Travelling around and exploring new places is almost just as important to me as exploring food. I’m fortunate enough to be able to spend my holidays visiting friends, family, discovering new places and being in awe of nature, meeting other cultures and, of course, enjoying the cuisine. My notebook’s full of destinations I’d like to visit with the better half, divided into categories such as ‘able to do with kids someday/must absolutely do before completely settling down/oh I just really want to have a portion of [name of dish]’. He questions the length of the list and cringes when I start to discuss the glorious main courses on offer in a country, but wisely just accepts this and follows.
Last week, after being on the list for several years, we had the opportunity to go to Athens, Greece. The land of the Acropolis, the first Olympiad, stunning coastlines, Nana Mouskouri, Demis Rousos but of course also feta, moussaka, pita gyros , souvlaki and calamares, all to be washed down with a lush shot of Ouzo.
People live of large part of their lives outside in Greece, so when I came off the plane (where I had actually quite an acceptable sandwich, wine and compulsory tomato juice – I’ll write a separate blog on plane food) after midnight on Thursday, I was pleasantly surprised at how busy the airport café still was – looked promising for the weekend in town. However, you’re on your own once you climb into your cab, and I can tell you it was quite an exciting 20 minutes not being sure if your polite smiling cab driver actually knows where he’s going. Poor boyfriend must’ve had 2 text messages a minute from me.
Luckily I did indeed got dropped off at the Athens Hilton where the better half was ready to whisk me off for a much needed drink with old colleagues. At this point I was still pretty impressed that we got to stay at this fine hotel for the night, but things would soon change in the morning. No, it did not have anything to so with woman troubles such as forgetting to pack a hairbrush and subsequently needing to take 10 minutes talking to 2 people about what a comb is, no, it was…the breakfast.
Whenever I visit a hotel I look forward to its breakfast on offer. I dream about fluffy scrambled eggs, fatty bacon mixed with whatever the local breakfast specialty is in the country I’m visiting. The first disappointment came when I discovered that the only thing tasting something attempting to be Greek were the sausages. Which made me wonder whether the Hilton’s not actually just a luxurious McDonalds hotel when it comes to their breakfast offerings. The second and biggest shock came when I tucked into my mushrooms though. Mushrooms, which are very high on my food list, just belong to every good hearty breakfast. So in went a forkful, started to chew, and…what the…they drained the poor things in vinegar! I’m sorry, but this is surely a criminal offense against the most important meal of the day. And it was too late to spit it out, I had to hold my breath to finish the rest of my plate as it had been completely infused with vinegar. Fortunately, staff on duty weren’t interested enough in service that morning, so could walk away without anyone noting down our room number. Hah.
So I was actually glad we had to move to another hotel once the better half was done at his conference. This also meant the first real steps in the city of Athens – off to try the local food! I’d noted down whilst flying over what I definitely had to eat this weekend, so couldn’t wait to start. Our first stop was this locals’ favourite restaurant in the centre called Athinaikon. Drooling started promptly seeing everyone enjoying some of many seafood dishes on offer. What immediately caught my attention after the Amazing Greek Salad was a pan of stir fried seafood with cheese and mushrooms in a cream/wine sauce. And wow, the morning’s experience had completely vanished. Was this one of the most fascinating and tasty dishes I’ve ever had in a Mediterranean country? Possibly. Never thought that these flavours could blend together that well. Need to find that recipe.
The best way to explore Athens is by foot, as ruins can be viewed as you walk towards wherever you want to visit next. It also means smelling all the wonderful smells of local food stalls and cafes on the way…as we passed many droolicious Greek fast food joints I decided that we *had* to have moussaka and souvlaki that evening. After walking up and down the area behind the flea market near Syntagma metro station, we got to a great place complete with waiting staff who just couldn’t give a damn (as most people in Athens can’t, I read there). Now you should know what I think of moussaka. It just drives me moussakas, it’s that good. The first time I tried it at home I could’ve just phoned up any random Greek person and thank them for inventing this dish. Or worship Greek gods – won’t be surprised if it were the mighty Zeus himself inventing this. Go team aubergine! So now imagine me, in Greece for the first time, and finally being served a plate of one of my favourite European dishes in its country of origin. Could replay it in slow motion. It didn’t even matter that the pork souvlaki my boyfriend had was slightly burnt and therefore actually unacceptable, but this was just my moment, and was loving every bite of it. The main courses were accompanied by a simple but gorgeous spinach salad with feta and roasted sesame seeds. Can just taste it again now. Did this just made the whole trip worthwile? Close, but there were still a couple of dishes to go.
The Saturday turned out to be a gorgeous sunny day, perfect for all the walking planned – and to have our lunch outside. Now cities and tourist traps go hand-in-hand, and however much most experienced travelers try to avoid them, sometimes you just find yourself in a situation where there’s no way out. Now the Plaka district is one of them. We were starving for gyros and calamares, so after 20 minutes of unsuccessfully looking for a decent place, we surrendered at the trap where they did offer us free wine, to soothe the pain of having overpriced not-so-special versions of the dishes we longed for. The calamares came on a plate large enough to feed an entire family but was acceptable; at least it was better than most attempts at restaurants back home. The gyros my boyfriend got turned out to be a kebab though, in which case, kudos to the waiters for figuring out that free alcohol would prevent us from refusing to pay the bill.
- a. avoid the Plaka area at all cost
- b. avoid all restaurants with waiters standing outside on the hunt for poor tourists (general rule – if they need to shout their menu at you, there’s probably something wrong with the chef’s skills)
- c. avoid restaurants with less than half of its tables filled
This eventually led us to a (probably) family run place on Aischylou street in the Psiri district, with a name only in Greek so don’t ask me how to spell it. Take the picture along if you fancy it. Now this place first got me a little worried, as their menu seemed to be of no worth at all. Instead, we were told, they decided to just get some ingredients and offer a select number of dishes depending on the day’s offerings, and possibly their general mood. The mood was actually really good, so good that I got persuaded to stay and have a taste of several dishes of the day. We started off with saganaki (fried Greek cheese), which was lush so I tried doing my mouse act. The man didn’t fall for it, so had to share it anyway. Ach, I tried. Next up was probably the most tender pork chop ever together with aubergine fried with feta and tomatoes. Turned out to become a great night after all, even before having the first of (way too many) shots of ouzo and sambuca. I won’t be sharing much about that, except perhaps that yes, pita gyros tastes great when inebriated.
With the taste of gyros and smell of ouzo probably still on me, I stumbled onto the plane back to the ‘dam a couple of hours later. Managed to get home without being viciously ill, so can conclude this weekend was a mission accomplished. Opa!