In ancient Greece, it seems the people had a god for everything. A god of war; a god of love; a god of harvest; and god of music. One of the most notable figures was Dionysus. According to classical mythology, Dionysus was worshipped as the god of wine, parties, and madness. Along with the Goddess of the harvest, Demeter, Dionysus is a symbol of Greek gastronomic culture.
Knowing that I only had a few days in Greece, I looked forward to the opportunity to sample the Mediterranean diet that Dionysus celebrated. Unfortunately, my understanding of the Greek cuisine is based around baklava, feta cheese, hummus, and spinach pies. Although all four of those things are satisfying, I knew that there was more to the cuisine than my American conceptions. With its location in the Mediterranean, I expected many similarities between its food and that of Italy, but I was surprised to find that the similarities were much fewer than I anticipated.
Both Italian and Greek food highlights the freshness of local ingredients and traditional cooking techniques. Each country prefers to cook with locally produced olive oil, cheese, and bread. The Greeks do enjoy their carbohydrates, but not nearly as much as those in Italy. Whereas Atkins would never be allowed in Italia, I imagine it could sustain a following in Greece if anyone was worried about their diet. I could easily see myself living as a vegetarian in Italy because of the hearty and satisfying pasta, risotto, and polenta of the primo piano. In Greek, however, there seems to be a heavier emphasis on meat. Other than chicken and the occasional taco or lasagna, I have never been a huge carnivore, thus the meat-leaden Greek menus of pork, lamb, and beef are not exactly appealing to me.
Now, I have always believed that the best way to explore a city is through my stomach, so I was not about to write off Athens because of its carnivorous appetite. In Greece, the traditional breakfasts are relatively light and simple. On two occasions I enjoyed a typical Grecian morning meal of Greek yogurt, local honey, and walnuts. The honey of Greece is incredibly sweet, and it the perfect accompaniment to the tartness of the yogurt. This yogurt also is the perfect base for another Greek classic known as tzatziki. Tzatziki sauce is a traditional sauce made primarily from thickened yogurt, dill, and cucumber. The crispness of the cucumbers and freshness of the dill combine perfectly to create a cool, refreshing dip. As a yogurt-based dip, it is an excellent substitute for mayonnaise on sandwiches, which it explains why it is the traditional accompaniment to one of Greece’s most known street food: the gyro.
The classic Greek gyro is made with lamb, tzatziki sauce, lettuce, and tomatoes wrapped in a pita. Many of the more traditional places also pack French fries in the wrap to ensure a big mouthful. I had never had lamb before my visit to Athens, so I figured there was no better place than Greece to try it for the first time. For an astounding two euro, I enjoyed my first authentic gyro. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on how the lamb tasted because I could not discern a very distinct flavor of the meat, perhaps it was because it was topped with tzatziki or I was just too hungry to notice. Regardless, I can say that I finished the gyro, thus allowing me to conclude that I enjoyed my first lamb experience.
At home in Rhode Island, I am no stranger to Italian bakeries. Greek bakeries, however, are another story. I expected Greek pastries to be mouth-watering, but to what level, I did not know. The only pastry of the Mediterranean country I am familiar with is the baklava, typically made from nuts, honey, and phyllo dough. But could this and other Greek sweets compare to the brioche, sfogliatelle, and biscotti of Italy? I’ll let your eyes be the judge:
On nearly every menu I browsed in Greece I found classics like Moussaka, an eggplant casserole, and Pastitio, a Greek version of lasagna with ground meat and a Béchamel sauce. Yet, because of my aversion to heavy, meatier dishes I favored something simpler. At one restaurant I ordered a spinach pie, which I anticipated would be similar to a spinach calzone that I could get from a local bakery at home. To my surprise, rather than being enclosed in dough, my pie “crust” was made from phyllo sheets, with a finishing of sesame seeds, also a Grecian staple. Inside was warm spinach mixed with feta cheese. Nothing spectacular, but certainly satisfying.
Even though I was not willing to go out of my comfortable zone for the meat dishes, I was willing to take a chance with the seafood section of the menu. Much to my disappointment, many of the restaurants had the word “frozen” included in the descriptions of its fish dishes, thereby cancelling them out of consideration. At one restaurant, however, grilled octopus and balsamic caught my attention. I anticipated some type of distinct, fishy smell from the octopus, but there was no real odor when I received my plate of food.
With its tentacles intact, I could definitely tell it was octopus, yet the taste was much different from what I expected, in a good way. The char from the grill created a nice crust on the fish, while also retaining the meat’s tenderness. The flesh had more of a chew than calamari, but the texture was very similar. Although I enjoyed the balsamic vinegar on the fish, a part of me wished I could have tried it undressed so as to get a better profile of its flavor.
So not only did I have my first lamb in Greece, I also had my first octopus. Overall, I would say that I enjoyed the cuisine of the Mediterranean country, but I do not think I could make it my permanent diet. Sorry Greece, but given the choice, I would much rather order a bowl of spaghetti or a panino over a plate of Pasticio or a gyro.