakios, tasting Greek food and learning about the customs, rituals, and history of Greece and its food. (The tour was called “Athens: Beyond Feta.”) This was, by far and away, one of my most favorite tours I have taken this trip. The guide was fantastic. Instead of being tour-guide-y, he was like my grandpa, showing me all of the hole-in-the-wall eateries, markets, and spice shops, encouraging me to try things and really showing me how the life of a city is in its food.
We started off at a small bakery for koulouri hot from the oven. Kaoulouri is a ring of doughy and delicious sesame bread that is often sold in carts on the street, and is pretty standard Greek breakfast fare. We then moved on to a tiny little shop selling olive oil, cheese, and grains. While we were there, we learned about the immense cultural and culinary significance of olive oil in Greece, as well as how many of the grains (primarily barley) are still prepared in the way they were over 2000 years ago. We tried some of the cheese (dipped in fresh olive oil — yum) and then moved on to spice and tea shop and then to a magical little backyard garden where an odd man served us Greek coffee. There were no signs advertising his space as a coffee shop or a restaurant, just a very narrow doorway leading into a tiny courtyard of tables and chairs. It smelled like cats, the cups and plates were all mismatched, and the building was literally falling down (there was a guy on a ladder putting masking tape over the crumbling plaster… masking tape). It was perfect. The coffee was thick and flavorful, and we also sampled something called glyko koutali, which is a sweet fruit marmalade that you eat with a very small spoon.
We then moved onto a meat shop, decorated floor to ceiling with curing meats. I tried the thinly sliced raw and salted beef as well as a thick slab of local barley bread purchased earlier. After this, we visited the incredibly vibrant Varvakios Market. On one side, the meat: hanging carcasses, bins of goat heads and hoofs, tripe ribboning down. There was a strong smell of blood, but it honestly didn’t bother me too much. I think I was so into the cultural experience that I was able to deal with things like large men butchering the meat right in front of me, their aprons stained red and their knives shining and heavy. On the other side of the market, the seafood: octopi and squid, snails and fish, and dozens of men hawking their selections at the top of their lungs. The ground was wet and slick and the air was heavy with the smell of the sea. And through it all, small and feisty Romani boys wandered around with accordions, playing surprisingly well and demanding money from every passerby.
And then stands of nuts and figs and dates and walnuts and raisins and straggalia (dried chickpeas) and then another spice market and then a cheese monger, where we sampled more cheese and bought a big tub of fresh yogurt for later. And all the while Nikitas told us all about the cultural relevance of the foods we were eating, as well as about how they are all made and prepared.
Next stop was a basement restaurant (no signs, just steep steps) filled with huge casks of wine and a bunch of old guys. The man who owned the restaurant was also the cook and the waiter; he apparently makes whatever he wants every day with fresh ingredients from the market across the street, and then just brings you dishes… there’s no menu or ordering involved. We had grilled fish, spiced chickpeas, mashed fava with lemon, and a bean soup (fasolada), along with the thick and creamy yogurt we had brought with us. One Nikitas quote that stuck with me: “Eating simple, fresh, whole food is like drinking cold water directly from a spring in the mountains.” Another quote: Nikitas was pushing more yogurt on me, and I joked, “Hang on a second, I need a moment.” To which he responded, “Yogurt is your moment.”
We finished the tour at a sweet shop, the same shop where Nikitas’ great-grandmother used to bring his mother when she was a kid. We had loukoumades, a fried dough with honey and cinnamon, and bougatsa, a sweet bread snuffed with honey, walnuts, cinnamon, and custard. Later, when I asked Eleni how to spell “bougatsa,” she said, “I don’t want to spell it. I want to eat it.”
Feeling sleepy and full after the tour, I went back to the house to take a nap, and then to get ready to go out. Because tonight, Eleni, her friends, and I went out to see The Full Monty. IN GREEK. The whole thing was as awesome as it sounds.
After the show (which really was very funny, even though I didn’t understand a word), Eleni, Katarina, Christina, and I went out to a beer garden and had a really great time, laughing and joking around. I would genuinely like it if they came to visit Portland someday.
Another fun find from today: I discovered a button on my phone that allows me to type with the Greek alphabet and then autocorrects my spelling into real Greek words. I’ve already written several wonderful poems that I have foisted on Eleni to translate.