After four wonderful days in Athens, I have now arrived on the beautiful island of Paros, where I will spend the next five weeks on a yoga retreat with Graeme & Leonie Northfield. Though it would be fair to say, that even though this trip is really all about the yoga, to a large extent it is also all about the food.
As I was saying, I had four wonderful days in Athens, and relished the opportunity to get to know this city a little better. I visited the Acropolis when I stopped in Athens briefly last year and, although there are many more fascinating ruins and such like to be seen here, I will freely admit to being a “seen-one-ruin-seen-em-all” kind of girl - of course, I know some of you are going to be absolutely horrified to hear me say that, and if history is your thing then this is without a doubt the city for you. However, I am just not good at being a tourist, and visiting all the usual tourist attractions (fascinating though they may be) holds no interest for me whatsoever. I’m sorry, but I would rather gnaw off my right arm than stand in a queue a mile long of other tourists all waiting to see some old relic.
I am more of a chameleon by nature - I like to blend in with my surroundings, sit back almost unseen, and just observe. Take me to a city like this and I like to try and imagine that I live here - I want to slot right in with the natives, shop in the places the locals shop, eat where the locals eat, and do the things the locals do, and let’s face it you don’t see too many of them queueing up to take snapshots at the Roman Agora.
I like to get off the main street, away from all the brightly lit stores and glamorous “shop-girls”, and find the places where the locals shop. Not for me the Bennetton, Toi & Moi, Gap, Zara and Sephora stores of Ermou Street!! Within metres of my hotel I found a fascinating mix of specialty stores - I saw a shop selling only walking sticks; another selling only string, twine and rope in all manner of thicknesses and colours; a store selling only light bulbs, another only candles; and a store which sold only bottles (in every imaginable size, shape and colour) along with large metal vessels all of which I imagine are intended for storing your precious olive oil or perhaps wine. Now admittedly, these are not the things I am going to fill my suitcase with to take home, but it is nevertheless fascinating to me that these places exist and I love to peer through the windows and watch the local people shopping here. And then there were the places that had diversified a little with a rather mysterious, and seemingly incongruous mixture of products - a store which sold door handles and toilet brushes, and another offering dried fruit and nuts alongside wedding veils and bridal fabrics. How did these products come to be married together I wonder - I imagine the conversation going something like this:
Over dinner one night, Christiana pushes a sardine to one side of her plate and says to Dimitri, who has been selling dried fruit and nuts in his little store on Atthinas Street for 40 years: “Glykia mou, I think we should diversify.”
Dimitri stabs his fork into a fat, black olive, then pauses and looks up: “Hriso mou, that’s a great idea. What else should be sell?”
Christiana takes a bite of her sardine, and thinks for a moment: “Mmmm, let me see now. I know - what about bridal fabrics?”
Dimitri, drops his fork in wonder: “Of course - why did I not think of that? That seems so obvious now. You are so clever, my little baklava - no wonder I love you so much!”
Equally mysterious is why, in the central market, the lambs feet are sold in the fish section. Why?
Speaking of the central market, it goes without saying that this place would be heaven to me. I would show you pictures, but this is not the kind of place where you pull out your camera. I have been to La Boqueria in Barcelona where the shoppers can hardly move for the tourists taking photos of the fascinating array of products on offer (I have done this myself). But this is not the case at the Athens market - this is a busy and bustling place, and this is all business. The meat section of the market is huge - bigger I think than any I have ever seen, and even here they seem to specialise. Unlike our butcheries at home which seem to sell meat of every description, here you will find one butcher selling only lamb, another only pork, one selling only whole chickens, another selling only chicken portions, and others selling only offal (and I imagine, although I didn’t take too much notice, that even that is specialised by beast).
