Having never been to Greece, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect from my first visit. I visited my friends Dimitra and Danis, whom I met in Egypt whilst I was on holiday last year and they were on their honeymoon. We bonded immediately and they came to visit me in London last year and so I headed to Thessaloniki to visit them for a week.
Thessaloniki is a sizeable city lined with olive trees, itself a port that was once a city within castle walls. It is closely located to the magnificent 2,917 metre-high Mount Olympus as well as the stunning beaches and coastline of Halkidiki. Throughout my stay, I visited each of the three peninsulas of nearby Halkidiki to experience the various different beaches and scenic coastlines, where the Aegean sea gently laps the shore, enticing you with their vibrant jade and turquoise waters. The pristine beaches attract locals and tourists alike with their rugged, unspoilt beauty and picturesque coastline. No wonder the Greeks are so fiercely proud of their nation, which despite a state of economic ruin, people seem to do their very best to try and live a normal life, tightening their belts as they go.
Greece is famous for many things including a rich history and culture; but these things aside, food is one of the most important things in the world to Greeks and conveniently this is an ethos that bodes particularly well with me also. When I think about Greeks, images from the movie ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ spring to mind. “You don’t eat no meat? What do you mean you don’t eat no meat? Don’t worry, I make lamb!” – Aunt Voula’s answer to catering for vegetarians which had me roaring with laughter. In many countries including my own native Iran, vegetarianism is an affliction and is not something that many people partake in and I can confidently say that there really aren’t many vegetarians in Greece as most people seem to eat meat. Meat is very special to the Greeks and it’s very expensive and therefore revered accordingly.
But if like me you thought that Greeks eat a lot of lamb, you would be disappointed, as I found out at each meal time where pork seems to be the key player of meals that include meat. Lamb tends to be served mainly at Easter or Christmas and large family gatherings for special occasions. I was lucky enough to have been invited to two different homes for traditional meals; the first lunch was at the Gertsaki home where my friend Dimitra’s mother, Mrs Gertsaki made a huge pan of ‘Keftedes’ meatballs accompanied by tasty potato wedges bathed in olive oil and oregano (which seems to the be the herb of choice everywhere you go) slow cooked alongside the meatballs, soaking up their wonderful meaty juices. The table was laden with lots of other delicious treats, some of which seem to be a standard accompaniment for every meal, including tomato, cucumber and onion salad, my favourite Kalamata olives, feta cheese and a spicy spreadable feta cheese paste. All this food lovingly prepared just because I was in town, which made me feel very special indeed.
The second lunch was at the Katemliadis house, home to my friend Danis’ parents which proved to be an occasion for another feast with a freshly made Pastizio made by Mrs Katemliadis in my honour. Along with Keftedes, Pastizio is one of my favourite Greek dishes made in a big pan layering minced meat and macaroni with tomato sauce and topped with béchamel. Also served were wonderfully garlicky veal meatballs called Zukakia, swimming in a rich stewed tomato sauce. Every mouthful had my mouth watering and wanting more, but there is only so much once person can stomach sometimes! After two huge portions of Pastizio, many meatballs and various side dishes of salads, cheese and olives, I literally couldn’t eat another bite. But if I had any ideas of stopping at this point, they were quickly pushed aside by the near-immediate service of watermelon (Karpuzi) followed by a huge serving of syrup soaked ‘Reveni’ cake sprinkled with cinnamon powder. At this point, I cannot breathe and have to explain my predicament to my hosts in hope that they are not offended by my inability to put away any more food than I have already done.
Desserts in Greece are pretty interesting actually. Why so? Well I noticed that almost every dessert, however varied, seems to have one thing in common in the fact that they are usually either cake or pastry soaked in masses of syrup or honey. The first dessert I tried was ‘Bugatza’, delicious squares of layered filo pastry filled with a thick crème patisserie, served warm right from the oven and sprinkled with cinnamon. ‘Trigono’ quickly became one of my favourites also, which consist of crunchy little triangular pastry cones (similar to the layered sweetness of Baklava, minus the nuts) filled with a thick crème patisserie. ‘Loukoumades’ are little donuts that are soaked in honey syrup, although they also come both sugared and plain. I also tried various cakes as well as a dessert of nuts and thin vermicelli noodles, both soaked in honey syrup. Last but by no means least, we couldn’t possibly leave out ‘Baklava’ which in Thessaloniki is made using walnuts rather than the more familiar filling of pistachios or cashew nuts that we see in England.
After such sweet desserts, there is only one thing I crave and that is a nice cup of coffee to cut right through the syrupy sweet taste in my mouth. But in Greece coffee doesn’t just come at the end of a meal and it certainly isn’t just a morning thing either. In fact, whilst in Greece I quickly came to realise that going for coffee is a bit of an institution. Morning, noon or night, anytime is the perfect time to go out with friends or family and enjoy a long, leisurely coffee of your choice and this can take quite some time as they really don’t like to rush this whole coffee ritual. In summer you can grab a cooling ‘Freddo’ coffee over ice or a blended iced ‘Frappe’ coffee. If cold coffee isn’t your thing, how about a nice Greek coffee? Yes, I said Greek coffee, not Turkish coffee at all. I always thought that the international name for those little cups of devilishly dark and aromatic coffee with a head-piercing dose of caffeine was always ‘Turkish’ coffee… but clearly not so in Greece and if I were you, I would steer well clear of having this conversation as coffee is a serious business for the Greeks.
Having sunbathed on the beaches of Halkidiki and fished for delicious sea urchins in the Aegean sea, sipped coffee on Mount Olympus, lost myself in grove after grove of olive trees in the hills of Parthenonas and strolled the port and streets of Thessaloniki, I am once again back home in London and already wishing I was back in Greece. How did I not come here sooner? I guess that’s the thing about trying to see the world isn’t it? There is so much to see and so many countries you want to visit, so you don’t always get the time to see everything as soon as you would like to. Greece has definitely won my heart now and I would love nothing more than to be able to afford a little house in the hills around Halkidiki, but for now I will have to make do with booking another ticket to come back and visit my friends again in January to experience the winter and ski resorts of the mountains that overlook Thessaloniki. So ‘Evgalisto’ to my hosts in Greece for looking after me so well and taking me to so many wonderful places and feeding me so much wonderful food, despite my penchant for guzzling masses of diet coke (much to their horror!) with absolutely every meal.