Greek food is one of the most characteristic gastronomies of the Mediterranean diet. Based on olive oil, nuts, vegetables, and fish, its traditional recipes are not only healthy but also simply delicious – and with the proper teacher, not that hard to prepare. Let’s pierce its secrets in the heart of Athens.
It is early morning when the passionate Vasia takes us to Varvakios, the central market of Athens. Since 1886 every day of the week between 6am and 5pm but on Sundays Athenians have carefully chosen the best pieces of meat, the freshest seafood, the ripest fruits, their seasonal vegetables, their favorite marinated olives and more in this large covered market. We walk its busy alleys in search for the fresh ingredients we need to cook a traditional Greek meal under Vasia’s supervision. The young and passionate cook has learnt the secrets of Greek gastronomy with her grandmother. She has the confidence experience brings as she discusses products with her suppliers, dispensing useful advice to us on the way: “When you buy feta – only one of the 250 Greek cheeses – it comes in a plastic box with salted water: you need to wash the feta before you eat it to get its real taste”, “you can bring olives back under vacuum – at home just store them in a jar with olive oil (and the olive oil you must keep in a glass bottle away from the light!)”, by the fish section she explains how to properly fry calamari.
We head back to the nearby cooking facility where we are about to turn the ingredients into a delicious and traditional Greek meal:
- Dolmades (stuffed vine leaves),
- Spanakopita (spinach pie),
- Imam Baildi (a sweet and sour Cretan recipe of roasted eggplants),
- Portokalopita (orange pie) for dessert.
We are starting of with the spanakopita, the popular Greek spinach pie made with phyllo dough – bought at the market. It actually comes in all sorts of different fillings like cheese, bacon, vegetables, or even in sweet versions, and the most traditional one (and my personal favorite) is the spinach one. Our small group starts chopping spring onions, spinach, mint, parsley, dill to the sound of Greek music. The more technical part is when each of us spreads the filling on the thin phyllo dough and starts rolling it before shaping it like a spiral. The egg wash helps when patches are needed and will give the pie its golden color.
As Vasia puts it in the oven, she introduces the next dish: the dolmades. With everyone preparing a specific ingredient, we are soon mixing them all in a bowl: risotto rice, onions, lemon, ground beef, fresh mint, dill and parsley, … She comes back with a pile of ripe and firm vine leaves that she has pre-boiled for 10 minutes to soften them and demonstrates the rolling technique. Following her advice, it is very easy and soon we are piling up about 50 dolmades in the pan. After adding water, olive oil, and lemon juice the pan is ready to be put in the fire to boil for 35 minutes.
This more than enough time to prepare the most famous dip: a tzatziki. Also a side to many meat-based dishes like the souvlakia (skewers), no Greek meal is complete without the yogurt and cucumber-based preparation.
Vasia instructs us clearly while we are preparing the eggplant stuffed with feta, honey, tomatoes and herbs and the sweet and sticky orange and phyllo pie giving us loads of useful tips on the way. The delicious smells fill the room and as the last dishes only need a few more minutes to be ready, we help setting the table. Dishes are being brought on the communal table with pitchers of red and white Greek wines.
“Yamas” as Greek say when they cheer, and in a very friendly atmosphere, the cook apprentices who we are share this delicious traditional meal for lunch. Cooking is caring, and caring is sharing!
Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau
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