I have many friends who visit Greece for holidays. More often than not this would be an escape on the islands, be it glamorous Mykonos, romantic Santorini or a chilled road-trip to the Peloponnese. Of course Athens will be kept for the prized city break of winter sun. If you are a first timer you are certainly going to keep yourself busy in the center, hopping from museum to museum and strolling in the center of Plaka. But what do Athenians do on their weekend?
Ever since I was a kid I remember Sunday being the family day out. We would drive a little further out from the center, no more than 30-40 minutes to enjoy the countryside. My favourite is of course the seaside and I hope I will start writing a little bit more about places to go in the following weeks. But what interests me more is not just the destination, it is the food.
The Greek tavern comes in all shapes and sizes. Recently central Athens has been inundated by mezze places, quick tapa style dining accompanied by our beloved raki or tsipouro. For the family outing, however, or indeed a good hearty meal you will head to a taverna, a good old-fashioned taverna, no frills. There are two types: the xasapotavernas as we call our grill houses and the fish taverns, traditionally by the sea.
What you will find there? You will be spoiled for choice, many taverns have an extensive list of mezze for appetisers. These starters comes in forms of dips to share alongside many devilish treats, from the humble fried potatoes to all types of vegetable fritters and pies. Imagine fried zuchinis dipped in your tzatziki before taking a bite, fresh bread to scoop up your taramasalata or smokey aubergine dip and of course the real salads. Mind you, when I am talking of salads it’s not about the old time classic horiatiki. There are a few classics that alternate with the seasons, like lettuce with finely chopped spring onion and a lemon juice and olive oil dressing, a ‘bare’ coleslaw, grated carrot and cabbage with a tangy lemon dressing or boiled greens, this can be anything seasonal. Favourites include beetroot salad, leaves on!Steamed green beans or boiled zuchini for their healthier version. Of course cheese, fried or baked or grilled. Such are the simple life pleasures of the Greek tavern.
What comes next in the spotlight is the seafood. Calamari is a big time favourite, mainly fried with a light breadcrumb coating and drizzled with a bit of fresh lemon juice. You will find that prawns compete with calamari although we prefer them grilled or in rich red sauce. Next comes, the octopus, boiled or grilled with a simple seasoning of olive oil, a bit of vinegar and oregano. This is the bit you could stop ordering and just enjoy your ouzo or wine or ouzo and let your gaze wander at the sea view in front of you whilst nibbling.
I normally don’t stop there. What I get really excited about is the fish of the day. Most of the fish taverns collaborate with fishing boats that roam these wonderful blue Aegean waters and they get the catch of the day. The same goes for Limani, at Palaia Fokaia that I visited last Sunday. Limani is a family restaurant overlooking the small harbour for over for more than 30 years. The seafood treats are exceptional and so is the fish. I had grilled Pandora with a mixed boiled green salad, of course octopus on the grill and a great cuttlefish with spinach casserole. No I didn’t eat it all by myself, I was in good company. But let’s get a closer look at the fresh fish you can get.
We have this vague categorisation of fish in our heads: The smaller fish like sardines, mackerel and barbounia – striped red mullet – are heading straight to the pan for a quick frying. Larger deep water fish like our beloved tsipoura – gilt-head bream or groupers are going straight on the grill. Guess what I normally go for: Grilled!
What to look for when you fancy a grilled fish? If in a big company I would advise to get a wonderful large bream or grouper to share. Fear not about tackling the fish, in Limani your waiter will prepare it for you so you don’t have to get your hands dirty. But let’s see what is the best fish to grill, here is a quick list for you to have:
- Melanouri: saddled seabream
- Lithrini: common pandora
- Sinagrida: common dentex
- Tsipoura: gilt-head bream
- Mourmoura, striped seabream
- Sargos: Sargo
- Sfirida: white grouper
- Rofos or stira: dusky grouper.
I hope you enjoy a lot of fresh air and take into as much Ω-3 and fresh air as you can.
Eat Yourself Greek is going to London next week. Stay tuned, I will be instagramming.
From Athens with love,