We recently had an opportunity to vacation with the family in Greece. We flew into Athens, went to Crete and then to Santorini. The country is fascinating, the people friendly and food marvelous. However, what I did discover is that what I thought I knew about Greek food was often wrong and so I decided to put together a top 10 list a la David Letterman of things I learned about food in Greece. As I started to put the list together, I realized that I had more than 10, so here’s a top 12 list of food learnings from Greece.
1. Falafel is NOT Greek food – Before I left, my kids asked me what we will eat in Greece. I told them – “Mediterranean Stuff – Falafel, Pita, Hummus, Tzatziki”. I was wrong on three out of four counts. Tzatziki is Greek but the rest of it is more Lebanese/Middle Eastern food. Greek food is different and focuses (like Italian food) on fresh ingredients.
2. The Feta is fantastic – I was never a fan of Feta until I went to Greece. The over-salted product available on our grocery shelves bears little resemblance to the real stuff, which is flavorful, not too salty and goes well with just about anything. I need to find a source of good Feta in Dallas now.
3. When in Greece be prepared to eat Greek food, a LOT – This is coming from somebody who has been to 35 countries (and counting). Greece really doesn’t have much in terms of variety of food options. Unlike most countries I have been to that are heavy on tourism, we were struck by how limited the food options were. There were mostly Greek restaurants, serving excellent Greek food, but hardly any other ethnic options. By the time we got to Santorini we had ODed on Greek vegetarian food and were delighted to find a Mexican (Senor Zorba!) restaurant to our relief.
4. The produce rocks! – Coming from the GM-heavy world of US produce, the produce in Greece was incredible. It was fresh and flavorful. As a result, even a simple dish like Greek Salad was a delight.
5. Lokoums suck – Greeks have their version of Lokum (Turkish Delight). It is not a patch on Turkish Delight from Turkey especially the Haci Bekir brand.
6. Bravo Baklava – The Greeks know their Baklava. Especially the local bakeries. Incredible stuff. Probably some of the best I have ever had. Talking of desserts, try going to a Greek bakery, they have great pastries and cookies. Some that you may have had before, others that are different. Great stuff.
7. Don’t bother with the pizza – Given its proximity to Italy, we had high hopes for good pizza in Greece. In fact, on our last trip to Europe a couple of years back, we had incredible pizza in the Czech Republic, so our thinking went – if the Czechs can do it, surely, Greece given that it is right next to Italy will have great pizza. Did not happen. We had pizza a few times (we were traveling with kids) and every experience was mediocre.
8. Cretan Olive Oil is outstanding – We chanced upon a local foods festival in Chania in Crete. I was like a kid in a candy store. There was so much cool stuff. But more than anything else, it was the incredible Olive Oil that just blew me away. What I learned is that beyond the usual Extra Virgin Olive Oil, First Pressed etc etc, there is acidity to be considered when you are looking at olive oil that is to be consumed as itself – in a salad or with bread. Lower is better. There is a HUGE difference in flavor when you take that into account. I ended up getting some 0.3% acidity Olive Oil produced in a monastery in Crete. Sweet! NOTE: The EVOO that we get in the US for the most part is about 0.5% acidity.
9. Think Bread not Pita – Another misconception I had before we went there, was that Greeks eat Pita as their go to bread. Wrong. They eat white bread for the most part. In fact, most meals had white bread as an accompaniment.
10. Cappuccino Freddo rules! – This was a serendipity. We were waiting for our cappuccino at the Acropolis Museum cafe when we saw the barista make this drink for another customer. It is a cold drink made with espresso and foamed milk served over ice. Kind of like a Frappuccino but way, way better. In fact, the wife liked it so much that she pretty much drank it exclusively over the time we were in Greece.
11. Don’t forget the Gelato – I guess here is where proximity to Italy worked. The Gelato was uniformly good, so much so that the kids couldn’t have enough and we had to go back for seconds and thirds.
12. Finally, Greek Salad is Cucumber, Tomato, Red Onion, Feta, Olives, Olive Oil, Oregano and Salt – don’t over-process it – People try too hard when they are making Greek Salad. However the real stuff is simple and eaten with just about every meal. Made with fresh, good quality ingredients, it is divine.