It is said that the gods fought over Athens. Ocean god Poseidon and his niece Athena, goddess of wisdom, both desired patronage over the city. The residents of the metropolis asked each deity to give them a gift; whoever gave the best gift would gain the city.
Poseidon struck his trident into the ground, and a salty spring bubbled up – an impressive feat. Athena, however, merely planted a seed, which grew into an olive tree. From this single plant, the citizens could harvest the fruit and press it into oil. Practicality won out over bombast. The Goddess took her place as Athens’ patron, and her gift became the foundation of Greek cuisine.
Greece’s dry climate encourages olive cultivation; across the hillsides, the trees form stubborn, gnarled stubble. From green and supple to rich, aged and golden, olive oil is everywhere in Greek cooking: drizzled over tomatoes, baked on fish, and mashed with beans to make dip. While Athena may be a long way from modern Greece, her gift continues to succor modern Athenians.
I admit it: before I went to Greece, I didn’t really like olives. It was a point of culinary shame, a blotch on an otherwise adventurous palate. But I sat down at one of Athens’ al fresco restaurants, half-shaded by a trellis of grapevines, and the waiter brought a little dish of kalamata olives. Pedestrians walked a few feet from my table. The hostess watched them pass, half-heartedly fanning away the heat with a menu. I picked up an olive: its dark, almost purplish skin glistened with oil. Then, with a sigh, I popped it into my mouth. My conversion was instantaneous, not only to the olive but to the languid ceremony of street dining.
Some cities like to hide their fine dining, tucking restaurants away to give a sense of privacy. Not Athens; here, supper is a community affair. Tables spill out onto the streets; chairs clog alleyways. As street life blends with the dining experience, the line between public and private blurs. Everyone shares in the public ritual of eating.
Modern Athens is a tangle of streets, having grown in spurts through a series of urban migrations during the 20th century. In newly developed areas, some of this pedestrian culture has given way to car-convenient streets. But al fresco dining still dominates Plaka, the city’s oldest neighborhood, and central districts such as Monastiraki and Psiri.
In the warm months, which stretch from spring through late fall, Athenians linger in outdoor venues. The ubiquitous Frappe, a mix of sweetened instant coffee and milk, is the drink of choice in coffee shops (kafenion). This iced beverage is sipped slowly, so that it lasts through the cooling evening hours.
For tasty food in a casual atmosphere, Athenians head for the tavernas. Cheaper than an estiatorio (restaurant), tavernas are casual, no-frills affairs. They serve basic baked and grilled dishes. Dinner in Athens starts late and can linger past midnight, growing rowdier with the hour. The coziest tavernas have a courtyard atmosphere, set slightly back from the busier streets. These are places to taste the local wine, order a string of dishes throughout the evening, and enjoy simple, hearty flavors. A taverna chef may invite patrons into the kitchen, to point at which dish looks best.
Moussaka is a lasagna-like layering of eggplant, ground meat, and vegetables, topped with mashed potatoes and baked. This taverna staple also has vegetarian variants. Fava bean salad – a mash of white beans, dill, lemon, and olive oil – has the consistency of hummus and a light, summery taste. It can be spread over bread or eaten in spoonfuls. Most tavernas also serve a classic Greek salad. Usually referred to as a “village salad,” it includes chopped tomato, onion and cucumber, a hefty sprinkle of crumbled feta cheese, and olives. Carnivores should look for grilled lamb, flavored simply with only a bit of oregano, garlic, or lemon.
The ouzerie specializes in Greece’s national liquor: ouzo. However, this anise-flavored beverage doesn’t lend itself to quick shots; it’s meant for sipping, as an accompaniment and lubricant of conversation. Athenians gather in ouzerie to listen to music and catch up on the day’s news. A few mezede – starters or small dishes – accompany the drinking, to prevent anyone succumbing too quickly to ouzo’s charms.
Every Greek meal comes with bread and olive oil, a cheap way to fill an over-ouzo-ed stomach. The small added price at the bottom of your bill is for the bread; restaurants will assume you want bread unless you specifically decline it.
Classic mezede include olives, grilled anchovies, and a variety of dips and small salads. Grilled kalamari makes a salty, chewy starter, sprinkled with lemon. Fried cheese (saganaki), served bubbling in a pan, or a garlicky yogurt dip (tzatziki), commonly accompany ouzo. Dolmades – rice, mint, pine nuts, herbs and chopped onion wrapped in brined grape leaves – can easily become dinner. Fish roe mixed with breadcrumbs is another common meze.
Fresh ingredients characterize Greek cuisine. In Athens, a city on the sea, this means access to fresh seafood. The port of Piraeus, contiguous with Athens, has many excellent outdoor restaurants. Al fresco dining here means a view of the Aegean, clogged with fishing boats and ferries; restaurants along the back streets, though without a view, often have better food and less touristy prices.
My love affair with the olive introduced me to more than Greek food. Dining outdoors is a way of life in Athens. By engaging with the cuisine, I was drawn into a relationship with the people around me – chefs and patrons, Greeks and tourists. In Athens, life takes place in the open, surrounded by the noise of the street.
Written by and photos by Caitlin Dwyer for EuropeUpClose.com