And it was here in the market that I had the best meal of my stay in Athens - in fact I would rate it as one of my best meals ever. This was one of those tiny places, with only a few tables and no menu. The chef came to my table and said: “I have meat or I have fish”. I asked what was the fish, and was told that there was sardines, calamari, octopus or whole fish available. I said that I would have the calamari, to which he asked: “Do you want grilled or fried - grilled is best?” I told him that I would have “the best”. He then offered me a choice of different salads, from which I decided to have the ubiquitous Greek salad. When it arrived the calamari had been very simply flavoured with paprika, oregano, olive oil and salt, and had been grilled to absolute perfection. The tentacles and edges of the wings were just charred and crispy, and the body of the squid was so achingly tender that it almost brought tears to my eyes. The other delightful touch, and you find this in all Greek restaurants, is that they always finish off the meal by bringing you something complimentary as a “gift”. Sometimes this might be a bowl of fresh, seasonal fruit, maybe a plate of yoghurt and nuts, or possibly a special liqueur or wine - on this occasion I was served a lovely block of halva, studded with almonds and sprinkled with cinnamon, served with a glass of white wine. My meal ended perfectly with a leisurely stroll back to my hotel, followed by a two hour sleep!!
Of course, after several days of eating out, it is wonderful to be now on Paros and able to return to the kitchen - and of course the first meal I prepared was a Greek salad. You know that I participate in the I Heart Cooking Clubs group, and that right now we are cooking with Jamie Oliver. Our theme this week is “Mad about Herbs”, and on researching Jamie’s recipe for Greek salad, I discovered that it was well-flavoured with dill, mint and oregano, so this seems like the perfect contribution this week. I added some freshly grated lemon zest and used lemon juice instead of vinegar, as I personally think that lemon juice is a less “aggressive” partner with tomatoes than vinegar, and I left out onion as I am not hugely fussed on raw onion. I had a wonderful selection of olives which I had picked up from the market in Athens, and used some of the big fat Kalamatas and some of the tiny dry-cured ones.
I also used some of the local mizithra cheese instead of feta - just for a change. A variety of different tomatoes, if you can get them, adds interest to the salad, but most important is that they be perfectly ripe - the very best tomatoes you can get your hand on them - and don’t fuss about trying to dice or slice them perfectly. Keep the chopping irregular - cut some into irregular chunks, others into wedges or dice, others into slices, and maybe cut smaller ones just in half.
Greek Salad Recipe
Adapted from recipe by Jamie Oliver
(Made 3 generous servings)
Click here for printable copy of this recipe
an assortment of tomatoes
(I used two large ones of differing varieties, and 3 smaller ones)
(include cherry tomatoes if you have them)
3/4 of a telegraph cucumber, cut into thickish circles
1 red or green pepper, deseeded and sliced
handful of fresh dill, roughly chopped
handful of fresh mint, roughly chopped
generous handful of black olives, assorted
1 lemon, grated zest & juice
flaky sea salt
extra virgin olive oil (Greek if you can get it)
mizithra or feta cheese
Chop your tomatoes into a large bowl, cutting them into a variety of sizes and shapes. Add the cucumber slices and slices of pepper to the tomatoes in the bowl.
Scatter the chopped, fresh herbs over the ingredients in the bowl. De-stone half of the olives, by pinching them between your fingers and breaking them open to pull the stone out - not a difficult process. Do this over the bowl, so that as you do so the juice comes out of the olives and begins to season the salad. Add the remaining olives whole.
Add the grated lemon zest, pinch of flaky sea salt, and lemon juice to the bowl. Add a generous “slosh” of extra virgin olive oil (most likely around 2 tablespoons). Toss everything together well, taste and then adjust any of the flavours to suit your palate.
Empty the bowl onto a large serving platter. Drop large spoonfuls of the mizithra over the top, or if you are using feta place it in one large block on top. Drizzle with a little more extra virgin olive oil over the top (particularly over the cheese), and lastly sprinkle the dried oregano over the top.
This quantity made three generous servings as a light meal, but would easily serve six people as an accompaniment to other dishes.
I hope you enjoy this delicious salad for a real taste of summer, and if by any chance you happen to have any leftovers, try Jamie’s suggestion .... put everything into the blender, add a few ice cubes and an extra “glug” of olive oil, and then blitz until smooth for a Greek take on gazpacho. Haven’t tried this, but sounds perfect to me.
Interested in getting to know Jamie a bit better? Then do go and visit my friends at I Heart Cooking Clubs and see what they've all been cooking up ....
.... or check out Jamie's Italy and many of his other great titles, available from Amazon or Fishpond NZ.