*this article was originally written in 2007-but it has never been “published” till now…
It is time for a brief moment of culinary visualization. I want to take you, visually, to Perivolos Beach in Santorini, Greece, where on June 11- th I was sitting in a casual beach side restaurant (The Nets) indulging in a fabulous array of Greek meze. The table was covered with the usual traditional dishes like dakos, dolmades, fava and feta cheese. There was one dish however that completely blew my mind–a simple plate of grilled octopus. Served on a plate of olive oil, the pink and purple tentacles had an outer layer of slightly peeling, partially blackened skin. When I bit into it, the outer crisp layer was sweet, caramelized and crispy, the epitome of maillard reaction perfection! The inside was soft but with just enough resistance to give it the consistency of a firm string of mozzarella cheese. The dish was paired with the perfect sauce: Greek extra virgin olive oil. As I sat there in the shade, staring out at the bright blue water and the clear blue sky while taking in the intense red, pink and yellow colors of my fabulous dish, I imagined that this must be where all good chefs go to spend eternity.
It’s not fair! It’s just not fair that most of the world (with the exception of Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Albania) has been denied the opportunity to easily indulge in Greek cuisine on a regular basis. Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, Italian-all readily accepted from the East to the Left (and everything in-between), by the Boomers, X’ers, Y’ers, Teens Tweens and Toddlers! But when but it comes to Greek food, we are nowhere near the level of ethnic acceptance that is needed to create a fair and equal world where all the great cuisines of the globe can be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone.
I want to live in that world. I want to be able to order a side of dolmades with my baby back ribs. I want an ice cold Greek style “frappe” with medium sugar and no milk to go. I want to be able to order a highly acidic natural unsweetened yogurt with pure thyme honey for dessert. Will these options ever become readily available to me at my local quick service and casual chain dining establishments?!
Fortunately, Greece completely agrees with me and would love to see everyone in the world meze’ing on tzatziki (yogurt cucumber dip), fava (boiled and pureed split yellow peas), tomato fritters, and taramosalata (roe spread). Actually, they agree so strongly that they now have a yearly conference organized by Kerasma, the branded name of a promotional program initiated by HEPO (Hellenic Foreign Trade Board), a government funded organization dedicated to the advancement of Greek food, spirits and wine around the world. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the second annual “Kerasma” event, held this past June in Herakleion, Crete and Santorini.
For six days, myself and 300 other international culinary superstars (writers, chefs, photographers, gourmet store owners, buyers, sellers and food enthusiasts) were subjected to nothing less than a total bombardment and pure saturation of all edible things Greek! There were seminars and tastings, in depth discussions on wine, olive oil, and feta cheese, several grand feasts and nonstop drinking of Greek wines with exotic names like Moschofilero, Assyrtiko and Xinomavro. There was also a fine steady pour of ouzo and never ending ice cold shots of raki. While I was expecting to see spanakopita and avgolemono soup on every corner-I discovered that there is just so much more Greek food out there than I ever imagined existed in the world. A few of my most memorable culinary experiences included:
Frappe-Instant coffee, water, sugar and milk, whipped up into froth and served on the rocks. Greek people drink this like water during the summer and I drank at least two a day! I would usually order my frappe “metrio me ghala”, (medium sweetness with milk). Can someone please tell Starbucks, Peets, and Dunkin’ Donuts that this really needs to be added to their summer LTO menu! If you don’t see it soon at your local coffee house, it can easily be reproduced at home with a blender-but make sure you buy the stronger European Nescafe instant coffee because the American brand does not have the same taste.
Cretan Barley Rusk Salad– This ultra healthy Cretan salad starts with a round barley rusk (Dakos). The rusk is briefly soaked in water, drizzled with olive oil, topped with grated tomato and finished with feta cheese and oregano. While similar in concept to Spanish pan con tomate or Italian Brushetta, this dish maintains a unique all-Greek flavor system of its own.
Paidakia– I ate my first Greek grilled lamb chops in Athens, at “Taverna To Trigono” cooked on a spit over an open fire. These lamb chops are so delicious that they inspired a fellow chef friend to fly in a day early-just to eat the Paidakia at Trigono! They arrived at the table; several kilos of lamb chops piled high on a platter. Each skinny hand-holdable piece of lamb had layers of salted crispy fat and meat. Each bite allowed me to experience the contrasting textures of juicy crisped fat and well done (but in a good flavorful way, not a dry tough way) meat. They have been on my mind every day since my return and I am wondering where I can find a match to this dish in California?
Feta-Before I came to Greece, I fancied myself to be an expert on Feta cheese. I bought my feta at a local Greek market that sold French, Greek and Bulgarian styles of the Greek brined curd. What I did not know then, but I very much know now; is Feta is a “Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)” cheese. P.D.O. is a European legislation indication that is only given to products made in a particular geographical area, which characterizes their unique flavor. This “indication” protects the consumer against imitation products, such as the fetas made in Holland, Bulgaria and France. According to Greek cheese manufacturers, the selling, buying, consuming (and even thinking!) of imitation, non P.D.O. fetas is a serious crime that should result in a long term prison sentence!! Luckily, the P.D.O. symbol is now stamped on approved feta packages-which will forever protect us from unknowingly eating non-Greek feta in the future.
Greek Wines-Pages and books could be written on Greek wine, but not by me! I was overloaded with Greek wine information during this trip and tasted endless varieties, colors and blends. There were experts all over the place, all with their own wine opinions. For the sake of simplicity, I will provide you with a few brief Greek wine facts:
Fact # 1-Greek whites include Moshofileros (sweet aroma but bone dry) and Assyrtikos (acidic and dry).
Fact # 2-Greek reds/rosés include Agiorgitiko (aromatic to full bodied) and Xinomavro (rich tannins and complex aromas).
Fact # 3-Retsina, a pine-resin flavored wine, goes very well with grilled fish and if you have not liked it in the past, I recommend re tasting it again because you might just change your mind (I did).
What could be a better way to bring some closure and conclusion to the massive quantities of wine and feta cheese that I consumed, then to watch several highly trained professional food educators’ debate which wine goes best with which feta cheese! Yes, there was an actual panel set up to help us determine the best possible combinations. It was fascinating to watch the hour long deliberation and debate as several food experts evaluated 15 different wines and 6 different fetas. While I was invited to participate, I did not dare to offer up my uneducated opinion! The conclusion; Wine # 5 paired best with Feta # 2. Who knew!!! But seriously, the general conclusions were high acid/low alcohol wines (white, rose and reds) go best with feta and the best feta of the six tasted is made by Mevgal, a Thessaloniki cheese company that offers a variety of P.D.O. cheeses.
So where am I going with all this? I have seen some clear cut signs and signals that Greek food is coming soon to a casual or fast food eating establishment near you. I recently discovered Daphne’s Café, a Greek food chain with over 50 stores that serves traditional spanakopita, dolmas and tzatziki as well as the more mainstream kabobs, hummus and gyros. Another growing chain in Canada, appropriately called “Mr. Greek” is serving up taramosalata and frappe. In the fast food world, McDonalds has a flatbread sandwich and on the retail end-I have tasted some excellent jarred (not canned) dolmades! This is all proof that Greek food is slowly trickling its way into the quick service restaurants and casual dining chains. I encourage restaurant chain chefs to start thinking about Greek food as viable option for future menus. If promoted and presented the right way, consumers will welcome the fresh and exciting flavors of Greece on their plate.